When you know, you know — or at least that's how Amy Ni defends what some would call her unusual decision to turn down a lucrative job offer at Deloitte and pursue an idea for a tech startup.
"I just wanted to give it a try and see how that goes," says Ni. "You never know if you don’t try."
Fresh out of business school, the young entrepreneur observed a market underserved by automation. Whereas other industries such as finance or retail were saturated in technical and artificial intelligence solutions, there has been relatively little done in the vein of educational technology. Enter Si-Han.
The Toronto-based company's big idea is simple to explain, if difficult to execute. Someone will pull up Si-Han's website, feed in their resume, and natural language processing and machine learning algorithms will attempt to answer one question: How compelling are you on the job market? The site assigns each candidate a numerical score across categories including education, experience, skills, and more that allows job seekers to see where they stand in relation to their peers.
The software as a service (SaaS) product can also help recruiters identify candidates who might be a good fit for a role. Hiring managers can even use Si-Han to create a recruitment funnel that asks qualified candidates to respond to various video prompts, advancing promising individuals to in-person rounds of interviews.
Bottom line: Si-Han helps candidates find good jobs and recruiters find good candidates.
Ni's company is by no means the only one addressing these HR needs, but market research has revealed a unique target audience for the startup. "Our differentiator is that we want to connect more resources from Asia to North America," Ni explains.
A platform like Si-Han allows companies in mainland China, for example, to connect with candidates from multiple job sites, universities, and other traditional talent pools, all with a single click via a bilingual English/Mandarin platform. This is a huge improvement for Chinese companies that currently lack the budget and localized knowledge to connect with promising candidates, says Ni.
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So, great idea, check. The uphill battle for Ni, who has a business background, was starting a tech company without technical abilities of her own.
Si-Han's priorities were the sales, marketing, and product manager roles necessary to hone the company's scope while they identified the skills required to build the product. To do this, Ni leveraged the help of professors, classmates, and other connections she made at both Tulane University, where she earned her bachelor's, and the University of Western Ontario's Ivey School of Business, where she earned her MBA.
"You have to have a coffee chat with the experienced computer science people, and we did networking with people we had an academic relationship with, we got leads from professors," Ni says. "It took a lot of talking, but eventually, we identified A, B, and C roles that we needed from a technical perspective." She also taught herself as much as she could about natural language processing and other areas that would bolster her ability to lead the project.
With a solid grasp on the company's exact needs, Ni and her team sought out contractors and hired student engineers to build out the technology. "When doing the hiring process, we were very strict because we wanted to make sure that the people we hire are the ones we actually want," she explains.
Ultimately, with support from the ONRamp Entrepreneurship program from the University of Toronto, the Propel Entrepreneurship accelerator at the University of Western Ontario, and the Founder Institute, Si-Han received the knowledge, mentorship, and connections to finally launch a proof of concept. It took about a year to take Si-Han from the first mockup to a functional product; there are currently more than 3,500 active users in Canada alone.
Now, Ni and her team have introduced the product to Asia, where Si-Han earned second place in a Bao'an Shenzhen Competition and had the winning pitch at the 14th Chun Cui Cup sponsored by the China Ministry of Education in December 2019.
"Our reaction was almost, What just happened? It just happened so fast," she remembers.
That day taught Ni an interesting lesson: Despite all the effort she put into the tech side of things, it was likely her non-technical background that elevated Si-Han above the competition.
"I make the conversation much more direct and realistic," says Ni. "Other people are PhDs talking on and on, whereas I go direct to the point."
The Founder Institute is the world's largest pre-seed startup accelerator. Since 2009, the world's fastest-growing startups have used the Founder Institute to raise funding, get into seed accelerators, generate traction, and more.
Click here to learn more about Si-Han and potentially collaborate.