Giselle Frederick (BSc Software Engineering, 2009) grew up with very few role models she could identify with. When as a professional she wanted to support community initiatives using her skills in tech she realised the scale the of the problem and wanted to make a change. That’s why she founded Sonaaar, an online platform for black community leaders to crowdsource knowledge from diaspora professionals and each other.
“A few things led to Sonaaar. The first was trying to connect with like-minded individuals during my time at University,” Giselle Frederick says, reflecting on how it wasn’t always easy finding others who were pursuing a professional career in Computer Science.
“Then early in my career, I started looking for mentors that looked like me. When I looked around, I couldn’t find many people in the positions I aspired to. I came to realise over the years it wasn’t that the people didn’t exist, it was that we existed in small numbers, siloed to our different communities, and underrepresented in the media.”
Giselle studied Software Engineering with a professional pathway at City, University of London, which meant she started working at different organisations during the second year of her degree, with four days in the office and one day studying. It gave her a great start to her career straight out of University having graduated with three years of professional experience.
“After graduation, I secured a place on a graduate scheme for a swiss investment bank. I started my career as an application developer in FX Risk Management which in many ways was an easy transition given my previous years of working in industry but was vastly different from any of my previous placements. My manager and team were really incredible.”
It was during her time with the bank that Giselle became active in the employee networks on topics close to her heart. She co-led the Women’s Network and Multicultural Networks in an effort to provide more visible role models and was involved in many initiatives outside of work including mentoring and after-school programmes. Then she started to think outside the box.
“After over six years in finance, I entered the start-up ecosystem. First, I left banking and did a bit of freelance work for some of the big financial organisations and other investment banks. At this time, I was heavily involved in co-leading an initiative around digital literacy for kids, parents, and teachers. I managed to convince the CSR team to include a skill-based offering where employees in technology can use their skills to support community causes. Once again, I started thinking about the lack of visible role models in the Black community after presenting at a school in Tower Hamlets and Lewisham. I thought about ways I can use my skills to give back to my community, challenges facing my community and how technology can be part of the solution. This led me to the start-up ecosystem and Impact Tech initiatives.”
Sonaaar launched its closed Beta in May 2021. The online platform brings together community initiatives in need of support and connects them to skilled professionals that can provide support using their skills.
“Sonaaar is a platform that connects minority leaders, and initiative leaders, to minority professionals within the diaspora,” Giselle explains.
“We have incredible people within the diaspora and I am not the only one that wants to give back. Our goal is to make it easy for skilled individuals to donate a few hours of their time per month, to initiatives that can empower their communities.”
Currently, the platform has early adopters from over eight different countries participating in the Beta.
“The short-term goal is to build a solid leadership team for my company ahead of our launch into the market. We’re looking for best in class advisors in the areas of marketing and corporate partnerships to support our mission. The long-term goal is to onboard as many community initiatives and diaspora professionals as possible over the next few months and scale our product and offerings internationally.”
Sonaaar’s Beta is primarily focusing on the two main groups, the Mentors and Community Initiative Leaders, but Giselle is also hoping to launch a third group of Allies:
“The role of Allies cannot be underestimated. We have many supporters who do not identify as being part of minority communities. They are invaluable when it comes to networks and access to skills.”
Having worked in the startup ecosystem for several years, Giselle knows about the challenges and the pitfalls of starting something from the ground, but she doesn’t advise anyone to focus purely on what could go wrong.
“I read a lot of books and listen to a lot of podcasts on business, technology, and start-ups. As an entrepreneur, it’s important to identify and filter out some of the noise around entrepreneurship. Otherwise, you risk thinking that your venture is doomed to fail before you start,” Giselle explains. “I think it was Sara Blakely from Spanx who said ‘everyone has had a million-dollar idea at some stage in their life’. The reality is that most amazing ideas can seem implausible at first and the startup ecosystem can be brutal if you don’t know how to navigate its winding paths. I’ve seen what happens when first hires aren’t committed and when founders are used as idea generators for larger companies, who simply walk away …”
It is important to do your homework:
“Obviously test your ideas before building them, make sure there will be a market for your product.”
And keep good track of your finances:
“Make sure you have some savings or ways to cover your living costs. Every-so-often reassess your finances vs goals vs emotional health.”
What does Giselle deem her most important challenges so far?
“My founder’s challenges are mostly around finding a supportive community and business mentors,” she says. “Managing time effectively so that you don’t burn out or run out of money.”
Creating a good team can also be a challenge for a new founder.
“When you haven’t hired before, it can be really difficult to assess skills you don’t possess yourself. My advice is to get help from someone that is currently in that position or hired for that position. Be very, very careful about how you found with and who you hire at the beginning because the founding team is very important.”
And her favourite success?
“Just going from idea to actually having people use the product is such an incredible feeling because it all started as drawings and ideas and notes. I am very fortunate that from the beginning I possessed the skills needed to determine Sonaaar’s technical feasibility,” Giselle says and adds that she hasn’t been doing it alone.
“I’ve had such incredible support from friends, former work colleagues and informal mentors. Sonaaar is a passion project that I’ve wanted to bring to life for many years, so I’m very, very excited to see that the nodules have turned into small but strong wings.”
Thank you, Giselle, for sharing your story!
As the founder of a mentoring platform, Giselle knows how important it is to have good external support. If anyone is interested in becoming a mentor or advisor to Giselle and her team, to support their development, she welcomes you to get in touch.