Meet our 2022 Finalists - Esther, of Knock Knock
On the opening day of the HMN Accelerator retreat, the energy permeating Dubai’s light-flooded office room had been tangible from the very start: the conjunction of both depth of humility and fierce courage. Each of the women present had a story to tell, disclosed through a dignified bearing, the sunshine of a smile, or the sharpness of gaze. I have been fortunate to have had a candid conversation with them on the last day of the retreat, and here are their stories.
Esther Mueni has established Knock-Knock, a social enterprise advocating for inclusivity of the deaf by developing a technology to convey the sound environment to them.
Can you tell us about that moment when the idea for your SE first emerged?
Yes, I actually do remember when we started Knock-Knock. It was a rather casual day. We were sharing some stories with the other co-founders. And one of them was telling us about how he worked with the deaf, as a language interpreter. And he was telling us the story of some of the challenges that deaf people face because they can't process the sound environment. And I was also interested with the deaf because I wanted to do sign language. I was very curious to find out more and to learn from the people who are experiencing the problem first-hand. When I went to see these persons and listened to their stories, I heard about how one of them almost lost his life because he could not hear a fire alarm. It was very scary. That's when I came and I was like, “you guys, we are tech people. We pride ourselves on the ability to build solutions for people. Why not build a solution for this problem the deaf are facing?” And that's when Knock Knock came to be. And eventually, as we realized how huge the issue was, we decided that this needs to be more of a movement: how can you make lives for the deaf easier? And that's our Knock-Knock: it is not just a company now, it's an initiative, a movement.
Why did you choose to apply to HerMeNow specifically?
I remember when I was applying for it, it was this moment when I realized Knock Knock was about to become a company and I didn’t have any idea about how to run one. I was going online searching for accelerators that maybe could teach me something, accelerators that offer interesting programs. And when I found the HerMeNow program, I was actually more interested because of its focus on ladies. As it's happening now, it has to be more women-focused. I felt that this would be more personalized and maybe more, I would say, empathetic because I've seen other accelerators that are maybe made up of 90 % guys and that could be intimidating, especially when you see that those 90 % are people already running a company. So they understand everything about it. But for someone like me, a woman who had never run a company before, just starting out, it was a bit intimidating. I'm also an introvert, so it is even harder for me to go out there fearlessly. When I saw the program, I was like, “I need to apply to this and get in because if there are ladies, I think it will be easier for me to interact and to even ask for support when I need it.”
What keeps you going everyday?
I think I read it in a book somewhere, or someone told me about it, but for me, it’s about leaving footprints. Anywhere you step. At times, people in life don't like to think about (let me call it) the legend that they leave behind. So they just walk through life without leaving any footprint. And in the end, they might realize that they have nothing to even associate their life with, nothing to be remembered for. And I try to leave footprints everywhere I go, knowing that one day people I have crossed paths with are going to say ‘I remember Esther because she did this.” That's what I try to do.
Can you tell us what brings you the most joy in being a social entrepreneur?
I believe it’s the impact that you are making. At times, when walking around in the city somewhere, I meet someone and they're like, “are you Knock Knock? Oh, what you guys are doing is amazing.” And someone starts telling you a story about the problem that they are facing, maybe with their kid, and how this initiative, even though it's still early days, is going to help their kid. And at this moment, I need to keep pushing because I need to reach this kid I’m being told about. Right now, we don't have the resources to reach them, but if I keep pushing, I'm going to reach them. That brings me joy every day.
Conversely, what are the biggest challenges you face?
I would say the biggest challenge could be seen in terms of social entrepreneurship being an entirely new field. That means that even when you're talking to people, it's something that no one has thought of before, especially because you're dealing with a population that does not represent the majority, however, it's a big population. Deaf people are not highly represented even when it comes to finding solutions. And at times, even when you're talking to investors and you're telling them about a real problem that the deaf are facing, you can see that they're like, “really? Are you sure that they are encountering that problem?” Because this is a population that no one thinks deeply about. So it's always a challenge trying to get other people, apart from the ones who are facing the problem, to see that this is actually a challenge that needs a solution.
What legacy do you wish to leave in your community?
I would want to leave a legacy through which people know that an impact has been made. I would want people that I've worked with and known to say that what Esther did there left a big, positive impact on them. What she did is something that is going to be talked about even after she's gone. She really created that building block that has enabled progress to follow and brought about a movement for people to recognize the issues of the deaf. She triggered awareness for the sake of a silent population, without a voice, a lot like women actually.
What does "women’s empowerment" mean to you personally?
Women’s empowerment means creating an equal ground with men to fight from. To me, it's more about putting women in the same position and giving them the same fighting gloves men are given whether it's in the workplace, whether it's in a broader social context. Opportunities, it’s all about giving them equal opportunities.