These Black startup founders are harnessing machine learning and conversational AI to change the way we live, learn and drive.

Kristina Milyuchikhina Feb 15, 2022
Alexa Startups Black History Month

The Alexa Startups team engages founders and investors through startup programs, business development, and technical support. To commemorate Black History Month, we spoke to the founders of three startups supported by the Alexa Startups team on why they became entrepreneurs, and the visions they had for their startups. They also provided advice for other entrepreneurs.

Ilarna Nche, CEO 

Ilarna Nche is the CEO and Founder of Adassa Innovations, a Studio, and Consultancy that builds voice applications on ecosystems such as Amazon Alexa and Samsung Bixby. Nche is an award-winning Amazon Alexa Champion and Bixby Premier developer.

Why did you become an entrepreneur?

From a very early age, I always wanted to try new things, and was attracted to new technologies. Being an entrepreneur gives me the freedom to be whoever I want to be without limiting myself. I can focus on implementing new ideas, to add to my existing apps like Riddle Time, Music Bop Adventures, Horse Race and Beat the Clock. I love that I can tap into different environments in technology – and in fields as diverse as music, film and games.


What was your vision for the startup?

When I started Adassa Innovations, my vision was to tap into the then nascent world of voice and ambient computing. We’ve made remarkable progress over the last few years: today voice and Alexa offers businesses entirely new ways to connect with their customers and shape new experiences.  With Adassa Innovations, I am on a mission to introduce this new world of

Voice technology to companies, and help them bring to life a world of ambient computing.


What is your advice to other founders?

I realized very early on that you cannot run a business on your own. Make sure you find someone you trust and who complements your skill set. If, like me, you have many ideas, then the best way to execute them, is to focus on one idea at a time before moving onto another. Talk to others, network and gather advice wherever you can. Be persistent and keep going because you’ve got this!

Megan Gray, CEO 

Megan Gray is the CEO of Moment AI. She is an engineer specializing in machine learning and artificial intelligence. Gray was diagnosed with epilepsy at the age of 23. Her experiences inspired her to launch Moment AI, an autonomous vehicle (AV) company, which uses physiological and traffic data to prevent accidents and better the driving experience. Epilepsy impacts over three million people in the US – and self-driving cars are the only way many of them might be able to drive.


Why did you become an entrepreneur?

When I see problems, I automatically begin brainstorming how to make everyday life easier for people. I then sketch out solutions in great detail. Eventually, they become so vivid and full of details that I have to build them, and bring them to life. Being an entrepreneur allows me to share my ideas with the world, and help a lot of people.


What was your vision for the startup?

It is an understatement to say that the human body is complex and unpredictable. When developing human-centric computing solutions, you have to factor in so many unknowns. Drawing from my personal experiences, I was inspired to build vehicles with the most advanced AI systems that were capable of detecting the many complex and unpredictable events that a human body can go through. I wanted to focus on the multitude of "what ifs", and use AI and robotics to respond to the occurrences of these events. My ultimate goal is to develop vehicles that think and react like humans – I believe this is what will help vulnerable populations navigate safely, and lead fulfilling lives.


What is your advice to other founders?

The best startups are built based on needs. If you start with that what people " need", you'll always come out on top. As long as people need what you're building, then you will always have customers. And where's there're customers- there are investors and partners.

Monique Howard, CEO 

Monique Howard has over 20 years of experience developing technology solutions for companies like Procter & Gamble and Hewlett Packard. Howard is also a mother of two children with learning challenges, and says that the education system in the United States is ill-equipped in meeting the needs of those most at risk. With the development of our flagship Alexa Skill, Color Together, she launched Smarticles in 2020 to  build voice apps to support young students' socioemotional well-being and conversation skills through activities that help them manage their feelings and communicate with others.


Why did you become an entrepreneur?

Entrepreneurship gives me the freedom to envision a better future with the added benefit of defining how I achieve it. I'm forced to use every skill I've acquired over the years while finding solutions to fill the gaps I can't meet. It's the ultimate battlefield of ingenuity and endurance that encourages me to think outside the box every day.


What was your vision for the startup?

Learning to write doesn't always map neatly to a student's speaking ability. We believe that voice-forward technologies can help level the playing field for kids who struggle in this area. At Smarticles, our goal is to build a platform where students can have fun learning at their own pace while the technology captures and analyzes their responses. Educators can use the data and reports to tailor in-class instruction and therapies for their students with greater success than they can achieve today.

To give just one example, Color Together is a fun and engaging coloring companion for kids. Each child can have a conversation on what to color each part of the image. Along the way, Alexa shares meaningful stories, funny poems, and entertaining music, which keep the child engaged with the activity.


What is your advice to other founders?

As an entrepreneur, you must develop your story and have the skill to draw others into it. We work with limited resources, and often encounter obstacles that easily derail us. But, if we can get others to connect without our vision, we open the door to opportunities far beyond our scope and reach.

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