Interview with Elnaz Sarraf, Woman in Tech and STEMby@elnazsarraf
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Interview with Elnaz Sarraf, Woman in Tech and STEM

by Elnaz SarrafApril 19th, 2022
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CEO and founder of ROYBI Robot, the world’s first AI-powered smart companion to teach children languages and STEM skills. ROYBI has been named one of TIME Magazine's Best Inventions in Education, "I want to be one of the people who pave the way for other women who get into tech. I want to show that you can set your mind to make your dreams come true."

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Tell us about yourself!

I am the CEO and founder of the award-winning ROYBI Robot– the world’s first AI-powered smart companion to teach children languages and STEM skills. ROYBI has been named one of TIME Magazine’s Best Inventions in Education. I am also a Board Member at the Consumer Technology Association, Small Business Council, and a 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. Before starting ROYBI, I co-founded and led a consumer electronics/IoT company, iBaby, serving as the company's President.

Why did you choose this field in the first place?

From early childhood, I was introduced to computers and technology. When I was only 5 years old, I started working on computer programs. When I became a teenager, my most exciting adventure was to program websites and even assemble computers. I remember when my dad bought me a very early computer, there were less than 10 computers in the country. I was so lucky to have access to technology at such a young age. That led to having a big passion for education and looking to utilize technology to make a difference in children’s lives.

During a discussion I had 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 education 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 be curious about innovations.

What tech are you most excited/passionate about right now and why?

I am very excited about the web 3.0 technology and metaverse. I strongly believe that is the future of technology, education, work, and so much more. I am an active investor and enthusiast in this space and looking forward to learning more about the new projects in the space.

Why do people mistrust AI systems?

People do not trust AI systems because they feel that their data and information might be misused. There is also this fear of AI taking over humanity because people think, the smarter AI systems get the faster they can control humans’ lives. However, this is a misconception because every AI system no matter how smart it is still needs some human control and management.

What are your hobbies and interests outside of tech?

Flying airplanes, music, reading

Let's talk about breaking the glass ceiling. What were the biggest challenges you faced as a woman in tech, and how did you deal with them?

I think the biggest challenge has been fundraising. I am not sure if it actually has much to do with me being a female CEO, but I’ve seen many companies with way less traction than my company secure funding faster. I also feel women are asked different types of questions than men during investor meetings. I remember at some point the investors were asking me strange questions like how much debt the company has, or how do I ensure the company doesn’t fail. They didn’t ask me about my vision, tractions, etc. So, I really got frustrated about this and decided to always bring a male colleague to my meetings. As I expected, the type of questions started changing. They asked about long-term vision, sales, product roadmap, etc. I am not saying this is necessarily related to being a female CEO, but I strongly believe women are treated differently during investment meetings.

For me, these challenges actually make me stronger. I know I am a strong woman and can achieve anything I set my mind to. I also want to make my dreams come true so I can pave the way for other women who get into tech. I want to be one of the people that shows the world that women are incredibly talented and smart to build unicorn companies. Therefore, I keep moving forward knowing that I will eventually make an impact.

What was the biggest setback/failure that you faced, and how did you manage it?

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 were 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 on 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, and 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.

What's your biggest achievement that you're really proud of?

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. 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 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.

In your opinion, why do we see this huge gender gap in the tech industry, and how can we reduce it?

I’d say not pay too much attention to the differences. Know your business, numbers, and plans, and communicate this clearly with others around you. Focus primarily on execution and performance because, in the end, that’s what matters. When your company performs and its leader knows the ins and outs of the industry, people will respect you for your work, not your gender. Be brave to accept the challenge and work hard towards making a difference.

Who is your tech idol? Why?

Elon Musk. He makes the impossible possible.

Do you have any advice for aspiring girls who want to join the field?

My advice is to be resilient and believe in yourself because these are the most critical factors to succeed. I sometimes see many people who 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.