Written by Clare Adamson
Every month we aim to spotlight the stories of women* founders to share their journey and knowledge for our community.
This month we interviewed Masha Plotkina for our founder of the month. We believe she has a fascinating experience and inspiring story to share that could encourage many starting entrepreneurs.
Mariia is originally from Russia where she worked as a computer science teacher and explored different methods of education. She never wanted to be an entrepreneur but found herself solving the issues that she saw as most prominent around her, and then one day it dawned upon her that, in fact, she had started a business. Within the school she taught, she realised the dull environment meant that teachers were not excited about coming into the classroom. As a young ambitious teacher, she came in with a lot of energy and ideas about how she could make schools a livelier and more engaging place for everyone to be in. Her main aim was to bring joy into the classroom so that children could feel comfortable and have fun learning.
The way she began to address this was by throwing parties, “like Coachella or burning man but instead for teachers.” She wanted teachers to have a place to communicate, meet likeminded colleagues, educate themselves and relax. This event quickly grew, starting out with 50 teachers, the following event attracted 300 teachers, the next 1500 teachers, and step by step they amassed a community of 30,000 teachers. This is when it dawned on Mariia that this was not some kind of hobby, but a viable business that she had started.
Geek teachers found its feet as a social impact start-up and was able to grow through the grants that Mariia received from various foundations. What began as a fun, cool thing that no one else was doing, turned into a full-scale non-profit that there was huge demand for in the market. Her education in design and experience working in schools meant that she fully understood what teachers needed to be able to bring more energy into their classrooms.
In the first year of operation Mariia and her female co-founder faced a lot of challenges when trying to navigate the start-up ecosystems in Russia. She had no idea of the stereotypes that were stacked against young women who were trying to access funding for their business. Even after having successful meetings with investors, she realised after they found out her age, they withdrew their offers without ever formally stating why. However, in 2020 Mariia was nominated as a young female Entrepeneur of the year at the Citi foundation and Social Impact Awards. They too were inspired to take Geek Teachers to a global audience! This public recognition along with their popularity and results further legitimised her ability.
Despite having gained a lot of traction and recognition with Geek teachers the political situation in Russia and subsequent invasion of Ukraine had negative implications on business owners. It became difficult for Mariia to continue her business, and so she moved to Kazakhstan where she began to invest in her other ideas.
In addition to being passionate about education, Mariia more specifically is passionate about sex education. She felt that in Russia especially was a taboo topic where “everyone is thinking about it, but no one has the proper tools to educate themselves about it.” She moved to Amsterdam and was accepted into a day zero edutainment investing accelerator at Antler with her goal being to create a start-up in sexual education. Antler is a venture capital accelerator that focuses on early-stage initiatives to take them from the drawing board to actualisation. Within a whirlwind of 5 weeks, she had found her co-founder, developed a prototype, and secured funding to start her next venture.
She identified that there was a gap in resources for Gen-Z wanting to learn more about sex. “If you want to learn a new language you go to Duo-Lingo. If you want to learn more about your body, your preferences, your partner’s preferences you go to porn.” Unfortunately, the mainstream pornography industry is perverse, male dominated and highly exploitative of women which often means that any information acquired from there is riddled with these biases. Instead, the app that Mariia is launching is a low barrier, gamified, educational tool called Quinky for young adults. Quinky is designed to offer ideas and games and can be used alone or with a partner to explore desires and deepen intimacy. She believes in the importance of play as an educational tool that can make even serious topics fun and interactive.
Lessons from Mariia
Mariia has always been inspired by other people’s stories. She sees the entrepreneurial journey as a game and being able to watch other people start from nothing and then build something scalable encouraged her to do the same. Further, Mariia is motivated by her goal to help others and build something that could improve the quality of their lives. Working with kids she saw how the work she did impacted them, and later she learnt that entrepreneurship could help bring your ideas and impact to the next level.
The advice she wants to give other female founders is to remember that nobody is perfect. Mariia encourages you to make mistakes because mistakes are a part of the learning process. What matters is your attitude towards the mistake. If you beat yourself up over your mistakes, you will constantly be stressed. Instead, she advises you to indulge in self-care: take a nap, take a walk, or focus on your morning routine. You will find a solution in the end!
On top of this Mariia wants to tell female founders that they are not alone, and they should not be afraid to ask for help. When she faced a difficulty or a problem, Mariia utilised LinkedIn or social media to be honest about her struggle and appeal to others for support. She realised that she could rely on the experience and success of others to aid her in her journey and encourages everyone to do the same. Joining a program like Antler was beneficial for Mariia as it provided her with this network where she could learn from other founders.
Having relocated when the political situation of Russia no longer allowed her to pursue her business also taught Mariia the importance of the setting-venture fit. Another venture she started in Russia taught critical thinking by using a game to teach people how to spot fake news. Despite over 20,000 people using the content, she lost partnerships and deals because of the political implications of it. From experience she wants to share that if you genuinely believe in your idea, but it is not working in the setting, you might need to change location for it to be successful.
Mariia wants people to know that despite being a social figure and regularly active on social media, she (like everyone else) has her days that she is not as motivated. She emphasises that having those days does not mean that you are any less successful as an entrepreneur but that it is just a normal part of being human. So, give yourself grace, and acknowledge that even bad days are all a part of the process.
Want to read more about amazing woman founders? Click here to read our other Founder of the Month blogs.