Cannes Academy Spotlight: Meet Nadia Masri, Founder of Perksy

This week, as part of the Inclusive Innovation series that we announced this spring, we’re profiling Nadia Masri of Perksy: an app and platform that provides brands and agencies with real-time insights about millennials and Gen Z consumers. We chatted with the Toronto native and four-time entrepreneur about the importance of being your own champion, bouncing back from Meningitis, and the power a single voice has to create change.

Nadia speaks at PR Week’s Swipe Right Conference in October 2017.

On making, creating, and growing up with hustle

As far as Nadia Genevieve can remember, she has always been passionate about creating things that others would “delight in.”

As a child, that meant putting on shows for her family and creating DVDs of her performances. By age 16, she had started her first business: making curated gift baskets composed of different items that she purchased at wholesale. Looking back, she says, the things people said to her during that time were indicative of the challenges she’d face as a female founder later on.

“I got celebrated for being ‘creative’,” she says. “People would say ‘wow, what a creative basket you’ve put together,’ or compliment the logo, which I designed myself. But I was never complimented for having business acumen. Nobody mentioned anything about how I had gone through the unit economics. People didn’t celebrate me as an entrepreneur, so I didn’t either.”

A year later, Nadia was in her first year of college and was trying to figure out what to do with her life. She decided that she wanted to learn what it was like to run a business, so she convinced her dad to help her get a bank loan so she could purchase a house painting franchise through College Pro, an organization that helps budding entrepreneurs run summer businesses.

“That summer, I booked $70,000 of work in just four months,” she says. “I learned about human resources, capital management, how to manage a payroll, how to file taxes — the things they don’t teach you in school.” More importantly, however, she describes learning how to lead a team. “I was definitely bit by the leadership bug,” she says. “There was something really satisfying about bringing people together and giving them the resources they needed to do a good job. It felt like being a soccer captain or on student council all over again.”

On taking the plunge (in the direction of New York)

After returning to school in the fall, she started a fashion blog that landed her at New York Fashion Week. “I had the time of my life and realized that I wanted to move to Manhattan and turn the blog into something bigger, like a fashion magazine.”

She recalls going to her business professor and telling her that she was thinking about leaving school to start her own publication. “I remember her telling me, ‘you know, it sounds like you have an opportunity to build a business, and these opportunities come and go, but the halls of this establishment will always be here. You can come back at any time.’ So I took her advice and packed up.”

For almost two years, she ran Birdcage Media Group: managing a team of over 50 contributing artists, writers, and photographers, hosting industry events and parties, and overseeing all business operations.

“I loved being able to put something together with a team of really smart and talented people,” she says. “We were a bunch of 19-year-olds in New York who didn’t believe in advertising at the time, which I now find hilarious. But I really enjoyed it: even the seemingly trivial tasks like handing out project outlines.”

After two years, they dissolved the company and Nadia moved back to Toronto, where she joined a digital marketing platform for e-commerce retailers called Foursixty as a co-founder. “I brought in quite a bit of revenue within the first year of business and had a great time, but exited after about a year to go back to school and focus on my studies,” she says. “I thought I was done with startups for a while… famous last words.”

On following your curiosity and overcoming setbacks

Instead of returning to university in Canada, Nadia decided to apply to Harvard’s continuing education school and was accepted through the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, where she decided to study psychology.

“I‘ve always been fascinated by people,” Nadia explains. “Why they do the things they do, what drives their behavior, how their brains work. My dad’s a psychiatrist, so that could be what inspired it, but there’s definitely always been a passionate curiosity there.”

Yet after just a few months, she was diagnosed with viral meningitis and encephalitis: an inflammation of the brain and spinal cord membranes that causes severe headaches, confusion, and other serious side effects. She describes being totally out of commission for almost three months, traveling between Massachusetts General and Toronto General Hospital, sleeping for most of the day each day, and even losing her memory for a while.

“It was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life,” she recalls. “There was a total emptiness in my head — almost like a void. The doctors warned me that I might experience some temporary personality changes, and I started getting these panic attacks in social situations — like speaking in a group — which was so strange because I had always been such a social person. That took a while to shake.”

But she prevailed — and when returned to Harvard, she signed up for a course on strategic marketing that would later spark the inspiration for Perksy.

While doing research for a group project, it occurred to Nadia that the tools used to capture data were clunky to use and felt out of date. “I thought to myself, ‘it’s crazy that even at a top school, the best thing we have is Nielsen’,” she says. The class had been challenged to bring a product or service to the Cambridge area, but Nadia decided to create her own. She and her group began working on an app that would consolidate research and clinical trial information from all the Boston-area schools into a single feed.

On embracing life as a female founder

Nadia eventually moved to San Francisco, where she began to build Perksy into what it is today: a company powering real-time research with millennial and Gen-Z audiences, and sharing those insights with brands looking to reach those consumers. Using Perksy’s DIY insights platform, brands can create engaging surveys called “stacks” that consumers can access through an app in exchange for exclusive rewards and experiences.

Since then, she’s learned a lot about herself and what it takes to be a female founder. One of her most important takeaways? Never wait for permission from others.

“I think women have been conditioned to wait for permission from others to be good at what we do,” she muses. “When we’re seen being ‘aggressive’ or seizing opportunities for ourselves, we can get called a slew of names: intense, bossy, overbearing. I get called intense all the time, and I think it’s so interesting. I feel like with men, the story would be ‘look how assertive they are.’ I’m still trying to figure out how to champion myself without worrying I’ll misrepresent myself to others in the process.”

She also describes trying not to fall prey to imposter syndrome —a pattern of thinking that people, especially founders, can fall into when they doubt their accomplishments or attribute their achievements to luck rather than skill or merit. “I often have to sit down and think, ‘why do I feel like this isn’t good enough right now? Is it because it actually isn’t, or because it’s just not up to my own standards?’,” she says.

Yet all that aside, Nadia says that she still takes being pride in being called a “female founder.”

“I used to say ‘don’t call me a female founder, just call me a founder,’ but I actually don’t mind it anymore. I’m proud of the fact that I’m doing this as a woman. It reminds me how hard I worked to get here.”

On the power of a single voice

At the end of the day, Nadia is passionate about Perksy because it’s a platform that helps people understand and connect with one another.

She describes a recent Mother’s Day study they did for a brand looking to explore the relationship between people and their moms. “We read some amazing stories from our audience,” she says. “Good stories, bad stories, angry stories, heartfelt tales of people who have lost their moms or feel alienated from their families… and the more we hear, the more empathetic we become collectively. When I read these stories, I’m amazed by how deeply similar and vastly different the human experience is at once.”

She believes that these voices have the power to prevent things like Pepsi’s infamous Kendall Jenner snafu, or the Dove body positivity ads that didn’t resonate. “Are brands really so detached from the experiences of others that they don’t see the potential for negative impact?” she asks. “It all goes back to people being disconnected.”

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In the lead up to our Cannes Startup Academy, we’ll be profiling each of the eight founders who have been accepted into the week-long program. Stay tuned and follow us on Twitter as we continue to tell stories around Inclusive Innovation.