Vanessa Vakharia is the founder and director of The Math Guru, a boutique math and science tutoring studio in Toronto. She is also the author of Math Hacks, a book that makes math fun, stress-free and relatable for young kids and parents. She appears regularly on national television and news outlets as an expert in math education, and speaks globally at conferences about re-inventing media representations of women in STEM. Her goal is to change math culture so that STEM is finally cool and accessible. Despite her current career, she failed Grade 11 math twice, which she now views as the best thing that ever happened to her.
My first job ever was… one of those newspaper delivery jobs! I seriously went door to door at 6 a.m. in the morning, dropping off flyers at every house on the street. It was oddly satisfying, watching the pile get smaller and smaller until I dropped the final one off.
I decided to be an entrepreneur because… honestly it’s what’s always came naturally to me, like an instinct. When I was really little, my friend and I made weird potions in our bathrooms out of whatever we could find in our cabinets, and tried to sell it door-to-door to our poor neighbours, like old-school vacuum cleaner salesmen! I guess that was my first “real” job now that I think about it — although I don’t think we ever duped anyone into buying our crap.
My proudest accomplishment is… That’s a tough one because there truly are SO many accomplishments that I am super proud of. I’m going to go with completing my Masters thesis simply because it was so, so challenging for me. Intensive, detail-oriented writing and researching doesn’t come to me easily, so I’m proud of this one because I willingly went into something that I knew would be particularly hard for me, and didn’t give up despite the fact that writing that monstrous thesis was one of the hardest things I have EVER had to do in my entire life. There are so many “easier” things I could have chosen to do, but I didn’t let fear phase me, and that makes me feel like a total rockstar — and like I can do anything that I truly put my heart and soul into.
My boldest move to date was… starting a band. I’ve always wanted to be a rockstar (read: Britney Spears) and despite a lack of musical training (read: talent), I decided that I was going to make it happen no matter what. Seven years later, my band (Goodnight, Sunrise) opened for Bon Jovi at the Air Canada Centre, has toured Canada and the U.K., and has released two albums. It’s literally one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life and I feel like Brit Brit every damn day!
I surprise people when I tell them… “I’m a math teacher”…followed by “…and I’m in a band.” (Or vice versa.) It’s so crazy to think that we’ve confined ourselves to living in these binaries dictated by popular culture and weird societal standards that simply go unchallenged! Why is it strange for someone to like rocking out AND math? It shouldn’t be. But we’re all so entrenched in media-reinforced stereotypes that it’s hard for us to imagine identities that aren’t reflected in pop culture. Remember, there was a time — not so long ago! — that if ANY woman claimed to enjoy math, people were straight up shocked. In fact, the head of the math department at the high school where I had my first teaching job ever greeted me with: “What’s a pretty girl like you doing being a math teacher?” And that WASN’T that long ago!
My best advice to people starting a business is…YOLO. Okay for real, I know that we’re not supposed to say that anymore but seriously, it sort of says it all! You have this one life. If you want to start a business — start a business!
“The more I admit I don’t know, the more I open myself to learning without the goal of a final, absolute answer, the more inspired I become.”
My best advice from a mentor was… When it seems like disaster is striking, it usually means that positive change is on the horizon. Destruction paves the way for rebuilding, and rebuilding is the stuff of clarity and new beginnings.
I would tell my 20-year old self… to stop counting calories, and to start counting things that matter like kindness, self care, hard work, and gratitude.
My biggest setback was… There have been many setbacks. The truth is that every setback I’ve had has honestly led to something better. I know that sounds cheesy, but I mean it! I remember the first time one of my tutors quit. I only had two tutors at the time and this seemed like the biggest deal EVER. I kept thinking that no one would ever be as good as her, blah, blah, blah. I remember one of my mentors telling me that every time someone quits on her, she finds someone better. I totally didn’t believe her, but she was TOTALLY right. That’s just one example — but seriously, every setback has the potential to act as fertile ground for something better to take root and grow!
I overcame it by… positive and creative thinking. The obstacle is the way.
If I had an extra hour in the day, I would spend it… learning to play drums. I think I would be a TOTALLY badass drummer.
The last book I read was…The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. LOVED IT.
I stay inspired by… reading books, listening to podcasts, and talking to inspiring people as often as I can. The more I admit I don’t know, the more I open myself to learning without the goal of a final, absolute answer, the more inspired I become.
The future excites me because… you truly NEVER know what might happen next. Some people get anxious by that thought, but to me, it’s like a huge weight off of my shoulders. The realization that only so much is in your control is quite liberating — it helps me chill out at night! It also helps me when I feel stuck in a rut, because you just NEVER know what might happen next — how cool is that?
My next step is… Your guess is as good as mine!