Sahra-Josephine Hjorth is the co-founder and CEO of the EdTech company CanopyLAB. She also serves as the Vice-Chair at DI Digital and faculty at Singularity University, where she researches AI and the future of learning.
In this interview, Sahra shares her views on EdTech, funding, learning, e-learning and women leaders. She also has interesting things to say about achieving work-life balance as a founder.
What is your story as a founder?
I have a very different background than many founders in tech. As a kid, I wanted to be a diplomat and worked hard to achieve that goal. When I was 16, I was offered a scholarship to finish high school in the US. I did my Bachelor’s in International Relations at American University, Washington DC. I went on to pursue Masters's in International Relations as well, in Russia.
When I worked in Russia, I realized that I did not want to do what I was doing. I wanted to be a creator. That’s when a crisis struck for me. I thought about all the years I had invested in something else.
I secured a job as a management consultant and worked with a large database company that works with engineers. I got the opportunity to work with the government on some very exciting projects. We built a platform to help job seekers find employment, but unfortunately, the financial crisis had emerged by then.
We then considered this idea: What if we could “move” people to apply for jobs in a slightly different industry — one that needs people? We then built algorithms that helped us suggest jobs to people in those industries based on their competencies when they uploaded their CVs. Next, we made these systems automatic. I developed CanopyLab and launched it as a company!
How and when did you first discover that you wanted to create?
I was a competitive dancer and was selected for the world championship in dancing, but I decided instead to take a full scholarship to study in the United States. I love that aspect of dance — inventing something that moves people.
I also loved art! My husband and CanopyLab co-founder, Chris, is a self-taught developer. He has painted a lot in life and has many gallery exhibits. I love that he can create something that does not exist before. Before CanopyLab, I had started thinking about the software we used in my lesson planning in an anthropological way. I started thinking about what is it that I do not like about it - is it the content, the teacher or even the PDF?
Content-wise, I also started a YouTube channel and found that people wanted to see shorter videos and hear a different voice. So we decided to fundamentally change how software can work. This led us to found CanopyLab, where we reached 1 million active users.
Why is it called CanopyLab?
In the beginning, we knew we wanted to build different types of hubs. The Canopy was the ideal name for it as it means a treetop. Labs are places where people work on projects and experiment with ideas. So we created an ecosystem where people could conduct experiments and learn from each other.
The struggles of a Founder can be manifold: what are yours?
In the beginning, we couldn’t afford to look for a lot of diverse candidates. We were limited by location (Nordic region) and a lack of diversity. We also faced many problems raising money from our local ecosystem.
Being co-founders with your husband, how do you two work together without getting in each other's way?
We've always done a lot together, so even though it's very natural for us to spend almost all our time together, we make a point of structuring things in a way that respects each other's space. He is the CTO and runs his team in Denmark and Vietnam, but I don't involve myself with that. So even though we're in the same office, we rarely see each other during the day since our work areas are completely different.
Who plans the strategies for the company?
I lay out all the plans since I’m the non-technical founder and CEO. Then, of course, it’s my job to inspire the tech team as well. I’m the one who came up with the idea to build the product and am currently in charge of most of the research that is done at our company.
How do you handle work/life balance as a founder?
When your company is growing fast, you need to set some boundaries. I’ve surrounded myself with a lot of people who help me be me. I have a personal assistant, a stylist to make my outfits, and a team to make my speeches and events run smoothly. We also have a corporate coach who helps us understand each other during tough times and practice mindfulness.
You sound like a forward-thinking leader. What inspired you to hire a coach for your company?
I initially hired her for myself, since we’re growing quickly and I’m the best person to steer our company in the right direction. As a result, I’ve connected with a lot of mentors and advisors. Eventually, I felt that my team and I needed a coach to give us a complete picture of this spectrum.