Startup Vame champions cultural diversity with name pronunciation tool
My name is Tasnuva Bindi. I am Australian and Bangladeshi. And occasionally my name is pronounced correctly. At other times, I’m never quite certain whether I’m the person being addressed. Not only is mispronouncing names embarrassing, but in many cultures it’s outright disrespectful.
A recent example would be actor John Travolta’s gaffe last month, when introducing award-winning singer Idina Menzel at the 2014 Academy Awards. He flubbed her name, calling her ‘Adele Dazeem’ instead. Following the occurrence, Travolta was ridiculed across social media; he was the butt of jokes on talk shows such as Late Night with Jimmy Fallon; and a developer even went ahead and created an app called ‘Travoltify Your Name’, which predicts (not literally) how Travolta would have mispronounced your name at the Oscars.
The world was not impressed; and what that blunder reveals is that mispronunciation of names is culturally unacceptable. If we dig a little deeper, the reason why people resent the mispronunciation of their names is because the mispronunciation amounts to a distortion of their identity. You can also be fairly certain that this kind of mistake will prevent cross-cultural business deals from happening.
But nobody intentionally mispronounces a name – in fact, most are apologetic and realise they’ve committed a cultural faux pas. The problem is we don’t have the right tools at hand to make correct pronunciations quick and easy. Until now.
Founded by industrial designer and entrepreneur Katherine Maree Pace, startup Vame (Voice + Name) is set to end the mispronunciation of names once and for all. Available as a web and iOS application, the Sydney-based startup was designed to make our multicultural business world easier to navigate.
So how does it work? Users simply visit vame.me to record the correct pronunciation of their name. Vame will provide them with a link to put in their email signature or their social media profiles. Others can then click on the link and visit their Vame profile to hear the user pronounce their name. People can also search for a name on the site, send personal name requests and browse through all the names recorded.
Why Vame is important in a multicultural country and education system
At first glance, this tool seems simple. But on further reflection, you come to understand that its potential impact is quite significant.
For instance, many Australians who have migrated from Asia feel the need to change their name to something typically Western, while family still call them by their original Chinese or Vietnamese name.
I recall a conversation with a Chinese international student at the University of Sydney, who said she was “embarrassed” about her name because it was regularly mispronounced in classes – often resulting in unflattering puns and snickers from fellow classmates. She changed her name to Sandra to avoid the humiliation she felt semester-after-semester.
But a name is integral to someone’s identity. If they change their name, they’re changing their identity. Imagine spending your whole life being known as X, and suddenly you have to answer to Y, because of other people’s mistakes.
During an interview, Ms Pace informed of a study she stumbled upon not long ago conducted by New York University. The most interesting revelation was that students who kept their original name – not their Western name – contributed 70 percent more in classes. The same could apply in the workplace, or society in general. This result reinforces the impact a name has on a person’s ‘being in the world’.
University of New South Wales have shown a keen interest in Vame, recognising its utility as a memory retention tool for teachers to remember their students’ names. This is just one context in which the tool comes in handy.
It’s not just a name, it’s business
While Vame has applicability in multiple industries – business is its initial focus. Ms Pace, also an avid traveller and people person, said that whilst working in Denmark, she collaborated with clients in Scandinavia and China. She learned from that experience how much more effective relationship building is when she takes the time to pronounce someone’s name correctly.
“It was often very hard to do though. Different sites gave different advice, and things like regional differences in Chinese pronunciation meant even doing research before I met someone wasn’t always a guarantee,” she says.
“The respect of ‘Guanxi’ is very important in a Chinese business context. Knowing how to pronounce another person’s name demonstrates and engenders cultural respect. Whether it’s this sort of business networking, a first date or people you meet online, Vame was built to make this easy for everyone.”
She adds that other pronunciation tools in the market are outdated, as they employ robots to pronounce the name. Ms Pace says, “in an era of personalisation, people should be able to pronounce their own name”.
She points out further that cultural diversity is “on the tip of the tongue of many corporates across Australia at the moment”.
In fact, Ms Pace was shortlisted in the Top 50 emerging leaders in Australia by Boss Magazine and The Sydney Morning Herald; and all 50 of the emerging leaders were given five master classes at the University of Sydney MBA. The first one she attended was only a few weeks ago and the entire Q&A was focused towards cultural diversity within the workplace – particularly across major corporations like Westpac and Deloitte.
“Australia is the multicultural melting pot of the world and that’s also why I really wanted to launch this startup out of Sydney. If a product like Vame, which celebrates cultural diversity, can come out of Australia, then I think that would be a really positive reflection of our society – especially because there’s a strong focus on the work between China and Australia at the moment, and building these types of cross-cultural relationships,” says Ms Pace.
It’s important to note that Vame is not just a tool for Westeners to be able to pronounce ‘exotic’ names, but also for recently-arrived migrant Australians to whom Western names are exotic and difficult to pronounce.
As Ms Pace explains, “often what we consider a simple name is exotic to someone from another culture. Last week, I had an Australian Spanish CFO request the name of Matthew, because he has trouble with the ‘th’.”
In a conversation with Claudia Barriga-Larriviere, one of Shoe String’s Top Sydney Mentors and soon-to-be Bluechilli’s Change Manager, she admitted that since migrating to Australia from Peru, people have been advising her on how to pronounce her own name. They’d say, “It’s Cl-or-dia, not Cloud-ia.” Barriga-Larriviere would think, “It’s MY name, thank you very much.”
What’s interesting about this, is that people have felt entitled to a particular pronunciation because Claudia is a fairly common Western name.
Others have also communicated a similar situation with their names, which have a different pronunciation to the common Australian one; and the very offence they take from that correction reinforces once again that a name is part of the identity that the person built over the course of their lives.
Though Vame is very new – having launched into the iOS marketplace just today – Ms Pace has already been able to secure a strategic partnership with Deloitte. The company will be employing the platform over the next few weeks (or even days), meaning that Vame will gain 6,000 users.
Ms Pace, who’s working with Deloitte’s National Diversity Manager, says this is a way to test the platform with thousands of case studies.
“I wanted to make sure I built the most valuable platform possible for corporations and Deloitte already have a lot of insight into cultural diversity,” she says.
As such, there are no monetisation strategies in place at the moment – though once they recognise where the value in the product lies, they will adopt a business model.
Ms Pace admits the big dream is to know that an Indian man and a Chinese woman – both users of Vame – are able to confidently shake hands and close a business deal somewhere else in the world.
“That’s when I will know I’ve made a great product, and that it’s time to move onto my next startup,” she says.
Given the landscape of people’s names is constantly evolving, Ms Pace plans on expanding not only geographically but across industries.
“I am excited to capture an international community of [Vame users] starting with Sydney Australia … Once we’ve made Vame useful for businesses, we’ll look for ways to help teachers and students, nurses and non-for-profits, to build better relationships.”
The highs and lows of starting a startup
Ms Pace admits her startup journey has been challenging. The biggest one, she says, has been “balancing passion with patience”. Over the past three months, she set aside her other design projects to focus wholeheartedly on Vame.
“Passion drives me to push boundaries and challenge the norm every day. Patience shows me that for successful adoption you must run with the people,” she says.
“As a sole founder, I don’t work on my own clock, my clock adjusts to that of my network of customers, investors, designers and engineers. Without them, Vame wouldn’t be anywhere near what it is today. I feed my passion with patience and flexibility each day.”
The other challenge, Ms Pace admits is finishing off an idea. She says industrial designers and entrepreneurs have a lot of ideas floating in their minds, and that it’s hard to complete one project before embarking on another.
Thus far, she has been able to bootstrap her startup, saying that, “In software, you don’t need as much startup capital as you do when you’re developing a physical product.”
“I’ve given my developer increments of equity to say ‘thank you for helping bring my vision to life’.”
The development involved paper mock-ups and extensive user testing.
Ms Pace has been responsible for the front-end work – that is, the design and functionality of the app, an area she is well-versed in, with a background in User Centred Design.
She will be sourcing an overseas developer to create the Android version of the app very soon.
Ms Pace’s proudest achievement thus far has been “realising a concept”.
“I’ve won International awards for the conceptual development of product solutions, but was tired of seeing so many ‘concepts’ being paper stacked by larger corporations,” she says.
On a final note, Ms Pace emphasises Vame’s potential to enrich interpersonal relationships.
“I love calling people by their real names. There are some Chinese people who work in our incubator workspace, and I’m one of the only people in Sydney who call them by their real names. When I say their names, their eyes just glow. They say, ‘Katherine, nobody except for my parents in China call me this’,” she says.
“Pronouncing people’s names correctly builds trust, and brings people closer. It shows the other person that you respect them.”