My name is Tania Zapata. I'm originally from Colombia. I came to the US when I was 18. I'm a tech entrepreneur, and right now I'm the CEO and Founder of an app called Akili, which is about to launch. Akili is an adaptive child development app that will provide parents or caregivers with activities that enhance or improve one or more different areas of development in kids.
Tania Zapata is a people geek. There’s something about understanding why people do things, how people behave and things like that; that's definitely something that I love to do, and more so for other people but for myself as well. I like to understand why we do things the way we do, and how we make decisions and things like that. I'm a caring person. I love to help others. And I'm a learner – I love to learn. I'm always engaging in something new, something that is going to teach me a new lesson, something new in life.
Tell us about your career journey.
My career journey started pretty much when I came to the US. When I came to the US, I didn't know any English, actually. I had to learn English first, and so I had a lot of jobs that I could do without English. So I was doing some cleaning, and some non-qualified jobs to start with. Once I started learning English, the jobs started to get a little better. So I got a job as a salesperson at Burdines, which is a department store in Florida. And after that, I was able to get a job –which I believe was probably the most important job that I got – as a receptionist at a Hispanic radio station in Miami. And that was, I believe, a turning point in my life because since then I just started working at the radio station, doing different kinds of things – anything they would allow me to do, that I could get my hands on, I would do. And what I wanted to do especially was to start doing voices, to be behind the microphone and things like that. And I did. I started doing everything I could until I finally had a radio show at night – I was able to get my own radio show at night. And after that, I just started doing voiceovers on the side.
The business that I founded in 2002, 2003 was the first marketplace for voice actors (Voice123). And I founded it along with my husband. And so if I had not started at the radio station, we wouldn't have that business. Voice123 was profitable by month six, which is very rare. I mean, in general, companies do not become that successful that quickly. On the other hand we got overly optimistic and we thought that every single endeavor or business that we were going to found was going to be as successful as that one. So that was not good. We had a lot of businesses that failed after that. But in 2013, we decided to launch another business that was related to the voice over industry as well, but this time it was a fulfillment process for voice overs and this one is growing as well.
In 2016, I decided to step aside from the business and my co-founder, which happens to be my husband as well, to cover leadership of that business. And I focus entirely in my new venture – Akily – which is an educational app. Education is something that I have always been very passionate about; I know how important it is to have a good education, especially early education, and that's what I'm working on right now.
What are your top accomplishments?
My top accomplishments – well, there are two that are professional and one that is personal that I believe are very important to me. As an adult I was diagnosed with ADHD. I always knew that something was going on because ADHD can be a very difficult condition to manage, especially because you have a lot of issues with focusing and completing long term tasks and things like that. And I struggled with a lot of different things. Discovering that I had ADHD instead of putting me down – it was sort of felt like a relief. I really love knowing, ‘okay, now I completely understand.’ And when I say it’s one of my top accomplishments, it’s that right now I know that I have created different kinds of exercises and things that I can rely on to have my ADHD under control; without necessarily also losing the benefits of ADHD, which is creativity and thinking out of the box, and all of those things. So in a way I'm a proud ADHD, and my top accomplishment is just having under control the negative effects of ADHD while trying to benefit from the good things of it.
For my professional accomplishments out there - the first one was when we launched Voice123, where we launched the first marketplace for the voice-over industry. And with that we revolutionized the industry. Before we launched Voice123, everything was done manually. People had to go to studio to do a casting to get hired for a voice-over project. With Voice123, we took that out of the of the spectrum, and people now can audition from the comfort of their homes, they can have their own studio at home. So we not only allow them to be the owners of their own lives for voiceover actors, but also to be able to work from anywhere. Before Voice123, only people that were in markets that had a lot of necessity for voice actors, voice professionals –like LA, New York, Chicago – were the ones that were doing voiceovers. Now people can live just about anywhere and they can do voice overs from home.
The other top accomplishment that I'm very proud of is that we bootstrapped our company. So we started with our savings – about twenty thousand dollars that we had in the bank – with my co-founder and husband, and that's how we have grown our companies. We have never raised capital, and that is something that we're very proud of. Not a lot of people can say that they can grow companies without raising capital.
How has your background influenced your success?
My background has influenced my success in different ways. One of them is ‘adaptability’. When I was growing up, especially when I finished high school, Colombia was at the peak of the drug wars. There was a lot of instability. There was an economic recession. So when you're coming out of high school and you see that the prospects of success in life are so minimal, you really have to adapt and you have to start thinking about new ways of doing things. What am I going to do, how am I going to do, how I'm just going to survive. So I think adaptability is one of them. It was an important lesson. Adaptability is definitely one of the most important characteristics that you have to have as an entrepreneur. Every time that you start a project, you don't know what the outcome is going to be. You’re going to have to take a lot of calculated risks, but you really don't know what the outcome of those risks are going to be. And so that's something that you always have to have – if something doesn't work then you have to start tweaking and tweaking to make sure that it works in the end.
The second lesson came from my mother. She was a public defender. She was one of the first public defenders in Colombia, and she was doing criminal law in a country that had a lot of issues in terms of criminality. So she taught me to be tough, to be strong. And when I say ‘being tough’, it’s understanding that everything in life is a lesson. Whether something is not good, that it’s painful, when I say ‘being tough’, it means you just need to learn from it and recover. To be resilient, pretty much; and I think that that's also important. And it's not important only in business, but also important just in life. You never know what's going to happen, and so being resilient being tough, being strong, it's good. Especially if you're a woman.
She also taught me to be empathetic. In her line of work, she didn't earn a lot of money for it. She was doing it just for the passion of helping others, and that's something that I have always admired and that I will always admire. Empathy is such a wonderful characteristic. When you're empathetic, you can relate to people, you can understand how people do things, why they do things. And it definitely helps you with your co-workers and with people that you work with – to understand, to connect, to be able to work as a team, to collaborate as well. So empathy, it's this really important characteristic. And also I think it's important for the things that you do. You definitely need to make sure that every single thing you do, even if it's a for-profit business; that there is something good that it's doing. It's not just for making money, but it has to have a good impact.
What are your thoughts regarding the POLING Principles?
The POLING principles definitely resonate with me. There are two that resonate with me the most – (L)ead and (G)row. Lead is an important principle because you really need to make sure that you know how to lead, how to select your team, how to take them from one place to the next so they can help you actually grow your company. And I think we made a lot of mistakes early on. I mean, we probably still do – you're always learning. But I think at the beginning we made a lot of mistakes because we didn't know that we really needed to be the driver of that bus for our team. And we also needed to make sure that we knew who was a good passenger for that bus – and that was an important learning lesson for us. We had no idea who were the good passengers for that bus. And I was making sure that we were driving that bus correctly and going in the right, positive route.
Grow I would say is by far the most important one, because you always have to learn from your mistakes. It's actually important to make mistakes and learn from them. To make sure that you always evaluate your mistakes so you don't actually repeat them. And that has been true for us in every single step of the way since we started. As I mentioned before, we were very successful with the very first endeavor that we tried. And of course that gave us a lot of confidence, and we started launching other businesses; and right off the get-go, the two, three businesses after that were a failure. We didn't have a good framework of failure, because we hadn’t failed before. We were very successful with the first one, and then we started failing, but we did learn from those failures. And so we move on. We make other failures as well, but we have always tried to learn from every single thing where we made a mistake.
Tell us about a challenge you faced.
When we launched Voice123, we had no idea we were going to revolutionize an industry. And obviously, when you revolutionize an industry, there are people that are sort of like the holders of the status quo that are always going to be affected by it. And I think we had a little bit of pushback from that at the beginning, and we thought that it was about our background; we thought that it was because we were immigrants or because we had accents that it was what was bothering them. But as time passed by and we started seeing that a lot of people were possibly affected by what we have founded, by our site, and receiving positive feedback from them, we realized that it was that it wasn't about our background. It was about the fact that their livelihood was changing – that we were changing the status quo. And they were affected by it. But the majority of the people that we actually touched through our site – and we still do because the site is still growing – has been very positive about what we have done. And we started getting a lot of positive feedback so we realized it wasn't about our background.
Who are the people that have influenced you the most?
There are a lot of people that have influenced me in my life. My family, definitely my mom, was an extremely important influence on me. She was very strong. She selected a career that was: A, not very common in women and B, that required for her to be super strong. I mean emotionally strong. She was a criminal lawyer in Colombia. And my uncles, my aunts, they helped me out when we came to the U.S. It's actually thanks to them that I'm here.
And my husband, as well. I mean it does trickle down to him. My husband – he has been an extremely important figure in my life. We could not have done the business if we had not found each other because he didn't know the industry and I didn't I have the technical skills to do that business. It was sort of like a match made in heaven. And there are a lot of other people, but I would say that my immediate family, because they also gave me the most important thing. They pay us for very good school - the school I went to was really good. I have a very good basis from a really young age. And my extended family – my husband.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
The advice that I would give to my younger self is: you will still not know how things are going to play out in the future, but you’re not going to feel as anxious as you are at that moment. There is always going to be uncertainty, but you're going to feel okay with not knowing what's coming. So that's my advice that I would give my younger self.
What do you think about the Inspiring Diversity community?
Community to me is sort of like a support group. It’s this group of people that you can tap into when you need something, whether that is tools or knowledge or just emotional support. And it's important. You always have to have a community that you can rely on. How I see the ID community having an impact is exactly that. It’s a resource center, not only of knowledge and stories and experiences, but also people that understand how you feel as an entrepreneur, or how you feel growing a not-for-profit company. Or they can help you as well – if they had gone through that path, that experience, they can give you a hand with anything that you need.