CEO and Co-Founder of Caribu
Photos by Sonya Revell
Photos by Sonya Revell
What is Caribu and what inspired you to start it?
Caribu is a video-calling app that integrates children’s books and activities, allowing more children to get at least 20 minutes/day of reading and “screen positive” time with a trusted adult — anywhere in the world. Caribu is the Spanish spelling for a Canadian reindeer, which is a migratory animal that’s often away from their family.
The initial idea came from my co-founder, Alvaro Sabido. He saw a picture of a deployed service member trying to read to his daughter using a webcam, and it looked like a bad experience for everyone. He identified an opportunity to create a better experience for all families living apart and developed the app but knew he needed someone like me to help him build and grow the company. We met on FounderDating, a site that matches technical and non-technical startup founders.
I’ve always been passionate about education. I was a high school teacher and had done SAT and debate coaching. I was working at the older end but realized if we don’t focus on early childhood literacy, these kids had an uphill battle. It’s so important to give them a proper foundation and make sure they’re ready and on-track for grade-level work.
Our public launch was in 2017 and we recently closed a $3M round of seed funding. I’m the 59th Latina to raise over $1 million in venture funding and the first Latinx founder to raise $1M in equity crowdfunding. We currently have 60,000 registered users in 164 countries and grandparents are our most dedicated users.
What did you do before you started Caribu?
I’m a first-generation Cuban American and the first in my family to graduate from college. We’re Jewish and my family fled Europe due to persecution, so there was a strong understanding that the only thing you can take with you is education. I dreamed of helping other kids like me have a positive experience in school.
I taught in the classroom for a couple of years, but craved having a bigger impact. I worked for Mayor Bloomberg before getting my MBA and MPP from Harvard. I was the executive director of Teach For America Miami-Dade and was also a White House Fellow. The throughline was always education, and now with Caribu, I get to put all my experiences to good use.
What problem are you trying to solve with Caribu? Why is it needed?
We have two primary audiences: parents and grandparents. The normal cost is $6.99/month or $67.99/year after a two-week free trial, but we offer free subscriptions to all 1.3 million people currently serving in the U.S. military in appreciation for their service to our country. Caribu helps their families feel more connected. The process for applying is outlined here.
In 2019, we did a survey among our registered users to find out who would be devastated if the app went away, and almost 50 percent were grandparents! It’s a huge and growing part of the population and many don’t live near their children or grandchildren. They value wisdom transfer. It can be difficult to hold the attention of a young child through Skype, FaceTime, or Whatsapp. Caribu is an icebreaker and a way to connect and have an interactive, meaningful, and educational experience. It’s a fun thing they can do together.
How does Caribu work?
It’s pretty simple — you just download the app to your phone or tablet (only one family member needs to pay for a subscription). The other family members download the app and you become contacts. You can pick a book first and then call or call and then pick a book together. We have over 1,000 books and coloring activities in eight different languages. We produce some of the content ourselves, we license popular titles, and some content is exclusive to Caribu. You can save and share your drawings and schedule your calls.
What makes your approach different or unique?
Right now we’re the biggest video-calling app that integrates children’s books and activities. Most people are still relying on video-calls or phone calls. There are a few direct competitors, but they’re small and regional. Facebook Portal allows you to use filters and share stories but using it requires buying two devices at $99 each.
What is your big, audacious vision? What does the world look like in 5-10 years, if Caribu achieves what you want it to?
We want to become a household name. We want to become a verb. Instead of people saying “let’s FaceTime,” we want people to say “let’s Caribu!”
Paint a picture of a moment when your organization is doing exactly what you intend it to do.
I’ll tell you a true story. There was a child who was a struggling reader and started using Caribu with his grandmother, who just so happened to be a speech therapist. He felt safe with her, and she helped him sound out his words, build good habits, and corrected him in a positive way. He started to become a stronger reader and enjoyed reading. That’s the greatest gift we can give our kids, the joy and love of reading.
How can people get involved with your work?
Try it out! If this is a pain point in your family, download the app. You can also go to the Caribu website and learn more. If you’re a children’s book author, we’d love for you to get your content on Caribu. If you’re a nonprofit that serves seniors or kids, and you’re interested in supporting intergenerational connections, we’d love to talk to you about how Caribu can be a resource. Caribu can be such a gift for grandparents who are aging in place.
What advice would you give someone who wants to replicate what you’re doing in their community?
Don’t build a product and then look for a problem to solve. Focus your efforts on the super users and be open to pivoting if your primary audience turns out to be different than you imagined. Don’t ignore the older population. I think a lot of tech startups have focused on young people and forgotten to respect the needs and desires of older adults. They’re a powerful force and more investors are starting to look to this space.