Evgeniya (Jen) Usmanova is a mother of two, and the founder & COO of CareLuLu (www.carelulu.com) – an innovative business which creates an online marketplace to help parents find the best daycare & preschool for their children. She is originally from Tajikistan, but considers herself to be citizen of the world as she lived and worked in Russia, France, and the US.
Photo credit: Sumit Kohli. (http://www.sreel.com/)
1. TEW: Tell us a bit about yourself:
I immigrated to the US quite some time ago, when I was 11 years old. We moved to the US to get away from the civil war that was taking place in Tajikistan in the early to mid ‘90s, it was the only violent conflict to arise from the fall of the Soviet Union. Although I was born overseas, today I consider myself to be American as I’ve spent most of my life in the US. I always had an entrepreneurial spirit in me. When I was a kid, I started writing short auto-biographical stories of how as a child I would already hustle and think of ways to make money. For instance, when I was in 2nd grade, we had a school fair where students could bring some items/toys to trade with others. That day, my grandma gave me a couple of coins and two pencils to trade. Four hours later I got home with a whole box of pencils, a book, and a few bills.
Moving to America had a tremendous impact on my life. To make it plain, there’s no way I would ever raise $1.7 million dollars in Tajikistan to build a startup. In the US, you are in charge of your own destiny and anyone can do anything they want if they set their mind to it. Here anything is possible.
2. TEW: What prompted you to start Carelulu? How did you get started with it?
CareLuLu started out of personal frustration as parents trying to find a daycare for our two daughters. Our world is so high-tech that I expected to have an app to quickly help me identify daycares near me that offer exactly the services my family needed. There was no such tool. The search process was really old fashioned: going through a list of numbers calling daycares, asking a bunch of the same questions over and over again, doing research on these daycare providers online, then visiting dozens in person. It was a very long and unpleasant process that I felt didn’t need to be so. That’s when we decided to build a solution to the pain point that affects every single working parent. We decided to build a tool that would help match families with daycares and preschools that offer the exact services the parent needs (i.e. their budget, their hours, their teaching philosophy, language, and some 30 other criteria).
3. TEW: Tell us more about your business. What is a typical day like for you? How have your customers reacted?
As an early stage startup, we go through so much innovation and iteration that no day is ever the same. We are constantly testing new things and changing our website depending on customer feedback or use of our website. My work day usually starts around 9am when I get to the office where I work until 5pm. From 5-8pm it’s family time. As soon as my daughters go to bed, work resumes for another 3-5hours.
Most days are spent interacting with my teammates, brainstorming, building the product, analyzing data, deciding what changes to implement, figuring out how to reach more users and of course speaking to parents and daycares regarding their accounts. Some days are spent doing more of one thing than the other. Our customers, both parents and child care providers, have responded very positively to what we’ve built. They love what we do for them. The value we create for parents and daycare providers is tremendous. We have been carefully listening to what both sides had to say and have been improving our website and business based on that feedback since our launch in August 2013.
4. TEW: How do you decide what sorts of services to provide through Carelulu? (ie do you survey parents or look at other businesses that provide similar services?)
CareLuLu was built using Steve Blank’s customer development model, “talk to customers before you build anything” and that is exactly what we’ve been doing. Even if we want to test something out, we ask our users about it before we roll it out and get their feedback right after. We do occasionally send out surveys, but I find they are not as effective as calling our users and speaking with them.
5. TEW: What advice would you give to other expat women in the US that are looking to start their own business?
Networking is crucial. It helps you find potential partners, clients, advice, and support network. It’s also something most people are uncomfortable doing. Foreigners may be especially uneasy about networking if they are self-conscious about their language skills. You’ve got to put that aside and network despite that feeling of uneasiness. There’s nothing comfortable about building a business and if you’re too comfortable you’re probably not doing it right. Networking is essential and you never know how the person you might meet today can help you down the road, and vice versa.
6. TEW: What three things do you like most about living in the US?
a. I love the melting pot! As much as we hear about discrimination, from my personal experience this country is more welcoming to immigrants than anywhere else I’ve traveled.
b. I love that opportunities are available to all. They may not always be as equally available, but they are there. If you study hard, work hard, you can achieve your dreams. I do believe America is still the land of opportunity.
c. I love the US credit system. In most countries you typically live by what you have in the bank. Here you can live much better than what you actually have in the bank. You just have to use the credit system wisely.
7. TEW: Name three ways in which the US is different to your home country.
a. As much as we talk about unequal pay and lack of opportunities for women, there are ample opportunities for women in the US. It’s far from perfect, but it’s much better than in most places around the world. Women certainly have more rights and more opportunities here than in Tajikistan.
b. The US has abundance of stuff. There’s so much consumption and choice. For instance, in Tajikistan at a store there’s a sign “cheese” and there’s typically just 1 sort of cheese. Here I’m sometimes at a loss due to all the options to choose from: brie, camembert, cheddar, mozzarella, provolone, Monterey jack, etc.
c. Most people in Tajikistan have never heard of Netflix, but they’ve probably seen movies that haven’t yet come out in the US.
8. TEW: What is your favorite quote?
“Ad Astra Per Aspera” – To the stars through difficulties.
Written by Evgeniya Usmanova & Edited by Sandhya Jaishankar