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A co-founder’s journey to Sonantic

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Zeena Qureshi

CEO & Co-founder

March 8, 2022

Creative beginnings

My path to Sonantic was not a straight line but rather the intersection of several of my core values, lifelong passions, and career experiences.

I’m a first-generation Indian American who grew up in Texas. From the beginning, the importance of helping others and giving back to society was ingrained in me. My mother is a doctor who often volunteered at local community centres. My father came from a war zone and was driven to help refugees like himself. I grew up seeing their kindness and generosity, and thinking that contributing to society was the norm.  

At the same time, I naturally gravitated toward creative projects. Whether I was drawing, painting, or building sets for my high school’s plays, I loved making things. My passion for creativity led me to study abroad for university, where I pursued a specialised degree at the University College London in History of Art and Material Studies.

Outside of class and creative projects, I was fascinated by technology. I kept up with trends and followed the progression of startups, continuously thinking about ways to learn and create with computers. I often found myself wondering what the next breakthroughs would be.

Developing speech expertise 

While I was at university, my path took a new turn when a family member I cared for was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. My entire family came together to do whatever it took to help. A few of us trained in Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA), which is a way to work with children on the spectrum to improve their social skills and help them learn in their natural environment. 

During that time, I became an ABA tutor and worked closely with speech and language consultants to learn how to help non-verbal children communicate. This is where my experience with speech began. Working part time for nine years, I taught children how to use their voice as an instrument to communicate effectively. It was an eye-opening experience that taught me the building blocks for speech—a complex area that is crucial to everyday life but often misunderstood and seen as easy to master.

Taking the onramp to startups

After graduating from university, my passion for tech became my core focus. ​​I thought I could get my foot in the door at a tech company and make the jump to a startup once I had a few years of experience. Unfortunately, that approach failed. I was rejected by tech companies because I was a new grad. 

So, I refocused on startups. I started reading about them every chance I had and was inspired to build a company of my own. I knew I could learn along the way. This was the single best career decision I ever made, and I have loved every moment of it since. 

Fast forward to 2018: After several years in the startup world, I had accumulated valuable experiences both co-founding and scaling-up new businesses. These were all companies that I believed in on a deeper level as they aligned with my core values of helping humanity and giving back.

By late 2018, I was ready to build another business. That’s when I met John Flynn through a six-month incubator program, Entrepreneur First.



Paths intersect at Sonantic

When John and I met, we were both looking for co-founders to embark on something new. Little did we know that we both came from a decade of speech experience and had creative backgrounds. 

John and I became fast friends. One day he played me an AI voice demo that he had created and I was blown away. The quality was incredible—far better than anything I had heard before. I asked him how he made it and he explained his process. It was at that moment we both realised that John was teaching machines to speak the same way I had taught children to speak. 

It was clear the stars were aligned, so we decided to team up. He brought tremendous technical expertise and a background in the film world, and I had the startup experience to get us up and running fast. (Read more about Sonantic’s origin story.)

At Sonantic, we’re enabling creatives to produce engaging, captivating, and enjoyable stories. Those stories not only entertain, but they also have the power to educate and enlighten millions of people. Something I saw first hand from working with children, they all learn from story in its most basic form. Narrative truly is a powerful thing.  

Overcoming obstacles, accelerating toward the future

It might seem like co-founding Sonantic was destiny, but there certainly have been challenges getting here. For example, being a woman in business and deep tech has not been easy. Through all my startup experiences, there have been times when I’ve realised I was the only woman founder in a room with investors or the only woman on a call with customers. And on occasion I’ve noticed potential partners or customers engaging more with my male counterparts than with me.

I’ve become somewhat used to this bias against women in business and tech, but I shouldn’t have to be. I believe leaders in education, business, and technology can and should end that bias by empowering women in a variety of ways. For example, we should better support women in STEM education, ensure that women in business have access to the same financial resources as men, and commit to greater diversity in hiring for key roles. Including more of women’s voices in business and tech will benefit all of us.

While I’ve encountered some challenges as a woman in my field, I’ve also faced all the other challenges involved with building companies and bringing new products to market. From my years in startup life, I’ve found that a few simple principles have helped me—and can help anyone—navigate through potential hiccups along the way.

  • First, surround yourself with smart, supportive people. John and I have assembled an outstanding team at Sonantic, and we’re connected with extremely supportive peers and advisors—people who believe in us and in what we’re creating.
  • Second, be positive and recognise that everything is fixable. As a leader, you’re simultaneously responsible for solving problems and inspiring team members. By tackling problems with confidence, you can inspire your team to do the same
  • Third, simplify. The way to solve large problems is by breaking them down into smaller, more manageable ones. When you’ve successfully dealt with smaller issues, you can make larger ones disappear.

I’m genuinely inspired by our technology and excited about where Sonantic is headed. In the last few months alone, we’ve introduced new capabilities for conveying subtle emotions and non-speech sounds, and we’ve announced an exciting new partnership with Mercedes-Benz AG. Having an opportunity to lead a fast-moving, innovative company is what inspires and motivates me everyday.  

As we chart our future course at Sonantic, we’re eager to continue delivering human realistic AI voices to empower creatives to use those voices in new ways. Even though we’re a little more than three years into this journey, I feel like this is only the beginning.

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