#StartupsEverywhere: Pittsburgh, Pa.

#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Shimira Williams, co-founder, C.C. Busy

This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.


Using technology to support child care providers

Pittsburgh may be nicknamed the Steel City, but a new and exciting startup is highlighting the growing entrepreneurial community emerging in western Pennsylvania. Shimira Williams, the co-founder of C.C. Busy and a former child care provider, is using voice assistant devices to help providers do their jobs better -- an approach that has already garnered early interest from the state of Pennsylvania, nonprofits, and child care providers. 

Can you tell us a little about yourself? What is your background?

I’m a Pittsburgh native. I have a degree in business economics and management information systems from Penn State Behrend. Before entering child care, I spent most of my time working as a liaison between the tech department and finance departments in government and the private sector. I returned to Pittsburgh and worked for the family business, which was real estate development at the time. I left that for consulting, and then my mother wanted to open a child care facility -- which was her dream -- and she needed someone to do paperwork which meant she told me to come do her paperwork. So I ended up working back at another family business, and that’s how I actually got started in child care. Before that, my brother owned a candy store in the Hill District, and I worked there on Saturday mornings, and the kids who came in couldn’t count. So I worked the cash register there and I’d help the children count their money. When I stopped working there I did consider becoming a teacher, but then I left to help my mom start her day care and got pulled back into the family business and was there for a couple of years. Then I left and started my own child care facility, TEKStart, in Lincoln Lemington. And that was about 2008.

My home-based child care facility was name TEKStart, and our mission was to kickstart technology education for children and families in blighted communities. I enjoyed that work. I worked to help children meet people who worked in STEM fields or experience stuff that people in STEM fields really experience as children. Every week in the summer we’d invite someone in and the students would interview them and we’d use our iPad to record it and then put it up on our YouTube channel. The Fred Rogers Center noticed our work and they came and did their own video for us talking about how we had an exemplary use of technology with young children. 

I ended up closing the facility in 2014 and after that I continued to work at the intersection of technology and young children, including talking to other home-based providers about how they implement technology into their business operations and their classrooms. 

Tell us more about C.C. Busy. What is the work that you’re doing?

My co-founder, Greg Quinlan, posted on Facebook about an Alexa skill using the CDC’s diapering steps as a diapering coach. I commented “That’s a business.” We’d known each other for a while, and he inboxed me and we grabbed lunch. I told him that he should apply to AlphaLab for this, because their applications were open at the time for cohorts. And I also told him he could put my name on it, just thinking I’d act as a consultant. So we submitted our application, did the one minute video, and we got in AlphaLab! I was very surprised by it. We got in and we built our MVP while we were in AlphaLab. So AlphaLab went from April until August 2018, and during that time we also decided to apply for BNY Mellon’s UpPrize. We applied for the prize and won second place, which secured us $110,000. That allowed us to go on and get the convertible note from Innovation Works for another $25,000.

C.C. Busy uses voice assistant devices like Alexa or Google Assistant to allow child care providers to log their daily interactions with children so that parents can see it in realtime. Parents get their own log-in so they can only see their own children with their own valid, secure access. And then the provider can use that web-based login to show for reporting. We purposely left it web-based because we know that people come from all different walks of life, and we wanted to make sure anyone could access it.

We officially got established as a corporation in May 2018. We thought that we would go the direct sales route immediately, but we reached out to what is now Trying Together -- a local advocacy organization which used to be called the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children. We went to one of their spaces called the Homewood Early Learning Hub, which I was a part of when I was a child care provider. I was really on customer discovery, trying to figure out what providers wanted and needed. One of the directors there said they would be interested in purchasing a cohort, basically paying for a certain amount of providers to use this and beta test it for us. So I thought that was great and even better!

Then I went to Philadelphia in March of this year for a conference for early learning providers for First Up. I talked to some people there and followed up with their tech service department to find out what kind of tech questions they get so I can have a better understanding of their needs. And they said what you’re doing at C.C. Busy sounds interesting, so we’ll also take a cohort. The interest seemed to come from people that already supported child care providers, so we thought we’d work with them first instead of trying to run to direct market. 

We also applied for Promise Venture Studio’s fellowship. We didn’t get a fellowship, but we got into their network and then they featured us at the National Association of State Chief Administrators’ conference this summer. That put our product in front of people across the U.S. who manage early childhood departments for their states, and we also got some interest from attendees. So, in just a year and a half, we’ve gotten some good exposure that’s given us some real fire and fuel to keep going.

I know that you participated in a Congressional Startup Day meeting last month with Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.). What was the meeting like, and what were the issues that you discussed? Why is it important for entrepreneurs to connect with their members of Congress?

The meeting was very casual and very intimate, and I appreciated that. People talked about some personal things about their businesses, and they were solution-oriented. Multiple people talked about the ability to secure healthcare, attract diverse talent, and their appreciation for Pittsburgh’s ecosystem. Pittsburgh is a neighborly city, so it’s very relationship-based. So people talked about how they appreciated that and the neighborliness of the city, and that you can simply pick up the phone and call someone and they’d be willing to help. 

Rep. Doyle mentioned several times how STEM education is needed to create a pipeline for the development of diverse talent, and attracting diverse talent here. After the meeting, I mentioned to him how that was so true and that it needs to start in preschool. 

What issues are Pennsylvania entrepreneurs dealing with that should receive more attention from state and federal policymakers?

The first one is an issue a lot of people discussed during our Congressional Startup Day meeting with Rep. Doyle: healthcare. 

I will say, the day before AlphaLab’s Demo Day, I got hit by a car while walking down the street. Since I was at an early-stage startup and I wasn’t actually making a lot of money, I didn’t have healthcare. I’m in my 40’s, I’m pretty healthy, and I got hit while doing my morning walk. So I was not so harmed that I couldn’t function, but car accident injuries can linger. Months later though, it was hard to get health insurance because you can only go into the market at a certain point. I would love it if there was an affordable health insurance option for startups. You start your startup at various times -- you’re not waiting for the insurance marketplace to open up when you start your business. It would be great if there was a healthcare exchange for startups. You can’t make good business decisions if you aren’t healthy. 

My other issue would be broadband. Child care providers in particular often don’t have a big enough margin to afford good broadband and the tech services that go around it -- making sure their data is secure, and making sure they actually have devices. But that connects with the importance of STEM education, and making sure that children -- from preschool on -- have the ability to ask questions. That’s the goal of a child care provider -- to provide children with a healthy environment where they’re allowed to play and ask questions and investigate for their own answers.

One major concern in the startup sector is the lack of support for female entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color. What is Pennsylvania doing right to increase the diversity of its entrepreneurial community, and what other steps do you believe need to be taken on the state and federal level?

That issue is real, especially in Pittsburgh. The city of Pittsburgh recently released a gender and equity report that found that, when compared to 89 similarly-sized cities, black women in Pittsburgh can move anywhere else and have a better quality of life. So the most livable city in America just said that a specific population can go to one of these other 89 cities that are roughly the same size and have a better quality of life. One of the most critical findings in the report was that black women have maternal mortality rates two times greater than white women. They found that, even across income and educational attainment, it didn’t change. So it wasn’t about prenatal care, it wasn’t about education or economic status -- it was the intersectionality of being a black woman. I don’t understand how we can have conversations about this. People come to Pittsburgh from across the world because of our medical facilities. How do we live in a city that’s world renowned for medicine when we have a large demographic of our community that doesn’t benefit from that?

It’s something that the city needs to deal with. Women of color aren’t often asked to lead these causes, and yet they are the people being most affected by them. That’s harmful, and we need to decide how this region heals to make sure that black women can be trusted and given agency and funding to actually lead initiatives to create change. 

What is your goal for C.C. Busy moving forward?

Early childhood is a hot topic right now, at the federal and state levels. One of the biggest issues is they want more data from child care providers, and that’s how we thought of C.C. Busy. Child care providers got into the game because they love kids and want to nurture them and give back to their communities. Voice assistant technology is relatively low-tech, so it’s not a big learning curve.

Arrival is a big issue for child care providers now. C.C. Busy allows providers to simply say to their device, “Alexa, open C.C. Busy,” and it will say “Welcome to C.C. Busy, what would you like to log?” And you can say, “Shimira arrived,” and it will be time and date stamped. Why that’s impactful is we’ve started talking to Pennsylvania’s Office of Child Development and Early Learning because they use a system called PELICAN Provider Self Service, where providers can go in and do their attendance or do their child care reimbursement online. I knew from previous experience that they were looking for ways to allow providers to use a third-party platform to submit their attendance. So we are working on that right now with the office. 

Child care providers are on short margins. They need some type of software to let them capture the data they need to comply with regulations but also help them manage getting revenue in the door. So that’s our big push for C.C. Busy -- we want to empower child care providers to be able to use their voices. 

All of the information in this profile was accurate at the date and time of publication.

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