By Hailey Eisen
Fatima Khamitova always felt that entrepreneurship was something she was born to do. The co-founder and CEO of Veer AI — a software company that aims to help retail companies make data-driven decisions — she credits this inner sense to her family and their unusual entrepreneurial paths.
Her father, a surgeon in Kazakhstan, left his medical career behind to start a real estate entertainment business. “My dad became a condo developer and had a chain of entertainment parks — like Canada’s Wonderland, but smaller — across many cities,” Fatima explains. Her grandmother, a role model for Fatima and a woman ahead of her time, worked as a dentist and then opened the first private dental clinic in Kazakhstan, which later grew into a chain of clinics.
“Growing up with an entrepreneurial family, I always had the idea that I’d go out on my own someday, I just didn’t know how,” she says, looking back at her own journey.
Fatima began her career in investment banking, followed by an internship in Milan, where she worked for an incubator developing strategy for Italian start-ups in luxury goods. While this international experience helped her realize she didn’t want to spend her career in banking, she did recognize that her strength was in numbers. After a Master of Science degree in Analytics back in Toronto, Fatima embarked on a nearly 10-year career in consulting and data-driven strategy.
Her corporate experience, including a few jobs with firms that were just starting out, gave her the confidence and expertise to eventually go out on her own. She also credits the robust network she built with helping her start Veer AI.
One evening I called up a bunch of my friends and invited them over for pizza and a brainstorming session. We were talking about all the things we’d learned at the companies we’d worked for.
“Thanks to the nature of my career, I knew a lot of people in Toronto in the fields of data, strategy, and marketing,” Fatima says. “One evening I called up a bunch of my friends and invited them over for pizza and a brainstorming session. We were talking about all the things we’d learned at the companies we’d worked for.”
The realization that came out of that brainstorming session was that while data was being leveraged to help large retail corporations understand their customers and market to them accordingly, none of the existing data-driven strategies were scalable for smaller players. “From that night, we decided we wanted to go after the small and medium size business sector, because a lot of things being done for those businesses were rudimentary.”
Taking on the co-founder role with a partner as CTO, and many of the others who joined them that night becoming advisors, Fatima got to work bringing her vision to life. The goal: to use AI and machine learning to provide a better understanding of customers to small retail companies, allowing them to connect with customers in a more meaningful and impactful way.
“We started our business a bit unusually, in that we didn’t want to take seed money right away,” Fatima explains. “While we had some interest, we didn’t want to dilute the value of the company and weren’t exactly sure what we were building. Instead, we decided to take on consulting work to pay the bills and pay for everyone we had hired.”
When COVID hit in early 2020, Veer AI was faced with its first big challenge. “All of our consulting projects were canceled or postponed and many of our early clients whose data we were using to build out our software also faced a huge panic,” Fatima says.
I’m very much in awe of how amazing people have been; it was incredibly easy to call up people and ask for advice, and so many retailers have offered to support us, giving over their data so we could use it to build this platform.
From this great challenge, Fatima was surprised to find a lot of opportunity. “I was the happiest person on earth when I found out that I actually had access to a number of hiring grants from the Canadian government which we could use to offset the income we’d been bringing in.” She also found great support through the start-up ecosystem in Canada and especially in Toronto.
“I’m very much in awe of how amazing people have been; it was incredibly easy to call up people and ask for advice, and so many retailers have offered to support us, giving over their data so we could use it to build this platform.”
In a time when being an entrepreneur is especially lonely, Fatima has also found support and connection through Tech Undivided, a program run through ventureLAB to challenge women-led tech companies to scale their businesses and compete globally. From being connected to a community of women entrepreneurs that were embarking on a similar journey, to being assisted with sourcing different avenues for accessing capital, Tech Undivided has proven to be an invaluable resource and experience for her.
“This program has been incredible,” Fatima says. “They’ve provided me with an advisor who I speak with weekly, and who has been the perfect sounding board.” Through her advisor, Fatima has not only found the connection she’d been missing since COVID began, she’s also been granted valuable advice from a fellow entrepreneur, timely introductions to other founders in the sector, and opportunities for growth.
“It was my advisor who helped me figure out a new sales channel,” Fatima says. “For a while I was only doing direct sales and going from one company to the next, but my advisor helped me connect with agencies who have many clients in the retail sector and will help us grow faster.”
With an eye to continued growth, Fatima is excited to see where things will go with Veer AI. She’s happy to be helping small businesses — especially in a time when they need all the support they can to compete with the big players. “Ideally we’ll continue building our product and have 100 clients by the summer,” she says. “All I want is for my clients to use this product and for it to genuinely help them.”
She’s also eager to provide the help and support that was offered to her to other women founders. “My biggest advice is to keep asking questions and remember that a strong network is the most valuable thing a start-up can have — you can’t build a business in isolation.”