Nassim Abdi, Ph.D., is the award-winning co-founder of StoryBolt, a corporate inclusion training company with a radically innovative and science-backed approach to inspiring empathy and building more inclusive workspaces. Her novel active learning Mpathi™ methodology is trusted by Google Cloud, Discover, General Mills, and many more. She is a storyteller and evangelist on finding the intersection of entertainment and learning in the area of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
She has 12 years of academic experience in the field of intersectionalities of gender, race, and other identities as they relate to systems of discrimination or disadvantage. Nassim is also the leading actress in a Netflix-featured film, Secret Ballot, (by Sony Pictures). The film was on theatrical tours across the US and Europe and was the winner of many international film festivals and a Golden Lion Nominee at Venice Film Fest in 2001.
Her vision for StoryBolt was shaped by the life-changing experience of the film as it engaged her in Q&A sessions and exposed her to the power of movies and how candid human connections could change perspectives and facilitate courageous conversations in the workplace.
How do you transform a deeply personal, even traumatic experience into a transformational moment for thousands of other people?
How do you scale personal change and impact so it manifests in behavior and attitudinal change that affects the bottomline?
How do you package all of this into a real, economically healthy and scalable business that does well, makes money AND promotes greater economic and social benefits for all?
In this episode, academic turned entrepreneur Nassim Abdi, founder of Storybolt, talks about how she started with an idea that wouldn’t let go, and built an impactful and successful business step by step, how she learned everything about business from the ground up, and much more.
- How passion translates to a viable startup idea – the real life version
- How to build a great business model around an idea
- Don’t start fundraising without this – the one must-have factor you must nail down
- Inside tips for successful selling – organizational solutions for B2B startups
- How to choose the right business vehicle for your startup, and what pitfalls to avoid
- Is your idea worth the sacrifice – the foolproof test for entrepreneurs who are moms that always gives you the right answer
- How to start where you are – even when you have no money, knowledge or experience
- The savvy entrepreneur’s guide to finding right-fit investors, without burning up a lot of time
- How to overcome implicit bias as a “minority” founder
- How to find the right co-founder and build a great team
- How hats can help with good decision-making
- The one attribute above all attributes that no founder can do without
Links and Resources
Storybolt : The company that Nassim cofounded
TIFF: The Toronto International Film Festival
Facing the Mirror : Internationally acclaimed documentary about the horrors of war
Secret Ballot: Documentary Nassim starred in, that started her entrepreneurial journey
1871: Incubator in Chicago
Shubha Chakravarthy: Good morning, Nassim. It’s fantastic to have you here today.
Nassim Abdi: Good morning. Thanks for having me, Shubha.
Shubha Chakravarthy: I’m fascinated with the story of StoryBolt. What what’s the journey that brought you here?
Nassim Abdi: Thank you for asking this question. It’s always the one that touches heart because it’s the whole reason that I left everything else and started this crazy journey, I would call it, with all the ups and downs that the startup has.
I was not actually in the startup world and I was not part of this ecosystem of companies and startups and all that. But because of a passion that I had I decided and I agreed to accept the challenge and start the platform. I was in academia.
I was teaching and I’ve been always passionate about teaching and about making sure that what I’m trying to deliver and communicate with my audience, which back then were my students, is clearly understandable. They can connect with it, they can relate to it.
And one day I got a topic that was very close to my heart. I was teaching transnational feminism class, and I got a session about the impact of war on women and children and overall people. And that was something that very personal to me. I am from Iran, which I’m sure you’re hearing the news these days about women, that the movement, women, life freedom, that I’m so proud of, Mahsa Amini and the brutality that happened to her started all that.
That triggered the whole movement of women in Iran. And so for me, teaching in Women’s Studies and being passionate about all of those topics, you can see where it comes from. These days I’m very active on that as well, trying to see how I can help from outside of Iran.
But I grew up in Iran during eight years of brutal war, and unfortunately, what you people saw on screens on Syria and are seeing on screens about Ukraine war – that was my childhood. And I wanted to make sure that my students in the class who are US citizens and have votes, and rights, and could do so much with their votes.
I wanted to make sure they understand the impact of their votes and how important it is to really deeply understand the impact of wars around the world. So I thought to myself, “Okay, I’m going to go there, share my personal stories and tell them about my life.”
So as a child, I grew up during the war. Unfortunately, as an adult. I lost a fiancé due to chemical attacks, impacts with leukemia. So it was very personal to me. It’s something that after 20 years still is so alive. I heard about Mahsa Amini and it just reminded me of other brutalities that we had to go through because of this brutal government that we have.
So anyways, I wanted to make sure they understand that. So I thought, “I’m going to go there and I’m going to share my story. They’re going to get engaged. We’re going to talk about theories a little bit. They’re going to jump and say, ‘We don’t want to do another final paper. We don’t want to do another exam. Let’s do an active advocacy project. We want to do something about it’.”
And none of that happened. They were busy with their devices. As I was talking about my own experiences, they were probably texting or maybe they were overwhelmed or couldn’t relate to my stories. Whatever it was, I didn’t even get proper eye contact.
Only my two veteran students after the session came to me and we had a really great conversation because they lived it, they understood what I’m talking about, and that brought me this question of I want all of them to understand those of us who experienced it. We already lost so much because we experienced it.
I want those who have not experienced it to understand, so we don’t go through another one. And I started thinking, “How can I really create that engagement? When was the last time that I was in a room with a group of people that we didn’t have that shared life experience necessarily, but we got engaged in a very candid conversation.”
Something beyond “How is the weather? What’s your neighborhood” or those kind of things. And I remembered something that I never thought was going to be helpful like that in my life, but I happened to be the leading actress of a film that was featured on Netflix and got awarded at Venice Film Festival, got theatrical release in the US and Europe, all of that because of a brilliant director.
Who, by the way, has now made a documentary about another brutality, that has happened in Iran and we are coming together as a team to see how we can bring that documentary to US and create impact with that. The film, when I came as a grad student to the US in 2003 had already finished this theatrical show and was on Netflix.
So as the leading actress of that film there was a screening , they wanted me to be part of the Q&A. At first I was shy. Then I found it a really great experience because I made my best friends through those Q&As. I started paying attention and learning that, when you watch a human-centered story there is a real muscle of empathy in our brain that gets triggered through different parts of our brain that starts working, visual sounds, music, everything.
That creates oxytocin. And that oxytocin gives us an opportunity to be completely open to a conversation, to connect with it, to walk in that person’s shoes, to ask the right questions, get curious, and be an active listener.
And these were all the things that I wished I could create for my students. For them to understand why. Why does terrorism matter? How do we define it? So, I decided to do my next session with something like the experience of film and screening of a film and talking to the filmmaker storyteller.
And I was lucky. A good friend of mine in Brooklyn, New York made her first short documentary about this plastic surgeon in New York who dedicated his life to victims of war. And she traveled with him all around the world to train other surgeons around the world to do surgeries on victims of war, including a four year old Iraqi boy whose head got disfigured in a car explosion.
And this story was around him. So this documentary starts with a very heartbreaking scene, but also impactful scene of this little boy that goes to the mirror, looks at himself, he doesn’t recognize himself. And he starts crying. It’s called “Facing the Mirror”, the documentary. And as soon as I started the class with that documentary, the first 30 seconds , they were gazing on the screen.
I saw tears because they understood what I was trying to tell them about. With the war you get. Lost with your life. You don’t even recognize yourself. Your neighborhood is not the same. The person that you plan your future is not going to be there. You don’t even know who you are, where you are going.
And they couldn’t really connect with that high level analogy of a war. But then they watched the little boy, I think all of a sudden it was like, “I get it!”. And. So the whole session, they were so engaged. They didn’t touch their computers, they didn’t touch their phones. And when the filmmaker joined on the screen, she was so amazing. She said, “Absolutely, I’ll come. I would love to talk to your students”.
And they had brilliant questions to ask her. And then they said, “You know what? We don’t want to do another paper. How can we engage plastic surgeons in Indiana? At Purdue?” I was doing this session on this initiative that the doctor started and that was the moment that I said, “You know what, where is this platform that we can meet stories and storytellers and we can for real, understand all different topics in different areas?”
And I couldn’t find it. So I said goodbye to academia. Left my position and started StoryBolt.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Wow. Just wow. I am speechless. I don’t even know what to say.
First of all, complete support to everything you’re doing. especially with the women of Iran. I come from India. It’s nowhere near that, but I’m very familiar with what you’re talking about. So you have my full instinct at support for what you’re doing, and thank you for that.
Nassim Abdi: Thank you, Shubha, this is a revolution by women. I’m so proud of it
Shubha Chakravarthy: And I am standing behind it.
So what does StoryBolt do? From a business aspect, how did you translate that passion and that vision into an actual business?
Nassim Abdi: So what we are today, we are the enterprise platform that uses the power of story, award-winning documentary stories and gamified data collection for companies including culture training and diversity, equity inclusion sessions with the supporting analytics.
So the model is still the same. It’s exactly what we did at in my class. Actually, we started in higher education , the platform started there. And very quickly we found that this is a pain that another part of market also is experiencing. With less support, they are experiencing the same pain, but they don’t have many options for them.
So our platform today has more than 4,000 short documentary films from 112 countries around the world that we offer to these companies and corporations. Our clients are mostly from Fortune 500 companies, and mostly focus on financial institutions, but we also have many others.
And the business model is annual subscription, so it’s like Audible for B2B. They purchase annually, a number of credits that they can have these training sessions, and it’s a turnkey solution for them. It’s a very innovative solution that has a very high level of engagement.
The average level of engagement for any training, corporate training is around 33%. We are close to 70%, so that’s why we can do all the gamified data collection that we do, and they can receive an impact measurement on how much they’re moving the needle on any topic that they’re working on.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Fascinating.
So clearly, you have the core, which is a story. How did you put the wrapper around it to say things like, how are you going pitch to the companies? How are they going to use it in their context, and how are you going to measure the impact? Can you walk me through that?
Nassim Abdi: So we started from the pain of the companies. We started from better understanding when they are talking about culture, specifically diversity equity inclusion, what are the pains that they’re feeling?
And we learned that lack of sense of belonging and lack of inclusivity is something that is very costly to them it translates into team performance, lower retention rates. It costs them actually 550 billion dollars a year in North America alone because of all the things that comes with it.
And with remote and hybrid models of work that we are all experiencing these days – more than 74% of companies are now either already in a hybrid or remote model or planning to go to it. This work isolation is not helping them to create that culture of inclusivity and belonging.
And most of the solutions that are out there on diversity, equity, inclusion are traditional workshops, lectures and trainings. No offense to those trainings, but many companies and even employees find them not engaging or sometimes even too superficial and they can’t really measure the impact.
So our offering is exactly creating that engagement, but also getting data and understanding through gamified data collection, understanding how we are adding to the knowledge of participants in what areas, what are the gaps, how can we expand, and repeat in what areas? So we started to storm the pain.
And to be honest with you, from day one when we started, we didn’t know all of this. What we had was we knew that there is a magic with the storytelling, and there are topics in corporate world culture that absolutely needs human-centered stories to be understood.
When we are talking about bias, when we are talking about racial disparities, gender disparities or the gender gap in the corporate world. These are the topics that if we hear people’s stories that could help us understand. So the thing that we started from was exactly what I knew best how to do, which was how to help deliver the meaning through edu-tainment. We call it edu-tainment, the entertainment and learning combination.
So we went after five giant brands and we said if one of them pays for our solution, that means we have a value to offer. We went after Amazon, United Airlines, Paylocity, Discover, and Google Cloud In a few months, not one, all of them became our paying clients.
They bought our very basic, minimum viable product . So from there we knew that’s the core value. That’s what we need to package. We need to better understand, we need to dig into the pain that they are feeling and add layers to that.
So one of the layers that they found was the impact measurement, one was analytics and the supporting data of how much they’re moving the needle is something that they are really passionately want to know because they want return on investment. They’re not doing it for, these are for-profit businesses. These are huge corporations, right? And how can we show them the ROI?
So that’s how we started adding different layers and R & D mostly happened on those layers. And then we started thinking, “Okay, how can we make it scalable?”. Like the supply that we have of these documentary films? Yes, we can go knock the door of different amazing filmmakers out there and invite them to the platform, but that’s not scalable.
What’s the best way to find high quality content? So we found partnerships with film festivals. HotDog is a partner and now Tiff is a partner. We’re going after so many others to get access to high quality content and filmmakers who are subject matter experts and can share their own stories.
And then on demand side, we started really digging into what model works best for companies. Is it a one-off session? No.
The one-off session cannot really create the ROI that they’re looking for, so a subscription model. Right now, we are focusing on employee resource groups – ERGs or BRGs some of them call it, that’s the grassroots sort of part of the corporations who are bringing the voice of employees.
How can our model and our sessions the subscription model could give access to these ERGs? To have engaging sessions to add more members and add more meaningful conversations around those topics and new learning around those topics that they want to focus on. So that was how they started thinking about packaging and productizing.
Shubha Chakravarthy: My brain is bursting with questions. I want to deep dive on a couple of them.
The first is to the extent that you’re free to share, I know there’s a lot of proprietary stuff – what were the top insights on the measurement aspect? What was the “aha” moment in terms of measuring impact?
Nassim Abdi: The measurement aspect, what the metrics we are looking at these corporations, what they are trying to measure – the most important ones are the engagement, like how much that sense of engagement exists for employees.
How much they see themselves as part of this party. So when we talk about diversity and inclusion, there’s a famous saying that I love that they say diversity is like inviting people to a party and inclusion is inviting them to dance.
Which as an Iranian, I would say I would also need to select my own song to dance, because it’s very important which song you’re dancing to, right? I need to have a voice in that music.
So what we are learning is one of the most important metrics is that sense of belonging, which comes from how much I’m involved, how much I’m included in designing this party, how much my voice is being heard.
So these are the metrics that you’re you’re focusing on with different criteria that they are providing us.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Just to wrap that up, did you feel like once you demonstrated your link or your ability to impact this one metric, you didn’t have to connect the dots for the return on investment and the economics for the customer?
Nassim Abdi: Great question. Depending on who we talk with at the corporation if you’re in direct conversation with the DEI Chief Diversity Officer, they know it. That’s why they have a position for Chief Diversity Officer, or Chief Diversity Equity Inclusion Officer, whatever they call it. There was a reason that they decided to put that position and go after other things.
But if you’re in conversations with different levels or different part of the organization who may not necessarily connect the dots, then we need to bring that as well. And that’s something that you’re building towards that eventually that needs a lot of data as you can imagine, to longer-term connect.
So right now we are doing it a lot through our marketing message, so they understand they get the evidence that these are connected. But eventually in the future that would be something that they could see the exact like score on how this has impact their bottom line.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Excellent. So there’s another aspect to it.
So you talked about the product, the concept, and the value proposition.
But you mentioned yourself, you’re an academic, you’ve not been in the startup system. Talk about you have the idea, what does that roadmap look like? What did you think going in this was going look like? What were your learnings and what did it end up being?
Nassim Abdi: I was so naïve when I started, so this is the crazy part at the same time that I was very excited about this. I had a tenure track offer on the tape. I should decide between whether I want to go with academia route or I’m going towards this route, which I had no idea what’s going to be.
I even didn’t know if it’s going to be a for-profit or nonprofit. I didn’t know at that time – I was that far from the whole concept. But one thing I knew that my heart was beating every time I was thinking about the value that such a thing can create.
And I talked to my husband, who is very, has been very supportive all these years, and I said, “This is how I feel when I think about another department meeting. I have to push myself to get out of my chair, to go there. I loved my classes. I loved interaction with students, but all other parts and politics and everything, I was not a fan”.
And I told him, when I think about this, I want to run the whole day and night and make it happen. And he said, “Okay, you have your answer. What are you thinking about?”
But I didn’t know where to start from. And he said, “You’ll figure it out. I know you, you would”.
In my past life, I was a journalist. So I was like, “Okay, maybe I should just treat it as a journalism project”. I need to learn, I need to figure out what it means.
And to be honest, there have been so many ups and downs throughout that path early on. As women. I think we need to talk about this. I was pregnant with my first child when I started thinking about this. So when I was deciding between a secure job and something that I didn’t know what it is, I read “Lean In”, the book by Sheryl Sandberg.
One part of that book that stays with me still is one of the things that I always tell younger women when they’re thinking about decisions: If what you are going after worth the time to be away from your child as much as you love your child, that means you’re on right direction. Don’t think small, don’t think about a part-time thing. Don’t think about something that gives you that. That’s how we say behind from leadership roles because we think small.
We think like the other side of it is. “If I want to be away from my child, what would be the value of that thing that I’m doing to be away?”
So that’s how I was thinking. And by the time that I got serious about this, I had my second child , and that was the time that I went to a panel discussion at 1871, which where you and I met I loved that place for all these potentials that brought us.
And I saw a panelist who is an inspiration still to this day. I always look at her work. She was one of the only female Latino investors. To watch the panel I left the two little boys with grandma, grandpas, grandpa, and two grandmas, and went to this panel discussion, watched and got inspired.
She said to all the audience, “Book a meeting with me, if you want to learn more, we need more founders, diverse founders, women founders”. And I was right away on my iPhone that night as I was nursing , I booked a meeting with her and the next day, the next thing that I had was a meeting with her.
And from there she told me about accelerator programs. She said, “Have you ever been to any accelerator?”
I said, “What’s that ? What is an accelerator program?”
She told me how it helps you to learn the business model and scalability and all that. I said that’s exactly what I need.
So Samara helped me a lot in the first steps and then we got accepted to 1871. Those 12 weeks of the accelerator program was such an eyeopener to me to understand what it means when you’re talking about a startup, I guess that was my “aha” moment.
And that was also at the same time that we started with two friends, family to get there and that was the moment that they said, “Maybe that’s not the route for us”. And we had to switch. And my co-founder Babak who had experienced with startups, and he’s an amazing founder who exited his third company and we knew each other for several years.
I told him about this model and what I have in mind and the accelerator program, and he has an MBA, so he knew exactly what I was learning at the moment. And that was when it all got sort of serious in this startup route. That was the moment that I knew that I needed to do fundraising. I still didn’t know how difficult it is
Shubha Chakravarthy: So that’s a great segue to my next question. So walk us through the first days, what first steps did you take and how did you fund this, and how did you approach the whole fundraising?
Nassim Abdi: Yeah, so the first days it was a lot of, as you can imagine oh, it’s always, it still is like a lot of really hard work and ups and downs.
I would say like one of the biggest things that I learned throughout this route is entrepreneurship or startups are, completely emotional management because there are days that you are to the sky with so many exciting things that are happening. And there are days that you’re underground, under zero with your emotions and you think nothing is possible, that it’s not going to happen.
It’s like a roller coaster, right? And it was way bumpier at the beginning because you are still not sure if this will work, this is going to work.
And you have to go in front of people and tell them, “No, it is working.” You have to show the confidence that I am a hundred percent sure that it is working or 200% sure that it is working.
And deep in my heart, I knew that the concept works, but that’s a whole different story. The concept could work. But what about the business model? What about the market? What about so many other things that you’re putting together?
And fundraising for female founders, is a completely different story. And for women of color, which I am an immigrant woman with a weird name, heavy accent, not necessarily large network of high net worth family and friends. That was completely, a very sharp uphill journey for me to figure out how to do it.
I think what helped Babak and I in this route was definitely first his experience knowing and understanding that everything starts from sales.
So to show any potential to anyone, we need to show that we are selling, this is something that has customers. So that’s why we went after those brands and that’s why we got referral after referral.
And that was enough proof to put in front of others to tell them that here it’s working. And then we had some friendly Investors early on who came in.
And we started with a very small amount in our pre-seed. We got also awarded at Elevate Nexus in Indiana, which was a huge help because that was an institutional check that we got in form of convertible notes. And that sort of brought like more trust and confidence in what you are doing.
And again, every time with the fundraising, you need an inflection point to show this is growing really fast. We need funding to make it happen. So we kept focusing on what are the milestones that we need to get to.
I would say the early on accelerators – These supports that we were getting here and there were very important. I should also mention that our very first check came from an amazing woman, Amy Rosenow, who was in my cohort at 1871. She said, “I trust this concept. I trust you. I think this is up to something I want to invest in”. So she gave us, that’s how women support women in this thing. I try to mention that everywhere that I go, that she brought the first check.
I learned that I need to define terms. She was like, “What are your terms?”
I said, “What are my terms? What do you mean ?”
And through the accelerator I learned, I read the book “Deals”. That is a very helpful book about learning about different forms of fundraising convertible notes versus SAFE’s, price rounds and all that.
And we got the first check and then from there we got all others who came in and invested.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So you bring up a really interesting point, which is I think one that’s very specific to women, which just, everybody faces it, but women more so is this fear and lack of knowledge around the financing of startups and just finance in general.
What has been effective for you to get up to speed quickly and to learn and make sure that you’re not wasting, hours on Google University instead going to the smart minds?
Nassim Abdi: Something that we learned the hard way was, it’s really important the same way that investors do their due diligence about you and they think about whether their investment pieces align with you. – We need to do our due diligence and find out if these are the right investors that we are even in investing our time to go after, right?
So very early on we thought we have to go after all investors, anyone who said they are angel investors, we were trying to get a meeting with them and then we found that we are wasting time by doing that.
We have a very specific product with very specific goals. It’s in the category of social impact because it’s about culture change and maybe not all investors are aligned with that. It has a very strong business model. We are right now contemplating being approached by by some acquisition offers.
That means that the business model is very strong. There is some concept of social impact that maybe not all investors are aligned and very easily you get biased because I’m a woman. When I get in front of investors and I’m saying it out loud, I don’t care anymore. I think we need to talk about these things because I’m a woman.
Often, investors think that if a concept is closer to social impact, that means that’s a nonprofit. Nothing wrong with nonprofits. I love nonprofits. That’s where I’ve spent most of my life. But what I’m building right now is a very strong for-profit that could 10x your money. So don’t tell me that this is a nonprofit concept, right?
So we learned that we need to be very picky about our investors if there are such biases. If they’re not familiar, that there are female founders who can run for profits, then they are not our investors and we should not spend time.
So we narrowed down and we started going after other companies further out in their journey, but in the same space that we are, to find out, “Who are their investors?”. And from there we found what the right places are that we need to go to.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Did you ever, on that point, use resources like the Angel List or, associations of angels?
Nassim Abdi: We did, but honestly, quite honestly, we didn’t get the same results. One thing that Babak did a lot, and I always appreciate his focus on that because I was not, and he was.
So we learned that for us with a lack of network, accelerators are the best answer – accelerators who invest. We were lucky at the time that we were at that stage that there were a lot of them, and it was Covid time. So we started working with corporations right before Covid started.
Our first session with United Airlines was on March 9th, and they closed all the offices on March 12. So it was great. And we were just lucky that session happened in person and we could videotape it and made a good short clip out of it, which we used a lot.
But then from there everything was virtual, which was very aligned with our model. But one of the benefits of being remote for us, honestly, was that we had access to all accelerators.
Before Covid, these accelerators were regional. So if you are in Pittsburgh, you could go to an accelerator in Pittsburgh and get invested, but that’s the only one that you could go to or you have to go to. And that was not aligned with the life of me as a mother or like someone who has a busy life with other things.
For the younger generation, probably that would be fun to go to different cities and do this, but for us it was not possible. So we were lucky that happened. So we got into several accelerators who also invested – one in Maryland, one in California. And that was one way to find some investors.
Another way that we found investors were true networking in our local community. So the same way that Amy came in, but she is now helping other women become investors. That’s her journey now in Chicago through. Some of the folks in Chicago got introduced to 1871, got introduced to angel investors in Chicago.
I would say investment is all about trust, right? Either you build that trust through personal relationships that you build, or the accelerators because they would vet you and evaluate you through a process that makes it easier – that was our experience. I’m sure there are so many other ways.
Shubha Chakravarthy: But this is particularly relevant given your background. Background that I’m sure a lot of other women entrepreneurs share as well. So a couple of things that I want to pick up on in the time we have left.
One is you talked about being a woman of color, particularly one that didn’t come from a pure business background.
What were some of the external challenges you faced? You mentioned the assumption is it’s a non-profit or assumption is you don’t know how to do a business model, whatever the case might be.
What were those challenges and what did you find effective in tackling those challenges?
Nassim Abdi: Yeah, that’s a great question.
The challenges that we faced were mostly around lack of trust. So they couldn’t really trust us, and maybe rightfully because am I going to give my hundred thousand dollars to someone who has never touched bookkeeping? How can I do that?
So we did two things.
One was a strong team that we built. So we could tell them that yes, , I’m the expert on the product and concept that we are building and I know the pain of the organizations, but here is a very powerful co-founder that I have who exited his third company, he knows what he’s doing with the business models and everything.
The rest of the team that we brought together, little by little, and not necessarily going after team members who need really huge paycheck.
We brought in very young, very talented people from different backgrounds who were looking for something that is interesting and they could be passionate about. We brought them to our team and we made them as feel as owners because we all building something for a bigger cause and that was what we were showing to everyone when we went to talk to.
Also, I’m a lifelong learner. I love learning new things. So I think I’ve done six accelerators so far, I feel like I got an MBA with these accelerators throughout the way. It’s not the same, but I still learned a lot.
And those things that I didn’t know I had no, I idea about, I listened to a lot of podcasts.
I’m a listener, audio learner. I love your podcast for that. And so I’ve listened to everything that I could get my hands on. One of my favorite ones is “How I Built This” by Guy Roz. I love Guy Roz.
I learned so much from those stories. And I try to add to my knowledge. I’m still doing it. There’s no end to it.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So having a team demonstrating that you’re a learner and demonstrating the progress you’ve made were key strategies to overcome this.
I want to touch briefly on this co-founder concept.
When did you decide to get a co-founder? How did you find the right one? How did you know it was the right one? And what are you doing to manage that relationship so that it’s optimized for you, for the co-founder and for the company?
Nassim Abdi: That’s a very good question. That’s one of the most I would say most challenging part of building a startup is having the right co-founder and I feel absolutely lucky and thankful. Actually, today’s his birthday. Happy birthday. Babak. I sent him a message. I said, “I feel so lucky that you were born”.
When I started with this concept I had people who were passionate about the concept, but not necessarily about the business route. So I would say this is one of the things that can go wrong – they are absolutely people that I love. They are still in my life. I love them. We love each other. We have our relationships back.
It’s nothing around like personal issues, but professionally about what we need, I didn’t know that. I didn’t know what I was doing, so I didn’t know that I needed to make sure that we need to also be aligned on the vehicle that we are choosing for that passion.
I was up for the startup route. I knew it was going to be a bumpy road. I knew or I learned that it’s going to be a bumpy road. I knew that I was so passionate about the concept that I would use a vehicle that would make it scalable, make it huge.
So being aligned on that is really important versus just going that, “Oh, we are both passionate about this”. And complementing each other’s skills.
So if there are two people who are passionate about the concept and the impact and both have skills on that relation on that area, then a business mind is missing, right?
Versus if two co-founders, one comes from a business mindset, one comes from technical mindset, one comes from the product side – complementing each other is very important. And I’ve heard so many different stories of how people found their founders, co-founders, there are platforms that people are using.
It didn’t work that way for us. Babak and I met in a conference 15 years ago in Montreal. It was an educational conference. And I found that he comes from engineering and business background, but he’s very passionate about education and concept of entertainment. And we sat down for a half an hour coffee and we sat for four hours talking to each other about what we could do.
And that was the time that I was still in academia and I was telling him about the projects I was trying to do with my students. We kept the relationship. It grew over years with different projects that we were doing together. By the time I finished my 1871 accelerator, and by the time that I knew that the people that I started with, which was one, was my brother that I absolutely love, one was a friend for 20 years that I absolutely love, they said they’re going after their own path.
I knew I couldn’t do it alone. And I was so lucky that my dad, who is an entrepreneur and is an amazing inspiration to me, was around not just as an as a grandpa, grandpa who was taking care of the kids, but also as someone who sat down with me and said, “You need to continue. Don’t leave this”.
He came with me to public library, sat with me and said, “Okay, what’s the next thing you want to do about this? Who is going to be your partner on this? What’s the next step? What’s the business model?”
And he kept asking me questions and he said, “I don’t know the startup model the way it is in the US these days, but I know for any business you need a business model. So let’s sit down and talk”. So he pushed me and said, “Go after finding someone who is trusted in your network. Think about people who are in your network.”
So we listed a few people and we put pros and cons, what they have, what they don’t have. What are the opportunities? What are the challenges? And with Babak, we put lots of opportunities and the only cons was he’s busy with his own business.
I was like, “I’m going to go after him. I’m not gonna let him alone”. And that’s how I started communicating the concept. And he loved the concept and he was exiting his third company and came with me.
Shubha Chakravarthy: And what kind of top three dos and don’ts, would you give either your earlier self or to others to work well with a co-founder once you found one?
Nassim Abdi: I would say number one is the trust and chemistry that needs to work. And another number one that is as important is complementing to each other, not being the same.
If you are three people from three artists who are passionate about arts, that’s not enough. That’s one team. The company needs five different teams, and each of us need to lead one of them eventually.
So I think about Babak and I, what’s fascinating is we have so many similarities in our personality. Like we always say we are like twin brother, sister, who, both my husband and his wife, they’re like, “You are just the same” But at the same time, we are so different. He is very system-oriented, his system thinking skills are to the roof.
And my parrot side on , if you’re familiar with this, the four birds thing. My eagle and parrots are to the roof. So I can be the seller of the company, the seller of the product, and he could create systems and processes and have the business background. So complementing each other is another thing that is very important.
I think if you’re a tech person, go after a business person. If you’re a business person, go find someone who understand the product.
Shubha Chakravarthy: That’s great advice. And I heard this from some investors and some entrepreneurs as well.
So when there is a fork in the road and a strategic decision needs to be taken, how do you deal with that with a co-founder situation where you may not see eye to eye?
Nassim Abdi: Tell me more about the question so I understand it better.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So you have a large client they’re both good clients, but you don’t have the resources to service both of them. They’re both mission fit. How do you pick one?
Your partner thinks it’s company A. You think it’s company B,
Nassim Abdi: I think that’s why the chemistry is so important and building the relationships that’s not about accepting each other’s decisions all the time, but accepting that we can talk about everything and have a process for coming to a conclusion.
We always, we believe it or not, knock on wood, all these years since 2020 that we’ve been really passionately working on this day and night with all the challenges that we each have – we’ve always found a way. To sit down. And a process that I learned from Babak is we sit down, we wear Nassim’s hat, we wear Babak’s hat. The we wear client hat or whoever the third party is, we put it all together and based on that, we make the best decision.
Shubha Chakravarthy: I love it. I love the hat concept.
The last question is a bit – it’s like a combination question. You mentioned a lot of ups and downs. Tell me about a particularly dark moment or dark moments, and what have you learned that you can pass on as advice to other founders to stay the course, to stay inspired through that the lesson that you’ve learned?
Nassim Abdi: Yeah, it might be a little , corny , what I’m going to share, but I always had this ring that you see here from day one from when I was pregnant with my first child, that I had the concept that says nothing is impossible.
I think that’s the mindset of an entrepreneur, that you can build everything, you can start from zero and build everything and nothing is impossible, is a very important mindset for dark days.
Especially because we know it’s all like ups and downs and you can get to really difficult moments that you would say, “This is not even possible”. And I look at it and I’m like, “Everything is possible if you just stay there and push hard”.
And another thing that I also always have in mind is that, which my dad told me, is it’s like mountain climbing. So when you are in those dark moments, know that you should always look at that big vision, that summit that you are going towards. And try to find just one tiny step forward that you could do that day. And believe me that those will build up a path towards that summit. It always does.
Shubha Chakravarthy: I can believe that.
Is there anything you do differently starting over if you were on the same path trying to solve the same problem?
Nassim Abdi: I think I’ve learned so much throughout this path. What I would do differently, I honestly don’t know. That’s a good question, but also a different question because you think about all the things that has changed so far and how they can change in the future. Like I wanted to say “Thinking about building the right team from day one”, but you need to learn enough yourself to do it right.
So I think it was also a part of the path, and it was the learning that I needed. Or going after the right investors. It’s changing every day. There was a time that it was not that easy to find the right investors. Thankfully these days it’s much the situation is getting a little bit.
What I would continue doing is talking to many people, always being a learner, and never think that you know it all. And always be ready to learn from your clients from the people in your network – advisors, friends who have experiences in different words. Just always be open and learn and want to learn.
The only thing that I keep reminding myself, it works for me.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Thank you very much Nassim. This has been a really moving conversation and inspiring one. I really appreciate you taking the time and I wish you all the best on all the exciting things that are going on right now.
Thank you so much.
Nassim Abdi: Thank you so much Shubha. I appreciate everything that you’re doing for female founders. Thank you. Appreciate you.