Meet Elnaz Sarraf, CEO and founder of the award-winning Roybi Robot – the world’s first AI-powered smart toy to teach children language and STEM skills, she has been named one of TIME Magazine’s Best Inventions in Education, CNBC Upstart 100 list as one of the world’s most promising startups, member of Forbes Technology Council.
Who is Elnaz Sarraf?
I'm a serial entrepreneur who is interested in products that help families with their childcare needs. I am an immigrant who feels fully integrated into her new home and understands that her past and home country's culture has played an essential role in shaping who I am today.
You grew up as a woman in Iran, did that fact shape your life?
Definitely! I am my parents' only child. They never told me there is something I cannot do because I am a girl, but I was regularly exposed to our society's limitations imposed on my friends. So, I was aware of my privileges, I was also familiar with the restrictions, which made me even more determined to thrive for excellence.
“I was aware of my privileges, I was also familiar with the restrictions, which made me even more determined to thrive for excellence”
How were you as a kid?
Oh, I was very good, I think—at least that is what my parents tell me. I was very studious and had many interests in the arts and technology from an early age.
You hold a bachelor’s degree in Arts (B.A.) from California State University-East Bay and some studies in Engineering, Computer Science, Iran University of Science and Technology. Why did you choose those courses of study?
I always thought that it is only with the combinations of both arts and technology that we can create truly unique and impactful tools. I find both engineering and the arts highly creative processes, which I enjoy engaging in.
You started your career as a graphic designer in different companies, later you founded iFamCare and iBaby, how did you jump from that point to start your new business: Roybi Robot – the world’s first-ever AI-powered smart toy to teach children language and STEM skills?
I met many families during my tenure at iBaby. By engaging in conversations with them, I realized a great interest in smart educational toys that make learning fun and introduce children to technology. Through market research, I found out that most of the available products were software-based and were using hardware designed for adults—this was frustrating for parents. So, I decided to work on a toy robot that teaches children through fun and playful lessons with designed hardware, especially for children.
About Roybi where this idea came from? What does it make it unique in the market?
I thought we are still yet to utilize artificial intelligence to its fullest potential in education, so I wanted to create a smart tool that uses a sophisticated AI technology for teaching children. ROYBI creates an active learning experience for children—meaning that children are not passively learning, but through discussions and chat, they are learning from their robot. Our content is designed to not only teach children about a topic, but to also get them curious with the subjects so they would carry on learning through self-directed learning even when they are not interacting with their robot. It also allows children to learn from technology without a need for screens.
“it is only with the combinations of both arts and technology that we can create truly unique and impactful tools”
You are a very busy woman, and you are a Mentor at Nex Cubed and a Board Member at the Consumer Technology Association, Small Business Council, you are an Official Member at Forbes Technology Council, Senator - Representing U.S. At the World Business Angels Investment Forum. What does it drive you?
I find all these engagements exciting because, through every interaction, I learn something. It is through exchanging ideas that new ideas and realizations usually come about.
Your company Roybi has been named one of TIME Magazine’s Best Inventions of 2019, 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. You were selected as Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center Milestone Maker 2018, named the Woman of Influence through Silicon Valley Business Journal, Entrepreneur of The Year in Silicon Valley, you are a speaker at several conferences such as the Mobile World Congress, ASU GSV Summit, Consumer Technology Association. What´s the recipe for your success?
I think I am very focused on my goals and aspirations. I chose the kind of project that has a mission that is very close to my heart. That is why my ventures have always focused on products that can help families with their busy lives.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM? What would you suggest addressing this?
We can always use more mentorship. Keeping a work-life balance as a woman is still much harder than our male companions. That’s why most women chose to abandon their careers and stay at home or move to positions that are not as challenging, and as a result, they may never realize their full potential.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM?
I think that this ties in with my previous response. I want to say that it is possible to maintain a healthy work-life balance and achieve your goals as a woman. I think the idea that you must choose often sets women on the wrong path; you also have the choice to organize your family unite in a way that can function in a way that each member of the family can pursue his or her goals, while also contributing to the family.
“I think I am very focused on my goals and aspirations. I chose the kind of project that has a mission that is very close to my heart”
Do you have any philosophy that guides your career decisions?
Follow your heart and trust your gut feeling.
What does a normal workday look like for you?
Lots of phone calls is almost always guaranteed on my day because we are a global company. I usually try to have a relaxing morning to set my intentions for the day for myself, and make sure to take regular breaks and walk to clear my mind. My day usually ends late because I must be on call with our team in China at night when they’re up, so making sure I get regular short breaks during the day is important to me.
What do you love most about your job? & what is the most difficult part?
I love that it allows me to interact regularly with other business leaders in the world who are passionate about education and technology. Talking to my colleagues and professional associates globally will enable me to have a global view on education, which I find very exciting. I think right now, the most challenging part of my job is accepting the fact that I cannot see my team regularly. I often visited our team in China and here in the US, but now because of the pandemic, the distance feels too much.
What is one strategy that has helped you to grow your business?
Persistence. I believe it is important to be persistent to be able to move forward successfully. Do not give up easily!
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else does?
Read about the latest news about technology to identify the trends and the market. I read about the newest tech advancements regularly so I can stay in the loop.
“I want to say that it is possible to maintain a healthy work-life balance and achieve your goals as a woman”
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I highly value quality time with my loved us, so I try to make sure I get a break from work and spend my time with loved ones. But I also spend some time watching educational videos or the ones related to world history. It helps me learn more skills as well as having more knowledge about the world.
Many authors say women can and must strive to have everything – a shining career, a blossoming family life, and a perfectly balanced lifestyle all at once, others point out that– then women are placing unrealistic expectations on themselves if they believe they can have it all, I don´t know if you are married and have kids so according to your experience, what do you think about these statements?
For too long, society has told us, women, what we can, or cannot do. But now, most of us can choose our path in life. Most of us that there are still women in the world who do not have this freedom. If your focus is success in your career and a family of your own, make sure you find the right partner and the right work environment that allows you to have them both.
What are your plans?
To grow my company and to see ROYBI impacting the lives of children worldwide. I want every child out there whose parents cannot afford private tutoring to have a ROYBI that teaches them based on their personalized interests and abilities.
There is still the glass ceiling for women in the world: Fewer opportunities, jobs underpaid just for that fact of being a woman, etc. Have you experimented with the glass ceiling? If yes, what are the biggest challenges you have faced and how have you overcome them?
Yes, of course. I was always shy about asking for more compensation, even when I knew I was working hard and giving it my hundred percent. As I became more experienced and more confident about my abilities, I became more adamant about asking for my rights. That’s why at my company, I make sure to give women as many opportunities as other male team members, whether it is on compensation or growth opportunities.
What tips, can you give to young girls who want to become an entrepreneur like you?
Be engaged in your community to see how you can create a business that can give back. Also, learn about everything and anything that remotely interests you. Because through these explorations, you might just find your calling.
Who is the woman you admire the most and why?
My mom is a woman who I have always looked up to with admiration. She managed our family incredibly well, and she was the person behind my dad’s success in his business because she took care of the company’s finances and was the voice of reason behind so many of my dad’s decisions for his company.
Name: Elnaz Sarraf
Sector: Education, Robotics, AI
Designation: Founder & CEO