WBR: All startups build their missions around a problem they first identified. Could you tell our readers more about your own story in entrepreneurship, and the mission behind Lumaki Labs?
It’s been an unconventional path for sure -- I never knew what entrepreneurship was before entering university. Waterloo has a large focus on building entrepreneurial mindset, and what drew me in was the ability it offered to make a social impact. You should always build something that will help people, and something that is solving a problem. Entrepreneurship isn’t easy, especially when you’re a student, and having that why in the form of a social impact piece helps you to keep going even when things get difficult.
Lumaki Labs is an edtech startup that builds software to make work-integrated learning easier. Our mission is to fill the gaps in education through experiences. We want students to have a clearer understanding of what their futures look like, with internships, co-op and experiential opportunities being key to that.
However, not all companies have been able to adapt to the virtual space. So, the idea behind Lumaki Labs really started when things started to shift online. Firstly, we realized that as a team of students, we’re very privileged at the University of Waterloo to have such a big network to do virtual internships in general. Secondly, we wanted to treat this pandemic as a way to level out the playing field so that students can access opportunities. Virtual internships are a way to do that because you don’t have to face some of those physical barriers.
The way that we drive this mission forward is we build software to make it easier for employers. Right now the product we’re building out is a platform to help employers manage and track the progress of their interns, focusing specifically on the onboarding, tasks management side. By doing so, employers can better manage the interns they already have.
WBR: Could you tell us a little bit more about what it’s been like to lead a team, where your product is in the product-development stage?
This semester, I actually took an e-coop to get the feel of what it’s like to work full time on a business. There’s this really great article by Paul Graham that talks about the maker versus manager schedule. It suggests that a maker schedule is that of a typical developer -- where makers get into a flow state as they engage with and solve problems. As a maker, getting interrupted by meetings is a bad thing because it takes away from that process. A manager schedule is built by different little blocks of time which might involve intermittent meetings. Ultimately, you have to find a balance between the two to make things work. For example, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I will dedicate to taking meetings, and on Tuesdays and Thursday is just for heads down work, whatever I need to do uninterrupted.
That meant some tough decisions. People don’t really talk about the people management involved with being on the leadership team of a company. You’re managing your team, your business advisors, and external stakeholders, which can be hard on you at times. People generally think that if you’re a CEO, you’re working for yourself. At the same time though, you’re also tending to the needs of your team. Finding a balance between that and knowing how to make your decisions is tough, but the e-coop term has allowed me to learn more about that just through the exposure.
How has your background as an engineering student at Waterloo helped you in launching Lumaki?
Waterloo is the largest co-op employer in North America, so leveraging our identity as student engineers gave us a new level of credibility because we know what internships look like. For example, Gerry, our lead of technology is studying mechatronics engineering. At Lumaki Labs, he’s been doing software engineering. The reason he’s so passionate about the company is because these co-ops have given him an opportunity to explore beyond his academic career. I think that’s the same for myself as well. The last 2 co-ops before starting Lumaki Labs were edtech start-ups, and that gave me the exposure to start my own company in the same space. It really came down to the hands on experience on that front. Similarly, myself and Fatimah are both in management engineering. Part of the tool we’re building does entail internship management, so the education has helped us in developing that.
What role as Velocity and the Founder Institute helped Lumaki’s growth and success?
We’ve been a part of a few different programs now, including the League of Innovators Lab Accelerator, the Epicenter Venture Woman Program, as well as the Founder Institute.
When I was working on Fem in Stem, I was also engaged with Waterloo’s Velocity community, from their residence to their pitch competitions. We’ve also used the concept coaching program they offer, which has also been incredibly helpful. We’ve been very lucky to build an external network of support. Looking at the Founder Institute, we started the program five weeks ago, and the biggest takeaway has been the network effect. As an entrepreneur, being able to expand your network is key. That could mean having connections to people that have different domains of expertise, and or even getting introductions to new people in your industry.
What was the biggest challenge when it came to launching your business?
As a student entrepreneur, it has always just been balancing my time and learning along the way. As a student, you always feel like you have to prove yourself because you aren’t finished your degree yet, and you might encounter imposter syndrome.
I was hesitant about doing an e-Coop to begin with because I thought I could just work in industry. But then I realized I would ultimately be aiming for a product management role anyways. I figured if I run my company, I am basically becoming my own product manager because I’ll have a chance to ship a product that I have designed myself, allowing me to gain an accelerated experience in the role than if I were in industry. For me, my thought process is you just have to go out there and start learning because the biggest barrier is yourself thinking you’re under qualified.
Do you have any advice for students and young women interested in pursuing their own entrepreneurial venture?
Firstly, always question why. Ask yourself: “Why your business?”, and “Why should you be pursuing this idea?” Tying your business with a social impact will reap a lot of benefits long term because when things get tough you’ll know why you’re doing something.
Secondly, continue to ask that question but with other people. One of the best questions you ask somebody is why they decided to do something. For example, I was talking with this other founder in theeducation space and I asked him, “Why are you working in the education space?”
He told me this incredible story about how after undergrad he had to decide between pursuing a master’s degree or pursuing a gap year. What he did was he made his own master’s degree spending twelve months pursuing twelve different ideas and bringing them to life. Things like that allow you to find inspiration in new ways.
Finally, if you’re a young entrepreneur, don’t let people put you down or tell you that you’re too young- whether that be before you’ve even started or after you’ve begun your journey in entrepreneurship. People will always have their own opinions, but at the end of the day you have the capability to look past those comments and make an impact.
To learn more about the Lumaki Labs and Mylene, you can visit their website at https://www.lumakilabs.com/ or connect with her on LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/mylenetu/