Blue Canoe expects 2020 to be a ‘breakout year’
Women Who Lead series
By Sean Meyers – Contributing writer
Jan 4, 2020, 10:00pm PST
Sarah Daniels is co-founder and CEO of Blue Canoe.
It would be easy to mistake Sarah Daniels for a breakout entrepreneurial star.
In 2017, when the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2) decided to accept outside companies in its incubator program, her just-hatched startup Blue Canoe Learning won the first chair.
This spring she won the first Qualcomm Female Founders Summit pitch competition with her vision for Blue Canoe, which blends proven English as a second language teaching techniques with AI, machine learning and gaming to help nonnative English speakers gain clarity and confidence speaking English.
“Despite the general belief that it was impossible, we have proved that clearer speech is both possible and attainable, even for adults learning English later in life,” Daniels’ said. “We expect 2020 to be a breakout year of growth.”
Daniels’ reputation for finding quick success dates back to 1991, when, as a second-year student at Stanford Graduate School of Business, she co-founded Presidio, which digitized critical research reporting to pharmaceutical companies. She launched four startups prior to Blue Canoe and all four achieved varying degrees of success.
“We were lucky to get her,” said Jacob Colker, managing director of AI2’s incubator program, noting that Daniels’ success extends well beyond startups. As chief marketing officer at Market Leader from 2011 to 2014, Daniels was instrumental in positioning the firm for its $355 million acquisition by Trulia, boosting revenues from $24 million to $60 million and increasing the customer base ninefold.
Daniels said she contemplated retirement after that performance. She took some time to think seriously about what she wanted to do next. But, she said she knew she wanted to help build another startup — something that had a big vision that would directly help people.
“I’m a serial entrepreneur, and I like building things and using technology to solve problems,” she said. “But at that point in my life, I really wanted something meaningful that would improve people’s lives at scale.”
It was then that a meeting with Kernal Labs founder Amit Mital got her buzzed about the $40 billion worldwide ESL market. Roughly 2 billion people are trying to improve their economic circumstances by learning English, but most stumble badly on the final hurdle – pronunciation. Mital believed AI and machine learning could hold the key to a breakthrough and believed Daniels had what it would take to get it there. He said that’s because not only is she smart, hard working and committed, but she is also relentless.
“She has done a great job in taking an initial bold idea and building a world-class team, raising multiple rounds of funding and continuously innovating,” said Mital, whose startup studio is among Blue Canoe’s backers.
Daniels said Blue Canoe stuck with her because of the potential market opportunity and the ability to significantly improve the lives and careers of millions of people. It was also a unique approach to an unsolved problem and something that tapped into the skills she had accumulated.
“Amit introduced me to Karen Taylor (head of the education team at Blue Canoe), a friend of his from high school who had created the only effective brain-based methodology for learning to speak English clearly and confidently as a second language,” Daniels said. “We discussed how creating a mobile app based on the methodology with cutting edge speech recognition, machine learning and app development could quickly scale it. I did some research and came back almost immediately to say yes.”
Daniels sees perseverance and team-building as her strongest leadership skills.
“There is zero chance that a woman in the workforce has not seen and felt some form of discrimination. So, as I lead them, I work to create a welcoming and enabling culture, building trust that this place will be different,“ she said.
Many startup leaders crumble under the extreme stress, occasionally venting anger toward subordinates, says Colker.
“Sarah has an amazing ability to always smile and stay positive.”