When Dr Annie McAuley talks about the difficulty in learning to use language, she knows what she’s talking about – she’s had to learn from scratch twice.
The TalkiPlay founder, and member of the 2018 SheStarts cohort, is developing an app that gets kids and parents to work together to turn the home into an interactive language-learning space.
McAuley told The Pulse that the inspiration for the project came from an observation that her daughter was developing language skills later in life, but there was also a personal connection to language.
When she was 18 she suffered a brain injury after a skiing accident which impaired the language centre of her brain.
“It means I had to learn how to talk again,” said McAuley.
“That was extremely difficult, but one of the things I discovered was that the best way I learned was when I was in my own familiar environment.
“That’s when my stress levels were low, I was feeling safe and secure, and I was able to start communicating, remembering and maintaining the information.”
She came into the program with a working demo of the TalkiPlay tech, and it was only at the insistence of program director Nicola Hazell that she talked about her own experiences with learning language.
“Until then,” McAuley said, “I never talked about it and hid it away – I never saw it as a selling point in any way.”
With almost ten years of experience in academia under her belt, it’s safe to say McAuley has well and truly moved on from her accident.
In fact, she still skis.
But she feared that talking about how she couldn’t communicate as an adult would make her look vulnerable.
“I never thought I’d get up in front of a room of people and talk about my brain injury and how I couldn’t speak,” said McAuley. “I thought it would have been detrimental in terms of my career.”
But her experience in the SheStarts accelerator has put a new spin on her experience.
“For me it’s been thinking about what are the things that make me different?” she asked. “What if my experience is actually amazing and I see the world differently? And how do I make those parts of me into something that’s going to improve the lives of others?”
“That’s something I’d never addressed in research.”
Her experience, which may have been seen as a negative setback in life, has given her a totally unique perspective when it comes to learning language.
In fact, while most adults only have the vaguest of memories in learning language, McAuley can boast that she has twice the experience.
In fact, her experience has also given her the skills needed to take on three massive roles at once.
Alongside her role as a startup founder, McAuley is also raising two kids and continuing her work as a post-doctorate researcher.
To say it’s a mammoth undertaking is an understatement.
But McAuley says some of the tools she used while learning to talk again have put her in good stead.
“One of the things I had to learn from my brain injury was time management, because I had no executive functioning or working memory,” she said.
“That means I got really good at managing a day, writing out lists, working out priorities, and where I had to be at any given point in time…I had no memory to fall back on.”
But she says her experience shows that as a startup founder, you don’t need to be on top of everything all the time.
“I’m a mum first and foremost, and I always wasn’t to put the kids into bed at night,” she said. “But what I’ve learned by being at SheStarts is that you don’t need to do everything.
“It’s about saying I can’t do everything on my own, and it’s knowing when to say someone’s better at this then me and pairing with those people.”
It’s why she wants more mums to become involved in the tech space.
“To all the mums, I’d say you can absolutely do it – you don’t need to be hustling all the time and need to do everything,” said McAuley.
“We have such value and the insights that we have into our children…they are really invaluable and they need to be represented in the market,” said McAuley.
“I want things in tech platforms that are made by Mums with their kids, for their kids, because they’ve got the best solutions – they are actually living and breathing it.
“When you do that and you know your experience, you’ve got such value to add.”