From actress to AI: How Nina Iordanova’s soft skills launched her into Toronto’s tech scene

Hello Iris was one of ten world-leading AI startups who presented the Techstars Montreal AI Demo Day in December 2019. Credit: Techstars

“I never really did work a nine-to-five,” reflects Nina Iordanova, early into our lunchtime conversation over Zoom. She looks comfortable and chic, in a grey knit sweater and with her hair tied back.

It’s only noon, but her day is turning out to be a busy one: Early-morning coffee meet-up. Media interview. Later, artificial intelligence product development. Podcast recording. Foreign trade discussions. That night: attending a TechTO speaking event.

Nina takes it all in stride. Nine-to-five? More like eight-to-ten.

Nina is the co-founder of Hello Iris, a tech startup helping people fall in love using the power of AI. She and her co-founder, Niloo Ravaei, are building an algorithm framework that matches users through unique psychometric reports. It’s like a supercharged, hyper-accurate personality-test for your dating life. (Finally, the end of ceaseless left-swipes and eternally dry dating-app conversation... we all know it’s not getting us anywhere.)

“Dating and relationships should be fun, exciting and meaningful – but I don't think that's the experience most people have,” says Nina.

Last year, the venture was selected as one of ten world-class startups to participate in the second class of the Techstars Montreal AI accelerator. Even before Demo Day in December, they were seeing results: their waitlist for personality profiles was growing 12 per cent week-over-week, with no advertising at all. The feedback from users was excellent. The AI was progressing. Stand clear for liftoff, everybody.

But three years ago, Nina was nowhere near AI. She was in front of a camera. (Mic drop.)

Seeing the DP and the director and the art department, everyone building up a scene around you – that’s what creating a startup feels like.

After graduating from the Schulich School of Business BBA program at York University in 2013, Nina’s passion for understanding human connection and relationships led her to pursue a career as an actress. Nina spent five years acting professionally, going on to perform in Noah (2013), Snow (2014) and The Handmaiden’s Tale (2017).

It was during this time that she founded her first company, FilmYeti, an agency to help clients find and hire film crews anywhere in the US or Canada. Nina instantly saw the similarities between the film industry and entrepreneurship.

“You’re a small bunch of people who come together on a blank slate, whether that’s a movie set or a new product. You all bring a specific set of skills to make something out of nothing,” says Nina. “Seeing the producer and the director and the gaffer building up a scene around you – that’s what creating a startup feels like.”

At first, she says, she liked that her startup gave her something to chip away at between auditions. But then, they became two things that pulled her into different directions.

When splitting her time became hard to manage, Nina made the jump to full-time entrepreneurship.

“One thing I say a lot is that I don’t have many skills, but I’m really enthusiastic. But I approach everything with a desire to get better.”

Did she know how to use AI? No. Did she have other tech skills? Well… not many, she says. But, did she have the confidence? Yes. In spades.

“One thing I say a lot is that I don’t have many skills, but I’m really enthusiastic. But I approach everything with a desire to get better.”

Her soft skills – her can-do attitude, personable nature and curiosity – are what she says helped her bridge the gap. Her days in acting, she says, taught her resilience in the face of rejection, an important skill as an entrepreneur. And when she didn’t see anyone giving her the opportunity to work as hard as she wanted to, she felt that starting up was the easiest way forward.

“I just looked at it like, what am I going to learn as I do this? It was more of a discovery game than a succeed-not-succeed game.”

At both of her ventures, her co-founder managed the tech, leaving her free to focus on community and growth – and, on relearning the accounting skills she immediately forgot after finishing her undergraduate degree. She supplemented her experience with an online course, Computer Science for Business Leaders, from Harvard. You go, girl.

Maybe it’s because of her enthusiasm for her ventures that being a woman in tech never seemed like a barrier to her. In fact, Nina says that her former male co-founder actually noticed the gender factor more than she did.

“He would say, ‘did you notice how that person talked to you? Did you notice how they were looking at you?’ I just was never aware of it happening.

When faced with an obstacle, like losing out on funding or a client, Nina says she would just assume that it was because of things that were within her control, like the quality of her idea or product, rather than the fact that she was a woman. “Then,” she says, “there’s something I can do about that.”

Nina and co-founder Niloo are now focusing on R&D, building up their psychometric profile database and improving their AI. Soon, she says, they hope that the algorithm will be able to function without human intervention. At that point, they can start creating curated first-dates for users. For now, they’re hoping to expand in their community outreach over social media, across platforms and in person. In a few months, says Nina, they’ll be looking for more technical assistance.

For now, curious fans can follow Nina and Niloo’s journey on the company’s LinkedIn, where the pair take turns writing honest, vulnerable accounts of their day, every day. It’s not all about success and the hustle: it’s also ‘mundane, boring stuff,’ as Nina calls it. Their mission in this daily log is clear: to show people that being an entrepreneur isn’t all glamour, and it’s not all the exiting stuff.

And, it’s attainable. Even without all the tech skills. Sure, it’s not easy, but with some courage and enthusiasm, it’s possible. Don’t just take our word for it: ask Nina. She knows it firsthand.

Written by: Irene Galea

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