Paola Telfer of Sens.ai: “Build a circle of entrepreneurs with different levels of experience so you can informally coach and support each other”

Build a circle of entrepreneurs with different levels of experience so you can informally coach and support each other. There are common threads in all our stories. I have a group I do this with, and it’s been invaluable. Test run your ideas — both new business ideas and ongoing big business decisions. Welcome critiques. It’s hard […]

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Build a circle of entrepreneurs with different levels of experience so you can informally coach and support each other. There are common threads in all our stories. I have a group I do this with, and it’s been invaluable. Test run your ideas — both new business ideas and ongoing big business decisions. Welcome critiques. It’s hard at first not to take things personally but you need to get used to it. It’s how you get great.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Paola Telfer.

Paola Telfer is a serial tech entrepreneur with a passion for harnessing technology for human performance, resilience and longevity. She is the CEO and Founder of Sens.ai, a neurotechnology company with the mission of making mental thriving part of everyone’s every day. After a motor vehicle accident, Paola experienced the power of neurofeedback and recognized how it not only helped her recover, but also enhance peak performance and deepen meditation. She discovered that advanced brain training was extremely impactful and made it her mission to make it accessible to everyone.

Paola has always had a focus on innovative technology. She holds an Electrical Engineering degree from the University of British Columbia and an MBA in the Management of Technology from Simon Fraser University. Paola has designed network intelligence ASICs (Custom Integrated Circuits) that fuel backbone networks, managed eight-figure product portfolios, led technical consulting in enterprise and government initiatives, and managed strategic healthcare provider relationships. Her first tech startup, Vandrico solutions, leveraged Wearable technology to improve safety for field workers in traditional Industries.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! 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?

I am grateful to have been raised by parents and in a community where I didn’t realize it was unique for me as a woman to pursue a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering I didn’t realize my gender was a topic of discussion until I was at the university and the professors mentioned it (and I noticed there were only 3 women in my class of 150). So, growing up in western Canada, my gender has never influenced my career decisions or options. I believe when we talk about encouraging people towards entrepreneurship, the focus should be less about gender and more about having a relentless passion to solve a problem and the perseverance to build a company.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Against the odds, I have raised millions of dollars during a pandemic for my company, Sens.ai. Some investors I was negotiating with prior to the pandemic, panicked at the last minute and decided to conserve personal cash flow. At the same time, the right investors started showing up — those that were thinking more about the future of health and resonated with our solution for bringing mental thriving to everyone’s every day. There are lots of people in this world. You just have to find the right ones for you.

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?

Perhaps not the funniest at the time but a common trait I see in those starting out is founders being unfocused and just doing too many things, burning lots of hours, often with little or no return. When I was starting out, I thought I could do everything! I was super enthusiastic, working all the hours etc. But then you will inevitably dip into stress and even burnout. It takes courage to show vulnerability to your team and to wisely collaborate and delegate. I’ve learned to focus on what I am uniquely good at and getting the most from team members around me. It is undeniable that you are at your best when relaxed and focused. That’s when you can really create.

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?

Gratitude is such an important mindset and a foundational value at my company, Sens.ai. I am grateful for the 2 men in my life that have given me endless trust and support — Geoff and Corey — who are on the Sens.ai leadership team with me. We complement each other’s skill sets and thinking styles. Having a smooth functioning leadership team with respect and without drama is priceless. The alternative can be a huge distraction and is often the downfall of startups. I attribute finding the right partners with being aligned on the 3 most important questions, as coined by Mindvalley founder, Vishen Lakhiani — from a deathbed perspective, what do you want to (1) contribute, (2) experience and (3) learn? We did this as a formal exercise at the inception of Sens.ai and it inspired human level discussions about what and why we were building this company.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

Founding a company involves taking risks. One of the biggest obstacles to female entrepreneurship besides the biases that women get, are actually structural such as uneven work division with spouses/partners and childcare. A woman’s choice in life-partner plays a major role in determining her level of success.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

As a society we need to strive to reduce inherent biases when engaging with women and garner more gender neutrality such that we give equal weighting to the genders. With a more equitable playing field, women will be more empowered to create companies.

Governmental policy should enable the same benefits for entrepreneurs. For instance, employment insurance isn’t something that you can access as an entrepreneur even if you paid into it for 10 years.

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

Technology is evolving at an exponential rate and tech entrepreneurs, in particular, are designing our future. Any design will have built-in biases from its creators. The world needs more tech entrepreneurs with different perspectives including those of women, different cultures and ethnicities. Different perspectives will see different problems and propose different solutions. Additionally, I think the world needs more entrepreneurs that lead with feminine qualities regardless of gender. In particular, leading with compassion and intuition.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

Folks often think that being a founder is about having a single idea and pushing hard to realize it. In fact, founding a startup is a continually creative process. It is the most fun I have ever had because there is such an array of aspects to master; in my case — financial, regulatory, privacy, security, manufacturing, hardware design, software design, neuroscience, marketing… to name a few, and there are so many decisions to be made including how and when to grow the team. A startup is a rich living entity unto itself that comes through the founder(s).

Another myth is that any investor money is good money. We have been very vigilant and fortunate in selecting investors who are smart money and good humans that reflect Sens.ai’s values. This makes board meetings straightforward and additive versus distracting to the business.

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

No. Not everyone is cut out to be a founder. And one can even have a very successful corporate career and not be cut out to be a founder. Leadership skills and entrepreneurial skills are very distinct. In fact, women have made great strides in corporate leadership and less so as founders. It has been recognized for decades that feminine leadership skills that include empathy and servant leadership are more effective in the long run for sustainably effective teams. When I was starting out in TELUS Communications, a couple of decades ago, there were already some exemplary female executives who successfully inspired with feminine leadership traits.

Uniquely critical skills to leading as a startup founder versus a corporate leader, include:

Grit — I cannot tell you how many times I have been knocked down as an entrepreneur. With novel ideas that others may not fully understand, this is part of your day to day. You need to be able to take these knocks, reframe and take the positive learning forward — quickly adapting.

Relentless drive — You have to have a very open mind that stays curious. Innovation happens faster in this space. You have to enjoy questioning your own assumptions as a continuous exercise.

Charisma and passion — You need to be able to inspire investors and your team without anything tangible to demonstrate — no product, no data — this includes an ability to get free work from people at the outset!

Self-awareness — no one person has all of the attributes to run a successful business. As an entrepreneur with limited resources, you really need to understand where you are strong and fill in the other gaps with great people.

Authenticity — whether you want to be or not, you are the Chief Culture Officer. And culture eats strategy for breakfast every time! So it is really important that as a founder you are aware of the culture of the business you are building. You need to be the moral compass of that business in the early days in a way that clearly shapes the culture as others join.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, What are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

In my experience it is perhaps better to stop dividing things into men and women founders and more into masculine and feminine qualities.

Investment is an often-cited obstacle for women entrepreneurs. I’ve met many investors throughout my career, and I do not believe that those that passed on investing are sexist. But in some cases, there may be some cognitive bias that translates to gender bias, for example with a deeper tone of voice being associated with confidence. Most investors, I believe, are simply evaluating the likelihood of a high return on their money. For venture investment, investors are looking for a 10x return on their money. This is a very different conversation than starting a regular small business. Their criteria is not based on gender but it is based on skills and qualities our society may classify as masculine — for example, speaking with confidence, sound financial modeling, big technical breakthroughs, disruptive business models that are bold and could change the world, firm negotiations and demonstrating critical thinking through situations.

I think technology should play a major role in any exciting new venture. We are in a time of converging exponential technologies. I would encourage women to invest in educating themselves on exponential technologies. The gap in STEM familiarity and interest between men and women is a big part of the gap in creating fundable female-led companies. Programs like Singularity University are a great way to gain a broad understanding of exponential technologies without needing to become a technical expert.

The feminine qualities that are required in entrepreneurship include creativity and intuition. A lot of the time you are operating in and making important decisions on limited or no data. Be brave enough to stop doing, step away — meditate on it.

My recommendations to aspiring women entrepreneurs include:

Build a team of people that complement your skill sets. Fill in your gaps. I am a non-expert at many things, but I have surrounded myself with experts and been curious, humble and willing to learn.

Clear your internal mind chatter and build on your natural intuition with meditative practice. We cannot function at peak creative levels when our body is in fight or flight. We need to be proactively managing our stress and building self-awareness and self-regulation. This transforms our ability to make good decisions with confidence and it changes how you show up for your team. Our negative self-talk is one of our greatest adversaries and it is manageable. Negative self-talk is that voice that tells you that you aren’t good enough or worthy. We can actually manage this self-talk by regulating the default mode network of our brains. We can do this with meditation. And because meditation is difficult, my company, Sens.ai has created a way to accelerate the benefits of meditation for peak performance with wearable neurotechnology.

Educate yourself on exponential technologies. Embrace them; remove any fear. Take online courses. Ask for help. Take good notes. Enjoy the process. This is about opening up to possibility.

Build a circle of entrepreneurs with different levels of experience so you can informally coach and support each other. There are common threads in all our stories. I have a group I do this with, and it’s been invaluable. Test run your ideas — both new business ideas and ongoing big business decisions. Welcome critiques. It’s hard at first not to take things personally but you need to get used to it. It’s how you get great.

Choose your life partner wisely — for a successful entrepreneurial mindset you want to surround yourself with people whose qualities you admire. People that both support and inspire you to think bigger. The most important of these is your life-partner.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

We have started this with Sens.ai. At Sens.ai we believe changing the world starts with changing oneself. We believe everyone can get more from their brains and proactively improve their lives — focus, concentration, rest, relaxation etc. We aim to catalyze more innovators and creators by helping them out of stress states and into peak states that tap into their mindfulness and intuition.

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.

I would like to inspire a movement where everyone started indulging in self-care regularly. We get so busy in our lives that we neglect to take care of ourselves and our health. At Sens.ai, we use technology for good. We have developed a product that helps you disconnect to enhance your wellbeing. Then when you reconnect with the world, you are able to make a stronger connection.

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 would love to have lunch with Oprah Winfrey who not only paved the way for female journalists, but also led the charge on helping people commit to improving their health and wellness. She also brought mental health to the forefront of the conversation and helped lessen the stigma that surrounds it.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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