Elnaz Sarraf is the CEO and founder of the award-winning ROYBI® Robot – the world’s first AI-powered smart toy to teach children language and STEM skills. It also has been named one of TIME Magazine’s Best Inventions in Education, on the 2019 CNBC Upstart 100 list as one of the world’s most promising startups, and on Fast Company’s 2019 World-Changing Ideas. Elnaz is also a Board Member at the Consumer Technology Association, Small Business Council, and member of Forbes Technology Council.
Growing up as a woman in Iran, Elnaz witnessed limited opportunities, leading her on her 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. With 15 years of experience as a serial entrepreneur, Elnaz leads ROYBI (creator of ROYBI® Robot); an investor-backed EdTech company that raised $4.2 million in its seed round focusing on early childhood education and self-guided learning through artificial intelligence.
Before starting ROYBI, Elnaz co-founded and led a consumer electronics/IoT company, iBaby, serving as the company’s President. As an immigrant and female founder, Elnaz has made worthy accomplishments in a short duration of living in the US. Honors include being selected as Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center Milestone Maker, named the Woman of Influence through Silicon Valley Business Journal and Entrepreneur of The Year in Silicon Valley. She has been a speaker at several conferences such as the Mobile World Congress, ASU GSV Summit, Consumer Technology Association, and more.
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Table of Contents
We’re grateful for your time today, thank you for joining us! Share your story with us.
Elnaz Sarraf: I moved to the US about 15 years ago from Iran. Since I can remember, I’ve always wanted to have my own business and make an impact. As you can imagine, as a woman in Iran, I had very limited opportunities in terms of being an entrepreneur and running a business. I tried actually but didn’t go anywhere. So when I moved to the US, I put every possible effort to grasp the opportunities to build my dreams and do something to make a difference.
My background is in Art and I also went to the top 3rd universities in Iran and studied computer science. These really helped me to be both creative and also have enough knowledge in technology to build products. I started my career in the US as a sales associate at Macy’s. While I was working there, I was also going to West Valley College and got a job as an ESL tutor at the college English department. That really helped me to learn about the job environment and culture in the US. When I continued my studies at California State University, East Bay, I decided to start my own creative agency. For that, for many months, I went door to door to businesses and distributed my company’s flyers to bring business.
In 2013, the first company I co-founded and served as the president, we sold smart baby monitors. Our products have been sold in all Apple stores, all Target and Walmart stores, and over 5k storefronts internationally. Some of our products became the most wanted baby monitors on the market. But I always felt that’s not enough. I wanted to make a bigger impact and education has always been so close to my heart. Finally, in 2019, I decided to start focusing on ROYBI to use technology and specifically AI to help children learn based on their interests and abilities. I believe an incredible future starts with our children getting the best education possible.
Some say leadership is innate, others would argue against it. Would you say you were born a leader or did you have to become a leader? Explain your experience and viewpoint.
Elnaz Sarraf: I believe every individual has the potential to be a leader. Leaders are made not born. To be a leader in your industry, I highly recommend bringing innovative ideas to the market and leading the way in bringing change. Stay informed with the recent trends in your industry, collaborate with, and seek mentorship from other leaders in your industry.
The world needs leaders that can establish trust and credibility with their team, to give them the freedom to be creative and make decisions that are in the best interest of the company as well as your customers or clients. Give trust and confidence to your team to thrive in the company and realize their potential. Build an open door policy that anyone regardless of their title or responsibility can contribute to the growth of the company by making suggestions and helping their teammates. Encourage this sort of collaboration because it helps you grow fast and everyone feels accomplished because they can see their collective efforts having a tremendous impact on people’s lives. Also, your team will see you as a trustworthy leader who creates opportunities.
Tell us about your company/Organization. What are some of the most exciting projects that you’re working on and how does your organization distinguish itself from the rest?
Elnaz Sarraf: Named by TIME Magazine as one of The Best Inventions in Education, ROYBI Robot is an AI-powered educational robot for children 3+ in language learning & basic STEM. We’re strongly focused on creating a connected community where learners, parents, and educators can come together to make a larger ecosystem. This helps us to make ROYBI and its technology available to as many children as possible and to provide a quality education through an interactive learning experience. We are currently working on our next-generation robot which will be smarter and come with additional features. Also, we are continuously looking for ways to extend our presence globally such as working with schools, government entities, and distributors.
Throughout your career, have you been a team player or a lone wolf? How did that benefit or handicap you throughout the years?
Elnaz Sarraf: I’ve been both a lone wolf and a team player. But as a leader of our organization, I am a team player because I believe together we can achieve higher goals
What leadership qualities do you possess that, in your opinion, inspire your employees to work harder and be more productive?
Elnaz Sarraf: I always believe positive thinking brings positive results. I also learned that there is still light at the end of the tunnel in any problematic situation. Staying positive and motivating others around us as a leader will encourage the team to work positively towards a solution and continue to make a difference in their work. So staying positive is one of my qualities that helps my team to go through the ups and downs of the business. I also learned that I should listen more and allow the team members to express their opinion freely without fear of being rejected. That has helped me a lot to create a friendly and productive environment.
A national survey from the University of Phoenix has found that 95 percent of employees who have functioned as part of a team think that teams are an important workplace function but less than 25 percent prefer working in teams. Individual and teamwork both have their advantages and disadvantages. What work model have you adopted and how has it benefited your organization?
Elnaz Sarraf: We highly encourage teamwork. As a young startup, all of us are in the same boat going towards the same goal. We have fair incentives and compensation plans as well to ensure we treat everyone in the fairest and most honest way. We have a friendly and transparent company culture.
People often procrastinate when they are unsure of how to do certain tasks. Is there an element of your business process that employees shy away from? How do you counter this problem?
Elnaz Sarraf: I highly encourage an open-door policy in the company. I personally believe if people make mistakes, it is first and foremost the manager’s responsibility to ensure their team members are equipped with all the resources. We do not point at people to blame them. We try our best to resolve the issues as a team and help one another.
Many businesses today are being overwhelmed with all kinds of data which impacts productivity. How do you ensure that you and your employees are focusing on the right metrics?
Elnaz Sarraf: It is hard to say. We generally gather metrics through our own focus groups and pilot programs. We do not rely entirely on the available market research.
According to PwC, nearly 60% of survey respondents reported that they would like feedback on a daily or weekly basis. Which employee feedback system does your business use to boost productivity?
Elnaz Sarraf: We provide feedback on a weekly basis through our company meetings or daily on our Slack channels. When there is a problem, we always brainstorm as a team to find solutions to navigate the issue.
What financial or non-financial incentives do you offer employees for motivation? What role has that played in increasing productivity?
Elnaz Sarraf: Competitive salaries, stocks, bonuses, unlimited vacation plan, company events, travels
If you had an unlimited budget and resources to spend on increasing productivity, what is the first thing that you would change?
Elnaz Sarraf: I would spend more budget on employee mental health ensuring they are mentally in good standing, they are not burnt out, and they feel good about their work and the impact they are making.
According to Gusto, 54% of employees say a strong sense of community (great coworkers, celebrating milestones, a common mission) kept them at a company longer than was in their best interest. How do you improve the way teams work together? How do you build a sense of community?
Elnaz Sarraf: This has to be within the company culture from day one. We discourage gossip or negative conversations. We highly encourage working together towards one goal. We assign different people to different projects so that they have the opportunity to work and grow together.
This has been very insightful and I’m sure other entrepreneurs can learn from the knowledge you have provided. As for your company’s future, what big changes are coming down the pipe in the next 6 months that might increase productivity?
Elnaz Sarraf: We are working towards creating metaverse interactions between our teams. We feel that is the future of education and entertainment, therefore, it will be interesting to test how the team’s productivity can increase if we deploy some tasks in the metaverse.
Productivity is important but as is an employee’s wellbeing. What are you currently doing to prevent employees from burning out?
Elnaz Sarraf: We ensure to assign tasks in a way that does not overwhelm our staff. We also encourage everyone to work together rather than push most of the tasks to one person. We also create company gatherings, events, and fun activities to bring everyone together for team building and reducing workload.
Thank you so much for your time but before we finish things off, we do have one more question. We will select these answers for our ValiantCEO Award 2021 edition. The best answers will be selected to challenge the award.
Share with us one of the most difficult decisions you had to make, this past year 2021, for your company that benefited your employees or customers. What made this decision so difficult and what were the positive impacts?
Elnaz Sarraf: We made the decision to gradually transition from hardware business towards software and specifically metaverse. We are now creating the world’s first edutainment metaverse and expecting to acquire thousands of users very quickly.
Jed Morley, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Elnaz Sarraf for taking the time to do this interview and share her knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Elnaz Sarraf or her company, you can do it through her – Linkedin Page
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