There’s one thing women in the technology field have in common, they are always asked a lot of questions over the years about their job and the industry they work in. From their experience, it’s much rarer to attend a tech meetup and see a fellow female and many are intrigued when they tell them about their position. From conferences to meetups, being the sole woman (or one in a sea of many men) in attendance can be overwhelming. From the men who clearly have no idea how to talk to women to just feeling like an outsider to the “boy’s club,” it’s not always easy being female.
Today, we have the pleasure of interviewing a woman in technology, Vinthujah Balasubramaniam. Vinthujah has a company called Startup Playground. Vinthujah founded the company out of a love for helping people realize their talents and potential and using that to create a viable business. Vinthujah wants to help women and people of colour make bold moves and literally shatter the box with their ideas.
By day Vinthujah is a product manager at a tech company creating products that bring better health outcomes for people. She is an advocate for diversity and inclusivity in tech and funding. Vinthujah is on a mission to empower more women and people of colour to redefine and shape the world by building businesses elevated by tech using their unique perspectives at its core.
Vinthujah in her own words:
What describes me the best is that I am a dreamer and I have this affinity for helping people realize their potential. I want to help people have the freedom to live life on their own terms.
For me that means, supporting my family and friends and having the flexibility to spend time with them. Travelling wherever and whenever I want while having a consistent income. Doing what I love and having a strong and lasting impact on people. No more 9 to 5 with two weeks of vacation. More living.
I broke into Tech in 2019. Now I’m a product manager responsible for mobile applications. In my role as a PM, I am honing the skills and knowledge to build my own tech company in the future and help others as well create tech products that create a powerful impact. Everything that I learn, I apply it to Startup Playground and help my clients with.
In my free time you can find me with friends or family or in a cafe working on my business. Or hopping on a flight.
What inspired you to start Startup Playground?
Where do I even begin?
I always had a lot of ideas and big dreams.
I was a young Sri Lankan girl dreaming without restrictions and inhibition. As I grew up I realized how my community and people with my background didn’t take many risks when it came to business or their career.
I am talking about immigrants and children of immigrants. Women, people of colour, and especially women of colour. I really want to help break down internal and external barriers that stand in our way so that we can build a life where we feel fulfilled and free.
We are often encouraged to take the stable and conservative career path. Engineer or doctor, although all great professions, I think we can go further.
We are encouraged not to take the risk, launch a business, but rather choose the career with the benefits and pension. The 9 to 5 job. I think 9 to 5 is the biggest scam of our time.
We don’t see people who look like us doing this enough. Taking the risk, being in positions of leadership, launching successful businesses, etc.
Working in tech allowed me to see that a lot of talent on the bottom is the BIPOC community but at the top there is a severe lack of representation.
Therefore, I think most of us believe that we can’t be like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, or these other huge tech founders.
My story isn’t that different from many other immigrants. We fled war from our home country in Sri Lanka. My parents took us to Canada so we could be safe and have a future. They took a huge risk.
I think this is where my fire comes from. I don’t think a 9 to 5 job is worth the risk my parents took for us.
I want to reach further and help others do the same.
This is where Startup Playground comes in. Startup Playground is quite literally like a Playground. I wanted to change the perception of risk people have when they think of launching a business. I wanted them to see that it can be fun but you will fall and scrape your knees just like at a playground. That you will be surrounded by friends who genuinely care about your success and who are ready to help you up.
I want to work with the Underdogs and really help them build a life they dream of, dream without inhibition and guide them to build a business with their own unique perspective.
I think this is how we can elevate our communities and create lasting changes and impact.
In your own words what do you do?
I help women and people of colour realize their potential. I guide them into discovering what their passion and purpose is then teach and mentor them to launch a business that is aligned to that.
The programs offered at Startup Playground take you through the process of building a business. You can build a business with just social media or a website. We also provide a premium program that includes creating an app.
We always start at a version of the ideation phase. We look at the world and what problems we can solve together using the passions and skills of the client.
I studied business and I work as a product manager at a fast growing tech company. I took everything I have learned from those disciplines and created a program that teaches people in a very digestible manner.
When you enroll in school you do a lot of assignments and projects then when you graduate you have a piece of paper (diploma).
At startup playground it’s similar but different.
We teach what is necessary to launch a business. You come with your determination and I provide assignments but these assignments are actually actions needed to be taken and applied directly to your business.
At the end of the program, instead of leaving with a diploma or a degree – you leave with a business.
By the last session – you would have launched your business.
How has it evolved during the pandemic?
Startup Playground was born during the pandemic.
The pandemic put a lot into perspective.
It was a pivotal point for me. I had enough of dreaming and not executing so I took the leap and launched Startup Playground.
I went through a lot of introspection and I knew many others were in the same place.
I believe that it was a great opportunity to help others because we were all evaluating what we wanted out of life and career.
This was a need Startup Playground was born to fulfill.
When did you first know that you wanted to work for yourself?
I think a part of me always knew but I was afraid to accept that because it meant all that stability and security would be gone.
My brother one day actually told me that I can never work in an organization and I actually was offended by that.
Now I see that is kind of true. I can work in organizations and for other people but I don’t think I’d be realizing my true potential.
I’m very much a visionary and change the world kind of free spirit with an immense desire to help others grow. I often don’t feel I have the right opportunities to do that in established organizations.
Working in different organizations also has shown me the different problems that exist. Whether it’s in the public sector or the private.
It really disappointed me what was being prioritized over other things that aligned with my values. For example – I could never work in an organization that didn’t have representation at the executive and board levels.
Do you have anything exciting on the horizon that you can tell us about?
I have two projects outside of Startup Playground but still very much connected to it and my overall vision.
My design lead and I are writing a book we are aiming to release in Spring 2022. I will be sharing more details on that in the next couple of weeks.
And I’m also building a platform that is at the intersection of fashion, tech, culture, and sustainability. We’re currently in our ideation phase.
How did you start with the Startup Playground? And what investment was needed?
Startup Playground is a service based business that requires little money investment but more time. It’s you who decides what mix of time and money investment you’re comfortable making.
My biggest cost was a business coach. Personally, I hired a business coach very early on because I knew there were some internal challenges that were holding me back. I said Enough was enough and I took the leap and hired a business coach because I couldn’t go on more years of dreaming and not executing.
I am also a full time product manager and this wasn’t a job I wanted to quit yet as it was directly tied to the future vision of SP so I could not invest as much time as I wanted.
I choose to invest portions of my income into Startup Playground.
I worked evenings and weekends.
I hired a brand designer to help me nail down the brand for Startup Playground based on my vision.
Then I hired an assistant to help me as well. I came to a point where I realized I couldn’t do this alone.
Sacrifices had to be made though of course. I stopped eating out and paying for taxis and Uber’s so I could afford the assistant.
I went through my bank statements and noted down all the subscriptions I needed to cancel and the areas where I could reduce my spending.
I actually interviewed someone for market research and she fell in love with the idea and believed in me so much that she offered to support me for free.
She’s an architect and web designer.
I took her on as a design lead and she helped with the web design, branding, and social media.
I was pretty resourceful where I put my time and money and outsourced what could be outsourced.
I had friends and family supporting me as well with whatever time they could contribute.
It definitely takes a community to build a business and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Can you describe your clients of Startup Playground?
My clients are mostly women and people of colour. They are all talented and intelligent (even if at times they may not see it themselves). They are determined and open to change and growth.
I can tell you more about their demographic but it’s their psychographic that really describes them. It’s what their values and goals in life are that really describe them.
They want to live a life that is purposeful, meaningful, do something they love while creating a positive impact on others. They have certain goals like financial freedom and freedom to build a life on their own terms.
They cringe at the thought of having a 9 to 5 in general or a job that isn’t fulfilling.
They’re the dreamers who are ready to put in the work.
What are the mistakes people make while running a new business?
I think a lot of businesses hypothesize on what their customers want and base a lot on their own opinion and intuition.
Intuition is great and all but you should not build anything without asking your customers.
I realize a lot of new businesses and even some larger ones never speak to their customers or fail to have a consistent feedback loop.
After speaking – you also need to listen. Really listen to what their problems are and if you’re meeting their needs.
Do you have any special advice for other ‘new business owner Diva’s’ out there?
Just start. Take that jump.
Because you will be miles ahead of anyone who’s ideas have not left their mind.
Take an iterative approach. Be open and prepared to make mistakes. Perfectionism is your enemy in entrepreneurship.
What is your ultimate dream for the business?
My ultimate dream for Startup Playground is to embed an investment fund into it so that we can invest in the entrepreneurs that enrol in our programs.
I’d like to invest in minority led businesses as I know there is a huge gap but a lot of potential.
What has been your favorite moment in your career so far?
The deep conversations I have with people in this space. Whether it is a client, another entrepreneur, or someone else sharing their story.
What is a skill you think all women should learn and why?
I think storytelling is the most or at least one of the most important skills anyone can have. Storytelling has been used since the beginning of time.
Storytelling is what inspires and influences people to act and change. Storytelling can mobilize a team or any group, it can help find and align with your tribe and communicate powerful messages to your customers.
Storytelling creates powerful and strong connections. This is true especially when the story we tell aligns with the stories others are telling themselves.
What has been your key (or keys) to success?
I accept that I am a beginner of many things and that it’s okay. I have the realization and total acceptance that I am going to make mistakes and the mindset that making mistakes is a necessary step on my path to success.
Sometimes we see failure as permanent and are afraid to fail or make mistakes – but we cannot succeed if we don’t fail.
What have been some of your failures, and what have you learned from them?
I have a good relationship with failures. All my failures have led me to something better than what I wanted. Failures are necessary and you are a stronger, smarter, more resilient person afterwards.
When I was finishing my undergraduate degree I was also applying for law school. My dream was to be a lawyer and it was something that was so embedded in my identity.
After trying for years, I had to put it to the side and focus on something else. I made a few plans (all of which I believed would also make me happy).
One of those was to do a masters in business in Europe. I look back at that part of my life and I feel so much relief and gratitude.
I am happy I didn’t go to law school because everything that happened after wouldn’t have happened.
My experience travelling and studying abroad is one of my most precious memories and it really shaped who I am today and clarified who I want to be.
Whenever I am met with failure, I have an understanding and appreciation for how it can benefit me.
Check out Startup Playground’s accelerator programs here