We’re so excited to welcome Hadeel Ayoub as our latest Tech Sister! Tech Sisters Stories is a series that profiles Muslim women in tech and brings attention to the incredible personalities and work we have in our community.
Hadeel is an experienced lecturer, researcher, and entrepreneur with a demonstrated history of working in the higher education industry. Skilled in innovation, creative coding, programming and design research. She is the creator and founder of BrightSign, a glove that translates any sign into any language.
Can you describe how you first got into tech?
My dad is very tech-savvy and would take new technology home for us to take apart and learn how it works. Later on, when studying design at university, I found myself drawn to digital design and looked for ways to hack the software to get it to do what I wanted. That led me to study programming; and, once I became good at that, I realized that I was being held back by the hardware, not the software. I didn’t want to use the keyboard or mouse. I wanted to interact with the software that I wrote in any way I want to. I started looking at gesture recognition, having the computer know what my hands are doing without me having to input a letter or action physically.
Once I learned more about gesture recognition, I decided to focus on it for my Ph.D. I started building software that interacted with my hands when I move them around. I was selected to represent my university, Goldsmiths, at an IBM hackathon focusing on artificial intelligence for social care. They wanted us to use their software for something that has a positive community impact. I combined the gesture recognition tech I already built with my knowledge of sign language to make a glove that could translate signs into text to speech. It was brilliant! Because this was for a hackathon, I only had four days. I don’t think I would’ve put this together if I had more time, honestly.
I won the competition, but I never thought there was a market for what I built. I felt like this is great, but I’m going back to my Ph.D. research! But the news of what I did caught on, and I started getting lots of emails from parents and schools. They had children who couldn’t speak but were very good signers, and they felt these kids could really benefit from my tech. These stories really affected me, and I struggled to decide if I should change my Ph.D. focus. I felt torn between feeling called to help people and wasting the six months I already spent working on my Ph.D. In retrospect, I’ve been working on this Ph.D. for about five years now, so six months feels like nothing!
The night I had to make a decision, I prayed istikhara and went to sleep. When I work up, I saw an email from a woman I didn’t know containing a video of her son. He was on a train asking for directions using sign language, and people were completely ignoring him because they couldn’t understand what he was signing. It felt amazing that I had prayed for guidance the night before, and now Allah gave me this sign. Clearly, I was meant to work on the BrightSign glove.
Honestly, I don’t regret changing my Ph.D. focus at all. This has been such a fulfilling journey! I’ve been able to directly change so many lives by impacting how people experience communication and help schools implement this for their students free of charge. This journey has taken a lot of twists and turns, but it’s always been bigger than me. It’s always felt like more than I can achieve. I always have to jump. Sometimes I make it, and sometimes I don’t. But even if I fall, I learn from that experience to make better judgments the next time.
While developing the BrightSign glove, you clearly had a strong focus on your users. How did having that focus help you get the BrightSign glove to where it is now?
My academic background taught me to work in cycles of build, measure, learn. I build the tech, measure it by testing with users, and learn from the results to improve the next version. The user is always at the center of development in my research, development, and company. It’s all designed for them! It doesn’t matter what I think is better, everything comes down to their experience and needs. Even from a business perspective, it doesn’t matter if they’re buying the glove or getting it issued to them – if the glove doesn’t fulfill their needs, I will not exist. I am obviously very passionate about this. I feel like I have a responsibility to have a solution that helps people live better lives and make it available for everyone; maybe it’s the mother in me.
I loved having a close connection with my users, I even used to hand make every glove. It was a beautiful experience! I used to embroider their gloves with their favorite characters or symbols. If I knew someone loved Lego, I would upload some lego patterns to the sewing machine and embroider them on the glove. I made them myself with love.
Did focusing on your users at this level lead to any difficulties as BrightSign grew into a company?
Cost is a huge thing when it comes to who can access assistive technology. At the same time, no one will invest in a company that doesn’t make a profit. I needed to get the balance right where we’re sustainable as a company but not putting unreasonable cost burdens on the users. Finding a business model that fits that vision was very hard!
I was lucky that I started my business in the UK. There are tons of schemes to provide assistive technology to people who need it through schools, employers, or health insurance. I made sure that I exploited every loophole and made sure that everyone eligible was aware that they could have the glove issued to them. I based my pricing on the cost margin I needed to maintain for the glove to be distributed through government schemes.
BrightSign is profit for purpose, meaning that it’s somewhere between a profitable business and a charity. The way I structure my pricing means that I might not make the same profit my investors want, but I can get my glove into the hands of more people who need it. It’s hard for people to digest my business strategy, but I’m doing things my way. It works for me, and I produce better work when I’m happy.
What challenges did you go through as you transitioned from product designer to entrepreneur?
Transitioning to an entrepreneur was my most challenging career change. I had zero background and knowledge of the business world, it was an area I didn’t really operate in, and there was a lot at stake. At the end of the day, it comes down to the financials. If you don’t produce something viable, no one will look at you no matter how amazing your technology is. It looked like my best bet was to sell my idea, my patent.
A famous tech company was interested in buying the glove, but they didn’t want to do anything with my tech. They just wanted to buy and keep it. They said it would probably be used in some aspect of one of their products, but not for sign language. And if they did make it into a product, they said they would charge $10,000 for it.
When I learned that, I thought, “Ok! That means I’m keeping my tech!” It was an easy walk away decision for me. I don’t know what I’ll do with BrightSign in the future, but I know I will never sell it at the stage where someone can change the product, model, or services.
You have such a personal and deep connection with your product. Was it hard to get rejected or realize others didn’t share your vision?
No, I just saw it as a difference of opinion. I’ve always been different. I’m very picky with who I work with and how I work. It is more typical for people to not see and understand my vision. I don’t seek approval in anything, not in the way I dress or in the way I speak. The effect of my work is what matters to me, and I block out everything else.
People’s opinions really don’t affect me at all. If you have something constructive to tell me how to fix something, please do. But if you have a comment just for the sake of it, then keep it to yourself. Living in the UK taught me to have a poker face. I don’t reveal how I feel or what I think to outsiders anymore. And I know being like that benefits me in tech and in a male-dominated space. I’m not easily manipulated or pushed around.
What advice would you give to women wanting to develop their own product?
Definitely do it. Don’t let people discourage you. Look at other people’s failures, because it will help you get through your own. When I started this, I was utterly alone. I bumped my head against so many walls thinking that there’s no way I could do this, and I didn’t realize that this is a very typical struggle. I didn’t understand how widespread this was until Goldsmiths invited me to talk to first years, especially in the 3rd or 4th week, when the girls typically start dropping out.
It’s normal for everyone to have a tough first few weeks when you’re going into programming. And when you’re a girl, and there’s only 2 of you in a class of 15, it’s especially easy to feel intimidated and drop out. I tell them that I’ve been there too. I’ve felt lost, and I only got the hang of it by the end of the year. This is totally normal. Stick it out, and you’ll make it.
It’s not easy, but you can do it! Surround yourself with people who either have gone through the same thing as you or are currently going through it. Help each other. With every technological problem you’re facing, someone else probably went through it and posted their solution. And if you find a solution, you should post it. The world of programming is give and take, and everyone shares solutions. Nothing is silly, and nothing is stupid. All of us started as beginners.
Do you think the problem with women dropping out of tech has to do with a lack of role models? Or maybe existing role models are not being transparent and honest about their struggles?
I’m not sure, to be honest. I always work in my own world. There are very few people like me who like the things I like and do the things I do. I don’t fit in with people in my culture, group, or age. But for people who do look for role models, yes, I suppose there is a lack of role models being transparent about their struggles. Or even the opposite: how beautiful and fulfilling their journeys are.
I always go and volunteer in schools to talk about tech and talk to young girls about how to overcome intimidation. I teach a lot of workshops specifically for women with zero background in programming, like mothers and grandmothers. In one week, they make their own tech, program it, and leave with it working. And more often than not, they tell me that they never thought they could do this. I love it!
As happy as they are walking away with their new tech, I feel fulfilled knowing that I was able to change their knowledge and experience of tech. Now they can take their new knowledge to someone else and take that project further. Sometimes they send me pictures of them displaying their work at pop-up events or exhibitions. And sometimes, I’ll get a message from someone I taught ten years ago saying that they remembered something I taught them while working on a recent project. It’s amazing!
I think I do these workshops because I can’t leave teaching behind. I’ve transitioned from academia to entrepreneurship. I love the job I created for myself in tech, and I do the workshops because I still love teaching. I get to be the head of department, and I don’t have to create boring course models or even do grades. My students come, have fun, and leave. The venue is in my office building, and they can register on the BrightSign website. It’s super simple.
So while you were working on your Ph.D. and designing the glove, you were also raising a family. Was that balance ever a struggle?
Of course, it was. It still is. I make my whole family part of my journey. When we have a shipment, everyone chips in. Some of them do packaging, some do packaging, and some do the stickers, depending on their ability. Sometimes they test out the tech. They understand when I need to disappear, and I always come back with goodies and gifts. I feel like it makes them more independent, especially the little one. Definitely, if I could, I would rather spend more time with them and be around more. But they know that I’m a better mom when I’m happier, and I’m happier when I do an excellent job at work.
What are you most proud of, and why is it so meaningful to you?
Two things; one is on a personal level, and one is an experience. On a personal level, to stay on this high, I remember the hadith: “The most beloved people to Allah are those who are most beneficial to people.” I remind myself of that every morning when I wake up. It justifies all I sacrificed for this. Why I do what I do and why I’m away from my family.
The second thing that’s most special to me is an incident that I’ll never forget. It still makes me shiver when I think about it. During one of the first trials of the BrightSign glove, I was working with a boy who had autism. He couldn’t speak, but he knew how to sign. I made a glove that was very personal to him with the design he wanted, the size he wanted, and the language he wanted, but he just wasn’t warming up to it at all. Eventually, he tried it on, and once he figured out that the glove was actually saying what he was signing, he started running and running in circles. Running in circles was how this boy expressed extreme happiness and excitement. It put all of my efforts and work in perspective. If that’s what I can do, even for one person, then I’ve served my mission.
I hope I’m serving my religion this way. I try very hard to teach young kids that no one knows what’s in your heart or how you serve Allah. Maybe I’m not the best Muslim, but if I make my intention to be a useful human being to others and that is my way to gain God’s happiness, then that is enough for me.
What is something in your journey that you regret or wish you did differently?
I don’t regret anything from my education, research, or testing. On the business side of things, I had what felt like huge regrets at the time. But looking back, I realize how much I learned from those experiences. Soon after I founded my company, someone reached out to me saying that they had a similar idea and offered to work together instead of competing. We founded another company that both of our respective companies became partners in so we could work together. That partnership failed after six months, and it felt like the biggest mistake of my life. I thought I was dumb for agreeing to the partnership, I was too ambitious, and now I was going to lose everything.
It took me a year to recover from that and another year to allow myself to look for a co-founder. I was insisting on doing everything on my own because of my bad experience, but being a solo female founder is very difficult. My bad experience made me put all of my conditions on the table before signing with someone else. Which made the whole process more transparent and resulted in a stronger partnership.
It’s been two years since then, and this partnership is an entirely different experience. Having a partner helped me a great deal. I was able to reach more people, and I was able to get investment. Not a lot of people wanted to invest in someone who was both a sole founder and a woman with a family. Having a man in the picture made me a safer bet. I tried to make it on my own for two years, unsuccessfully, and four months into my partnership with him Ed, we got fully funded and started selling. Teams of one don’t come across as credible, especially in a field that’s dominated by men. Ed’s helped me grow my business, he’s an amazing partner, and my kids love him!
What is something or someone in your tech journey that you’re grateful for?
It has to be my family for supporting me and sticking around, and not giving up on me. And still loving me even though I don’t show up for everything. I get my strength from them, and I’m so happy that they’re still around.
Thank you for sharing your story with us, Hadeel. Jazakallahu Khair! You can keep up with the incredible things Hadeel Ayoub is doing on her Twitter and LinkedIn. If you liked this, be sure to check our other Tech Sisters Stories and get to know the amazing talent we have in our community.