Editor’s Note: Sign-N-Voice Xchange has been named to The Story Exchange’s 2023 list of 10 Brilliant Business Ideas.
Makini Diaz has hearing loss – which makes it all too easy for her to recognize the need to bridge the separation between her community, and the hearing community. The pandemic further highlighted this need, as mask-wearing muffled voices and removed the ability to lip-read. In 2020, Diaz started Sign-N-Voice Xchange, an e-commerce business of assistive technological and educational products. Among them is Talking Tops — movable T-shirts (priced at $59.99 each) that display words and phrases in American Sign Language. As the Brooklyn native focuses on scaling, she’s facing challenges by remembering her primary goal: Help an entire community feel included in the world at large.
Here’s our lightly edited Q&A with Diaz.
Tell us more about why you started your business.
I ordered my usual “coffee with cream” at my local coffee shop – but what the barista heard and delivered was three cups of coffee.
What can be done? How can we have a real conversation? There are other solutions to assist with converting spoken language into sign language but not vice versa. This is when, and why, Sign-N-Voice Xchange was born. It became my mission to unlock the world’s ability to both hear and see natural, real-time translations.
How is your business different from others in your industry?
Sign-N-Voice Xchange has introduced to the world sign- and spoken-language two-way translations through wearable and hearable devices. These products not only serve as communication aids, but also promote a culture of inclusivity and understanding.
We are committed to promoting positive communication and cultural exchange by partnering with leaders and influencers in both hearing and hearing-loss communities. Our mission is to create a world where communication barriers are a thing of the past, and everyone is able to connect regardless of their hearing ability.
Tell us about your biggest success so far.
Introducing Talking Tops. Getting my Talking Tops t-shirt available online is one of my biggest successes to date. They provide a fun and interactive way to learn and communicate in American Sign Language.
What is your top challenge and how have you addressed it?
Social media familiarity, solopreneur status, accessing funding, building a customer base, and realizing my growth goals over the next three to five years. I am seeking ways to increase my company’s visibility, and pursuing additional resources through channels such as vendor support to continue building and developing prototypes.
Have you experienced any significant personal situations that have affected your business decisions?
I am also a single parent, and I once had an urgent family matter that could not be ignored. I made the difficult decision to put all other projects on hold so that I could focus on my family and work.
What is your biggest tip for other startup entrepreneurs?
Take financial literacy courses and know your numbers so you make better decisions about how to manage your money. Also, don’t jump into every idea thrown at you. Take some time to review, and to see if this new project is something you can handle while still handling whatever you’re currently working on.
How do you find inspiration on your darkest days?
I walk outdoors to clear my head, then call a friend to get their perspective.
What is your go-to song to get motivated on tough days?
I listen to “Pan in a Rage” by Amoco Renegades. The song was played at the Panorama final in Trinidad & Tobago in February 1996. It came in first place and made history as the best collaboration from the music arranger. After graduating from high school in Brooklyn in 1996, I learned this song while playing double second in steelpan – and it was one of hardest songs I ever played.
Who is your most important role model?
My grandfather. He was a steel pan player for cruise ships, which gave him the opportunity to travel to many countries and play music. When he was home in Trinidad, I would listen to stories about his travels. He could make you laugh no matter how down you were feeling – if you enter his home with a frown, he will make you smile. ◼