Zeena Qureshi of Sonantic: “Be positive, everything is fixable”

Be positive, everything is fixable. > When everyone is looking to you as a leader to fix problems but you’re also the same person who has to inspire everyone else, positivity is key. No one likes stress and no one wants to be miserable. Being a positive, problem solver not only reinforces your team’s belief […]

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Be positive, everything is fixable. > When everyone is looking to you as a leader to fix problems but you’re also the same person who has to inspire everyone else, positivity is key. No one likes stress and no one wants to be miserable. Being a positive, problem solver not only reinforces your team’s belief during a difficult time but it also inspires them to know that they can and will get through every challenge that comes their way.

The Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality & Mixed Reality Industries are so exciting. What is coming around the corner? How will these improve our lives? What are the concerns we should keep an eye out for? Aside from entertainment, how can VR or AR help work or other parts of life? To address this, as a part of our interview series called “Women Leading The VR, AR & Mixed Reality Industries”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Zeena Qureshi.

Zeena Qureshi is the co-founder and CEO of Sonantic, a UK-based deeptech startup that has created the world’s most expressive and realistic artificial voices. The company’s audio platform is utilized by top-tier film and AAA gaming studios worldwide. Previously, Qureshi spent 9 years teaching speech and language therapy to children with Autism alongside a decade of experience in the startup world.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you grew up?

I’m a first generation American-born Indian now living in London. I come from humble beginnings and am lucky to have a strong female role model in my mother. Working hard was the norm in our household. My background spans studying art then going into product and sales for tech startups (having founded 2 previously) and teaching speech and language therapy. The latter came from having a family member diagnosed with Autism eleven years ago. In order to support them, I trained in Applied Behavior Analysis and after a little while was encouraged by a consultant to teach other children. I did this as a side hustle for 9 years — this is where my interest in speech really took off. I found myself deep in that world, using the basic building blocks of voice production to break it down for nonverbal children and help them with communication and expression. Two and half years ago, I co-founded a company called Sonantic that teaches machines to speak the same way I taught children. We work with world renowned entertainment studios servicing them with human realistic voice technology.

Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Yes, my favorite book of all time is ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’. I find it to be such a great reflection of the startup life. The main character is self made, resilient, and has grit. Every time I read this book, it teaches me several lessons and helps give a new perspective on problem solving. Without giving too much away, I have learned that the greatest asset we have is ourselves — we make our own destiny, and no matter how difficult things can be, we can always find a way to not only handle every situation, but do so strategically. I’ve learned that cultivating good relationships is the most difficult-yet-rewarding thing. It takes a lot of work and there’s no cutting corners. All of these lessons ring so true in everyday life and definitely in a startup when the odds are stacked against you.

Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the X Reality industry? We’d love to hear it.

Everything clicked into place when I met my cofounder, John Flynn, at Entrepreneur First. He’s a speech researcher who came from the world of entertainment and worked with the greatest voices of all time, from Morgan Freeman and Christian Bale to Tom Hardy, Tom Cruise, and Tom Hanks. All the Toms!

I came from an artsy tech background with loads of speech experience with kids. When John and I started to ideate on what to build, I remembered back to the lessons with the children I taught. They would go on break time, and every single time they did, the child would opt for playing a voiced video game with the sound on loud. Some would say games aren’t a good use of time, but in my experience, the children learned so much from the voiced stories and came back to lessons with a calmer mind. The children may have been nonverbal, but their receptiveness to story characters was strong and the entertainment would motivate them to try and mimic conversation in real life. Like adults, children want to be heard. And the happiness that stems from communicating effectively is priceless. Entertainment is an industry solely based on telling the best stories in the world and conveying messages perfectly. It’s from that realization that I knew John and I would bridge the gap of human realistic voice interactions with our technology and we would dedicate ourselves to helping make the best entertainment products of the future. The end result would be so rewarding as it would bring happiness to end consumers and help them learn life lessons from incredible stories.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?

After closing our seed round, John and I went full swing into company building. We were hiring teammates, mapping our product vision and creating our roadmap for the journey ahead. We knew we wanted to create the world’s most expressive and realistic artificial voices in the world but we needed to tackle how to get there and overcome the challenge of existing text-to-speech solutions. We also knew the reason AI voices sound robotic is because they don’t look at the details of voice and lack the emotions that humans have, so we set out to fix just that.

We started by looking at the hardest human emotion to convey, deep sadness, which is communicated through crying, a non-speech pattern. It’s difficult for a person to be vulnerable; it’s even harder to cry on demand. Actors themselves find it quite difficult, and they’re the experts. There’s a lot that goes into it, like all the physiological elements for your face to sound like you are believably crying. We thought that if we could get a computer to generate deep sadness, then we could later replicate any other human emotion for a more human realistic voice technology.

Low and behold four brutal months later, we cracked the code and created the first AI that can cry. It was an incredible feat for the team: we were doing something difficult for humans and completely unheard of for machines. I’ll never forget how great it felt for our team to be the first in the world to make that breakthrough.

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?

Oh yes! Two years ago John and I were fundraising and about to speak to one of the most respected VCs in the world. He’s well regarded and invests in the best. The man is such a lovely guy, super smart and understood our business right away. We were about to have our 4th call with him and in the morning, LinkedIn notified me that it was his birthday. So I thought, what better way to say ‘Happy Birthday’ than using our Human realistic AI Voice to say it? So John and I did just that for this investor. Except for some reason, I thought I’d try to be charming and have the AI say: “Happy Birthday, how does it feel to be 25 again?!”

His reaction was definitely not happy. Neutral at best and he was like ”Yeah, I’m too old now” in a somewhat somber tone. Then there was a dead awkward silence that felt like it lasted way too long. I realized that I was on a fundraising call and just called the investor an old man to his face using our product!

The investor did end up investing and we’re lucky to have him on the journey with us. It just goes to show that we all make mistakes but we have to keep going no matter what and hope for the best. Hard work pays off and remember to laugh about it afterwards.

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?

Absolutely. My co-founder John. John has a way of listening to people and making them feel heard, working super fast, and is the most reliable person I know.

I met John at Entrepreneur First. Many say the program is like ‘Love Island’ meets ‘The Apprentice’. The incubator brings in 100 people to find a co-founder and build a viable business in 3 months. John and I were friends first, in different co-founding teams laughing at our shortcomings and difficulties. We both really wanted to build a company but only had 6 weeks left to do so and weren’t anywhere close to achieving it. After realizing we both have a decade of experience in speech from different perspectives, we teamed up and literally built a company in six weeks. I couldn’t have done this with anyone else and John’s been there every step of the way. A lot more has happened in the past 2.5 years and I’m proud to have John as my co-founder growing with me through the different obstacles of startup life. He’s brilliant, kind, and has a great heart. I think every startup needs a John Flynn.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes, we’re continuing towards our north star of creating human realistic AI voices with an exciting new project (top secret, for now!). Here’s what I can tell you: the ability to speak and control one’s own voice like an instrument, and communicating effectively is a very complex human talent. The ability for machines to do the same opens up a new world of possibilities. Currently when you interact with machines they have limited options and no ability to convey or understand emotions. It’s very frustrating and something we’ve all experienced. This is why I’ve set out to teach machines to talk just like humans, to bridge the gap between people and machines.

J.A.R.V.I.S. from Iron Man and Samantha from the movie HER, both sci-fi characters of the past alluded to this type of technology. With Sonantic, we have made computer generated voices sound human and realistic by looking at all the idiosyncrasies and details of speech. Our goal is to power human realistic voice interactions around the world so that frustrating voice interactions are a thing of the past.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The VR, AR and MR industries seem so exciting right now. What are the 3 things in particular that most excite you about the industry? Can you explain or give an example?

What excites me the most is bridging the gap between humans and computers. It’s a very difficult challenge but once it’s done, the results will be huge, transforming all interactions on computerized devices for the future. In voice technology, personal assistants have been trying to do this for years now but it’s not quite there. Everyone’s an expert on voice and can tell when they’re speaking to a robot and/or automated system. The robotic voices have no way to connect to the end consumer. Many get frustrated by their interaction and have a terrible experience. This is why at Sonantic we look at all the details of voice to make it human-realistic and we work with the best storytellers in entertainment to match human voice quality.

The other two things that excite me are that one, this has been science fiction for so long and now the latest breakthroughs in machine learning make it possible. And two, connecting end-users to human realistic voices will mean that they can connect with content in a way that they can actually relate to, rather than feel disconnected from.

What are the 3 things that concern you about the VR, AR and MR industries? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?

Misuse, misuse, and misuse. Not to sound like a stereotype but it’s true. With great innovation comes great responsibility. This technology is capable of great things in entertainment and other industries vital to our lives as humans. But on the flip side, if it gets into the wrong hands it can be dangerous, especially as we see more Deepfakes.

At Sonantic we have put several measures in place to prevent misuse and take it very seriously. We are strictly B2B enterprise Saas and work only with entertainment studios. We make sure our algorithms are never trained on publicly available data without the voice owner’s permission. We also only work with voice actors.

I think the entertainment aspects of VR, AR and MR are apparent. Can you share with our readers how these industries can help us at work?

Sure, aspects of VR, AR, and MR in other industries outside of entertainment help for a variety of use cases. These can range from simulations and customization to improving customer experience and scaling content. For Sonantic, entertainment is just our go-to-market as it brings out the best in our technology. Voice is a huge market opportunity and AI is already being used for audiobooks, podcasts, radio, call centres, advertising, media, personal assistants, and more. We believe in five years time, all devices will have human realistic voice interactions bringing innovation and efficiency.

Are there other ways that VR, AR and MR can improve our lives? Can you explain?

Absolutely, aside from what synthetic media is already used for like call centres and personal assistants, there’s a greater potential to see what it hasn’t been used for and how it can help. Throughout the pandemic we have seen what comes from shutting the world down, people feeling alone, and are left without proper care, goods, and services. However, despite all the difficulty, there’s been great innovation in VR, AR, and MR and a large part of it has been virtual beings and having that support at any time. Humans are social creatures who require attention and support, if we can’t mix because the world is in a pandemic, building virtual beings and worlds to help with coping and growth is a huge advancement for both people and technology.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in broader terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? If not, what specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

No, I believe the environment is heavily biased and still incredibly male dominated. A big part of the industry is closed off to women, especially because they still aren’t receptive to women even if they say they are. Women aren’t given the same opportunities. They also tend to have less access to financial help. The odds are stacked against them from the very beginning. Many advocates and women are trying to level the playing field but we have many years of catch up to do. Getting more female leaders at the top of STEM will help as well as doing more efforts in raising awareness, both of these will help to build a culture where women are half of the environment.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about working in your industry? Can you explain what you mean?

For Sonantic, many fear that AI voices will take actor’s jobs. It’s an understandable fear as most don’t understand artificial intelligence and there’s a lot of content being spread around from different angles, increasing the fear. However, this is indeed a myth.

Entertainment studios do not want to cut out actors, nor do we. That’s why we built our platform in an industry-supporting way, especially as John comes from the world of Hollywood. Actors are an integral part of the appeal when it comes to deciding what movie to watch or what game to play. Fans have their favorite actors who have a real talent that makes the film or game into a work of art. Actors play out their roles, serve their fans, and help a great deal when it comes to marketing.

Just as CGI hasn’t taken away from the jobs of the cinematographer, we won’t take away actors’ jobs either. This in no way will prevent actors from working real jobs but rather give them the option to work virtually at the same time, enabling them to scale their talents and create more content.

It’s also important to understand that a Sonantic voice model can only do what the actor can teach it to do — they are at the core of our technology. Voice technology can actually give actors more opportunity, not less. Actors can take on multiple projects simultaneously. They can generate passive income — unless you’re an A or B list actor, this is not something you’ve likely been accustomed to. They can avoid straining their voice and age discrimination, extending their careers well after retirement.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in Tech” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Be positive, everything is fixable. > When everyone is looking to you as a leader to fix problems but you’re also the same person who has to inspire everyone else, positivity is key. No one likes stress and no one wants to be miserable. Being a positive, problem solver not only reinforces your team’s belief during a difficult time but it also inspires them to know that they can and will get through every challenge that comes their way.
  2. Simplify > Remember the best things in life are simple. How can you solve a problem if you make it more complicated? You can’t, so it’s best to focus on taking steps forward and taking a big problem and making it smaller. Then taking your small problems and making them disappear.
  3. Surround yourself with great support > The life of a founder is lonely and there’s a lot on your shoulders. By surrounding yourself with smart and helpful peers and advisors, you’ll be able to learn and grow much faster.
  4. Be grateful for both the hard times and good times. > Everyone likes a challenge and the feeling of overcoming that said challenge. Startups are supposed to be hard, if it was easy, we wouldn’t enjoy our jobs. Understanding the difficulties and being thankful for the learning will help ground you and guide you to happiness.
  5. Don’t forget yourself > Founders are the foundation of their company. They work hard and sacrifice a lot while taking high risks. It’s important for physical and mental health that you don’t over do it and build in time to take care. You aren’t good to anyone if you aren’t good to yourself.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to help on anything related to climate change as I believe it’s the greatest threat to humanity. I don’t have any specific ideas on how to save the world and think Bill Gates is already on it, but I do think the world as a whole needs to be aware and start taking action to help prevent our world from dying. If we can come together to do this, then we are saving the entire population from extinction in the future.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Yes, absolutely. Oprah Winfrey. She’s an incredible entrepreneur, philanthropist and role model who persevered through challenging circumstances to become the woman she is today. Reading her stories and seeing her career take off has been an immense help to me and so many others in the world.

Thank you so much for these excellent stories and insights. We wish you continued success on your great work!

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