Our daily lives have been transformed by technology, and it has changed how we communicate across distances. Progress in this space has evolved the ability to have digital face-to-face conversations, something that would have been almost unimaginable even two decades ago. Caribu, a Miami-based startup, is harnessing this technology to solve a global parenting problem – encouraging reading among children.
Story time and reading out loud is the primary way children are introduced to reading for the first time. Scholastic and YouGov’s survey of 2,718 parents and children in the US found that 77% of parents with children ages 0-5 started reading aloud to their child before age one. Across ages, children turn to the adults in their life to get cues about their reading habit. However, parents can’t always be there for reading books to their children – and missing out on this activity can have medium and long term impacts upon children.
The problem Caribu aims to solve
Studies conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a division of the US Department of Education, shows substantially better learning outcomes for children who are read to regularly at home. Young children who were read to 3 or 4 times in the last week by a family member, when compared to kids read to children read to less frequently –
- 26% vs 14% – recognize the alphabet entirely
- 60% vs 44% – count to 20 or higher
- 54% vs 40% – could write their own names
Reading to children goes beyond improving child education. Children aged 6-11 and their parents agree that they enjoy read-aloud time as a special time together and because reading together is fun. While technology was solving for parents wanting to speak and interact with their children across distances just fine, it was not doing anything specific for reading. The concept was to give children and their close family members the ability to stay connected visually through storytelling.
Caribu’s origin story
Saayuj Dhanak, Alvaro Sabido (the current CTO), Ben Mallett, and Philip Linnemann came up with this idea in a classroom at the Imperial College of Business. When they asked parents what they missed the most when they’re away from their family, they were continually informed that they missed the ability to share stories with their children before bedtime.
What inspired them to find a solution was a heartbreaking picture of a soldier holding a picture book up to a webcam in an attempt to show his child a picture from the book he was holding. The team built the app, and were buoyed by the rediscovery of storytime for children by parents, as tablets made it easier and more engaging. Being picked by Gizmodo as having the app of the week for iPad boosted the nascent company’s popularity. It was made even more popular when the app was selected by Apple to showcase the iPad Air 2 for its launch.
In spite of all this traction, Caribu’s founding team initally hit an impasse. With business school over, companies were looking to snap up the young founders who had shown such drive to get this business going. Eventually, Alvaro was the last one standing. He went back to his hometown of Miami still convinced by Caribu’s potential and in search of someone with experience in building a business and with a deep passion for education and learning. At CoFoundersLab – a service to help founders find each other – he found Maxeme Tuchman.
The profile of Maxeme borne by Harvard’s website (she’s an alumnus of the Business School) shows that childhood development and education were always close to her heart. Her disgust with the quality of Miami-Dade’s public schools almost caused her to drop out, but her passion to reform the system convinced her to stay her course. Her counselor reminded her that making an impact would be easier if she finished school and went to college.
Her professional career before Caribu showcases someone working at the intersection of commerce and policy with a focus on education reform. She worked for two years with the New York City Mayor’s Office after being a Teach for America corps member and teaching 480 inner-city Miami kids. She was one of the 16 individuals appointed by President Obama to serve as a White House Fellow, one of “America’s most prestigious programs for leadership and public service.”
After meeting Alvaro, Maxeme lost no time putting her own stamp upon the company. Caribu won third place at the Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge, won the Harvard Business School New Venture Competition, and was a finalist at the Teach for America Social Innovation award. Maxeme was named the 2017 Toyota Mother of Invention, and in her presentation went back to the picture that had started Caribu in the first place.
Caribu’s push for growth
Maxeme used these competitions, awards, and honors as opportunities to establish Caribu’s brand and christen it ‘Facetime meets Kindle for kids’. Perhaps in recognition of the added utility their solution had for the military or as a means to pay tribute to their origin, Caribu offered a free six-month content subscription to active military members. A feature in the military paper Stars and Stripes had helped popularize the app among military members, and Caribu got feedback from an active duty member of the Air Force using their service. This inspired the promotion for members of the armed forces on active duty, and led to a partnership with Blue Star Families, a community started in 2009 to empower families of military volunteers.
All these factors played a role in helping Caribu land a $100k investment from Revolution as a prize for winning the 4th Annual Challenge Cup competition. They had to compete with a selection of promising startups across the world to win, and it helped bring them the prominence they needed to be selected for AT&T’s accelerator program.
Caribu’s had a great story thus far – and there are many more chapters to come.