How Anu Bidani transitioned from a 20-year corporate career to bootstrapping a tech startup.
The founder of STEM Minds shares her entrepreneurial growth journey.
By Hailey Eisen
For Anu Bidani — CEO of STEM Minds, a B Corp certified social enterprise that empowers youth through STEM education — the foray from a decades-long banking career into the world of tech entrepreneurship began with a problem.
It was 2015, and Anu had been with Scotiabank for 20 years. She’d held a variety of roles within the bank with a focus on technology, in global capital markets, project management, security, and technology audit. She’d previously completed her MBA, had two sons, and for the most part considered herself to be quite happy.
But like many who share her entrepreneurial spirit, Anu says she knew something was missing.
Anu had a sense of adventure instilled in her from a young age — she and her family left India when she was 10 and moved around a lot — and had always been committed to lifelong learning. Still, leaving behind a stable job to build a company from the ground up wasn’t an easy decision. “I’ll be honest, I was fearful at first. In the corporate world I had a consistent paycheck and a strong support network — and starting out on my own was lonely.”
What gave her that final push? One particular problem kept pulling at her, and the need to solve it was greater than the need for stability.
While Anu was considering where she’d go next in her career, her sons were struggling to build new skills in school. “My older son, in grade two, had been diagnosed with ADHD,” Anu recalls. “He was reading at an SK level, he was learning so slowly, but I knew he was very smart.”
She enrolled him in a number of extracurricular programs but never got the value or results she expected. “The biggest problem was that no one spent the time listening to him the way he was,” she recalls. “Children are unique individuals and our job is to adapt to them; they shouldn’t have to adapt to us. The biggest heartbreak is knowing your child is smart but that others can’t see them that way.”
I wanted to use all my skills and knowledge to solve this problem. And my kids were my inspiration.
With a background in computer science, Anu believed that technology could help solve this problem — but neither of her sons were showing any interest. While there were tools and skills Anu knew could help her son succeed, the program she wanted for him didn’t exist. “I wanted to use all my skills and knowledge to solve this problem,” she says. “And my kids were my inspiration.”
In March 2016, STEM Minds was born.
“What became very clear was how we teach kids really matters in terms of how they will grow and what they will end up being,” she says. Building a tech education program intended to arm kids with the science, technology, engineering, math, and soft skills they need to succeed in school, and later in the workplace, made a lot of sense to Anu.
With her corporate hat on, she could see that the most successful candidates for any job she’d hired for all had the right technology skills. As a mother, it came down to a strong set of beliefs. “I’m a firm believer that if you follow your passion and your heart, work will never feel like work,” she says. “While I wanted to allow my kids’ passion to drive their choices, I knew their choices needed to be informed.”
The data was also strongly in her favour. “Reports indicate that by 2030, 1 billion people will need to be re-trained in a massive global reskilling initiative, because the graduates today don’t have the skill set they’ll need for jobs of the future,” she explains.
With no background in education or entrepreneurship, Anu began by seeking guidance from the local Small Business Enterprise Centre in York Region. Her first STEM Minds program was a camp run out of a Montessori School with 45 kids in attendance. From there she rented space in another local facility and began hosting weekend workshops. The response was excellent and eventually they ran out of space.
In 2017, Anu decided to go full in, renting a 3,500 square foot space and launching her STEM Minds learning centre. “That was my commitment that I was going to stick to this and I was actually going to impact education. I knew that I wanted to build an enterprise platform, I wanted to make it accessible, I wanted to impact education globally, and I wanted to make it B Corp certified — I knew what I wanted, and now it was time to go into execution mode.”
Today STEM Minds provides online courses, live virtual classes, and in-person classes for children ages 4 to 18, and has reached more than 39,000 students across North America.
They run programs privately and also partner with schools.
As much as we talk about innovation, I think there still needs to be more of an appetite industry-wide to support and fund start-ups.
“The greatest challenge for me was funding,” Anu says, looking back at her start-up journey. “And it’s a huge issue for most entrepreneurs.” Until she could prove that STEM Minds could make money, she was forced to boot-strap the business with her own savings. Thanks to her corporate experience, Anu was able to handle her own incorporation, marketing, and accounting until the business grew in complexity and scale, and she knew she had to bring people on to help in these areas.
“I didn’t realize how hard it would be to get access to a simple credit card or line of credit, but financial institutions still look at start-ups as high risk,” she says. “As much as we talk about innovation, I think there still needs to be more of an appetite industry-wide to support and fund start-ups.”
And while she could do a lot on her own, one of the things Anu knew she wouldn’t be doing was teaching. The goal for STEM Minds was to hire great teachers, in addition to STEM experts, and support them as they learned to teach in this new way. The collaboration between teachers and subject matter experts has been key to success, as the learning process enables them to understand the content more deeply and relate to them more. “We had subject matter experts designing the concepts and topics and then teachers learning how to teach them. I wanted anyone to be able to learn how to teach STEM — because if teachers were able to work with the content, kids would receive rich learning opportunities.”
Building content for the future was her ultimate goal. “The jobs of tomorrow will expect kids to have skills that aren’t being taught in traditional education today,” she says. “My mission is to teach kids how to learn new skills, to embark on lifelong learning, so that no matter what comes to them they’re able to adapt, adopt, learn, and grow.”
As her growth as a small business continued, Anu realized that she was only able to service her community within a 30KM radius. She was ready for international growth and scale. “In 2018, we got an IRAP grant and applied that toward building a tech platform — a hub of content and knowledge.”
In 2019, the platform was built and they were trying to pilot the project with school boards, “but the market just wasn’t ready for online learning,” she says.
When COVID hit in early 2020, all that changed quickly. “COVID exaggerated the need to adapt to online learning and our platform was ready. Last year we ran virtual classes from March to June, then in the summer we ran 10 weeks of virtual camp, and since September the adoption in schools and with families has been wonderful.”
One of the biggest mistakes many women make is to think small — and I strongly believe that if you have an idea you have to go big and you have to go bold.
The next step is global expansion. With her focus on scale and growth, Anu says the timing was perfect to be selected for the Tech Undivided program offered by York Region-based ventureLAB. Following a competitive application process, Anu was given access to a support ecosystem of resources, networking opportunities, and expert advice on capital, talent, technology, and customers. Over six months, through strategic advisory and skill-building workshops, the program challenged Anu to refine her pitch deck to better prepare for customer and investor meetings. “The support I’ve received through this program has been amazing, and I now have such good clarity on how to scale and grow my business. I’m getting investor-ready,” she says. “Having a cohort of other women entrepreneurs has been so inspiring — in fact, it really gives me hope.”
As she gets ready for the next step in her business journey, Anu is happy to offer advice to others considering entrepreneurship. “One of the biggest mistakes many women make is to think small — and I strongly believe that if you have an idea you have to go big and you have to go bold.”
As for her sons, her eldest is completing Grade 12 and is planning to go into environmental studies. With the skills he’s learned over the years, growing up in STEM Minds, he could become a coder or an engineer — but for Anu, what’s most important is that he has the tools available to make his voice heard, the skills to make informed choices, and the ability to express himself however he should choose. “He’s really passionate about climate change and how the planet is being treated,” she says, “And, no matter what field he goes into, he now has the ability to innovate and solve problems.”