A South African techpreneur with a passion for making a difference – Stephanie Cowper and her business partner Giacomo Parmegianni – developed a revolutionary mobile app, BeSpecular, that through the power of technology, forever changes the way visually impaired individuals experience the world. The app allows visually impaired people to take a photo of any object or situation, upload it to the app and volunteers with sight stand ready to remotely assist by sending text, voice messages or images in response to a question.
What prompted you to start BeSpecular?
BeSpecular began as a university project. Our team wanted to make something purposeful that would change the lives of others. We identified that accessible technology and the disability industry was a space that was little touched by tech startups, and found that of the 1 billion people in the world who have a disability, the most prevalent disability is vision impairment. After a lot of research and customer engagement, we realised that we could leverage a piece of technology that’s widely used: the smartphone.
You’re a global disability advocate with particular focus on the visually impaired, blind and deafblind communities. Where did your advocacy journey start?
My journey really began when we founded BeSpecular in 2015. It is a journey that has lead me to discover more about what constitutes the world of disability and accessibility. It is a space that is constantly developing in terms of people’s rights and the products in the market.
Have you always had a passion for technology and change?
I was 16 years old when I truly realised I could build something that also helped others. I had read an article about the harm poor light does to children’s eyes when doing homework by candlelight.
One weekend I filled my mum’s Tupperwares with mixtures of silicone and fluorescent paste, and once the mixture was just right the solid blocks of silicone could sit in the sun all day and then be used inside a home and provide enough light by which a child could do homework for a few hours.
I am also very fortunate to have a business partner who shares a passion for technology and improving the lives of others. Giacomo has been building things since a very young age, and with his skills he’s been able to turn our dream into a functioning, globally used product.
Do you think women face different challenges compared to men in the entrepreneurial space?
Women do struggle to take the risk of starting a business of their own. We tend to focus on our families and this can deter women from becoming self-reliant.
I am concerned that there is a degree of veneering in SA that is making being a woman entrepreneur akin to being a celebrity. There are a lot of functions based around women entrepreneurs networking with each other and women may feel the pressure of needing to be seen at all the ‘it’ events, and that actually takes them away from their businesses.
“WOMEN DO STRUGGLE TO TAKE THE RISK OF STARTING A BUSINESS OF THEIR OWN. WE TEND TO FOCUS ON OUR FAMILIES AND THIS CAN DETER WOMEN FROM BECOMING SELF-RELIANT”
Do you have any advice for aspiring women entrepreneurs?
I ask aspiring entrepreneurs to answer these five questions:
1. Does it already exist? If no, why not? If yes, how is yours different?
2. Have you spoken to your potential customers? Have you spoken to 20, 50, 100?
3. Do you know which skills you need to make it a reality?
4. Do you need financial capital to get started? Try to bootstrap and keep costs as low as possible. I would avoid bank debt and rather approach family and friends with a sound business plan and equity options.
5. What do you know about your industry? Learn about the industry you want to enter and identify who your competitors are.