Forget the fear of failure: Embracing change with Naby Mariyam
The start of a new session at university always brings with it a sense of change – the holidays are over, you’ve got new classes, your schedule is changing, and you’re suddenly reminded that you’re one step closer to graduation. This time can also prompt a lot of questions and concerns around the direction your life is taking, and what your future could hold. Are you doing the right degree? What if you love the elective you’re taking this session and want to change careers? Do you even really know what you want to be when you ‘grow up’?
While we may not have all the answers, we did have the opportunity to speak with CEO and Founder of Coverhero, Naby Mariyam, earlier this year. After graduating from her high school in the Maldives at age 15, Naby studied business and hospitality at university and received her Master’s in Management at age 22, where she then began her career in academia. Her twenties were filled with a number of big career shifts – she spent time working in hospitality at fine dining restaurants in Sydney, then back to academia while also completing her PhD at UTS and doing consulting work.
Then, when she was about 30 she undertook a huge career shift: she quit academia completely and went into entrepreneurship.
Read part one of our chat with Naby below, as she discusses her experience transitioning between multiple industries in her twenties, navigating failure in her entrepreneurial career, and how setbacks and change can actually prompt growth.
We have a bit of background into your early career, but what were your first steps into entrepreneurship like for you?
When I was about 30 I quit academia and went into entrepreneurship… [previously] I did a travel documentary series and I was trying to pitch that to SBS and they didn’t want it. So that rejection was the reason I got into tech because I was like, ‘The barrier of entry into media is so high – technology has low barriers of entry so I’m going to give it a crack.’
So I started building my first startup, which was called Hi Maldives, which was kind of like an Airbnb equivalent for the Maldives to democratize access to up-and-coming mid-range tourism accommodation facilities. And that kind of didn’t go anywhere.
So then in 2015… I tried another startup with my cofounder called Ziipmate, which was on-demand last mile delivery, and then we learned a whole bunch of things and we pivoted that company into Rydhero, which was Australia’s first ride-share platform for kids – kind of the same time that Uber was launched. And then that failed.
And I then worked in corporate innovation for a little while, and then had a really terrible insurance experience that got me curious enough and angry enough about the insurance industry that got me started with Coverhero. So, everything else is history. And in between I did a whole bunch of consulting too – a United Nations development project, innovation consulting and a whole range of other things.
Amazing! So there were a few bumps along the way when you first got into the startup world. You were saying your decision to enter the tech industry was that low barrier of entry – did you have an interest in tech previous to that, or was that something that kind of came up?
Yeah! So funnily, when I was a very young academic at the university in the Maldives, they needed someone to run IT systems… and I really wanted to do that, so I was a Systems Administrator… And I was always deeply curious and interested. Then [later] I met a whole bunch of friends who were working at Facebook and Google and Atlassian and I was like, ‘this seems like a whole new world.’
Academia wasn’t really vibing with me anymore because I had already worked in academia for about 15 years by that stage and I was like, ‘I don’t know if this is really my vibe for the next ten years … tech is where I belong.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m going to start from the bottom and make a career out of it’, so yeah it will be ten years in tech this year actually!
Happy anniversary, that’s incredible! That would’ve been, in my mind at least, a little bit of a risky move – going from something that was more established in academia to this whole new entrepreneurial space. Was it scary at the time to make that shift?
Actually no. So, I was halfway through my PhD and I was kind of stuck and I was like ‘Why is my heart not there anymore?’ And I was having an existential crisis, and I was like ‘I love my research, I love academia, I love teaching, I love my students, but why am I so unhappy with it?’
… I knew what I didn’t want, [and] what I knew was that I wanted to make a huge impact in the world, but I was like ‘I don’t know which path to go [down]’. And I had this hunch that technology would be an avenue for me to explore my sense of purpose, of making an impact in the world, but I really didn’t know what I would build or… I mean, having no software background, I was like ‘I don’t know anything about software, how can I build technology when I have no domain expertise in tech?’
But what I realized was that I have a social sciences background, I have domain expertise on humanity and culture and society, and I was like I’m a problem solver, I’m a social science engineer – I can hire people to write software, but I can solve problems. And my academic experience has taught me how to find gaps in complex environments, and I was like, ‘I can do this, I have a skill set that can be utilized!’ So I was like, ‘Okay I’m going to give it a try and see what happens.’
Would you have some advice for students who are maybe second guessing their degree, or finding themselves enjoying parts of it but not others – essentially, if they’re thinking about making a change in their career or their studies, but they’re scared of taking that risk?
I think the way to look at life is like, life is long – it’s like one big story, and you can write different chapters incrementally. And every chapter is the steppingstone for the next chapter, so change in direction is actually what makes life rich.
So just embrace, ‘Yeah I’m going to study this for 3 years and dabble in whatever and see what happens’ and then you can be like ‘Okay so I learnt a whole bunch of things that I don’t want to do in life’. Because you can’t know what you want if you don’t know what you don’t want.
So the life journey is about discovering what you don’t want, so the more you discover what you don’t want, the more clarity you get around what you [do] want. You’re not going to figure out what you want early in your twenties, and I think a lot of people are in this rush to figure everything out right now.
Another way to look at it is, don’t try to figure out what you want – try to go inside and find what you love and build some skills around that, and then see what happens. Get curious about life, discover where life is going to lead you rather than trying to control and curate this perfect image of a persona that you might see in the media or a business and be like ‘Oo I want to be like that!’ – because you don’t know, you don’t know if that’s what you want because what you want continuously changes based on your journey and your life experiences.
So if you’re feeling confused about what direction your studies and career are going in – don’t worry, you’ve got time. Like Naby said, a lot of us are in a rush to figure things out but if you focus on pursuing what you love opportunities have a way of cropping up.
Keep an eye out for part two of our discussion with Naby, where we look further at some of the skills and steps you can take to start turning career setbacks into successes.
Featured image courtesy of Unsplash
CEO and Founder of Coverhero
By Mia Casey