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Elnaz Sarraf of ROYBI: “Resilience ”

Resilience — I never give up. I believe that as long as I work hard towards my goals, I will find a way to make things happen. Sometimes I get support from unexpected resources. Team — The right team is extremely essential to the success of any company. I spend a lot of time ensuring that people who join […]

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Resilience — I never give up. I believe that as long as I work hard towards my goals, I will find a way to make things happen. Sometimes I get support from unexpected resources.

Team — The right team is extremely essential to the success of any company. I spend a lot of time ensuring that people who join our team share similar values and passion to the rest of us.


Being a founder, entrepreneur, or business owner can have many exciting and thrilling moments. But it is also punctuated with periods of doubt, slump, and anxiety. So how does one successfully and healthily ride the highs and lows of Entrepreneurship? In this series, called “How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur” we are talking to successful entrepreneurs who can share stories from their experience. I had the pleasure of interviewing Elnaz Sarraf. She is the CEO and founder of the award-winning Roybi Robot — the world’s first AI-powered smart toy to teach children language and STEM skills. It also has been named one of TIME Magazine’s Best Inventions in Education, on the 2019 CNBC Upstart 100 list as one of the world’s most promising startups, and on Fast Company’s 2019 World-Changing Ideas. Elnaz is also a Board Member at the Consumer Technology Association, Small Business Council, and member of Forbes Technology Council.

Growing up as a woman in Iran, Elnaz witnessed the limited opportunities, leading her on her journey in the U.S. to become an entrepreneur and create a technology that would empower children by providing universal access to personalized learning and an education that prepares them for a better future. With 15 years of experience as a serial entrepreneur, Elnaz leads ROYBI (creator of Roybi Robot); an investor-backed EdTech company that raised 4.2 million dollars in its seed round focusing on early childhood education and self-guided learning through artificial intelligence.

Before starting ROYBI, Elnaz co-founded and led a consumer electronics/IoT company, iBaby, serving as the company’s President. As an immigrant and female founder, Elnaz has made worthy accomplishments in a short duration of living in the US. Honors include being selected as Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center Milestone Maker, named the Woman of Influence through Silicon Valley Business Journal and Entrepreneur of The Year in Silicon Valley. She has been a speaker at several conferences such as the Mobile World Congress, ASU GSV Summit, Consumer Technology Association, and more.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I am the CEO & Founder of the award-winning ROYBI Robot — the world’s first AI-powered smart toy to teach children language and STEM skills. It also has been named one of TIME Magazine’s Best Inventions in Education, on the 2019 CNBC Upstart 100 list as one of the world’s most promising startups and on Fast Company’s 2019 World-Changing Ideas. I am also a Board Member at Consumer Technology Association, Small Business Council and member of Forbes Technology Council.

Growing up as a woman in Iran, I witnessed limited opportunities, leading me on my journey in the U.S. to become an entrepreneur and create a technology that would empower children by providing universal access to personalized learning and an education that prepares them for a better future. With 15 years of experience as a serial entrepreneur, I lead ROYBI; an investor-backed EdTech company that raised 4.2 million dollars in its seed round focusing on early childhood education and self-guided learning through artificial intelligence.

Before starting ROYBI, I co-founded and led a consumer electronics/IoT company, iBaby, serving as the company’s President. As an immigrant and female founder, I have made worthy accomplishments in a short duration of living in the US. My honors include being selected as Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center Milestone Maker, named the Woman of Influence through Silicon Valley Business Journal and Entrepreneur of The Year in Silicon Valley. I have been a speaker at several conferences such as the Mobile World Congress, ASU GSV Summit, Consumer Technology Association and more.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

I came to the United States when I was in my early twenties to start a new life. Knowing English helped me adjust to American culture and excel in my studies. So, I experienced firsthand how learning a different language early on in life can help you reach your goals later. We know that exposure to multiple languages at an early age is significant for children’s future success. Still, not every family can afford to hire private tutors or sign up their child at a language immersion school. I met parents at different research groups and also often they told me about their interest in an affordable and smart technology that can expose their children to multiple languages. During a discussion with my co-founder, Ron Cheng, I learned about his shared interests as an engineer and a parent for a smart toy that can help his children with self-guided learning with fun stories and engaging lessons. Together, we decided to work on an educational toy robot that can address this need for parents. With ROYBI Robot, we chose to utilize AI early on in our planning stage to ensure that teaching with the robot is interactive rather than passive. We want the experience of learning and interacting with ROYBI Robot to interest children more in STEM topics and curious about innovations.

In your opinion, were you a natural-born entrepreneur, or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?

My father was a small business owner. He took me along to many of his meetings; observing the art of negotiating and conducting business deals fascinated me with entrepreneurship’s financial and social aspects. When I see a problem that its solution has not been widely available yet, I think about if I can somehow get involved, and that often leads to a business venture. I started my entrepreneurial journey by building small businesses that didn’t require too much capital to succeed — some of them very small, like on-demand printing services and deliveries. I saved up my revenues from these enterprises to fund my more significant projects. So, I started my business self-funded and then moved to raise funding. As an entrepreneur, you have to knock on many doors, mainly for finding investors. When your calls don’t lead to success, you can initially feel like a failure, but you never know how investors may get back to you for collaborations. I think it’s important not to give up and push forward until, eventually, you succeed in raising capital that can help your business grow.

Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?

My parents had a significant role in my interests in entrepreneurship. My father was a small business owner in Iran. Even though everyone thought he’s running the business alone, it was my mom who took care of all the financial and operational aspects of our business at home. Because at that time, it was not acceptable for women to be involved directly in business negotiations or operations — although I hear that the culture has changed drastically, and more women are participating in running businesses in Iran. My dad took me along to many of his meetings; observing the art of negotiating and conducting business deals fascinated me with entrepreneurship’s business and social aspects. These experiences inspired me to pursue my own business.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Due to lack of support and an unbalanced distribution of resources in our education system, many of our children don’t receive the quality education they deserve. Over 250 million children are at risk of not reaching their potentials because the education system is one-size-fits-all. Additionally, our teachers are overworked and underpaid, causing frustrations for both our educators and parents. Technology can act as a supplement and become an extension of our teachers to travel and reach children anywhere in the world. It can also create a smarter link and collaboration between teachers, parents, and students. We believe that products like ROYBI are the next step in incorporating technology into education. With our robot’s AI technology, we can provide an interactive learning environment to our users and provide them with smart assessments that can be utilized to set milestones and roadmaps for personalized learning.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Persistence

Ability to Listen

Adaptability

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about the advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

I generally don’t consider a recommendation as a bad one but like to think about what doesn’t work for me as a ‘not right’ recommendation. I believe every feedback or comment you get about your work is a great learning opportunity. As the product’s or an idea’s owner, you should know which recommendations to follow and which ones to dismiss. Sometimes, a piece of advice might not be right for you now, but it proves to be very helpful later on.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them create a work culture in which employees thrive and do not “burn out” or get overwhelmed?

Put a lot of effort into creating an environment where work becomes a passion, not a job. When people are passionate about what they do, they can perform better and feel less overwhelmed. Also, it is essential to delegate work between employees so that one person does not take a lot of responsibilities. This also promotes team building and creates a great work environment.

What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and Authority in their industry?

To be a leader in your industry, I highly recommend bringing innovative ideas to the market and leading the way in bringing change. Stay informed with the recent trends in your industry, collaborate with, and seek mentorship from other leaders in your industry.

Also to establish trust and credibility with your company, give your team freedom to be creative and make decisions that are in the best interest of the company as well as your customers or clients. Give trust and confidence to your team to thrive in the company and realize their potential. Build an open-door policy that anyone regardless of their title or responsibility can contribute to the growth of the company by making suggestions and helping their teammates. Encourage this sort of collaboration because it helps you grow fast and everyone feels accomplished because they can see their collective efforts having a tremendous impact on people’s lives. Also, your team will see you as a trustworthy leader who creates opportunities.

Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?

It is important to stay informed about the industry you are in and being able to speak about the trends, changes, and upcoming innovations. As a leader, you should constantly learn and increase your knowledge base, to lead your company and team in the right direction.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

The most common mistake I see is many first-time founders underestimate the time and capital required to start and grow their company. Setting ambitious goals is great, but it is important to estimate for the longer time required to make the goals into reality. Based on my experience, in many areas of business from fundraising to product development, it takes longer to accomplish due to unforeseen circumstances. For example, things go in different directions in manufacturing or product testing, so your production can get delayed for several months. As a CEO, your team relies on you to lead them through the ups and downs.

Ok, fantastic. Thank you for those excellent insights, Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about How to Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur. The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills, and celebrations. This might be intuitive, but I think it will be very useful to specifically articulate it. Can you describe to our readers why no matter how successful you are as an entrepreneur, you will always have fairly dramatic highs and lows? Particularly, can you help explain why this is different from someone with a “regular job”?

I feel in every stage of the business, there are a lot of ups and downs. For example, when I was fundraising for our seed round, the problems we faced, that we didn’t have working prototypes, or we didn’t have enough data to prove the market demand. After months of hard work, we finally resolved those problems and raised our seed round successfully. After that, the focus is ensuring the product works as expected, the technology is developed without bugs and problems, then the focus goes primarily to user acquisition and sales. Then you need to focus on maintaining the growth, more fundraising, growing the team, and so much more. I always say the bigger the company gets, the more ups and downs you will experience because the team is bigger, you have more customers, partners, and investors with much higher expectations. Regardless of the challenges, I feel being an entrepreneur is the most rewarding job.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually high and excited as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

I am a person who gets excited even for small things in the business. Every little step towards our goals and mission makes me feel I want to fly. Every time I see a child laugh when playing with ROYBI, I get so excited that I cannot even put in words. Seeing the impact we are making on children’s lives is the moment I get overly excited and want to work even harder to make a difference.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually low, and vulnerable as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

When I was raising funds for our seed round, I heard so many rejections that often, I thought to myself if what I am doing is right. There were plenty of people who told me I should just stop trying or try other future ideas. Some said that it is not worth losing all my money over this idea and just find a 9–5 job and then work on something else in the future. All these comments were quite discouraging. It got even a lot more difficult when I ran out of money and had to call my friends and ask for help. It was probably the lowest time of my life because I’ve never been in a situation like this asking for money. It was scary, and I thought I would lose my home and everything I built. However, I firmly believed in ROYBI and the idea of using artificial intelligence to change the way children learn. Fast forward, I was able to eventually raise 4.2M dollars financing in our seed round in 2019 without even a fully functioning prototype. And finally, the bright days came. ROYBI Robot was featured two times on TIME Magazine’s cover as one of the best inventions in education, CNBC named ROYBI as one of the most promising startups to watch, and Forbes called us the game-changers for children. So, if I ever listened to those nay-sayers, I would have never gained the success we have to date.

Based on your experience, can you tell us what you did to bounce back?

I constantly reminded myself of the opportunities and the impact I could make building our product. I can tell you that it wasn’t easy, but I had to stay positive and continue moving forward. For me, ROYBI is something that I cannot give up on because of the huge impact potential. I also remind myself every day that if it was easy then everybody would have done it. If it is difficult, it means I am doing something different than others which is an innovative idea, and it requires more effort to establish.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur”? Please share a story or an example for each.

Passion — I am extremely passionate about education and technology. The potential to make a huge change in this industry is very high. I get really excited every time I think that we have the chance to make a difference in the lives of more than one billion children globally.

Resilience — I never give up. I believe that as long as I work hard towards my goals, I will find a way to make things happen. Sometimes I get support from unexpected resources.

Team — The right team is extremely essential to the success of any company. I spend a lot of time ensuring that people who join our team share similar values and passion to the rest of us.

Positive Thinking — Sometimes it is hard to stay positive in the middle of a crisis, but I have always reminded myself that negativity affects every aspect of our business. So as long as I stay positive, the doors will open.

Setting Goals — I set goals and timelines in every project or milestone. Not always we can meet the goals but with every progress, we make towards the goals, I count those as achieving a milestone. This really helps us track our success and even failures. If we fail to meet our goals, then we must have solutions to overcome them.

We are living during challenging times, and resilience is critical during times like these. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

Resilience and believing in yourself are the most critical factors to succeed. I sometimes see many people do not reach their full potential or goals because they give up too soon. We need to remember that success does not come easy. Success is a product of hard work, resilience, setting goals, and believing in yourself.

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?

For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be on top of the game as a child. I’ve ever had this must-win attitude. Maybe because I grew up in a culture where being a top student was extremely important. I remember my parents telling me that if I am a top student, I can have all my dreams come true. My parents taught me that education is the best way to succeed in my life and fight for what I want. My mother has a significant role in raising me as a strong woman and teaching me that I can do anything I want in life as long as I work hard for it. I am lucky to have such a supportive family growing up, and even to this date, my mother is one of my biggest inspirations and supporters when it comes to the ups and downs of my startup journey.

In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?

Absolutely! I always believe positive thinking brings positive results. I also learned that there is still light at the end of the tunnel in any problematic situation. Staying positive and motivating others around us as a leader will encourage the team to work positively towards a solution and continue to make a difference in their work.

Can you help articulate why a leader’s positive attitude can have a positive impact both on their clients and their team? Please share a story or example if you can.

Your positive mentality can motivate your clients or team members to move forward to make an impact. In our business, positivity is the key to success. I remember the difficult times we had to raise our first round of funding. If I didn’t stay positive or if I didn’t motivate my team to try our best, we would never be able to close our seed round. It was a very challenging time, but we were able to go through it together by keeping positive thoughts and spirit.

Ok. Super. We are nearly done. What is your favorite inspirational quote that motivates you to pursue greatness? Can you share a story about how it was relevant to you in your own life?

“All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.” — Walt Disney.

This quote is very relevant to my experience because if I didn’t dare to go through all the ups and downs of this journey, I would have never been able to reach my goals. I am fortunate that I am in a position where I can build my dreams and make a significant impact on children’s life by helping them learn based on their needs and skills.

How can our readers further follow you online?

The best way is through my LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/elnazsarraf/

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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