When Zahra Kassam gave birth to her son, she discovered a glaring gap in education for kids under age 3, so she created an education toy company to meet the need.
Even in this modern era, the age-old business axiom to “find a need and fill it” still applies. And Zahra Kassam of Oakland has taken full advantage of it.
When the Harvard-trained, longtime Montessori teacher gave birth to her own child in 2012, she discovered a glaring gap in education for kids under age 3. So, in a long process that involved safety-testing age-appropriate toys and even appearing on Shark Tank to get funding, she founded Monti Kids, MontiKids.com, a subscription service that’s changing the game for early childhood development, giving parents home access to an authentic Montessori education.
“When my son, Musa, was born, the school where I was teaching started at age 3 just like most preschools around the world,” Kassam said. “I knew I could not wait that long to give my baby a rich learning environment. So I hacked together a version of Monti Kids at home and struggled to stay on top of his development at every turn.”
She soon discovered she wasn’t alone in her concerns about the education gap. While on maternity leave, she was also teaching “Baby and Me” classes at a local parenting center and found many of the other parents also anxious about their infants’ development. “Researchers know that 85 percent of the brain is formed in the first 1,000 days of life,” Kassam said. “And yet children start school later and parents are left guessing how to support that.”
With parents at home with their babies and toddlers, Monti Kids was a natural fit for today’s popular subscription-based business model. Every three months, subscribers receive ascending levels of curriculum and toys, from a series of mobiles to develop visual skills in newborns to puzzles that teach mathematics and progress in difficulty. Short weekly videos guide parents on when and how to introduce each toy, and personalized support is offered through a private online community moderated by Montessori experts.
Monti Kids has become a thriving, growing business, but its own early development was not without challenges, especially fundraising in a world where women-owned businesses only garner a small slice of venture capital.
“Shark Tank was the most stressful experience of my life — I actually blacked out at one point during my segment,” Kassam said. “But it was worth it when I landed the deal with Kevin O’Leary.
“As a woman of color who wears a headscarf and is visibly Muslim, I’m not what VCs are used to seeing,” she said. “I was also pregnant for much of my fundraising, so it was really challenging at times. I learned it’s so important not to lose myself in the process and to stay authentic. Diversity in founders — and funders — means we’re building solutions for diverse groups. I’m thrilled to see the face of our industry changing, slowly but surely.”
Kassam has since spoken around the country at various conferences, sharing advice to women entrepreneurs, and was even invited to the White House Early Education Summit.
“Whenever someone tells me they have a business idea, I always ask if they’re really passionate about it,” Kassam said. “A startup can take over your life. If you have kids and a startup, you will have time for very little else. So I think it’s worth it only if you’re working on something that you believe in deeply and that feels like a mission, not just a business.”