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Melissa Kargiannakis: "Ask these fancy people"

Melissa Kargiannakis: "Ask these fancy people"

As a Queen’s Young Leader, Melissa Kargiannakis developed skills that opened up new opportunities and gave her the chance to fulfil her ambition to make the internet more accessible.

Melissa Kargiannakis has a well-thumbed notebook that she used for the Leading Change course during her year as a Queen’s Young Leader. She always keeps it to hand.

The first Leading Change module reaffirmed her confidence and helped her with storytelling. She valued learning mindfulness because, she says, as a young leader “you do struggle with impostor syndrome, and with not really putting yourself first”.

But the skill that has defined Melissa’s career since becoming a Queen’s Young Leader, is the Art of Asking. “It was reinforcing – ask these fancy people to be your allies and join you.”

Learning to ask

Melissa admits that asking people for help, or simply to connect, takes courage. But meeting other Queen’s Young Leaders, and seeing what they were doing and how, inspired her and gave her confidence.

Learning to ask has been instrumental in the development of her social enterprise, Heuristext. This tech startup will make online information easier for anyone to understand – regardless of their reading ability. “Like Google translate,” she explains, “except instead of translating to different languages, Heuristext adapts to different reading levels.”

Back in 2015, Melissa needed to develop the technology and a proof of concept for Heuristext. Fortunately, her mentor on the Queen’s Young Leaders Programme – Dr Mark Salopek from the University of British Columbia – was able to help.

He introduced Melissa to Dr Eleni Stroulia, a professor of Computer Science at the University of Alberta, who invited her to submit a project for students to work on. So a proof of concept for Heuristext was born.

Corbett Hall University of Alberta

Corbett Hall, University of Alberta

After that, there was no stopping Melissa. “You’d be astounded at how many people who you think are untouchable," she says, "who are just like ‘I was in your place once, I’d love to help you on your way’.”

One of those people was Dr Cosmin Munteanu at the University of Toronto, who Melissa emailed out of the blue. “I said, ‘Hey you do this. We do this. Here’s how we can collaborate.’ It was a cold email,” says Melissa. “I didn’t even have an intro.”

But it worked and now “The lab at University of Toronto will help build what will be our end product – at least within the realm of healthcare.”

Building the team

With all these new developments, in early 2016, Melissa realised she needed help – but not just any help. She needed someone she could trust, who shared her values, someone she would want to build a company with.

She called an old contact, Naomi Freeman. Over the years, Melissa and Naomi have helped each other on various projects and knew they could work well together. But Melissa was cautious about jumping straight into a partnership.

“We said look, no expectations. Let’s just give it a go.”

Funded by government grants, Melissa initially hired Naomi as a consultant. She strongly recommends this approach to other young leaders. “If you’re starting something and you know you’re going to need to build a team, do short-term things to try to test the relationship.”

She points out that even if you’ve worked with someone before, the relationship might be different in a new setting. For Melissa and Naomi however, it became clear by autumn, or fall, 2016 that the partnership was working. “So now we’re finalising all the paperwork.”

University of Toronto

University of Toronto

Meanwhile, the University of Toronto and Heuristext have raised almost $50,000 Canadian in research grants, including grants available through:

By the beginning of November 2016, the proof of concept app had been launched and user-testing was about to start.

Women’s Startup Labs

But the story doesn’t quite end there because Melissa is always seeking out new opportunities.

“Being a female founder of a high-potential technology startup I scoured the web for all things relevant to tech startups and particularly female founders.”

This is how Melissa discovered the Women’s Startup Lab (WSL) – an accelerator for women entrepreneurs in California in the United States. WSL aims to foster a community of female founders of tech startups, and to give them access to investors and entrepreneurs in California’s Silicon Valley.

Melissa decided to apply for to WSL, and when she was accepted she called them. “I was like, ‘So I have a female co-founder.’ And they were like, ‘Have her send us her stuff’.”

WSL then interviewed and accepted Naomi onto their course. But the problem was money. Melissa managed to negotiate a reduced fee for Naomi, but struggled to raise the US $10,000 needed to fund her own training with WSL.

View of Silicon Valley, California

Silicon Valley, California, USA

She didn’t want to borrow the money, because that would mean Heuristext being encumbered by debt and interest payments. Private capital investors were keen to help, but wanted a stake in Heuristext, the money paid back in full, and interest payments.

"I told them, 'That's not going to fly,'" she says with a wry smile. "Then I went to every single funding programme I could possibly think of in Canada."

The stipulations of the funding programmes she approached mostly excluded study outside Canada, or for funding for company founders. Melissa was stuck. So she started a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe, which she describes as “truly a last resort” and went back to WSL to negotiate.

“I said, ‘I’ve got a little pickle. I’ve been working on getting the money. Here’s all the things I’ve tried, and what we have right now. What can we do?”

Melissa was still working things out with WSL when she set off for California at the beginning of November 2016 to embark on their programme. Meanwhile the GoFundMe campaign raised $4,670.

While in California, Melissa heard from a Canadian funding programme, which offered to pay the remaining balance to fund her, and Naomi at WSL.

None of this would have happened, says Melissa, if she hadn’t asked. And without the Queen’s Young Leaders Programme, she says, “I wouldn’t have had the knowledge of who to ask, nor the courage to just be like ‘Hey! So why don’t you work with me?’”