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No Barriers Podcast Episode 103: Radical Innovation with Hadeel Ayoub



Erik and Dave reconnect with tech designer and visionary, Hadeel Ayoub to chat about her incredible innovation: the BrightSign Glove, which can “translate any sign language into any spoken language – instantly.” Her work serves to give individuals with non-verbal disabilities a unique voice and is a stunning feat in the world of adaptive wearable technology.

This episode brought to you by Arrow Electronics.

In 2017, Hadeel Ayoub founded BrightSign, a wearable technology start-up. BrightSign develops technology pieces that employ AI to facilitate communication for individuals who need it, such as people with hearing or speech disabilities or children with non-verbal autism.

Hadeel’s BrightSign Glove innovation has gained international recognition and has won global awards in Innovation and Artificial Intelligence.

A special thanks to Arrow Electronics for sponsoring this episode as part of their series highlighting people pioneering inclusive technology.

Resources:

Twitter:

brightsignglove.com

From Sign to Speech:

“And you think they’re going to use it for this purpose, and then it ends up with a teenager being like, “I want to get the haircut that I want. I don’t want my mom to tell the barber.” And it’s a big deal for him. And a seven-year-old said, “I want to order nuggets at McDonald’s, and Mom always gets these healthy snacks for me.” And they just wanted the independence that we have.”

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Episode Transcript

Erik : Today's episode is brought to you by Arrow Electronics as part of a series highlighting folks who are pioneering innovation in inclusive technology.

Hadeel : And you think they're going to use it for this purpose, and then it ends up with a teenager being like, "I want to get the haircut that I want. I don't want my mom to tell the barber." And it's a big deal for him. And a seven-year-old said, "I want to order nuggets at McDonald's, and Mom always gets these healthy snacks for me." And they just wanted the independence that we have.

Erik : It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon, and I happen to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a no-barriers life, to define it, to push the parameters of what it means. And part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way. In that unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in and the summit, exists a map. That map, that way forward, is what we call no barriers.

Dave : Today we meet the scientists behind the creation of a glove that speaks aloud as you use sign language. Hadeel Ayoub is an experienced lecturer, researcher, and entrepreneur currently finishing a Ph.D. in human-computer interaction with an emphasis on machine learning applications for gesture recognition. In 2017, she founded BrightSign, a wearable technology startup developing enabling innovations that employ AI to facilitate communication for individuals with non-verbal disabilities. Enjoy the conversation.

Erik : Hadeel, we first met you at our No Barriers Summit a few years back, where you displayed one of the earlier prototypes of your glove. And I'm just curious: It seems like since that time, the business is really starting to take off. And I'd love for you to start us off. Describe for our listeners what the technology does.

Hadeel : BrightSign glove is a smart glove that... Anybody puts it on to teach it their own gestures and create a sign language library of their own that represents their own language in their own hand movements, and then they can set up the output speech in any language. It's primarily designed for anyone who don't have the ability to speak the way we do, so maybe they have a different way of speaking, a difficulty pronouncing words, or actually is born with that condition, or maybe lost their voice at a later stage in life due to an accident or a disease or having a stroke. And so even if they don't have a standardized library of sign language that they use, they can still create one. Kind of an overlap between assistive tech communication [inaudible 00:03:24] tech, even, if you want to say.

Erik : When I was doing some research about you and BrightSign this morning, there was some really powerful examples of ways that people would access, would use the device, like ordering a coffee, asking where the bathroom is. There is a story about a kid with autism who couldn't communicate, and he wore the glove, and he started running around in circles, which was a sign of being ecstatic. And it really was like a punch in the chest for me to realize how trapped people must feel when they cannot communicate basic needs to the world.

Hadeel : Yeah, absolutely. I was trapped in the lab for weeks at no end, developing each and one of these prototypes. But then you take it out there, and someone uses it, and you think, "They're going to use it for this purpose." And then it ends up with a teenager being like, "I want to get the haircut that I want. I don't want my mom to tell the barber what haircut she wants for me. I'm 15. I'm cool. I want this thing." And he wants that, and it's a big deal for him.

Hadeel : And a seven-year-old said, "I want to order nuggets at McDonald's, and Mom always gets these healthy snacks for me." They just wanted the independence that we have, and wanted to break away from that somebody that's with them all the time, sometimes translating their needs and sometimes they're not, depending on what level of authority and their role in their lives as well.

Hadeel : But also, there's a time factor. Going into a hospital and wanting that privacy with your doctor, but don't want to wait four hours until they bring in an interpreter. So the time that you're saving waiting for a translator and the privacy you can have with your doctor communicating something sensitive that maybe you don't want an interpreter in the room who's a complete stranger, let alone a parent. And sometimes it's a legal thing where you actually can't report with your parents sitting there, for any reason.

Hadeel : And all of these layers became very clear the more we worked with people, and designed the technology around them. Because we were in touch with actual user cases. We realized the various applications of this technology that we initially just thought has a place in the classroom. But it turned out that it has an amazing opportunity at work, because someone who's trapped behind a desk in an admin job can now interact with people and is moved and promoted into a different role where they can contribute further in the workplace, but also fulfill their need to be more active in their role in that job.

Hadeel : And all of these are examples I literally did not even have in mind when I was developing this technology. It's very rewarding and fulfilling at a different level.

Erik : And so you have this idea that you could maybe use this glove, this technology, as a way for people to sign and then have that sign translated to speech. But I mean... Okay, so that's a great idea that maybe other people had had or tried. There must have been just massive barriers to the process of developing a technology that actually works accurately. First of all, how many sensors are in the glove? Is it thousands, or...? Tell us about that.

Hadeel : There's a lot of sensors and different sensors. There are the sensors that actually measure how much your fingers are flexed and bent in different degrees, and there's a range of that. And there's also the margin of error between each sign when you perform it yourself, even though you're the same person. But there's also the other dynamic sensors that capture the angle of your hand in 3D space. Where your hand is when you start the sign, where it is when you end the sign. How is that relevant to gravity as well, because you can have a sign that does exactly the same thing, but one starts lower and one starts higher, and the only way to distinguish the difference is by calculating gravity and these factors.

Hadeel : And so there's multiple sensors in there. Most of them are all around us. We use accelerometers in our phones when we play these games where you take the phone, and it knows what you're doing. We've got all of these in different pieces of tech that we use in navigation. We just kind of put that together into a unique circuit that is small enough to be in a piece of textile and you can wear it and just use it everywhere you go.

Hadeel : To make it light and perform well and reliable, that was very, very challenging for us, because the sensors existed as technology, but not in a form that we wanted it to be. Even to be durable for children to wear them and take them off and put them on and take them off and then put them in their backpacks and then sit on them on the train. And all of that took a lot of refining to get it to the level where it is usable for every day, in any weather. You know, London rains every minute of every day. Even [crosstalk 00:08:28] to waterproof that was another layer of development.

Hadeel : It was very challenging, but I enjoyed it, because it just meant that our offering keeps better and better, and that the users can use it in the way that it's intended anywhere.

Erik : And Hadeel, I'm sure we have a bunch of aspiring innovators that listen to our podcast. We meet a lot of innovative folks here. So for you in this particular product, where did the idea originate?

Hadeel : So I speak sign language. I'm not an expert, but it's one of the languages I learned when I was younger, mainly to communicate with my sisters at home, because everybody spoke four different languages at home. So we were like, we have to invent a way. And so because I already knew that, and I was doing research in gesture recognition, it was a natural progression of application, because I wanted to do something with an impact and contribute to the field of research. But at the same time, to the community as well.

Hadeel : And so I also have a niece that is nonverbal, and she also uses sign language to communicate, but not everybody understands her when she tries to communicate. And I was like, okay, maybe there's a way I could combine my research and something that she can use. And I spoke to her speech therapist, and she said that they teach them two different forms of communication.

Hadeel : One for their immediate circle, which was sign language. And one with the public, which was through flashcards and applications on a tablet. And I was like, it's very confusing. She's only four. Why does she have to use different ways to communicate?

Hadeel : And I'm like, let me try to combine these so that she only learns one way. And then people who don't understand her way, can now be able to communicate in the way that they're used to, which is just speech.

Hadeel : And after a couple of prototypes and some rounds of testing, it came around to be very...

Erik : I feel just from a timeline perspective... How long ago was that when you first recognized this was something that was a need and now we're... Tell me about that time?

Hadeel : That was six years ago.

Erik : Okay.

Hadeel : The conversation started definitely six years ago. But I started the research a year after that. And anybody who is starting a new field of research will tell you the hardest thing is to pick that niche. Where can your research contribute meaningfully? Not just as a piece of paper or a document, but actually in the world. And that was just a light bulb moment. It was like, okay, this ticks all of my boxes. I'm also emotionally invested. And so, it was just that trigger that kept me going.

Hadeel : And obstacles are there and you have to overcome them but then that bit of you that keeps you going has to... For me, on a fundamental level, very, very emotional, being a mother as well. And that was my spark.

Erik : I think there was a blog out about a smart painting glove, a virtual painting glove that you were trying to develop as well?

Hadeel : I created an air draw program. So, for that one, I was like, what are artists trapped to create digital art by the keyboard and the mouse. And if they are artists and a creatives, then they want to use their hands. But then they have to create a digital piece. So I kind of gave them that freedom. And I've always wanted to break barriers in one way or another.

Hadeel : And so I created this gesture recognition system, where initially, it was just skeleton tracking for hands, so that an artist would have the air as their canvas. And as they moved their hands, they're creating art in the computer because the computer does understand what their hand is doing.

Erik : Wow!

Hadeel : Yeah.

Erik : And so you can like pick colors and everything and then just move your gloved finger around?

Hadeel : Yeah, pretty much. With a gesture. Make things bigger or smaller, finer, thicker, the strokes. You can select the designs that you want. You can do that, and you rotate something. You can pretty much manipulate that art piece because it wasn't trapped just using your fingers and hands and different gestures that you set up. So you decide that this means I'm done with my painting. This means open a new document, and so forth.

Erik : So from there, you realized, I guess, that, hey, there's not a huge leap between that technology and BrightSign, right?

Hadeel : Honestly, because I had that done, it lost its challenge for me because I did it. And then when I was doing a research for community impact specifically, and it was gesture recognition as well, I'm like, hey, I could bump up this tech, but for something else. How about I change the output to sign language translation and see if there's any potential there. And it was accurate right from the beginning, from the very first start. It just got the signs. It never had any errors. And I'm like, there's huge potential to make this into something real. I can add more features. I can change the way it works. I can make it wireless. I can add more languages. I can create different libraries. I can, I can, I can... And I just kind of borrowed all of the existing tech out there and also integrated with my own unique tech and created something new.

Erik : And I understand that there's some other gloves out there that try to do something similar, but they were like... You described it as like a gestures out of the box. They would just map certain signs. And they weren't that accurate. So your device, don't you customize it? So you have to customize like every word that you sign, which would be in the thousands? How does that work? How would somebody get started on it?

Hadeel : So it comes completely blank with no gestures recorded at all. And then every person trains it to their own sign language and build their own library over time. So with our users we realized that normally they would sit with a family member or with a teacher to train it for like an hour a day. And within a week, they've got 200 words, which are the most common words they'll use within their immediate circles.

Hadeel : And then eventually, they'll start refining that and adding to that. A lot of them too have been training shortcuts. So for phrases that they say all the time, they'll create a sign that will say the whole phrase because that is something they use very frequently. So even though you trained ten gestures or ten signs, you actually trained a full vocabulary of different scenarios where you're asking for help finding something, or you're saying good morning, or you're introducing yourself, or asking someone how you can help them, depending on your role.

Hadeel : And so, yeah, these shortcuts that, again, I didn't design, but my users came up with, were amazing because they cut the training time in half. The reason we were able to go on the market and other gloves didn't is because the same person who is training the glove is the same person who is using the glove. And that is why it is accurate. Whereas other gloves in the market, or even who try to be in the market, will be pre-trained in the log by maybe ten or 100 different people. But then the person who uses it has a different way of moving their hands or has a limitation that can't actually perform the sign, and then that doesn't give them a match. And then the accuracy levels drop.

Erik : Hadeel, are you finding that... I'm sure it varies widely from user to user, but do people tend to put this on mostly when they're going to talk with someone that they... Maybe they're going on a trip out of town, or they're going on the subway where they're going to interact with lots of people they may not be able to speak with. Are they using it day to day in their homes? Are they using it all across the board? Tell us what's a typical use case for someone who uses the glove?

Hadeel : So we were really surprised that everybody who puts it on doesn't take it off until the night. The way air pods have been initially designed to listen to music, and now people just keep them on all day doing everything with them, it's a similar case. And initially the first gloves we thought people would put them on and take them off. They'll only have four hour battery range on them. And the new ones, now, have 12 hours. And so people do use the full extent of the 12 hour charge range there. They put it on, and they keep it on all day because it just looks like a glove.

Hadeel : And basically they have open tips, which means you can still use your fingers for everything else normally. And because they're machine washable as well, they're not too cautious about getting them dirty if they eat or if they go out. And these are all things we kept in mind when we saw that the trend is to keep them on. And that's why we made them very simple, because they'll match anything you're wearing. They're not too obvious.

Hadeel : And, as you said, they keep them on. They use them on public transport. They use them to order themselves a meal. They use them to interact with people publicly or privately in their office or in school, depending on where they are.

Erik : That's amazing. I would have thought, like you said, that they would put it on for the time they needed it, and take it off. But because you've really focused on, consciously on, the right design, it seems like it's very comfortable to wear. And it's always there and accessible.

Dave : And a technical question, just curious, do people every sign with two hands, and so is there a way to do two gloves, or how does that work?

Hadeel : Yes, so most sign languages use two hands. And when we looked at... Because I'm a researcher as well, a lot of research has been done about one hand versus two hands. And so, the quality of signs, when both hands are signing, they're using the same gesture, or one sign, one hand is static while the other hand is moving.

Hadeel : So there's always a dominant hand that's doing the sign. And so we kind of had a couple of surveys asking people would you rather pay half of the purchase fee towards a glove and get all of this in this way, where 90% of your signs can be processed. Or would you rather have both gloves, but then you're going to have to pay double and get it all... Just signing in the way that you're used to signing.

Hadeel : And believe it or not, 98.9% came back with, we would rather pay half and have one glove. However, we are offering the two glove option on the website for people who want to have two gloves. We're also offering the upgrade option where you buy one glove, and if you feel like you want the next one, you can buy the second one. Honestly, a lot of people prefer to have a free hand that doesn't have a glove on it at all times. Also, because you're the person who's training the glove. You can train it with one hand, and then that's your sign there.

Hadeel : So, it doesn't matter. Because it doesn't have to match it to another sign that is the same using both hands for example. I think we kind of cheated there a little bit because we overcame that obstacle. And took the brunt of reducing the price, but at the same time, offering the best experience with signing.

Dave : Nice.

Erik : And Hadeel, as you mentioned, you're a researcher. You're a researcher at heart. That's part of who you are, and when you look at your background, PhD, and what you studied. So you come up with this brilliant idea and the technology. But starting a business from an idea is a very different set of skills and a whole different challenge. So can you talk to us about the challenge of going from what is a brilliant idea to actually building a business around it.

Dave : Yeah, because I mean like how do you set the price? And how do you figure out the partners that are going to manufacture this high tech piece of equipment? And oh, my gosh. My head started swimming thinking about all the things you probably have to fight through!

Hadeel : Yeah, that was a challenge on a whole new level for me because academia is very familiar to me. Business world, wasn't at all. And even though I came with very strong technical skills, I knew nothing about running a business or looking up financial projections or even pitching my idea to investment. And that was very challenging, however, I'd saying being in the UK really helped me because it's very... It is designed to help people with ideas progress into the business world, especially academics. So they've got a lot of spinoffs coming out of the universities that is making it into the business world and becoming really, really successful.

Hadeel : They have all of these programs to help academics turned entrepreneurs. And so, incorporating the company is almost free. You don't pay taxes. They match you up with mentors and guides that can help you in different stages. But I'd say the most useful bit for me was joining a hardware accelerator.

Hadeel : It was a business accelerator. It was intensive for six months, only for hardware technology. Because software start ups are very different than hardware start-ups. And the best thing they did for me is take me to China, to visit factories there that are basically specialized in wearable technology and wearable sensors. And so once I got the technology nailed, and I knew what exactly I needed to do, how much it would cost me, how long it would take, I was ready to pitch my business to investors. I was also very lucky to find the perfect partner to help me launch this in the UK.

Hadeel : He was also a founder of a start up in the healthcare field. And so he was very familiar with what was the regulation required for me to launch in that field. What are the financials expected? What are the expertise that I need to hire? And so, he had that business foundation, very strong skills, that complemented my technical knowledge. And together, we made a really good team, and then we were able to secure our first round of funding of half a million dollars that really helped us completely launch our product, go into manufacturing, and started collaborating with schools and counsels and healthcare clinics to provide this to everyone in their network free of charge. Which has always, always been my dream actually, to provide this to everyone who needs it through a scheme, an educational scheme, a disability scheme, an employment scheme, a disability scheme. But I wanted them to have it for free.

Hadeel : And that took another year of juggling legal work and compliance with different things, but it was something I was very, very keen on. And to have the right partner to understand that vision, and to have the right people to work with to get that off the ground, really wasn't easy. And even though I knew that it was going to be challenging, like you said Erik, it was really another level of learning. That learning curve there was something I would say, as difficult as the PhD degree.

Erik : Well, I imagine even pitching it to investors, right? I mean, they're going to be blown away when they see the technology. But I don't know if the deaf community is similar to the blindness community, but it's kind of an economically deprived community, the blindness community. So there are a lot of amazing technologies that struggle a bit because investors are like, is there a big enough base to pay for this technology.

Erik : So was that a struggle with investors at all?

Hadeel : Yes, of course it was. Our scaling up doesn't mean the same thing to a software scale up, where their numbers are in the hundreds of millions. And their investment can actually get revenue in the billions. You're absolutely right. The market is very small and the funding towards it is not enough.

Hadeel : I think the way we targeted it, is basically, there's a huge shortage in the market for interpreters. And there's a lot of funds allocated to them. And so when there's only one interpreter per 100 users available to fill that gap, but then everybody who requires an interpreter has the funds allocated, this is money sitting there, waiting for someone to use it. And the UK system is anybody in education will have that fund accounted for them, basically.

Erik : Right. So they'll save money.

Hadeel : Yeah, that money is there. It's just waiting to find the right technology or the right person to be used. And so all we said is now we have something for these budgets to be spent on. And the money exists and it's there.

Hadeel : I think the one thing with investment that was very challenging is how much profit they wanted versus how much I was willing to give, because there's no competition in the market. There isn't. There isn't another product that provides the same service. And so for investors, they're like, oh, my God, no competition. Let's make it tenfold the revenue and profits. And I'm like, no. The whole point that assisted technology is so hard to access is because it's so expensive. And I worked so hard on every prototype to make sure that it's as cost effective as possible to provide the lowest possible fees eventually.

Hadeel : And so the best way we were able to to do that is to have corporates pay for it, or councils, or governments pay. And so that way, we get the revenue that the investors want, but at the same time, the end user doesn't have to pay for it.

Erik : Hadeel, I noticed that you are now offering wearable tech workshops. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Hadeel : Yes, so because of the enormous struggle I faced when I was developing BrightSign, and there wasn't any formal education specifically targeted towards wearable technology, you would have to be in fashion and take a course in smart textiles. Or you'd have to be in technology and want to look at how to miniature circuits and make them very small, but there wasn't anything specifically for wearable tech.

Hadeel : I decided the academic in me is still there. Right? I founded a business. I launched a company, but that bit of me that loves teaching was still there. And I'm like, I just can't let go of it. And so I decided to create workshops for wearable technology and offer them to anyone who doesn't have any background in coding, programming, electronics, anything. You just come, press start, and in five days you will walk away with a piece of technology that you designed. You put together the circuit. You program it yourself. And you can actually wear it. And it will do what you want it to do.

Hadeel : And, I mean the women that came... And they had these amazing ideas. Very different applications. This lady wanted to create a bracelet for her son who would panic when people would come too close to him. And so, she added these LED lights so that it would light a certain color to tell someone, hey, you're too close. Back up. Or a different color to say, I'm now very comfortable and calm. And I'm in I'm in my safe space now. You can approach me.

Hadeel : Someone else created a pill dispenser for their patient to remind them when their different times to take pills. And whenever it's time, that bit of whatever they designed for them to wear, would pop up with the right pills. Someone just designed a flashing dress that actually just, if you jump, it will light red. If you twirl, it will light green. And it was for her six year-old. And she was like, she just loved it.

Hadeel : And these are very simple ideas, but at the end of the day, shows them that this area is accessible.

Dave : Are there other applications? Broader applications? Like, I think I remember I read the story about Ray Kurzweil who invented the scanner to create files into speech for the blind. And then it turns out there's this broader application to the world. Is there some applications to the gaming industry or something where it's going to be this massive application possibly?

Hadeel : Yes. The gaming industry and the entertainment industry are the biggest applications for these kind of gloves because, especially now with the immersive tech environments that everybody's trying to create for gaming and for theater and for movies and for motion capture, it can save them so much money in the equipment that they're using now. Because it takes away all of the green rooms and all of that stuff that they're doing. And they can just track your hands all the time without needing to isolate that from the background, using the cameras they're using now.

Hadeel : So the equipment that costs so much now doesn't have to be there. And so we get a lot of requests from that field. But I've always said they've got enough. Don't they? They've got all of these people developing tech for them whereas my community, that I'm designing this for, they don't really have a lot of people working on it. And so, I'm kind of still resisting the temptation to go into entertainment, although I know there's a huge application there. You're absolutely right.

Erik : Earlier on in our conversation, you said that part of what inspired you to work on this project was your niece. So is your niece a user of the product?

Hadeel : Yes! She is. My niece actually now started talking, a few years now. And she's not fluent yet, but she finds it's safe to use the glove in unfamiliar surroundings, with people she doesn't really... For people she doesn't know how they'll take her speech because her speech is still not fully formed like us. So she found her voice. She is speaking, but she's also still using the glove and supplementing that with her everyday communication.

Hadeel : She was also able to move to a mainstream classroom now, and is making new friends completely on her own. So it's really great to see that... It hits close to home, but it also means that I can extend that experience to more children, more schools, more families, which is the whole idea of quality life and independent living.

Erik : And we talked about the process of launching a business and going from innovation and research to design, to launching the business. I know lots of folks who create new products who are always dreaming up the next thing. So are you in the phase of your business now where you're fully focused on this product and solely this product, or are you dreaming up the next thing as well?

Hadeel : I'm still focused on this product because I want to increase the offering and expand to different markets. And every market has its own way of entering it and collaborating with the right people to get it to the end users. And basically, it's a lot of meetings with government sectors in different countries now, trying to provide the after sales tech support, which is another world that I didn't know existed even. And getting regulated in these different markets. And also offering the finance option, which means people can pay for it over time.

Hadeel : We're offering now up to three years of that for the people who actually can't qualify through any scheme. And, all of these things are still happening now. So I don't want to move on to something else unless I've got this fully secure and offered in the best possible way in every country I am able to access, because some regions just are inaccessible at this moment because of the price range we are operating in.

Hadeel : And so now we are looking back at how can we manufacture a lighter version that has basic features that can be offered at a much lower price just to enter those developing markets that actually have 80% of the world population that is nonverbal. So they are in need of this technology. It's just that this price range is impossible to access. And so I think I'm a long way from switching to another-

Erik : Yeah. There's a lot of work to still do.

Hadeel : Yeah.

Erik : Yeah. And you mentioned price point a few times. What is the price point of the product?

Hadeel : Right now, it's $1000. And the closest competition is at 2 to $3000, which is actually a different offering altogether. It's an application on a tablet, so it doesn't provide two way communication. It doesn't provide sign language traction at all. But anyway, it is used for communicating.

Hadeel : And so we are less than 50% of the next competition. Which is good, and it was what I wanted, but now I want more. I want to be able to offer it even cheaper for people who could never even afford the 2000 or 3000 at all. But also, can't still afford it, even if it's less than 50%.

Hadeel : And that is primarily for developing markets. But at the end of the day, they have the most user cases and the least technology to help them to just reach their full potential and live an independent life.

Dave : Yeah, I mean, I know I'm preaching to the choir, but I took a No Barriers team to Nepal a couple years ago, and we visited a school for the deaf. And at the end of this wonderful day with these kids, I asked the administrators, what happens to these kids when they graduate? And they were brutally honest. They said, "A very slim portion go on to get jobs, maybe as a waiter. There's a restaurant in Kathmandu that hires deaf people." Because a lot of them end up being domestic servants or prostitutes. They're just on the streets. They have no chance. So it's just really, really powerful what you're doing to break through these barriers all around the world.

Hadeel : That's so disheartening for me to see that the UK has all of these incentive programs to make employers hire people with different abilities. And so they don't pay income tax for them. They get grants from the government to employ them. They get all of the tech they need sponsored by the government. And so, it is really very attractive for an employer to hire someone with different abilities because that means they get all of these incentives from the government. Whereas in other places, this is not the case. Not even in my home country.

Hadeel : And so, that's the first thing I... I've always had it in my mind is, I'm not designing for one user case, for one market, I want all of the markets to be like that. And there's a lot of awareness that I bring with me to every market that I go, trying to create programs like that, and trying to create teams where people can qualify and get this through even their medical insurance, because that centers very heavily. They have all of their regulations in place, and that would be the best way, in some countries, to just try to get yourself in there and then create these kind of schemes.

Hadeel : And that's why... Yeah, expanding to different markets is really now taking over my days and my meetings and my schedules because I want to learn that how can I get myself in there and primarily for the advantage of the users. How can they get the glove? How can they get it without paying? How can they get it and use it and work and study and all of these things? And as you said, if there isn't that culture, it really makes it even harder, even if the tech exists, they have to be able to acquire it and use it and find places to accommodate their needs and their conditions as well.

Dave : Hadeel, you mentioned your home country. Do you mind if... I'm really curious about your background because growing up in Saudi Arabia, my perception is it's not the easiest environment for a woman to become super highly educated, engineer, inventor, entrepreneur... Was your family encouraging? Was the culture encouraging for you to go out and crush it? Or were there a lot of barriers on the home front?

Hadeel : It's absolutely the opposite of what you said. Or maybe my experiences. So my parents are doctors. They are pediatricians. They are both consultants. So I come from a very highly scientific family background. Also, because there isn't a lot of things for women to do in Saudi, at a point in time, now things have changed... We kind of only had education, because that was the one place we were allowed to go. We were allowed to study all the way to PhD levels. Absolutely free. Sponsored by the government because we weren't allowed to do anything else.

Hadeel : And so you'll find that the majority of the highest educated people in Saudi are women because we couldn't work in companies. We couldn't work in restaurants. We couldn't work in retail or banks or anywhere. So education was our thing. So it was my government that sponsored my PhD education even though it was in the UK. But they sent me. They sponsored me. They paid my fees and paid it all.

Dave : That's fascinating.

Hadeel : For me to launch my business in Saudi, there was the challenge. That didn't happen. I tried. I was really, really keen on having this made in my home country because at the end of the day, they sponsored my education. And I went back, and I founded a company, but it was impossible to survive because as a woman, sole founder, it just wasn't going to happen. Nothing there was ready to welcome me or accommodate me in that way. And so, I relocated to the UK where I was anyway to do my PhD. And I launched, I got investment, I commercialized and everything. And now, that Saudi started moving towards all of the new, not being reliant on oil. And trying to make revenue in different ways. They started now focusing on the start up market, and youth, and entrepreneurship, and innovation.

Hadeel : And now I have like 17 jobs lined up back in Saudi, not to work in this field, but to create that field. They want me to come back and create accelerator programs, create innovation programs, create entrepreneurship training programs, because they realize they need to have that space. That wasn't there when I went back, so they couldn't support me. So they want me to be part of the team to create that space for the new entrepreneurs and start ups, to thrive and succeed. Because the money is there. It's the infrastructure that they don't have, and the know how.

Hadeel : And so, I think maybe in that was I was a visionary in a way because I decided to study a field that wasn't in Saudi. Even Artificial Intelligence or gesture articulation, those fields don't exist in Saudi. And I had to fight to get approved. Because they were like, you're going to come back and teach what? We don't have that field.

Hadeel : And I used to say, I'll come back and create it. That's the whole point. Let me study something you guys don't have. I'm studying for the future. What's the point of me doing something you guys already have. And so I think even though at the time, they really resisted me, and I faced a lot of obstacles, they now came back and were like, actually, we can't find anyone to hire with your expertise. Can you come and do this in 17 universities. I'm like, Okay...

Hadeel : Yeah. It's a small victory, but, it makes me also... I feel like I'm very lucky that I have that insight, and it didn't stab me in the back. And I still have a place if I want to to contribute to my country. But family-wise, no, I always, always had their support. Me and my sister were all post-PhD level at the moment. Yes, educated abroad in Boston, Canada, and London, but we are all going back and trying to give back.

Dave : God, that's really exciting to be able to have that kind of impact, to create a whole new sector, community within Saudi Arabia. It's so exciting.

Erik : Hadeel, are you proud of what you've accomplished?

Hadeel : The thing is, no matter how much I accomplish, I feel like I'm not doing enough. And maybe I'm too tough on myself, but honestly, I've always been like this. I always want more. I always want to achieve more. I always feel like, what if I did this? Would I be here or not?

Hadeel : I don't know if that's a healthy thing or not a healthy thing or if I even want to promote it, but that's the way I am. I know I've accomplished so much relative to what I set up myself to accomplish, because I came here to do a PhD and that turned into a patent that turned into a product that turned into a company and now is going global. Which is amazing, but I still want more. I don't know what more is at the moment. I just feel like I can do more. I can create more. I can change more lives. And I want to keep going.

Dave : We, Erik and I, have a colleague that helped start No Barriers whose name is Dr. Hugh Herr who helps run a lab out of MIT that makes some of the most advanced prosthetics in the world. And he says that entrepreneurs and pioneers have to have a fearless belief in a future that does not yet exist. And I feel like, Hadeel, you have that passion for helping bring about a future that doesn't exist. And it drives you every day.

Hadeel : Yeah, I think I'm addicted to that now. I don't know any other way.

Erik : Hadeel, I just want to thank you so much for being a part of our No Barriers community. And for taking the time to share your story with us today. And for all the work that you're doing.

Hadeel : Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure.

Dave : Yeah, thank you, Hadeel.

Erik : Yeah! We'll look forward to having you again at a Summit when things are back to normal, maybe in a year or so.

Hadeel : I'd love that.

Erik : Yeah, well, good luck, Hadeel.

Dave : All right. No Barriers. Thank you, Hadeel.

Erik : We would like to thank our generous sponsors that make our No Barriers podcast possible: Wells Fargo, Prudential, CoBank, Arrow Electronics, and WinniBeagle. Thank you so much for your support. It means everything to us. The production team behind this podcast includes senior producer Pauline Schaeffer. Sound design, editing, and mixing by Tyler Cottman. And marketing support by Heather Zoccali, Stevie DiNardo, Erica Howey, and Alex Schaeffer. Special thanks to the Dan Ryan Band for our intro song, Guidance. And thanks to all of you for listening.

Erik : If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com.


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