While Anu Bidani’s venture into entrepreneurship mirrors the path of many other business owners — she built the company after finding no meaningful solutions in the market — her success has been far from ordinary. Fueled originally by a passion to prepare her school-age sons for the future of work, she remains driven to provide access to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) programming to children and adults hungry to learn. When the pandemic hit, Anu seized the opportunity to take her community-based programming online, ensuring her loyal customers could continue learning and that students around the world could become STEM ready. When opportunity knocked, Anu answered, growing STEM MINDS to a global, social enterprise.
“A personal challenge”
Anu loves technology. With a degree in Computer Science and a twenty-year corporate career in tech, she is proud to be a woman in STEM. So when her two sons were in elementary school and she saw that they were not building STEM skills in the classroom, she took matters into her own hands. “I knew there were only a few years to make a difference in their lives in terms of what options they would have available to them,” she explains in a recent conversation. “I enrolled my kids in a lot of programs in the market but none of them made any difference.” Addressing this gap became a personal challenge for her. “That was the motivation for launching STEM MINDS – to build something for children to ignite their passion so they would be ready for the jobs that are going to come up in this fourth industrial revolution, which is very tech-driven.”
From the boardroom to the classroom
Anu had a successful, progressive career in the corporate sector, with twenty years in technology-focused roles. While leaving the stability of a well-paying, senior position may have been daunting for some, Anu was unphased. “I was so driven by my desire to help my kids that the risk was worth it,” she says. “I was also very confident because I learned a lot in my corporate career — I feel like my career prepared me to be a better entrepreneur because I developed a good understanding of how to read contracts, I understood finance and sales. I had so many little pockets of knowledge that I was able to pull together for my own entrepreneurship journey.” Although she admits that there is a different pressure that comes in entrepreneurship compared to working at a corporate job, she was excited to learn new things and wasn’t shy about knocking on the doors to ask for help.
She started STEM MINDS as a community-based business around their Learning Centre in Aurora. “It started as servicing our local community, offering after-school programming, camps, PA Days, and all kinds of wonderful programs to the families in our neighbourhood,” she explains. They also brought their programming into public schools, offering after-school or lunch-time programs, in-class workshops. “That really created an organic community that we grew with.”
But Anu recognized the limitations that came with such a localized business and had an eye to expansion. “After a lot of thinking, I opted to scale the business with an online strategy because brick and mortar is very capital intensive,” she said. In 2019 she got some funding from the Innovation, Research and Development Program (IRAP) and built the platform. When she began talking to parents about online learning, however, they just weren’t ready.
Seizing the opportunity
“In 2020, COVID hit and overnight we were ready with an online platform offering virtual learning,” says Anu. By having the vision to offer online learning – even before parents and kids felt ready to learn this way — STEM MINDS was well-positioned to continue serving the needs of their existing community during the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns. It also provided the opportunity to expand beyond their community — and Anu seized it.
“We went national, looking at other provinces where we could bring our program. We felt very supported by the Government of Canada and I got into accelerators and was selected to join ventureLAB and SheBoot (Invest Ottawa), which helped us scale our offering.
Even with the pivot online, however, their volume was nowhere close to the amount of business they were previously doing in-person. “It was a huge financial hit,” she says. “So we looked around to find ways of building new revenue streams and diversifying the risk.” She became a part of trade missions to Australia, New Zealand, Dubai and India, which kick-started her global expansion. She also became a SheEO Venture in 2021 and the funding enabled her to tap into new markets, get introductions and expand through the U.S. and Asia. Through the Canada Export Grant, which is offered through the Government of Canada, she was able to do a deeper dive into market research and determine which markets were the best fit for her. She has now been selected in an international accelerator program out of Singapore to further her global expansion plans.
Anu explains that she never had imagined this kind of growth would have been possible a few years ago. “You really have to look at the opportunities in front of you and say – okay, what can I do with this?”
Before 2019, 100% of the STEM MINDS revenue was through their in-person offering. In 2021, their revenue was driven almost equally between in-person and online. “And I hope that as we go forward, our brick-and-mortar revenue will remain status quo and that 70% of our revenue will come from our online offering. The plan is to grow our presence in global markets because that’s how we will get our reach.”
Creating social impact with STEM
The STEM MINDS mission is to build a world where every child is STEM literate, so Anu continues to find opportunities that can help her impact education and get more and more kids STEM-ready. “I firmly believe that education should be a right – it’s not a luxury. To me, it made perfect sense to have a social lens on my business.” STEM MINDS became a B Certified Corporation, which provides the independent validation that they are committed to making decisions that will have a positive social impact. “I believe that being a social enterprise creates a more vibrant, sustainable environment, where you do the right thing for the right reason,” Anu says.
She adds that environmental impact is also an important part of being a B Corp — recently she announced that STEM MINDS has partnered with Canada Forest Trust to build smart forests that will help them become carbon neutral. They are also creating content around the environment and climate change that they are excited to share with the community.
And her most recent venture — Inno-Hive — is a charity dedicated to helping students upskill and reskill. “As kids go from high school into higher education, they may discover they want to switch their career path. I wanted to offer them a risk-free way to do that,” says Anu, who believes everyone should have the opportunity to learn new skills and fill gaps in their education. “The idea is to offer free workshops on different technology topics – whether it’s AI, Machine Learning or Cybersecurity. It helps open up different career choices and opportunities.” Inno-Hive is still at the grassroots level, but she is looking forward to establishing the organization further and providing more value-added workshops.
As for Anu’s boys who were missing out on STEM education … One is in an Environmental Studies program at university, with a great understanding of what technology can do for the environment and climate change. Her younger son is part of the robotics team at his high school and is considering a career in Computer Science and Business. “Five years ago, this was not the conversation in the house,” says Anu. “The exposure they had to STEM education has had a huge impact on their career choices and career paths.”
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