WMNinTECH: Naomi Goldapple on pursuing passion in business

Naomi Goldapple, a program director at Element AI, has chosen to pursue projects throughout her career that excite her. After all, she is the first to tell you that a business venture is a relationship like any other. There’s the first excitement of introduction, a physical reaction akin to falling in love. But, like romance, once the giddiness of first love passes, continued passion is necessary to sustain a lasting relationship. Naomi has demonstrated a discerning eye in the projects she has chosen to commit to, and how to know when others have run through their course.

After having her first child, she toyed around with the idea of a temperature-controlled water faucet to use for bathing infants, but gave it up when she found her excitement for the project waning after only a few weeks: “A friend of mine I played ultimate frisbee with is an engineer, so we started designing it. But three weeks into it, I realized I was so over this thing. You really have to be passionate about something you’re going to be married to for a few years,” Naomi told MTLinTECH.

It takes courage to strike out on a new venture. It’s this kind of courage that led Naomi, a former e-business strategy consultant at IBM, to start her innovative small business venture Maman Bébé et Café, a space in NDG that combined a fitness center, daycare, coffeeshop, spa, and boutique.

I’d always wanted to open my own business, and with this I saw an absolute need and was very passionate about it. Since I had an MBA I actually knew how to put together a business plan. So I went to the bank and I got a loan. That’s how I raised money before. It wasn’t very difficult, I got a PPE (prêt aux petites entreprises).I didn’t think about VC financing, it wasn’t part of my vernacular. I guess it was a startup. I founded it, I ran it.

It also takes courage to willingly move on from a project that has run its course.

“It was great. It was innovative, it wasn’t a franchise from something else. It was a lot of fun, and it’s very empowering to know you can do it. If the business makes sense and you hire good people. I ran that for three or four years and then you have to have that moment and decide if it’s really making sense financially. Retail models are tough. I did birthday parties on the weekend, we rented it out for book launches. There was all kinds of stuff. The bread and butter were the classes, like Mama Bebe Salsa, it was great. But, it was more of a labour of love. I’m actually one of those people who are like look, a business is really, you’re supposed to make money. That’s the purpose of a business. So basically then I said it was time to move on while I’m waiting for my next business idea.”

Next she joined a boutique investment firm in Montreal, and through that job was introduced to the startup ecosystem in the city. Shortly after that, FounderFuel approached her and asked her to participate as a mentor.

“Five years ago when they launched they got a big backlash because 120 mentors and there wasn’t one woman who was a mentor. About three people asked me, because I had corporate and startup experience. That’s been an amazing experience, to work with all the companies. So now I’ve actually done every single cohort since the beginning. I’ve been through each one.”

The next project she decided to dedicate her time to was a startup within the Montreal ecosystem: Nexology.

“When I met the entrepreneur and his partner, I realized they needed help to commercialize it, to sell it and package it up so that it makes sense. So we started chatting and we made a deal that I would join them and I still have my chunk of the company. And we did really good things. We took that and we made it into a product and we went from zero licenses sold to about 12 different customers, and we built up a bunch of government contracts, and it was a great experience. A lot of it was a really good precursor for the stuff I’m doing here [Element AI], because here we do a lot of natural language programming, we do a lot of semantic analysis, but we do it more seriously here. So I did that for about 3 1/2 years.”

And it was while searching for a solution for some software that her team had developed that inadvertently found her way to Element AI.

“I spoke to Jean-Francois [Gagné, CEO of Element AI] about the kind of issues with our software and the kind of help I thought we needed, and he started telling me about what he was thinking to build. And he said they were going to need people like me. So we started talking and it sounded pretty awesome. I started talking to him in September and I joined right at the launch.”

What started as eight people in a room at Notman House back in December has grown exponentially in the short time since. Their offices have now taken over the whole twelfth floor of the building they occupy, with further options on the fourteenth floor, and a lot of their offices were under construction at the time of the interview as they continue to expand.

“We’ve been here since January 9th, and we’ve already expanded so much. The thing with artificial intelligence is it’s a talent grab. There aren’t enough people that know how to do this. And a lot of the good people are being scooped up so quickly by all the tech giants, the Facebooks, the Googles, the Amazons. But those people, they work on the problems for themselves: for Facebook, for Google. We are doing it for other people, for big corporations that don’t have access to that talent, but need to leverage AI technologies for their operations.”

The concept of Element AI is not to be a contractor. As a Program Director, Naomi helps determine what to do with the breakthroughs developed while working with clients.

“There’s three of us now here, and it’s a bit of a catchall. The idea is that we actually build technology together. So if we work with a bank and they give us their data to train a model and they want a better fraud detection algorithm, and using machine learning we come up with something that is leaps and bounds better than what exists today, we say ‘let’s do a joint venture or revenue share and take this and make it as a separate company, as a spinoff’. And then us Program Directors who are experienced entrepreneurs will then maybe leave the nest with it and take those companies and spin those out.”

It’s easy to understand the attraction to Element AI. There doesn’t seem to be much risk of the passion flaming out. Rather than working on AI technologies in house for several years that aim to solve one problem, Element AI is constantly working on multiple projects that are at the forefront of new and exciting technology.

“Here you work on many different problems, and the pure scientists can continue to publish and apply what they’re doing to real life problems. So it’s an exciting model. And what makes us really different is we have ties right into the universities. So we have 17 academic fellows that are actually part of our salary. They give us 15 hours a month and they work on the hardest problems our clients throw at us. We get access to the latest research coming out of the universities. So it’s a really nice symbiotic relationship. I think sometimes there’s a bit of imposter syndrome, because you need to know a lot. It’s a bit like when I was at IBM and we were e-business consultants knowing a little bit more than everybody else, because everything is so new and it’s going so quickly. It’s very exciting.”

As a mother of three daughters, Naomi already has a good amount of practice giving advice to young women considering a job in tech.

“You have to be assertive, you have to be confident, and express yourself. I find that women, even in environments that are really open and diverse like this, in meetings you still have to talk a little louder.  It’s something you have to work on and you have to try not to get discouraged. The great thing is there’s so many mentorship circles of other women who are doing it. I’ve spoken a few times at the Girl Geek meetings. Those things are really great, for women to get together and see what they’re doing. The more women there are the more open it is. Here, we’re pretty good. Every team, it still is predominantly male for the developers and the scientists, but we have at least one female developer on each team and we have female scientists now starting. It’s a real concerted effort that we’re doing, which is great. To not just have the girls in HR and communications, to actually have them participate. So the advice is, I really think, is to stay with it. That’s what I tell my kids all the time.”

Have you read the rest of the WMNinTECH series?
Caterina Rizzi trailblazes a path for women techies in Montreal – March 29
Angelique Mannella on taking chances and being open to unexpected opportunities – April 5
Magaly Charbonneau proves that with organization and drive you can have it all – May 2


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