How the pandemic inspired this entrepreneur to shift from her 9-5 and build her business.

Maria Poonawala

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, 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 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.”

Q&A: Jolene Laskey, founder of Wabanaki Maple, is adding a twist to an Indigenous tradition.

Jolene Laskey of Wabanaki Maple

Jolene Laskey is the founder of Wabanaki Maple, a maple syrup company based in Neqotkuk (Tobique) First Nation in New Brunswick. In 2018, inspired by her Wolastoqey roots, Jolene began her journey as an entrepreneur, sharing and reconnecting people and communities with a piece of Indigenous culture through Wabanaki Maple’s syrup products. For centuries, Peoples of the Wabanaki Confederacy (Wolastoqey, Mi’kmaq, Penobscot, Abenaki, and Passamaquoddy) have harvested the sap from the sugar maple tree — Jolene is carrying on the tradition with a twist, by providing signature flavours of barrel-aged whisky, bourbon, and toasted oak maple syrups. 

 

How have you managed your business finances through the pandemic?

Initially it was scary and challenging to face the onset of this pandemic. I was very skeptical about how we would survive financially as a new company, especially since one of our biggest barriers as an Indigenous business located in a First Nations community has been securing funding for working capital. It hasn’t been easy to manage financially, but fortunately, I’ve been able to bootstrap over the past couple of years. I’ve also sought out other opportunities for securing business grants and financing for things like capital costs, which was very helpful in managing cash flow for the business. 

Similar to many businesses throughout our nation, we were negatively impacted by this pandemic. Though the Government of Canada reacted quickly by providing various funding opportunities and programs like CEBA, there were still barriers for businesses like Wabanaki Maple. We discovered too often that for one reason or another, we did not meet certain criteria or eligibility for these programs. lt felt hopeless at times, and I often wondered how we could manage financially. Thankfully, these gaps were addressed for small businesses, and eventually we were successful and qualified for financial assistance through a program called the Regional Recovery Relief Fund (RRRF). Receiving this funding allowed us to face the hardships of COVID-19 with more resistance and resilience! l’m happy and proud to say we are now a thriving, young company looking forward to more success in the future.

 

Has your approach to sales and marketing changed? 

For the most part, our sales approach has remained the same throughout the pandemic. Since we already developed a great customer base and were very familiar with who our target segments were for both B2C and B2B, we thought it best to put more focus on our social media content on platforms like Facebook and Instagram. However, in some ways we were required to transition and shift our sales approach, since one of our main revenue streams was our in-person sales at various trade shows and events. Additionally, we had to pivot some of our marketing strategy and focus more on online opportunities. 

Normally, we would have been participating at various trade shows and special events across Canada, but with the COVID-19 cancellations and restrictions, we had to adapt — so we moved to signing up for online virtual shows and venues. This really worked out well for us; we gained some traction and generated more sales through a lot of organic reach. lt also proved to be beneficial in other ways; it decreased some of our business expenses like travel and accommodations, and for the most part, the cost of fees and registrations were lower at the online events versus in person. On another note, I do believe having developed a website with a user-friendly e-commerce platform was a significant factor for our continued sales and overall growth of the company during this pandemic.

 

“If I were to only choose one important piece of advice to give to any entrepreneur in any industry, it would be to surround yourself and build meaningful relationships with like-minded, positive people.”

 

How has technology played a role in your business during this time?

Since starting this company, technology has played a very important role for us. For pretty much everything we do in our daily activities and operations, we rely on technology. I have a small but mighty team who work remotely, so in order to communicate effectively, we started adding more digital tools to our operations. We use tools like Asana and Trello which help us stay organized with various projects and events. We also use digital tools for tracking, traceability, and inventory, just to name a few. I’m always willing to try new things that may help with organizing and managing the company! 

It’s been extremely important to utilize what we have in place for Wabanaki Maple, such as our website, online store, and our social media platforms. With these tools and platforms, we can take a quick glance at any given moment to check out our analytics, financials, or any other important information. The use of technology has been a great way to communicate with both my team and others outside the business. Web meetings have helped bridge the gap throughout the pandemic. In the beginning stages of starting this company, I wasn’t much of a fan of digital tools, due to a lack of use and knowledge. I’ve definitely had a change of mindset in adapting to the digital world. Overall, incorporating various digital tools into my daily practices and managing the business has been of great value for me, the team, and the company. 

 

How have you managed your mindset (and that of your team)?

For me, staying positive and productive on a daily basis can often be challenging. Personally, I’m one who appreciates routine in in my life, but operating and managing a business is just the opposite! With having to address so many different business matters both internally and externally, I’ve found that shifting from one role or another can be exhausting at times. However, I still try to maintain a certain level of routine throughout my day.

l tend to start work very early in the morning — usually at 5:30am — because I know I’m most productive during the first several hours in the morning. And if  I’m experiencing a difficult or challenging day, I remind myself, “this too shall pass.” I’ve realized that stepping away and taking time for myself to reset and recharge is what works best for me. Stepping away for me often looks like taking a long walk or hike through our nearby forests and trails with my four dogs, or simply working in my flower and vegetable garden, which I love and consider my own ‘therapy,’ so to speak. Connecting with Mother Nature helps to keep me grounded, energized, and is my self care. 

We are a small team at Wabanaki Maple, but I think that communication is key when it comes to managing our mindset. We use a number of communication tools and meet on a regular basis so we can have important social interaction with each other. We try to keep our conversations open and often have fun with them, and I also encourage my team to reach out to me if ever they need to chat. I think it’s probably been the most challenging to not have daily, in-person interaction with each other throughout the pandemic. Thankfully, we are now moving towards business as usual with many of the restrictions being lifted in our area!

 

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to all entrepreneurs in your industry today?

If I were to only choose one important piece of advice to give to any entrepreneur in any industry, it would be to surround yourself and build meaningful relationships with like-minded, positive people. In other words, a strong network of friends, mentors, coaches, or other business owners that will support you — and vice versa. They can be an invaluable asset at any stage of your business. I personally have a wonderful circle of friends, family, and mentors who I know I can count on to share their knowledge, guidance, and experience with me. There’s been countless times I’ve connected to them for their support in finding solutions or navigating through a business obstacle. Sometimes, through my experience of simply just having a conversation, I’ve gained more insight, perspective, knowledge, and confidence about entrepreneurship and business practices as a whole.