Anada Lakra of BoldVoice wants you to be heard

Anada Lakra, co-founder and CEO of BoldVoice

Anada Lakra is the co-founder and CEO of BoldVoice, a speech and accent coaching app for non-native English speakers. Plenty of language learning apps focus on acquiring basic vocabulary and grammar, but BoldVoice targets a different demographic: non-native English speakers who learned the language in a classroom and want to improve their speaking fluency.

Prior to launching BoldVoice with her co-founder, Ilya Usorov, Lakra was a project manager at Peloton and Stella Connect, as well as the co-founder of day100. She received her MBA with distinction from Harvard Business School in 2021.

Here, Lakra discusses the personal story behind BoldVoice, the major gaps in the market for language learning apps, and why her product is ultimately about empowering people to express themselves confidently.

What led you to launch BoldVoice?

In a sense, I’m my own target user. I moved from Albania to the U.S. for college. At that point, I had studied English for 10 years, so I felt really confident initially. Then I realized that my English was great on paper, but not as fluent when it came to speaking. I definitely felt frustrated that people were not always understanding me and sometimes asking me to repeat myself. That lowered my confidence when it came to communication, both in social settings and in important professional settings.

There’s lots of data that shows that this is not just a feeling. People actually do get discriminated against, based on their accent. They are considerably less likely to get hired or even get funded if they have a non-native English speaking accent.

Years later, after a career in tech as a product manager, I was inspired to work on this problem that I and so many other people had experienced, that didn’t really have a solution.

I was also inspired by one of my friends at HBS who was a non-native English speaker. She was preparing for interviews, and she used an accent coach as part of that interview prep. I didn’t know at the time that accent coaching was a thing, so I was surprised. She also told me that it cost over $100 an hour for a single session.

That’s when it clicked for me that there was an opportunity here. There’s a way for people to improve their speech and their confidence, but that solution is super expensive, so it leaves out the vast majority of people who could benefit from it.

That’s where the inspiration struck — why don’t we, through the use of technology, create a solution that would be scalable? Instead of one-on-one coaching, we created an app that offers this very valuable service, at a fraction of the cost, to many more people. That’s how BoldVoice started.

How does BoldVoice differ from other language apps?

There are lots of language learning apps out there, but nothing that’s specifically targeting the intermediate-to-advanced speaker who wants to bring their spoken English skills to the next level, and be competitive and confident in the workforce.

The big trend here is that more and more people are becoming part of this globally distributed workforce. COVID has only accelerated that further. It’s become easier as a non-native English speaker to be able to work for, let’s say, an American company. For those people, they have lots of opportunities to learn English on paper, but few opportunities to practice and perfect their spoken skills. So, the pronunciation skills, the confidence in speaking — that tends to be a gap for lots of people. We’re talking about 1.6 billion non-native English speakers, so the number is really, really massive.

For us, the big insight was that lots of language learning apps are focused on the early part of language learning, but so many people already speak English at work. What they’re still struggling with is that last, yet critical part of fluency: confidence in communication. That’s where we found our niche that, at the same time, is a really big market.

BoldVoice’s lessons use videos with film and TV accent coaches. What made you look to Hollywood rather than, say, ESL teachers?

A big EdTech trend that we believe in is the blend of education and entertainment. There are so many ways that busy people can spend their time these days, and education apps need to do more than just teach. Having an element of gamification and entertainment makes sticking to a challenging task easier and more motivating.

That’s part of why we brought in Hollywood accent coaches. Being trained actors and having worked with celebrities, they really bring that fun, “masterclass” aspect into the videos. Since our users aren’t working with coaches one-on-one, we wanted to make sure the coaches who feature in our videos were truly top-tier and engaging.

I sometimes compare this to the Peloton experience. The Peloton coaches are not working with you one-on-one, but they’re super engaging. You see them on camera through a pre-recorded class, but it feels like they’re talking to you individually. That’s the spirit that we wanted to bring into our content.

And this really is a masterclass experience. We absolutely didn’t want to make people feel like their accent is something “bad” that they have to correct. Rather, you’re learning a new and valuable skill from the best in the industry. Normally only Hollywood actors have access to these types of resources, and we’re democratizing the access.

I think that positioning of providing a coach — an exclusive, high-value service — rather than correcting a problem, is really winning.

Yeah — the point is not for us to make everyone sound American. That’s not what people want, either. The point is to help them feel like they’re going to be understood. Because if you have someone ask you to repeat yourself, or you have someone who doesn’t want to ask you to repeat yourself, but doesn’t understand you, that’s a problem.

If you have a slight accent that does not interfere with how well understood you are, then there’s no problem. It’s more when your accent interferes with your being understood and feeling confident, that it makes a difference.

BoldVoice was profiled in TechCrunch in July; the article mentioned you were planning to integrate AI into your product.

It’s already the case — we have speech AI enabled. It was always part of the vision.

If I can extend the Peloton analogy a bit more, the coach is not there with you in person to give you direct feedback, but you still need a feedback mechanism. Otherwise you don’t really know if you’re doing it right. So Peloton gives you the stats on the bike, and you know what your cadence is, what your resistance is, and so on. This way, you know how you’re doing and feel motivated.

In our case, that’s where the speech AI technology comes in. The BoldVoice coach is telling you, “Repeat after me,” but the coach obviously is not there to hear you and provide feedback. So instead of that, as you speak while using BoldVoice, the app gives you real-time feedback on how you sound through speech AI.

Are you planning to offer coaching for other aspects of language beyond accent?

This feedback goes way beyond what language learning apps do today, which is just tell you if you’re right or wrong. We give users really precise feedback on their pronunciation, on each specific sound they make. So, you can drill down and figure out, “Okay, I’m having an issue with my W’s and V’s,” which is a common problem among Hindi native speakers, for example. Or you can determine that you have a hard time with vowel length. Our super-precise speech AI allows you to exactly pinpoint your issues.

And then, you can hear your own voice. You can hear the coach’s voice, repeat it, and see your score change. That’s also how we enable progress tracking, so you hear and feel yourself improving as you use the app.

Our vision is to be the essential communication app for every non-native English speaking professional. When we say communication, that includes things beyond pronunciation and accent. It includes anything that makes you a more confident speaker, including your speech rate, or even your body posture. It goes beyond voice. We’re already in the process of developing that type of content.

The reason we started with accent and pronunciation is that that tends to be one of the bigger points of frustration for non-native English speakers. But we’re already learning from our users that they want to learn how to modulate their volume and speech rate, how to use various aspects of their voice to stress important points, and how to feel more confident and prepared for giving a speech.

And even cultural content is something that we’re also now building into the app — for example, content to help people from other cultures better navigate the idiosyncrasies of American speech or American workplaces. All of these things are super important, because our users are not just trying to learn to speak a language — it’s actually not about saying the word right. It’s about feeling confident in how you speak and how you present yourself. At the end of the day, success is measured by how many people we can help advance their careers through more clear, confident communication.

Originally published at https://blog.xfund.com on January 9, 2022.

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An established venture capital investor, Patrick Chung serves as managing general partner at Xfund.

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Patrick Chung

Patrick Chung

An established venture capital investor, Patrick Chung serves as managing general partner at Xfund.

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