From an interview with Maryam Sadeghi, CEO and Co-Founder of MetaOptima Technology.
The Arrive celebrates newcomer entrepreneurs in Canada series highlights some of the winners from the RBC Top 25 Canadian Immigrant Awards. Those who are featured will share stories of leaving home, becoming an entrepreneur and finally feeling you’ve arrived.
Maryam Sadeghi came to Canada from Iran in August 2007 to join her husband, Majid, who was studying computing science in Montreal. She stayed in Montreal for a few months before venturing across the country to begin her master’s program in Computing Science at Simon Fraser University (SFU), in Vancouver. Nine months later, she switched to a PhD in Computing Science at SFU in the Medical Image Analysis lab. According to Maryam, higher education is highly valued in Iran, for men and women. “You’ve likely met many Iranians with a PhD in something.” Maryam was offered admission to five universities in the United States and one in Canada. We are glad she chose to come to Canada and grateful that she took the time to share her story of inspiration and determination with us.
Reflections on my Newcomer Journey
It’s really difficult for an international student to come to Canada to live, study and survive without having any financial support. I had just started at SFU, and I had very little money, barely enough to cover expenses. Coming from Iran with the currency situation and the financial problems, I was considering leaving Canada to go to the States. I had an admission offer from the University of Florida: It was a direct PhD admission with a full scholarship, and all tuition fees waived. I was about to go when I decided to talk to the program director. I said, “I want to stay in Canada. I believe it’s a better place to live, and my husband is here, but I’ll have no choice but to leave if I can’t get financial support here.” I got a scholarship.
Because of that support, that small scholarship (I think it was six thousand dollars), I was able to stay in Canada. It’s really important when you look back to understand all the factors that impacted your decisions and helped get you where you are today. When I look back, that financial opportunity was one of the most important forces that could have led me to be in a different place. I am here because Canada and SFU invested in me.
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When newcomer goals meet reality: highs and lows
Coming from a country that does not recognize your basic rights, my first highs were really being in a new place and seeing the differences in the rights that we have in Canada. These are simple things that one may not appreciate living in Canada, but that is so important: freedom in general, being able to wear what you want, to go where you want, and to say what you want; the freedom to talk about a problem and to fight for what you believe is right – these are very basic rights that I appreciated greatly – not to mention the fact that there were programs to support my research. Maybe I was a nerd, but I was really excited to see all the tools we had in our research lab!
I had the opportunity to publish in the first few months I was in Canada, and I was invited to speak at a conference as an international student. English was my second language, but imagine the level of confidence you gain after you start your program. You see progress; you see recognition. These were all highs.
There were low days too. There are cultural differences that can be a shock, and you may feel very lonely. I know I did. I remember walking on campus one day and just crying. I missed my husband who was in Montreal, I missed my family, and I missed the things from home that I couldn’t bring. I didn’t have any friends here, and there were financial challenges.
Later, when my business was established and successful, I had a phase that is probably called depression. I didn’t know what it was called at the time. I was never diagnosed. Maybe only three people in my life knew about it, and one of them didn’t believe me. But the others supported me, and I got through it. Those are the difficult days that many of us face in our journey. It’s important to know that we are not alone.
From the outside, others may only see your highlights; they see your interviews, your Instagram photos of climbing and travelling. And maybe they think, “Oh, wow. Look at Maryam’s life.” But I really want to let them know I’ve had difficult days too. Some were very difficult.
I have no problem talking about it today, if it’s going to help even one person on that dark, difficult day to say, “You know what? So many people have survived. I can too.”
How my business came to be: The light bulb moment
After my PhD – during my postdoctoral research, I interviewed to work for another company. During the process, I asked them to increase the salary because more than 50% of my salary was a scholarship that I was bringing with me to the company, and they refused, “Post-grads are not paid that high, and you’re paid more than most.” I felt humiliated and undervalued, and it sparked a flame inside of me. I thought, “You know what, I’m going to do this. Just watch me!”
I hadn’t planned on starting a business, but that was the point, the exact moment that MetaOptima was ignited. I went home and registered the company. I was like a kid, excited to find a new playground. I knew there was a big problem, and I knew I could do it. So, I decided to do it myself – with Majid, my husband and my best friend, as co-founder. That’s how I started my business.
Read more about how to start a business in Canada
How my business came to be what it is today
My research was in dermatology – in skin. I was shocked by how archaic the whole industry was. There were no digital solutions to help our doctors diagnose, manage and treat patients. Radiology and cardiology were digital, but dermatology was manual and still on paper. So, the solution that we identified and designed was to digitize this ecosystem: to make it intelligent by learning from the historical data and helping our doctors make better diagnostic and management decisions.
The first step was digitization. We started building our product with that vision, to make dermatology digital. When doctors have tools for imaging, for documentation, for communication, they can learn from historical data, they can learn from millions of patients and thousands of doctors to serve their patients in front of them.
The solution was to build a technology that would be an intelligent assistant for doctors. We use smartphones every day. Our doctors take photos, they look at them, they diagnose cases, so why not store this information for later? The computer can help them. So, we built a program that brings the collective knowledge of thousands of doctors and millions of patients to their fingertips.
Dermatologists are very visual. Doctors are trained by seeing similar cases and making decisions and learning from their decisions. With our pattern matching, we can help associate similar cases, and the doctor can make a more informed decision. Your doctor can say, “Look, this mole is similar to these cases in the system, and 90% of them are melanoma.
This is still basically visual inspection: the AI (artificial intelligence) engine is trained on the thousands of cases that it sees every day. The whole idea was, why limit doctor’s to learning from their own mistakes or just a few cases they see every day; why not give them access to all of the collective knowledge of thousands of doctors? The AI engine can be trained globally and serve patients in different parts of the world.
We have doctors and patients in over 27 countries.
It has taken hard work, and there have been difficult days. Having a strong partner is one of the foundations for the success that I am truly fortunate to have. I remember when I decided to reject an investment opportunity. It was a very difficult decision because the business needed the money, but I knew it was not the right decision, and I had to say no. It was a tough position to be in. Majid said, “Maryam, I’m with you, we’ll make it. Don’t worry. If it’s not right, if it’s going to change our vision, don’t do it. You can count on me.” Without his support, we could have been in a very different situation. I will remember this forever in my business journey.
Read more about how to fund your business in Canada
What I brought from home that helped me succeed
In Iran, we learned to fight for our rights. It can make you stronger because you have to really work for them, to basically earn them. You gain a mindset of working hard and not giving up because you’re not set up for success; you have to fight. You have to keep going, you have to have commitment and accountability, and you train yourself to keep going and not to give up. I think that is what I see in many successful immigrants.
This is not to say that hard work is exclusive to immigrants. It doesn’t matter where you come from. This is a mindset for success. I see it in many successful Canadian entrepreneurs and in successful people – they don’t give up. But coming from another country that has a worse situation compared to what we have in Canada, just makes you stronger. You develop resilience living in a difficult situation.
I’m a first-time CEO, a female CEO, a female tech CEO, and an immigrant CEO. There were times when people doubted my abilities based solely on these labels. But in the end, I believe the numbers will talk. I believe the evidence will win, and it doesn’t matter that I’m a female CEO or if I’m an immigrant CEO, the business will succeed because I’m really good at it, I work hard, and I don’t give up.
On the world we live in today
We are in difficult times. The last six months, eight months with all the things happening in Iran, and around the world: floods, earthquakes, COVID-19 and everything that is happening in the U.S.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been an eye-opening event for me personally. I saw that there are so many things happening, and so many things are out of our control. No matter how hard you work for your business, there are things out of your control that can change things.
Our company is actually doing well because we are in telemedicine, and COVID-19 brought more business for us. So it’s not at all about my personal situation. What really matters is how we survive, how we support others, and how we are supported to go through it. Like shifting your mindset to say, “OK, we are in this crisis situation; now I need my survival skills.” Let’s be the ones who lead survival and success. We should be kind to ourselves and support ourselves and each other. Let’s build the forces to be with us in the difficult days. And finally, just stay positive. What else can we do?
Looking to the future
I believe we are each granted a window. It’s a limited window, and it’s closing. This is life, and we don’t know how many more years we will live. To the degree one can, we pick what to look at through the window. What will your view be? Will it be an Alpine view with beautiful meadows, or looking at all the problems and making it difficult for yourself. I’m not saying it will always be beautiful meadows out there. Of course, it can be stormy; it can be snowing; it can be bleak. But it is beautiful, and there will be sunshine again tomorrow. It’s a mindset. Accept that there will be difficult days. You may decide not to do anything one day, and that’s fine. Take care of yourself, take care of the ones around you, and be a good person. Enjoy the view, be proud of what you do, and when your window closes, you will have had a positive impact by the way you lived and what you did.
What it means to be an entrepreneur
I didn’t plan to be an entrepreneur. I knew there was a problem, and I thought, “Why has nobody solved this?”
Being an entrepreneur, for me, is about having a solution for something that you believe will deliver value, and you will earn something for it. This value doesn’t have to be financial; what you earn doesn’t have to be financial. For example, I love social entrepreneurship. There is an exchange in what you do, what you create and what you receive. It’s a very general definition, and totally biased by the way, to my own training and what I do, but, when it comes to entrepreneurship, it’s about identifying a big problem, finding a solution, and committing to building that solution that will have financial or other outcomes for you.
One of the most important outcomes for me was actually building my team – job creation. My main objective is to make sure that each member of my team, my company, loves what they do, that they are part of this vision and help build the entity that is going to help us get there.
Newcomer advice: Be the best barber, teacher, cook or CEO you can be
For me, the definition of success is happiness. And, happiness is, I believe, self-satisfaction. It comes from being happy with where you are and what you’ve done. So, I didn’t see myself necessarily as the CEO of a company with global offices, or as a successful entrepreneur. But I always pictured myself being really, really good at what I do.
For example, when I was a student, I was a top student. When I am climbing – I’m not saying I’m the best climber in the world – but I do my best, and I’m happy with the progress I have every single step that keeps me going forward, and it’s like a reward system my brain has built.
I remember telling my friend, “It doesn’t matter if I’m a barber, if I’m a cook, if I’m a teacher, I should be the best one that I can be.” And that’s actually how I plan my day. Even if I’m doing simple things, I do my best. Then, when I look back, no matter what the result is, I’m happy because I’ve done my best. And I don’t compare myself with others.
It doesn’t matter what your title is, and it doesn’t matter what your salary is, as long as you are happy. This is a really good life lesson. And if I can share just one thing, it’s about internal happiness. And it is making sure that you build those forces to help you to be successful.
No one else is going to do it for you.
“This is your dream. See yourself there. You need to work hard, you need to surround yourself with positive people, and you have to be committed to your destination. You must want to get there.”
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