From a young age, Maayan challenged norms and worked within her community to increase awareness of disability issues and improve accessibility. Living with Muscular Dystrophy, Maayan is a passionate and relentless advocate for creating a more accessible world. In 2015 Maayan launched AccessNow out of the need to solve her problem. What began as a response to her frustration when trying to navigate inaccessible places, AccessNow soon grew to become a mission-oriented social start-up.
Within just a couple of years, AccessNow has vocalized a movement for inclusion, inviting people of all abilities to contribute to the platform. As the Founder and CEO of AccessNow, Maayan has created a powerful shift in thinking about the importance of accessibility in our world, from accessible technologies to infrastructure, public policy, media, and communications. She is a recognized industry expert in accessibility and inclusion; received the 2020 Governor General’s Innovation Award and the prestigious Novartis Innovation Prize, and is among Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 recipients for 2021.
“Accessibility is only touching people when they need to know about it or when it affects them personally.”
TRANSCRIPT OF THE EPISODE:
Rick: Welcome to the Startup Canada podcast where we talk to Canada’s most innovative and entrepreneurial leaders and changemakers. I’m your host, Rick Spence, and as a business journalist, editor and entrepreneur, I’ve learned what makes Canadian startups special, successful and scalable. Join me every Tuesday at 10 a.m. ET to hear news stories of Canadian entrepreneurs and learn about the moments that mattered most on their journeys.
The Startup Canada Podcast is a production of Startup Canada. Don’t forget to subscribe to the show wherever you listen to your podcasts.
Entrepreneurs from coast to coast to coast. Welcome to the Startup Canada podcast. On the show today, we’re thrilled to have Maayan Ziv. Maayan is an activist, a photographer, and an entrepreneur. From a young age Maayan challenged norms and worked with our community to increase awareness of disability issues and approve accessibility.
Living with muscular dystrophy, Maayan is a passionate and relentless advocate for creating a more accessible world. In 2015, she launched AccessNow as a global movement and a service building community to map and identify accessible locations around the world. As founder and CEO of AccessNow, Maayan has created a powerful shift in thinking about accessibility, and that involves technologies, infrastructure, public policy and media and communications.
Maayan is a recognized industry expert in accessibility and inclusion. She received the 2020 Governor General’s Innovation Award, and the prestigious Novartis Innovation Prize, and she ranked among Canada’s top 40 under 40 recipients for 2021. Maayan, welcome to the Startup Canada podcast.
Maayan: Thanks so much Rick. It’s great to be here.
Rick: Maayan I first met you years ago when you joined the Next 36 which is an incredible accelerator program that takes brilliant young people and tries to turn them into high impact entrepreneurs. Have you made a lot of impact yet?
Maayan: *laughs* I’d like to say yes. I think time will tell how long standing the impact is, especially because I’m focused on an industry that really requires tremendous culture shift. And so, you know, I think I’m constantly looking forward and thinking about what does that look like a few years down the line? What does that look like for an entire next generation? And are there moves we’re making now, are they actually creating that impact as we’re building it? So I see some changes from when I first started to where we are now. And I’d like to say, yeah, we have something to do with that.
Rick: I think that’s absolutely true. I’ve been able to follow you along. You’re one of the few Next 36 people who are essentially in the same business that you started in that program because a lot of them have failed forward and gone on to do other things. And you and I should give full disclosure. You and I both went on a visit to Israel a few years ago where we learned about the innovation ecosystem in Israel. So we’ve talked a few times. I’ve always been impressed by your courage because you have a wheelchair. It’s the most high tech Professor X type thing I’ve ever seen. It’s a struggle, I think, at times for you to get out and be active in the world and to go out and make an impression and meet important people and try and make things happen. And you have been able to do it. And I just have to know, where does this indomitable will come from? Because it seems to me that that’s what powered you.
Maayan: Wow. That’s really cool to hear you describe me like that. And I also feel like you can say it with somewhat certainty because you’ve just, you know, you’ve seen me navigate spaces. You’ve seen me on stages. So thanks, Rick. That’s really kind. You know, I want to say it’s a mix of both nature and nurture. I think I was born as a very headstrong individual. I kind of had this really strong sense of confidence and self. You know, I was six years old and I was putting on plays for people, and I loved being the center of attention as a little girl. And, you know, that had nothing to do with my disability. I just was like that. And I think what I learned from being surrounded by, you know, a family who just never told me I couldn’t, they constantly looked at ways to remove barriers for me as a little girl.
You know, I remember I would tell my parents that I wanted to be a dancer so we would you know, make the costumes and have the performances. And I was one. And they never said, well, you can’t do that. And I think as a little person, kind of growing up in the world and making my own ideas about what the world was going to mean, for me, it really helped kind of shape that sense of possibility and can do. And then, you know, what that translates into is I don’t look at barriers as indefinite nos. I look at them as opportunities because, you know, obviously this is going to be a good day that I can do this. Not every day is that way. But in general, the sense of resilience helps me continue to carve out new space because I know what’s possible and it helps me kind of, I think, continuously refine my ability to be a good entrepreneur.
So every time I, you know, show up and I can’t do something or there’s an event that’s not accessible or, you know, I can’t meet with that very influential person because it’s just not physically accessible to me. I constantly am thinking, you know, what are five other ways I can still get the result I want to achieve and meeting a, you know, an in-person event, funding, whatever–and that’s the game, like that’s what it takes to be an entrepreneur is like, OK, you couldn’t do the first thing you thought of. How else are you going to still get the result you want? So I think it’s just that. It’s just my, my sheer desire to win and then continue to do it every day.
Rick: That’s fantastic. There’s so much to unpack in that statement. The idea of obstacles as far as opportunities and just having the resilience to keep at it. And when something doesn’t work, you have five other ways of doing things. So I love it. I mean, you’ve just described the whole entrepreneurship experience which is very exciting.
Describe for me AccessNow because there’s maybe a number of listeners who aren’t familiar with what the company does yeah.
Maayan: So AccessNow actually very much was a personal response to one more thing that I was experiencing as a barrier in my world. You know, I have used a wheelchair to navigate the world around me since a very little age, and I constantly come up against barriers in the adult environment. So I, you know, even…
Rick: And a barrier can be like an inch high, right?
Maayan: It could be anything. It could be a step at an entrance. It could be a broken elevator. It could even be just the lack of understanding of what’s required to include a person with a disability in an experience. So and that’s a broad statement, and we’re happy to talk about, you know, other ways in which accessibility manifests. But for me, one of the simplest forms was: could I get through the front door, could I show up, could I be at the space that I wanted to, you know, have a birthday party at or grab a coffee or could I travel to a hotel and actually stay at the place that I booked as opposed to, you know, seeing five steps at the entrance, which has happened to me, countless times. So AccessNow was really just that, the concept of let’s provide people with information about how accessible all the world is. And that’s really how it started. So, you know, we grew from there and now we are a mobile and web platform sharing information about all kinds of accessibility around the world. We’ve shared information on restaurants and, and stores and parks and trails and, you know, all different types of places in over 35 countries to date.
Rick: And there are so many different types of disabilities, obviously, yours in particular is I guess, mobility. But does AccessNow also take into account other senses–the blind, the partially deaf, the so many different types of differences?
Maayan: Yeah. So again, I’ll kind of pull through this right on where we came from, where we are. When I started building my company I was focused on solving a problem that affected me. That’s what drove me to build AccessNow. Initially my view of accessibility was limited to my own personal understanding, which makes sense, you know, and I’d say is the same for the majority of people on the planet. You know, accessibility is only touching people when they need to know about it or when it affects them personally. And what I learned in kind of expanding and connecting with people and you know, the first time when we launched, we had people with all different types of experiences reaching out and saying, you know, hey, if you could add, you know, this this filter, then I could share information about table heights, or if you could add this filter, I would know if I could show up with my guide dog and and be accepted as a customer into a into a building. And so there are so many different ways in which accessible really impacts people and it can be deeply personal. And so rather than saying, you know, you’re this person, you have these needs, what we decided to do was just develop a very pan-disability, broadly diverse and inclusive lens to access and we increasingly add features based on what the community tells us. And that also includes, you know, non-disabled people. So we’ve heard tremendous amounts of feedback from young parents with strollers who didn’t really think about accessibility. And then all of a sudden now they’re trying to navigate a subway system where half of the elevators don’t even exist. So accessibility shows up for people all throughout their lives. They just aren’t fully aware of that.
So that’s part of the cultural shift we’re building, is to help people understand that accessibility benefits every person and that it might be today for you, it might be in the future, but at some point in your life, accessibility will help you live your life with more ease. And so it’s for people with and without disabilities. And the idea is the more we share and the more types of insight we can share, the more supportive the platform is for people of various different perspectives.
Rick: Yeah, and that’s an incredible, incredibly powerful statement that it does affect everyone. If not now, then at some point. I totally get it without my glasses, I would run into traffic in no time. I think I understand.
Rick: Tell me what the business model is for AccessNow. How do you make money?
Maayan: So originally we didn’t really have one and I didn’t really know what AccessNow would shape up to be. All I wanted to do was address a problem and I knew that there was value in doing that. I was very certain that AccessNow should not be a charity or a not for profit because I felt like if my mission was to shift people’s cultural understanding of accessibility as a concept we also need to tie it towards economic value.
Maayan: And so what we’ve learned over the course of building network and community, and originally just being obsessed with the problem, is that business owners also struggle to understand how accessible their companies are and they struggle to connect with people who would benefit from that information. And so we work directly with businesses and partners to assess their spaces and provide a verified level of concrete information about the accessibility of their spaces in order for people who benefit from that knowledge to actually engage directly with those companies.
Rick: So are you able to tell business owners that, hey, if we can promote the fact that you’re accessible in this way, in this way to these diverse communities, then we can get you more business? Is that essentially the pitch?
Maayan: Yeah, that’s part of the pitch. So, you know, there are a few reasons why accessibility is important and timely to talk about. One, you know, there’s an economic incentive to creating an accessible experience, product or service. When you invest in an accessible, let’s say, storefront or an accessible website, you open your store doors both physically and digitally to 1.2 billion people who currently have a disability and require access to engage. And when we talk about, you know, what does that mean in terms of financial gain, you know, people are often really surprised to learn that there are upwards of $13 trillion a year in disposable income that has to be driven towards accessible products and services. That’s kind of the number that the disability market represents. And so you know, I remember having these really weird backwards conversations with business owners in early days where I’d say, you know, you should make your restaurant accessible because then I can come here and have dinner with my family or with my friends. And they’d say, you know, we’d love to, but we don’t have customers who require access. So we never invested in it, which like, kind of have to build it in order for us to come. So that’s the first reason.
And the second really important reason is that this is actually the law. And sometimes people know it, sometimes they don’t but we actually have laws around the world. There are over a hundred different countries that have introduced some form of accessibility law or disability policy that often businesses actually have to comply to. So in many cases, you know, there’s actually a legal obligation to invest in access.
And the third reason, which is kind of, you know, I’d say all of these are good reasons. And it really, you know, it’s up to you to decide which one resonates with you the most or hopefully they all do. Is this kind of social or humanitarian argument, which is the bottom line is accessibility is a human right. And it is actually discrimination to not include people with disabilities that represent one in five of our population in what we build and how we live, work, learn, and play. And so when you don’t invest in access, you are actually even if unintentionally discriminating against a very large population.
So, you know, you can hear the passion in my voice but this is something that I’ve lived in my whole life. And based on, you know, the tone of the day or who I’m engaging with, I could give you a million reasons why accessibility is important. And I don’t really have any good reasons why it isn’t.
Rick: And does the work you do, does that help at all with the compliance obligation that you mentioned?
Maayan: A little bit. You know, I’d say we’re really focused on usability and customer experience. I think some of the danger about talking about accessibility from a compliance perspective is that people often see that as the goal, whereas compliance really should be the starting point. So, you know, checking things off on a list of to do’s, just to make sure you did it so you can get it out of the way is not how we want people to understand the innovation and the creativity and the opportunities that come from really understanding accessibility as a driver of your business.
So we really look at, you know, engaging people with lived experience to contribute to that conversation, engaging business owners to understand what they can learn and what they yet don’t know about access. And together, you know, we create this kind of ecosystem where there’s a lot more transparency, and there’s a lot more ability to grow from that and invest in much more integrated and systemic understandings of accessibility and inclusion.
Rick: We’ve been talking about opening businesses in other locations to people as sort of visitors or customers. I’m wondering if you also get involved with businesses as employers. I think there’s a lot of people with various types of disabilities who have a lot to give as employees, but a lot of workplaces aren’t physically or organizationally arranged to actually work with them. So I think a lot of people are going unemployed or underemployed because of this mismatch. And I’m wondering if AccessNow gets into this to help make sure that people with disabilities can find the employment they’re looking for.
Maayan: Yeah, I think that the way that you just described it as a mismatch is a really good way to look at it. Because if we look kind of historically speaking that the stigma or the attitudinal barriers that people with disabilities face, you know, towards engaging in their communities but also towards gaining meaningful employment, has really disproportionately kind of affected how businesses can tap into this whole concept of creativity and innovation and resilience that people with disabilities are often just inherently bringing to their work. And so it is a mismatch because if you don’t create access, you’re not able to retain or even attract talent that you’re missing out on bringing into your company. And so I’d say, you know, to answer your question, we’re really careful about not duplicating efforts that we’ve recognized that others are focused on. So accessibility in the built environment for us is kind of 100% priority and a massive problem because our mission is global. But in engaging with companies, what we have recognized is there is often this necessary first step around education and awareness building, and even to just help organizations kind of open their minds to what they’re missing, to recognizing the opportunities they have, you know, internally to create a kind of more accessible opportunities for people. So, you know, there’s been a lot of public speaking engagements. We also have an entire program focused on, it’s called a MapMission, where basically people download the AccessNow app, they go out into the community and they start rating places based on how accessible they are. Originally, this was like a growth hacking effort that we put in place to kind of land communities across Canada originally. But what we learned was that people love doing this. They loved having opportunities to learn hands-on about accessibility in their environments, because often people who were joining were not what I call the “converted”. They weren’t people who already knew about access. They were people who were joining on their lunch break, you know, from a large organization and now had a chance to go across the street where they normally, you know, grab lunch and recognize that now they were prompted to ask questions about accessibility and recognize that their colleague wasn’t able to join them. This is the reason why. There are three steps at the entrance or whatever the reason. So you know, what we realize is that MapMission not only generate impact on the platform, but they also create these ripple effects of education and awareness building. And I think that that is definitely something that we continue to do.
Rick: I’m sure you’ve figured this out already, but I just figured it out now. So accessibility is really not a state. It’s a journey. And the more time you spend with it, obviously, the more opportunities you see to become more accessible, to become more accessible, to more different types of people and differences and more aware of the need for others to get involved in it as well.
Maayan: 100%. Yeah.
Rick: Yeah, yeah. That’s beautiful. Tell me what the state of the art is at AccessNow. Can you tell me anything about the size of the company, the number of employees, the areas where you operate.
Maayan: Yeah. So when Access now began, it was me on my own convincing people to lend their time, their expertise is resources. Very bootstrap, very hustle and grind. And it was that way for the first few years. Now we’ve really transformed. I think we’re still very much a hustle and grind company, but now we’re a team of 15 totally remotely. Many of us living internationally. COVID really changed how we grew as a company. We focus on providing insight on accessible places, but increasingly so we’re engaging with some really meaningful partnerships to help create that capacity. So from employing people on the spectrum to help us with image-data labeling, is kind of a new exploratory department just in terms of practicing what we preach and ensuring that our team is diverse, as well as engaging with companies and partners that are looking specifically at accessibility of all site sites so we have branched out beyond just physical kind of bricks and mortar to also including trails and parks and outdoor spaces, as well as part of the platform.
Rick: Wow. you mentioned image-data labeling. So that’s where there’s a photo on a website or whatever and there’s a description of it. Is that what that was?
Maayan: Oh, yeah. I guess I just talk about things and I don’t fill in the gaps.
Rick: No, no, no, it’s fine. I’m just asking for myself.
Maayan: Sure. Yeah. So basically AccessNow, there are a variety of different ways in which we kind of create data about accessible places. One, community contributions and reviews. That’s like the grassroots. That’s the heart and soul. That’s where AccessNow started, and it’s also the feedback mechanism. So people with disabilities and others sharing information on the platform and providing their own personal lived experience.So that’s one way in which we assess places. But another way is actually using AI. And so the image labeling and kind of tagging of data is really about how we train our AI to understand what is or what isn’t accessible in an image, let’s say. We do it with text results as well, but there are a variety of ways in which we’re increasingly teaching our own technology about how to basically see the world through an accessible lens. And it’s an interesting research initiative because usually when people talk about AI, they talk about who’s missing and what kind of marginalized voices are not included in the AI and what kind of bias that creates. And we actually took that as an opportunity once again to say, let’s build our AI based on who’s missing, let’s build our AI based on all of the experiences of people with disabilities that are not often included in those technologies, and can we teach our AI to be looking at the world through that perspective.
Rick: All right. Now, my head is absolutely spinning so can you tell me a little bit more about how AI helps you, you know, map the world and maybe you can give me an example of what this actually means in terms of A.I. being able to, you know, see patterns and identify things.
Maayan: Yeah, so basically what we’ve done is we’ve been able to kind of take raw data, whether it be an image of a place for a description of a place or even some of the sensor data that’s in your phone and translate that into accessibility values. So if I look at an image as just a person who’s looking at pictures on Google Street View, let’s say, I can sometimes determine if there’s a step at an entrance or not, and AI can do that as well. So as long as we’re teaching, you know, so images are kind of the most concrete one where we can start to learn about what are some of the clues in the environment that we can help kind of filter through our system to determine whether it would be accessible or not. And if we can do that and combine that with reviews from users which confirm or deny certain things that we have kind of identified, awesome. And if we can do that by following one of our mappers or ambassadors through a trail and determine, you know, that they went up a super steep hill or up a set of stairs, we can also use that to kind of triple check whether the data is false or not. So there’s a variety of ways in which we kind of use different data sources to create this kind of mosaic of an understanding about how holistically accessible a space might be. And this really helps us kind of unlock scale. And that was the bottom line was I don’t want to do something that’s regionally important or locally impactful. I wanted to build a company that could be global. And so from day one, I built it saying this is going to be available everywhere. And that’s how we reached community, and now we’re doing that by also scaling our technology.
Rick: I was actually going to say the same thing that since I’ve first known you you had this global vision and it seemed that, you know, it would be the community doing where voluntarily that would build it. But now it sounds like AI has come along to the point where it’s accessible enough that it can do a lot of this job for you to do the heavy lifting.
Maayan: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. It’s an ongoing technology that evolves with the contributions of people who are reviewing on the platform. So the more that people share, the more that we learn and that helps future technology. You know, some of the things we might not have recognized in the past and as you kind of alluded to earlier, accessibility is this kind of fluid, evolving thing. It’s not like a static space that you got to get to this compliance destination and you’re done. You know, we always learn about new experiences and what is important to someone that we haven’t yet spoken to that consists of how they understand a space to be accessible. And so it is a very broad term, but it also has some real meaning to people when they’re looking at the world through their perspective. So increasingly we’re just learning what are the limits of that?
Rick: Right, right. And you’re a 15 person company. Is the economics of AI now so favorable that, you know, you can have your own technology and build this out over time?
Maayan: You know, definitely AI is a lot more accessible than it was even a few years ago. I even remember when we were in the next 36 it was like this new thing. I remember how..
Rick: It was witchcraft!
Maayan. It was super buzzwordy, I remember that.
Rick: But it was only for big corporations.
Rick: No question of smaller firms being able to create their own algorithms, their own databases, and get their own results.
Rick: You know, you might as well buy a 50-story building.. but story buildings haven’t come down in price, but AI has.
Maayan: Yeah, definitely. It’s a lot more accessible that way. But I will also say, like, my team is brilliant. So I wouldn’t say this is so accessible that you could go into any shop and build it yourself. I’d say it’s the people who are working on what we’re working on within our company constantly surprise and delight me with how just whip smart they are about this work. Like, it’s, it’s amazing. I have a killer team. That’s the bottom line. So yeah.
Rick: Fabulous. Fabulous. For the entrepreneurs listening who may have premises in their own business, whether it’s a retail establishment, or an office or a factory or workshop or whatever, can you tell me sort of how they can get started on their own accessibility journey? What should they be thinking of and doing to make sure that they are representing the best part of themselves to such a variety of different people and experiences?
Maayan: Yeah, and I think that’s where the accessibility of digital really comes in. So I’d say, you know, the first thing to know is just that you have to be curious and you have to ask questions and you have to be open enough beyond just your immediate circle of understanding. And if you want to create products that are successful and flexible and usable to the broadest range of people, accessibility is just built into that and not an afterthought. Not I’ll build my app or I’ll build my store and later I’ll figure out how to address the needs of specific groups because you end up having this mismatch. This, you know, duct tape version of a really seamless product. And so when you think about, you know, if you’re starting out and building something new, you know, you should be asking questions about how do I reach the broadest population, how do I support people? And feedback, even messaging that is diverse and inclusive in nature. It’s just the world we live in. And recognizing that accessibility is like one of those really intangible components to getting that right is, I think, the best place to start. And then it’s just a question of research and engaging and, you know, if you don’t know people with disabilities in your life, like how can you engage communities that you’re not familiar with to learn what you don’t yet know. And I think once you start that exploration, it’s really hard to kind of ignore it or pretend you don’t know. It’s like that process of becoming enlightened. Once, you know, it’s just so obvious. It just becomes so you know, understood that this is how you build the right products and the right services and the right experiences for people.
Rick: Right. I mean, I think that in the past 20, 30, 40 years we have seen an increasing recognition of the need to, to make places more accessible just physically and culturally as well, of course. But it starts with the physical. For me, it started with when they came into my neighborhood and they reduced the size of the curbs so that, you know, strollers and people had trouble walking up a step, could still walk several blocks and go wherever they wanted. It was freedom for a lot of people. We rode our bikes on the sidewalk in order not to be killed by cars. So there’s been awareness of the need for increasing accessibility in society for a long time. But I’m wondering from your point of view, is that still something that is growing and that has strong social support? Because we’ve seen that, you know, some of the progress we’ve made as a society in some social areas doesn’t always proceed linearly or continuously. It doesn’t always grow. Sometimes it pulls back a little bit and people have to fight a little bit harder to get things going again in the right direction. So what is your experience in the time you’ve been doing this work in terms of accessibility? Is this a wonderful onramp to the future that’s proceeding without a hiccup? Or do we have to get a lot smarter and sharper and more empathetic about it?
Maayan: Yeah, I think both. It’s not this beautiful, seamless, upwards trajectory of progress. It does, you know, it always.. it’s just a complex issue. We’re talking about systemic unconscious bias. You know, that led to our very, very difficult to swallow discrimination for a long, long period of time. And people don’t even know that, you know, like people with disabilities have been, you know, the largest minority group in the world. And yet, if we look at the history, you know, even prior to my time, you know, my community was institutionalized and segregated from mainstream and worse, you know, I won’t even go into the darkness that we come from. So recognizing you know, that that progress, that change takes a lot of time and unlearning is just part of the nature of advocacy, you know, and and we’re seeing that now with many different groups that are claiming their space and using often technology or social media to vocalize concerns that people have not been aware of. You know, and once you’re aware, like for how long can you ignore? You know. It becomes impossible to just continue to reinforce the status quo. And so I think, you know, on a very deep level, accessibility is part of that conversation because it also doesn’t discriminate against who benefits. You mentioned curb cut. There is an entire philosophy called the curb cut effect, which is exactly that. The curb cut was inspired by a person using a motorized wheelchair who could not get off the sidewalk and cutting the curb out, empowered many more people to enjoy sidewalks and so recognizing this inspiration led from the disabled lens and tying it directly to inclusive design, which benefits all people on the planet, is the missing link that we work hard to kind of create for people with the work that we do.And a lot of it just comes down to transparency and metrics and real data. And that’s really what at AccessNow has helped us progress. It’s not enough to say we’re making progress. It’s not enough to say we’re going to make our city the most accessible or we’re on our way. You know, I have been a person who needed accessibility in my life, and one of the motivating factors for me to build AccessNow was I was really, really tired of hearing those statements because I had no idea what they meant. I could still not get to the place I wanted to go. I still didn’t know if I had access. And, you know, so I wanted real data points around where we’re at. How accessible is our city, let’s say, how many restaurants have accessible washrooms, how many public buildings, you know, are accessible to people who have guide dogs or who are sensitive to scent, you know, whatever. The point is with that data, we can now have more informed conversations about how to move that yardstick forward. So your question about progress, I think we’re really in a history making time where digital allows us to accelerate in a way that we haven’t been able to before. And we are seeing those transformations happening.
Rick: Wow. You’re so articulate on all this stuff. I feel tongue tied. It’s amazing. If you can wave a magic wand and change one thing in society to make it more inclusive and accessible, what would you do?
Maayan: I would remove people’s fear of the unknown. I’d say that one of the biggest barriers that I have faced in my personal kind of journey as a person with a disability and also building a company is that people are really afraid to edge into areas that they are not comfortable with. I don’t want to offend. I don’t want to say the wrong thing. I don’t want to do the wrong things. I’ll do nothing. And I think that if we could remove that fear and replace it with humility and willing willingness to learn, we could create a lot more progress, a lot faster.
Rick: Can you give me an example of that? Well, what does that look like?
Maayan; So I think, you know, like so, a really clear example that is maybe related is that.. I can’t tell you how many countless times I’ve been out somewhere and a little kid, you know, is curious about my wheelchair and wants to ask me or their parent a question about why, what is it? What’s going on here? Basically, the bottom line. And I’ve had kids come right up to me and say, why are you in that thing? Or what’s wrong with you?
Rick: Yeah, kids are wonderful.
Maayan: Yeah, and you know, there’s actually nothing wrong with that curiosity. But what happens is there is a moment of teaching there where a parent has two options. Embrace that and teach them how do you address someone, you know, in a welcoming and polite manner or literally shut it down and say don’t do that. That’s not OK. Don’t ask. We don’t talk to that person. We don’t ask them questions. We just completely just ignore the whole thing. And I’ve seen parents do both. I’ve seen parents grab their kids and pull them so like aggressively out of my way, out of I don’t know, fear that I might run them over or that their kid is in the way and that it’s a nuisance to me. I can’t even imagine really what goes through their mind other than the fact that they don’t know how to handle the situation. And what that shows me is that that little kid now has this moment of learning that disability is not something we should talk about, not something we should be familiarizing ourselves with. It’s different, it’s other, and it’s not in our world. And that’s the history of many generations and people teaching their kids that. So imagine if we said people who are different to us are also the same. They all have the same needs and same wants, the same desires. And there’s nothing wrong with just learning about people’s experiences. That’s how you get closer to inclusion. And that, by the way, is not unique to disability that could be based on skin color or religion or, you know, sexual orientation. It doesn’t really matter. Bottom line is we are all different. How can we learn how to respect and see each other’s differences as strength as opposed to, you know, threats.
Rick: Right. Beautifully said. What does AccessNow look like three years from now.
Maayan: Oooh, three years from now I hope that we are that much closer to creating insight about every single place on the planet, empowering people of all abilities to be more engaged and connected to their communities, literally by just answering questions, questions about access in whatever way you want to see it on our platforms. And that includes, you know, engaging with businesses, includes engaging with communities to continuously raise their voices and also engaging with governments who can begin to recognize their responsibility on a leadership front to stimulate some of this work.
Rick: I had this impression, and we’re friends on Facebook, so I see when you win awards and speak at conferences and stuff when you when you post about it, I had the impression that you were already networked with government and decision makers. I think that, you know, the cause of inclusion diversity is very popular among politicians. They like to be seen to be in favor of it. I would have thought you had their ear and were already interacting with them in productive ways.
Maayan: I think that would be a fair statement to make. Yes. Yeah.
Rick: It can be better. OK.
Maayan: Well, I just think, you know, like there are municipalities or even federally like yes, the government has shown at times an increased involvement in this space. And we do see progress happening but, you know, I find the government to be very slow. And so anything that I can do to support governments acceleration or even just what they need to know to make better decisions, I think that’s really the role that we play is to provide insight at all levels right.
Rick: Are there any other business ideas that you have? Or is this something, you know, you’re committing to for the long term?
Maayan: This is the long term for me. This is you know, it’s also deeply personal, of course. But, you know, as we’ve grown I..
Rick: Why couldn’t you get into sports betting or e-commerce..
Maayan: I could, I could.
Rick: …or all those other things.
Maayan: You know, I think there’s tons of things. And prior to AccessNow, I worked as a photographer and I was in media arts. I just feel like this is my purpose. This is my calling. So I will continue to advocate and be, you know, as headstrong as I have been since I was a little girl to make progress and I won’t rest until we’ll see that day.
Rick: I was hoping you’d, like, run for prime minister or something. But this is good, too.
Maayan: You know, you’re not the first person to say that to me, which is alarming. But we’ll see.
Rick: It’s not alarming. It’s called talent.
Maayan: Maybe. I just think that entrepreneurs have a really incredible responsibility. And I think currently I can do a lot more as an entrepreneur than I can, you know, running for office.
Rick: It’s funny, I’ve heard so many politicians say that, that when they got into politics they discovered how little power they had. They thought, yeah, I had more power before I was a politician and that’s scary. So, yes, I think you’re in the right place and you’re and you’re definitely doing the right thing.
We’ve been talking with Maayan Ziv, the founder and CEO of AccessNow, and she’s a force to be reckoned with as you can tell.
Maayan, the last question we traditionally ask our guests is, what’s the most actionable piece of advice you’d like to offer our entrepreneurial audience? Some tip or insight that they can put into their business immediately.
Maayan: I’d say that, you know, this whole time we’ve been talking about the benefits and the importance of accessibility, I’d say that, you know, if you’re out there building something new or you’re building something better from what you’ve already started, don’t be afraid to show up imperfectly. You know, I think it requires a certain amount of humility and grace to recognize that we all have to unlearn things that we’ve been taught. If we’re going to reach this, you know, truly inclusive place that we want to get towards. So don’t be afraid to make mistakes as long as you can engage with people who are open to guiding you on that journey. And there are lots of people out there who do that. You will find a way to honestly just enjoy the process of creating more accessible and inclusive experiences for people. So I think that’s what I would leave people with is don’t be afraid to show up imperfectly. It’s a journey. It’s not a destination.
Rick: Absolutely. Maayan, thank you so much. I will continue to keep tabs on you from afar as you move from strength to strength and win to win. I’m excited to see what you’ll do next.
Maayan: Thanks, Rick. It’s so nice to talk to you.
Rick: Thank you so much for tuning in to another episode of the Startup Canada podcast. This show is produced by Lauren Hicks and Maddie Stiles, and it’s made possible by the support of MasterCard and Scotiabank. Be sure to tune in every Tuesday for a new episode until next week. I’m your host, Rick Spence.