Sponsor instead of mentor. When you mentor, it’s that forced coffee once a month. When you sponsor, you take a bullet for someone else — it’s you putting your name and reputation on the line. Have a sense of ownership about the other person’s success. Invest in that person. That is the best way for women to help them thrive.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, we had the pleasure of interviewing Maxeme Tuchman.
Maxeme (Max) Tuchman is the CEO and Co-Founder of Caribu, an interactive video-calling platform that helps kids have virtual playdates with family and friends when they can’t be physically together. Caribu is one of Apple’s 15 “Best Apps of 2020”, one of TIME Magazine’s Best Inventions, made Fast Company’s list of World Changing Ideas, was named one of the ‘Top Ten EdTech Companies to Watch’ in Forbes, and became one of the most innovative startups in the world by winning the 1776 Global Challenge Cup. Max has been the winner or finalist in 30+ pitch competitions, is the 59th Latina in the U.S. to raise over 1M dollars in venture funding and the first Latinx founder, male or female, to raise 1M dollars in Equity Crowdfunding, and was named one of Inc. Magazine’s Top 100 Female Founders.
She has worked in almost every level of education from being a public school teacher, a consultant at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Executive Director of Teach For America, and manager of education projects under NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg and DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Before co-founding Caribu, Max was appointed by President Obama to serve as a White House Fellow at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. She is a first-generation Cuban-American and college student, and a graduate of the Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs and the Miami Fellows Leadership Program. Max is a Toyota Mother of Invention and received her MBA & MPP from Harvard.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory?” What led you to this particular career path?
On my dad’s side, my grandparents were impacted by the Holocaust. My grandmother survived Auschwitz and my grandparents met in a refugee camp — that’s where my oldest uncle was born. Then, they escaped to Havana. On my mom’s side, they left the Bolshevik revolution in the Ukraine and went to Cuba, where my grandmother was born. Both families had to deal with the Castro regime.
Growing up, I saw my family make incredible sacrifices so we could live the American Dream. In turn, I put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed but have always followed the mantra that the only thing you can take with you is what you’ve learned. I’ve always been obsessed with the idea that we can use education as a tool for social justice — I even wrote my college thesis about this. How do we ensure equitable access to a high-quality education so that everyone has a chance to be their most productive and successful selves?
My work is rooted in education, from working at the Federal and State government levels, to leading foundations and nonprofits, to being a public school teacher. Unfortunately, throughout my career, I found that it was adults fighting with adults about what’s best for adults. So, I decided to go into ed-tech, where I could use technology to meet the needs of kids faster and get to market easier without dealing with all of the bureaucracy and the nepotism in the system. I could meet kids where they are: geographically, educationally, and pedagogically. I think personalized learning is the future — it is how we are going to create change in education — and this is how I got to creating Caribu. Caribu is the leading educational family entertainment platform for children (0–13 years old) to have a virtual playdate with family and friends when they can’t be physically together. You can play games, draw, and read together in a video-call which keeps kids engaged and entertained in an educational way. Our in-app library has thousands of books, in 10 languages, and tons of coloring sheets, activities, games, recipes, and more that keeps a child’s attention and helps family members build relationships and memories together. We help over half a million families, across 200 countries and territories, have better video-calls with the little ones in their life.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When the Jonas Brothers split up in 2013, two of the brothers, Joe and Nick, kicked off solo music careers, while Kevin Jonas ventured into the tech world.
When the band reunited in 2019, they embarked on a massive world tour. Kevin was using FaceTime to stay connected with his two young daughters while on the road. He thought, “This sucks. I am trying to spend time with my daughters, but FaceTime is not keeping their attention.” Given his tech background, he started brainstorming ideas for an interactive video call for kids, but before he could even put pen to paper, he discovered Caribu!
At the end of 2019, we got a call from Kevin’s agent saying he was interested in Caribu — from both a business/tech standpoint and as a dad. He said, “I want to join them. I want to build this with them.” He ended up becoming an investor in and advisor to Caribu.
It’s funny. The magazines that say, “Stars, they’re just like us!” are true. Celebrities are parents too. They want to be good parents. Kevin has been an incredible partner since.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I tried to fundraise early and I thought it would be easy. I thought that because I had gone to a fancy business school and had been a White House Fellow that I was “Importante.” I thought investors would happily throw money my way after one meeting. Besides thinking that fundraising would be a breeze, I also made the mistake of approaching venture capitalists pre-launch instead of focusing on angel investors. I made a lot of mistakes in fundraising early on because I didn’t know how the system worked.
I also learned that the biases against women and people of color are real. You hear these stories of dudes walking into a room, having an idea on a napkin and getting 3 million-dollar seed rounds, and as a Latina, even though I have white privilege, I grossly underestimated that that luxury is not afforded to someone who looks like me.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
We would not be where we are without Chris Adamo. He is a friend that I made in Miami. We worked in the same co-working space at Cambridge Innovation Center in Miami. He always had to walk past my office to leave and could always see me burning the midnight oil. On one occasion, he knocked on the window and said, “Max, it’s 2am. You have a dog. It’s time to go home.” As we were walking out, he said, “Max, I really want to invest in Caribu. I see how hard you work. I see that you’re here until 2am in the morning. I see you taking meetings. I love the idea and I believe in it — I believe in you.” Chris and his family put money down and truly helped us get to where we are today. That first investment set our foundation and led us to secure investments from other angels. Chris is still an advisor and investor in Caribu, and he’s still a good friend.
Sandra Arber is another person I trace a lot of my success back to. In 2017, when I was first getting into the tech community, I attended a tech conference in Miami. I somehow networked my way into the conference’s VIP party and was introduced to Sandra, who was also a Harvard graduate. Sandra and I instantly clicked. She took me under her wing and made introductions even though I wasn’t in her angel group’s incubator. One of her introductions led me to being on a panel of female founders. Because of that panel, we got our lead investor for our seed round. We’ve had a lot of wins and a lot of them can be traced back to Sandra.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I am not “Miss Mindfulness,” I don’t have the Calm app, you won’t find me at a meditation retreat, and I’m not that founder that runs triathlons. Stress actually is where I thrive and I’ve been like this since I was a kid. I go to bed at 6 in the morning, sleep 4 hours a night, drink jumbo-sized mugs of espresso, and get my energy from human interaction, so I’m always surrounded by noise and people (now safely through Zoom!).
Before big press events or difficult meetings, I do try to control my environment and remove distractions. If I have something stressful on the calendar, I try to not schedule any meetings right before or check my email in case I get a message that throws me off balance.
We also have a “Positive Feedback” channel in Slack at Caribu, so whenever we get great feedback from our customers or a great app review, we put it in there, so that we always have a channel where we can share all of the great work that we’re doing for our families. That brings me into a good place, and I can then walk into things in a good mood.
My dog, Lunita La Cubanita, serves as my emotional support animal (every founder should get a dog). Besides that, the fun I get to have every day working on Caribu and working with my team keeps me grounded and centered.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
It is unacceptable to not have a diverse executive team.
Data and research confirm that diversity is good for business. Consumers are super diverse, and you need people on your team who understand their needs. In business school, I worked on a case study focused on Dove’s Men’s Care products that revealed women are actually the brand’s primary customers.
It’s not even just about sex, gender, race, or ethnicity — it’s also about diverse experiences. Diversity of thought comes from international perspectives, forms of ability, socio-economic status, etc. You need to bring diverse experiences to the table so that you can be empathetic to the diverse consumer that is buying your product.
I have always been an advocate for diversity and inclusion in the workplace. I remember seeing a large group photo from a recent start-up event in Miami and noticed there were more dogs in the picture than women or people of color. It is our responsibility to increase representation in leadership roles and create the change we agree is necessary.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
- Be a wallet feminist and social justice warrior. In the Female Founder Collective, we all have the FFC sticker to proudly display — if you’re deciding between two businesses and one has the FFC sticker, buy from there — be a wallet feminist. Buy Black-owned. Buy Latinx-owned. By BIPOC-owned. Support LGBTQ+. Support our businesses financially.
- Be intentional about adding voices to the table. Look around and be conscious of who is missing from the table. Think of those diverse experiences. Is someone from all socio-economic backgrounds represented? Is someone with different abilities represented? In Miami, as we were starting to build out our tech community, we realized that everyone was creating what we call “Man-els,” which are panels full of men. Men were the panel makers. They would stack the panel with their male friends and only invite one woman to join to diversify the conversation. But if that one woman was unavailable, they would simply stop the search and move on. So, in response, we created a secret society in Miami called Binders Full of Women for women entrepreneurs to get to know each other so we could recommend each other and ensure that our voices and perspectives were heard. We ended up diversifying panels and conferences and helped a lot of women become well known as thought leaders in our ecosystem.
- Understand that it’s equity vs. equality. That’s why color blindness doesn’t work. I want you to see color. I want you to see my diversity because I want you to understand that I’m coming from a different place and I need different things, but I also want you to see that as a positive — as something that I bring to the table that is a competitive advantage and an asset.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I juggle balls in the air and it’s my responsibility to know which are made of glass and which are made of wood. We are coaches, and we lead by example. We’re always selling. We’re always looking for money, talent, and/or customers. We see the big picture and inspire people to want to build that vision with us.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
The biggest myth is that being a CEO is glamorous. People think it’s jets, parties and “models and bottles” (as we call it in Miami), but it’s not. It’s an apartment full of moving boxes because I still haven’t found time to unpack, it’s “borrowing” wi-fi at Starbucks because you have no money, and it’s eating A LOT of chicken nuggets.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Access to informal networking opportunities. After #MeToo and #TimesUp, when we started holding people accountable for their actions, men stopped inviting women to informal networking events out of caution. That’s not the correct response.
At the beginning, people are investing in you, not the company, and you build that trust through informal activities. It’s not in that 30-minute meeting in the boardroom. Rapport is built in the in-betweens — the dinners, happy hours and post-conference parties. Women need to fight to stay included in these moments too. How do we keep informal networking and not put women at risk of unsafe situations, and give women the same access as men?
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Again, I thought it would be glamorous and it is not.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
- You have to be a risk taker and a risk seeker. You cannot be risk averse. I’ve found that many of my founder peers and I share the fact that we’ve all skydived. Jumping out of a plane with the hope that a parachute will deploy is pretty close to what running a startup is like every day.
- You have to roll with the punches. You cannot be a person who is zero or ten. On your ten days, you have to realize that a zero day is coming and on your zero days, you have to remember that ten days are coming.
- You have to have thick skin. 95% of the time it is not about you.
- Enjoy making decisions with a lot of unknowns. In business school, we used the case study method, which helps you hone your gut instinct. This practice builds your intuition and helps make decisions when you don’t have all of the information.
- You have to love learning every day. If you look at my resume, every two years, I switched jobs. I want to come in and solve a problem and move on. I don’t want to be in the same role for 40 years. I want to be humble enough to know that I don’t know everything, but arrogant enough to put on a brave face and just try.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
- Be yourself. There is no archetype. At another organization, I felt like I had to be super tough because I thought leadership was about being tough and about making decisions for everyone else. I read everything wrong. People will move mountains for your mission and for you when you are just yourself.
- Sponsor instead of mentor. When you mentor, it’s that forced coffee once a month. When you sponsor, you take a bullet for someone else — it’s you putting your name and reputation on the line. Have a sense of ownership about the other person’s success. Invest in that person. That is the best way for women to help them thrive.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Building Caribu. 2020 was a difficult year for millions of families around the world, especially for kids and grandparents. I am so proud that the product that I built is helping kids and their families stay connected across the globe during one of the most difficult years of their lives.
I also try to make the world a better place with the team I hire and time dedicated to other female founders (I run equity crowdfunding sessions on Clubhouse several times a week, for example).
I have put my heart, and soul, literally blood, sweat and tears, along with dollars and time into Caribu. Being recognized by Apple as one of the App Store Best of 2020 winners solidified that we did something amazing for the world this year.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Fundraising is hard, and harder if you’re a woman or a person of color. I feel like even if someone had told me this, I would have said, “Whatever. I’m adorable. I’m going to raise money.” But it’s really hard.
- You’re never done. After I raised my first round, I realized that, the next day, I had to fundraise again.
- You think you solve onboarding in your product and then you haven’t. I wish someone told me that it’s a game of “Whac-A-Mole.” Even if something works, the conditions change and it might not work next year or it might not work with a new audience, etc.
- Don’t compare yourself to others, especially if you’re a woman or a person of color. The world for white, male founders is just different. If you keep looking at them and feeling unsuccessful, it’s unfortunately just apples and oranges. Just put the blinders on and don’t pay attention to them.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Bet on and invest in women. That’s it. Just look at the program in Mexico called “Oportunidades” that gives financial incentives to families for doing proactive foundational activities. For example, families could get cash rewards for taking their kids preventively to the doctor. At first, they gave the money to the men in the households. But, they found that the men were spending the money on things like alcohol, gambling, or gifts for themselves, etc. When they switched to giving the money to the women, immediately all family health and wellness indicators went positive. Invest in women and bet on women, and they will change the world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
In 4th grade, Nike came out with their tag line, “Just do it” and it became my mantra. In 4th grade, I literally looked around and thought if that person can do it, I can do it.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I am a Cuban Jew. Growing up as a Cuban Jew or “Jew-ban,” as I call it, I was never Cuban enough for the Cuban community and never Jewish enough for the Jewish community. Needless to say, I ended up with a lot of identity crises.
And then, Jennifer Lopez became a household name.
When you grow up with so much intersectionality, you don’t always get to see people that look like you in positions of power or so revered for their authentic expression of their identity. Recently, I received the best compliment in the world when someone told me that they worked with J Lo, and said she’s the hardest working woman in business, and they see a lot of her in me. She is an incredible person, she works so hard, she has had everyone underestimate her, and she proves everyone wrong. So J Lo, let’s grab a Café Con Leche the next time you’re in Miami.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.