Accents and immigration as signs of bravery
My chat with Anada Lakra, Cofounder & CEO of BoldVoice
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One of the Scatter Brain’s themes explores how founders take on problems immigrants face in new countries they move to for work or studies.
Regardless of why immigrants move to the States, a universal experience they go through is dealing with their accents, which go from totally normal to something that makes them stand out in a new culture. An accent is a multifaceted topic, both a strength and a liability in personal and professional circumstances, with cultural and identity undertones often hard for native speakers to grok. Today’s chat is with BoldVoice’s CEO, Anada, on all things accents and how she’s helping non-English speakers speak clearly and confidently.
In this chat, Anada and I talked about :
Growing up in Albania
Being a student with an accent on college campuses
Relationship between accents and confidence
Accents’ complicated link with culture and identity
Training content from coaches of Game of Thrones actors
Broadening access to accent coaching
Learnings from fundraising
What naysayers got wrong
Sar: You grew up in Albania and moved to the States over a decade ago for undergrad. Tell us about the environment you grew up in. What would tourists get surprised by?
Anada: I was fortunate to grow up in an environment where education was seen as the key to success. My parents instilled that in me early on. Being born in a country that had recently emerged from communism meant that opportunities were still relatively scarce. It was very competitive – many kids hungry to prove themselves were running for the same leadership roles or extracurriculars. Environments like that are ideal breeding grounds for entrepreneurs. Many of my classmates went on to study at some of the best universities around the world and create impressive careers – and truly, immigration is a form of entrepreneurship.
I think people visiting the country might be surprised by its extremes: in lots of ways, it’s a developed country in terms of brainpower and education, and yet career opportunities are still much scarcer than in other parts of Europe, so, unfortunately, there is a lot of waste. On a less bittersweet note, a surprise for tourists would be Albania’s incredible coastline and hospitality – everyone should visit!
Sar: There are two extreme types of immigrants in undergrad. The first type tries hard to fit in, embraces the new culture, assimilates quite a bit in a few semesters, and starts to lose some connections to their native cultures as a coping mechanism. The other type finds it hard to fit in, longs for cultural ties, actively rejects some cultural newness and looks forward to returning home during breaks to recharge. Does that resonate with you?
Anada: I’ve seen people fall at any point between the ends of the spectrum you described. When you’re newer to the country and haven’t yet developed full confidence, assimilating may not feel like a choice as much as a necessity for social survival. Language and accents contribute to in-group / out-group dynamics, which is unfortunate. You see this even on college campuses, where people from the same countries tend to stick to each other – so much for diversity! We ALL lose in this “forced choice” world. In an ideal world, immigrants should get to keep and embody elements from both cultures. As you develop your confidence, I think that’s when you understand that you don’t have to choose necessarily and you can indeed have both.
Sar: Immigrant kids going to the States for undergrad grow up writing and reading in English. Yet they often struggle with speaking American English. Being asked to repeat yourself can take a toll on you when trying to find footing in a new culture. I remember a kid who would make fun of how immigrants spoke. He would laugh whenever he would hear immigrant kids say essential words like “water” or “can’t.”. I remember a wise friend telling me that the fact that immigrants get made fun of only shows how multi-lingual they are and that America is one of the most monolingual countries in the world!
Anada: We’ve all been through it! It’s a universal experience for immigrants. It’s funny, too, because many of us are “A students” back home who crushed our English exams. Then we show up to the US, and our confidence gets shot. I remember being in a large auditorium at Yale and confidently raising my hand to comment on the “Peace Corps” – except that I pronounced it as “corpse.” I want to say this was one of the most embarrassing mispronunciations, but there were so many. And it may be funny in some contexts, but it’s not funny when you’re in a job interview and trying to put your best foot forward. I remember going through all the interview processes and feeling less confident because of my accent. My American peers seemed so much more polished, while I stumbled in my answers when I wasn’t sure how to pronounce something properly. For some people, this is their first language, and for others, it’s their second (or third, or fourth!) language. The job is in English and not in Albanian. It’s not fair, but it’s the reality of it. Some people have to work extra hard to get to the baseline that others have.
Sar: Non-native speakers, who successfully embrace the American accent, are often looked down on for losing their cultural identities and “trying too hard.” Many consider having an immigrant accent a source of pride and cultural heritage.
Anada: The most important thing is being understood, whether you’re trying to communicate in English, Spanish, or Mandarin. Your verbal communication has failed if your pronunciation isn’t clear and the listener has to work hard to understand you. On that level, perfecting your pronunciation/accent is part of being fluent in the language. It's something you can work on, much like you’d work on your vocabulary and grammar. I don’t see anything especially unfair or controversial about that.
Suppose you are clear and easy to understand but still have a discernible accent that holds you back. In that case, things get more nuanced because we’re not talking about intelligibility - we’re talking about bias. According to Wharton research, having an accent makes you 16% less likely to land a managerial job and 21% less likely to fundraise. A Yale study showed class bias in hiring based on a few seconds of speech.
I'd like to help people who are struggling and overlooked today. While many people are proud of their accents and feel like it's an intrinsic part of them, others would prefer to have more control over their image: they don’t want to "stick out" or have their accents be the first thing others notice about them. I think both stances are fair. Accents are linked to culture and identity — but your identity and culture do not go away if you work on your accent and develop tools to feel more confident in a new cultural setting. One of our users put it best: “BoldVoice helps me be unique, but NOT because of my accent.” It boils down to a personal choice: if working on your accent will make you feel more confident, do it! If you're already confident and don't need it, amazing!
Lastly, I believe that accents are a sign of bravery, as is immigration. Whether non-native speaker chooses to work on their accent, native speakers should understand their privilege and do their part to ensure everyone feels included and treated fairly.
Sar: You started BoldVoice in 2021 to help with speech and accent coaching. I love the company name! You want to help people speak confidently. BoldVoice is not your first rodeo as a founder. Talk about the origins and early days.
Anada: I am building what I wish I had when I moved to this country — and what I could use even now, 12 years later! The idea for BoldVoice has been in my brain subconsciously ever since I first faced this problem, but it clicked for me as a viable opportunity when I was studying at Harvard Business School, and a classmate told me that she had hired an accent coach to help her with interview prep. This was the first time I learned that accent coaches existed and can be effective, but it’ll cost you over $100 for a single lesson. So I thought, is there a way to bring this service to more people who could use it, but at an affordable price?
The most important lesson I learned from my last startup was not to waste time. So instead of making pretty decks, I focused on building an MVP. I reached out to a top Hollywood accent coach, Ron Carlos, who was inspired enough by the mission that he agreed to put together the first set of video lessons. I found ten people who paid us $10 to receive these lessons and share their “before” and “after” speech samples. That’s what it took to get some initial proof that people wanted this (and were willing to pay for it) and that the solution worked. With these results in hand, my cofounder Ilya Usorov and I applied to Y Combinator, got in, and were off to the races to build the product!
We started as Wellocution (a combination of “well” and “elocution”), but we changed our name to BoldVoice when we launched. This poetically captures our movement from the “what” to the “why” — it speaks to the most important part that we’re bringing to our users: confidence in their voice.
Sar: You are not like most immigrants in the US. You went to the country’s top schools, have had high-paying jobs, and have lived in the best cities! How were you thinking about the target demographic when you started, and what does it look like today?
Anada: From the start, we set an ambitious goal to help every non-native English speaker speak English clearly and confidently, so they can unlock new opportunities in their careers and lives. This includes those who attend prestigious colleges but, even more so, those who don’t. The latter find more value in BoldVoice because they might not necessarily have the “halo effect” of a brand name in their resume — clear and confident communication makes an even bigger difference in their careers.
We initially thought our main target users would be people who had just moved to the country. We’ve learned that it’s broader than that: many of our learners have actually been in the US for years, even decades, and still struggle with their accents. Being able to even the playing field for these deserving people who might not have had such opportunities before and helping those who have always felt somewhat insecure about their accents is an incredible motivator for our team.
Sar: Your product has two components. First, there’s the content. Second, there’s technology to provide feedback. Why do you offer recorded video lessons from Hollywood coaches? Did your stint at Peloton influence your thinking?
Anada: From the beginning, my vision was to create a premium learning experience that blended education and entertainment. Since we don’t offer 1:1 classes on BoldVoice, it was important that the pre-recorded video classes are top-notch, delivered by the best coaches, and with the highest entertainment factor. This is where our Hollywood coaches, like Ron Carlos and Eliza Simpson, come in. Not only are they extremely talented and well-credentialed as dialect coaches, but they’re also trained actors. They can deliver an engaging experience on camera that makes you feel like you’re learning from them one-on-one. The fact that these are the same coaches who have taught actors from Game of Thrones and Hunger Games makes it extra special for our users.
The parallel to Peloton is clear and was an inspiration. Peloton’s coaches have charisma and energy onscreen that makes you feel like you’re working out in the same room as them, which is a huge reason for its loyal fan base. In a world of dozens of language learning apps that look and feel the same, investing in high-quality content from the best coaches is huge differentiation.
Sar: Talk about supplementing the video lessons with real-time feedback.
Anada: Even the most engaging coach can’t keep you on track in your learning journey if you don’t have a feedback mechanism to tell you whether you’re doing it right and whether you’re improving. For Peloton, that mechanism is the metrics they give you on the equipment, where you know exactly your speed and resistance and whether you’re keeping up with the coach. For BoldVoice, that mechanism is our speech recognition technology. People want to learn from the coaches, but then they want to put what they learned to practice — so we give them words, sentences, and conversations to practice on, with instant feedback on their pronunciation. While admittedly, our AI is still not as sharp as the fine-tuned ear of our accent coaches, it’s still quite accurate and detailed.
Feedback can also make learning fun and exciting — you get a score and try to beat your previous score, so you compete with yourself. Gamification goes a long way in making our learners stick to their goals. And it’s so rewarding to see yourself improve in real time.
Sar: Talk about how the product tries to replicate the dynamics of private coaching.
Anada: First, we ask users for their native language to personalize the lessons they receive. This is because different native languages present different needs — Hindi speakers might struggle with their W’s and V’s, whereas Japanese speakers might struggle with their R’s and L’s, and so forth. Personalization of content makes our offering premium and comparable to 1:1 coaching. The second piece is the instant, sound-by-sound feedback tailored to your voice. This is like having an accent coach in your pocket, always helping you.
Many of our users don’t have the time to prioritize hour-long classes in their work week. With BoldVoice, they get the same results by practicing for 10-15 minutes daily. One of our users who had previously taken accent coaching classes even said they prefer BoldVoice because they can fit it into their lives and stick to it. That convenience makes our offering competitive and often superior to traditional accent coaching classes.
Sar: What did fundraising teach you?
Anada: Fundraising proved that the founder should be the best expert in their space. Even the most well-informed investor will not (and should not) know your market and the problem you’re tackling better than you. This made it easier for me to show up and keep going in the process where, by design, you will get nine no’s for every yes. There will always be investors who are not as informed or as excited— for us, some couldn’t see accents beyond a small niche that few people care about (needless to say, these investors were all American.) Investors with more international exposure or personal experience with accents were excited to see us tackling this huge overlooked problem. So what I learned is what we teach on BoldVoice: be confident in your voice and what you stand for. You are the ultimate expert in what you’re building, so hold steady.
Sar: What’s the most fun part of your job?
Anada: It’s hearing how it’s impacted the people using it. I take the time weekly to do customer interviews and to hear our users’ experiences — it’s incredible to hear how they have landed a job or are now able to speak up more at work, thanks to our product. When things get tough, there’s nothing more motivating than knowing you’re making a real difference and helping people feel more confident in their voices.
Sar: What’s been a memorable moment from those customer calls?
Anada: We ask the product-market-fit question that Rahul Vohra from Superhuman popularized – “How disappointed would you be if, hypothetically, you couldn’t use BoldVoice anymore tomorrow?” One user said, “very disappointed because now I feel as though the coaches are my friends.” It struck me as the greatest compliment for our product that we were fulfilling a functional role in his life and a deeper emotional one. The mantra of “the coach is always there for you” guides our team as we build the app.
Sar: What were the naysayers saying when you got started?
Anada: “You can’t teach people an accent with an app. The market is too small – very few people care enough to pay for this. It’s going to be too expensive to build a customized learning solution. People will not want to tell their friends that they’re working on their accent.” The list goes on. We keep proving them wrong. Unlike most of them – my cofounder and I are immigrants who have been through this ourselves. It would have already been done if it were obvious.
Sar: Love that! Talk about the future of BoldVoice.
Anada: As the world gets more interconnected, remote work becomes more common, and English grows as the language of business, our opportunities are endless. We have an ambitious product roadmap inspired by the users we talk to every day, and we want to get BoldVoice in markets outside of the United States in the future. We measure our success by the number of people we help speak more confidently. Over 1 billion people globally could benefit from BoldVoice, so we’re extremely excited about the road ahead. We’re also growing our strong, mission-driven team. Check out our open roles, and let’s chat!
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