Building Accessible Tech and Culture: Interview with The Women of Transcribe Online
"We’re hoping it can change lives as well as movement and organizing work."
As a disabled person, access is everything. Accessibility should be the default for all new media; however, creating accessible media isn’t easy for artists, activists, community groups and non-profits with zero to lean budgets. For example, I’ve been a guest on several radio shows and podcasts this year, and it’s astounding how many do not include text transcripts as standard practice. Think about the groups of people they are excluding: not only Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing people, but people who may process information better via text than sound.
As the founder of the Disability Visibility Project, I’m committed to making media as accessible as possible. So when I learned about Transcribe Online, a brand new startup founded by Katie Klabusich and Raquel Hosein, I wanted to learn more about their origin story as an all-woman tech startup in their first year of existence. Here are some highlights from my conversation with the women of Transcribe Online: Katie Klabusich, Co-Founder and CEO, Raquel Hosein, Co-Founder and CTO, and Wagatwe Wanjuki, COO.
Alice: For people who are unfamiliar with Transcribe Online, what is it, and what sets it apart from other text-to-speech services in the market?
Transcribe Online team; from left to right: Katie, Raquel and Wagatwe.
Katie: Transcribe Online is bursting with potential because of our accessibility goals. Transcribe Online started as I sought a tech solution for the anxiety-spiking, time consuming problem of transcribing interviews in my work as a reporter; my goal was to make it as cheap as possible, with as many applications to different people’s needs as possible. When I found Raquel, she was immediately into my social justice angle, and that was when Transcribe Online truly began. We’re hoping it can change lives as well as movement and organizing work.
Raquel: Transcribe Online uses artificial intelligence to convert speech from multiple languages to written text. By using a cognitive and self-learning AI, we ensure that it’s not only incredibly accurate, but always capable of learning new words. Transcribe Online reduces the time of interview transcription by offering an audio upload option, as well as real time transcription via your computer or cell phone microphone so you can transcribe live podcasts, videos, group meetings, and much more.
Wagatwe: Transcriptions are essential for increasing the accessibility of online content. In the world where most of us get our content digitally, there is a lot more pressure on media makers and activists to churn out more information ASAP. Transcribe Online can help media makers by making transcription of interviews and videos a lot easier and quicker — which in the end saves them time, which equals money saved.
What sets us apart from other similar services is that it’s a woman-led company mostly comprised of women of color, so we are focusing on making it financially accessible to all individuals. Not only does it cost a fraction of other transcription services out there, but users don’t have to worry about privacy or waiting for a human to go over it to get the final product.
Alice: What were the major challenges and learning curves for each of you as CEO, CTO, and CCO as you launched Transcribe Online?
Katie: What I’ve found is that my nerves concerning my financial history — I’m pseudo-famous for making poverty trend on Twitter, being willing to discuss my 15+ years in poverty, and spending time on food assistance last year — were understandable, but unwarranted. My years in poverty have been an asset to almost every aspect of founding a company: my ability to crisis budget and count pennies, figure out logistics, and plan for and avoid potential catastrophes.
Raquel: Once Katie and I saw the potential of Transcribe Online we knew we had to get it out to the world. As CTO, I’ve built the tech from the ground up. It has been rather difficult working by myself, but it’s come with a lot of freedom to implement new ideas and designs whenever I choose. I can do my work on my own schedule based on my level of stress. I don’t have to report to anyone about my comings or goings. At the same time, if I were in a large company, I would be able to focus specifically on development alone. But, I enjoy the hustle and bustle. Over the course of six months or so, over 10,000 lines of code have been written to get Transcribe Online to take flight.
Wagatwe: While I have been a part of a few startup nonprofits and a startup company before, this is the first time I’ve ever been with a company from the beginning. It has been challenging to essentially work with a product and company as a one-person team. It is a lot different to be the main or only communications person, but I love what I’ve learned from it!
Alice: As part of an all-female start-up, how is social justice embedded in the mission, ethos, and workplace culture of Transcribe Online (e.g., accommodations, flexibility, etc.)? Is this important to you and if so, why?
Katie: Everyone on our team has overlapping identities, many of which are discriminated against either overtly or with micro aggressions in our culture at large and in our capitalism-driven workplace culture. Part of why we have had to push back our launch schedule is in response to the needs of our team; our health and well-being are important and we have worked hard to support each other.
As someone with multiple mental illness diagnoses and a tangle of other assorted health conditions my physicians are still working to unravel, I can have unpredictable bad days. My PTSD nightmares kicked into high gear during the formation of Transcribe Online and I had a poorly timed (as if there’s ever a good time) major depressive episode that coincided with our soft launch. I certainly understand the need for flexible work conditions AND that an illness or trauma history are not an indication of someone’s worth, talent, or capability. I am part of a brilliant team and would never consider someone’s need to take time to tend to their health to be a burden; it’s simply part of life.
Raquel: I have struggled with several different health issues, ranging from depression to major surgery during the development of Transcribe Online. Due to our environment I received time off to heal and recuperate fully. As we are a new startup, time is of the essence but Katie and I always work to make sure if anyone working with us needs time off for any reason, they can receive that.
Social justice is incredibly important to me, because without social justice projects I would have not made it to the position that I am at now. I discovered my love for helping people by working with social justice organizations, and without that love I could not have made Transcribe Online to be what it is today.
Alice: What’s your advice to women and women of color in particular who want to carve out their own spaces in the tech world and create badass work on their own terms? What have you learned so far that can help future entrepreneurs?
Katie: Surround yourself with supportive talented people who believe in your vision. Expect everything to take longer than you hope, plan for bumps in the road so they don’t derail you, and give yourself time off. It’s hard to be kind to yourself when you’re excited about a project, but in the long run it’s really important. Even with the soft launch time frame we put together, burnout is real. Illness can happen. Life can happen. Try and be generous to yourself whenever you can.
Raquel: Being a queer woman of color in the tech world is difficult. In my opinion, most people don’t see or understand my struggle. My advice to anyone deciding to start their own business is:
1) Make sure to take time for yourself.
2) Make sure to find a partner that shares your vision and can commit.
3) Imagination + Effort + Money = Badass work. Imagination and effort are the most important. Money comes after. If you have money you can spend more time and thus more effort. Money expedites things. Without imagination, Ada Lovelace could not have made what is considered the first machine algorithm, Grace Hopper could not have lead the team that made COBOL, an early popular programming language, and I could not have built Transcribe Online. All of these things take time and effort.
4) Remember to network.
5) Always patent or copyright your core designs and work so no one can take your idea.
6) Take your time and work out your main ideas before building your project. Make sure you and your partners agree on the main ideas of the project before you begin building it. I cannot stress this enough. You will save more time if you come to a consensus early on and build from there. In programming we might call it “migrating forward.” In life we call it making the most of what you have. Make your business plan and follow it. That will ease many of your burdens.
7) Break down your idea into smaller more malleable parts and make each of those parts a goal to reach. If you do that, the work will not seem so insurmountable.
Looking at the number of women founders of tech startups, progress is incremental but nowhere close to parity. A 2015 study by CrunchBase reported only 15.5% of all US-based tech startups that received funding were founded by women in 2014 (a rise from 9.5% in 2009). Rather than waiting for venture capitalists to fund founders who are women and other underrepresented populations, or big tech companies to improve their hiring practices and workforce statistics, the women of Transcribe Online are taking a risk, creating something together, being flexible and supportive to each other, and filling a need in the market for speech-to-text services at an affordable price point.
I’m excited for Katie, Raquel, and Wagatwe and the promise of Transcribe Online. As Transcribe Online completes their beta testing and releases it to to the public, I can’t wait to recommend it to podcasters and radio people I know. Borrowing from the title of David Peter’s piece “Building Accessibility Culture,” the women of Transcribe Online are an example of how to build accessibility culture in both their workplace practices and products and services. No more excuses!