By Hailey Eisen
In the midst of Ontario’s COVID-19 stay at home order in early 2021, Maria Poonawala was conflicted between a job she loved and becoming an entrepreneur. Making this sort of high-risk decision in the middle of a global pandemic was challenging, but Maria says working a 9 to 5 job, and running her start-up from 5pm to 1am was taking its toll.
“Feeling mentally worn out and triggered by the stay at home order, I realized that I was young and didn’t yet have a family, plus it was difficult to have a social life during the pandemic — and with that extra time it seemed like the perfect storm of circumstances coming together to take a leap of faith and try something like this,” she recalls.
In officially launching Connexa.ai, Maria was poised to offer small and medium sized businesses a customer service platform that would help them maintain a human connection with their customers through a centralized inbox that saves them time while leveraging machine learning to provide customer feedback insights in an analytics dashboard.
She’d built the idea into a functioning high-fidelity prototype in the months prior with a team of women in STEM apprentices. The premise for Connexa.ai came from observations and experiences Maria accumulated during the five years she’d worked in the technology sector prior to venturing out on her own. But, as she explains, her interest in technology came about almost by accident, leading to a career journey she probably wouldn’t have imagined for herself.
“I went to Ryerson to study international business,” Maria recalls. “And while I was looking into strategy consulting for my third-year internship, I kept hearing that digitization was the way companies were going and that technology was where I should be focusing my attention.”
Maria credits Ryerson with being an entrepreneurial minded school with great incubators and an atmosphere in which students were encouraged to pursue ideas as student group leaders and start their own businesses. “That’s where the entrepreneurship seed was planted,” she says. “And while I’d never before considered technology, I decided to apply for internships in that space.”
While she faced many rejections, as a result of her inexperience, Maria says Cisco took a chance on her, offering her an internship and an opportunity to build her skillset. “I fell in love with tech that year,” she recalls.
Upon graduation, Maria took a consulting job with Ernst & Young (EY) in their Technology Advisory practice, where she had the opportunity to work on a number of projects and dive into Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning, Robotic Process Automation, and Virtual Agents (Chatbots). “Things were moving fast, I was learning on the job, and I just knew that it would be technology that would change everything – I wanted to brand myself as someone who was an expert in AI application, and I sought out opportunities to do that.”
“Feeling mentally worn out and triggered by the stay at home order, I realized that I was young and didn’t yet have a family, plus it was difficult to have a social life during the pandemic — and with that extra time it seemed like the perfect storm of circumstances coming together to take a leap of faith and try something like this.”
Maria came across her next career move while doing a vendor assessment for a project she was working on with EY. “I was evaluating this small company against some big vendors, and when they pitched to me, I fell in love with what they were doing.” The company was Wysdom.AI, a conversational AI optimization platform and service that delivers chatbots.
“I went from a 4000-person company to a 40-person company,” she says. “Being part of an AI start-up was a really interesting, fascinating opportunity, and I was eager to learn as much as I could.”
Maria dove into her work at Wysdom, and within a few years, was promoted twice and became a people manager to a team. “I learned a lot about leadership and developed the confidence to know that if I ever started my own business, I’d be able to manage a team,” she says. “I’ve never loved a job more than I did working with them. Being part of a growing start-up is magical.”
This made Maria’s decision to start Connexa all the more difficult. But in late 2020, her entrepreneurial spirit, coupled with a calling and a strong desire to give back, propelled her forward.
“I’m an empath by nature, and during the pandemic, I really felt devastated for small businesses and also for the students who I noticed had a sense of hopelessness, facing limited career prospects,” she says. Feeling fortunate in her job and her ability to work from home, Maria says she wanted to employ a mentorship model with her start-up where she could help women in STEM and provide access to experience.
The idea for Connexa had been planted years prior when Maria worked in customer service automation and saw the need for a system that was easy for agents to interact with — and that handled the data analytics they often struggled with. “The goal was to reimagine customer service while letting the platform do the hard work,” she says. The platform would help those small and medium sized businesses that were already struggling because of the pandemic. Finally, she saw a way to build her platform while also providing opportunities to women in STEM who were looking for experience to build their resumes. “I wanted to give them the opportunity I’d been given in tech early on,” she says.
“The barriers to entry have never been lower to become an entrepreneur. As such, I think everyone should measure the cost of inaction, recognize failing is part of the process, and avoid spending too much time on decisions that can be reversed.”
Thanks to an encounter with another woman founder and Tech Undivided alumnae, Maria was pointed in the direction of the Female Laboratory of Innovative Knowledge (FLIK), a program that connects female founders with student talent from around the world in an apprenticeship model. “I put out what I was looking for with Connexa, looking for help to build this company, and overnight my inbox was filled,” Maria says. “Over the December holidays in 2020, I booked 30 interviews in a week and ended up having the most incredible conversations with women from around the world who I was so impressed with and inspired by.”
Maria put together a team of 6 people in functional roles to begin with virtually, and maintained the goal of creating an inclusive, supportive environment where an all-woman team would thrive. She then began to build out her business in the hours she wasn’t working at Wysdom.
A few months later, with the support of her mentors at Wysdom and her family, Maria says she was ready to take the leap into entrepreneurship full-time. Since then, Connexa has continued to grow, building relationships with investors, and getting the platform in the hands of initial users. “We are delivering a simple platform that’s intuitive and affordable.”
Recently Connexa was selected as one of the women-led start-ups to be part of the third cohort of ventureLAB’s Tech Undivided program. “Female founders are typically over-resourced and underfunded in North America. I was looking for an accelerator program that would centralize these resources, provide mentors to reach out to with targeted help, and a cohort or community of peers to lean on,” she says. Tech Undivided is designed for founders building breakthrough technology solutions. It draws on the expertise of strategic mentors and partners to help founders refine their product-market-fit, amplify sales, and hone their pitch for customer and investor meetings. “Being a woman founder can be lonely at times, and having others who are going through the same things at the same time can be really helpful.”
As Maria looks at Connexa’s growth ahead, she says she would love her company to be the next great Canadian success story, like Shopify. She’s committed to creating a culture that’s supportive, inclusive, and that values all of its employees. She’s also eager to advise other young women entrepreneurs, sharing advice she’s been given along the way.
“The barriers to entry have never been lower to become an entrepreneur,” she says. “And, as such, I think everyone should measure the cost of inaction, recognize failing is part of the process, and avoid spending too much time on decisions that can be reversed.” Her advice for anyone with an entrepreneurial inclination: “Take action as soon as possible.”