Sofia Fenichell was mortified when she was told that her 11-year-old daughter was falling behind at school. ‘The headmistress called me in and said "Your daughter’s writing skills aren’t good enough. You need to help her improve." I used to write for a living so that comment was like a dagger through my heart,’ says Fenichell. ‘I rushed home and immediately started downloading worksheets and researching ways to help her improve her vocabulary. I ordered so many books from Amazon that my husband threatened to cut up my credit card.’
Shocked by the poor quality of education materials on the market, Fenichell decided to create her own vocabulary programme. That was the start of her London-based edtech company, Mrs Wordsmith.
Working alongside Ian Brookes (former editor-in-chief of The Chambers Dictionary), Ellie Stedall (ex-senior editor at The Oxford English Dictionary) plus a team of educationists and lexicographers, Fenichell came up with the 10,000 words that children need to know to succeed academically. She then hired Craig Kellman, the Hollywood artist behind kids’ blockbusters Madagascar and Hotel Transylvania, to illustrate each one.
‘We toyed around with a lot of artists. We wanted someone who would make parents and children laugh, and make learning fun,’ explains Fenichell. ‘I started cold calling Hollywood artists and everyone said "You need to talk to Craig Kellman, he’s the funniest guy in Hollywood". When I finally met him, I told him I wanted to create the Pixar of literacy. He said, "Awesome. I’m in".’
For £19 a month, children receive a series of hilariously illustrated word cards and workbooks. In just over a year, Mrs Wordsmith has already racked up just shy of £1m in revenues and has raised £2m in seed funding from investors including US edtech specialist Reach Capital and London-based VC firm Kindred Partners. Fenichell is already eyeing overseas markets and has brought in Ted Briscoe, professor of computational linguistics at the University of Cambridge (best known for creating predictive text technology), to help her launch an app next year.
‘Our aim is to help as many children as possible to learn more words. Ultimately, we want Mrs Wordsmith to become as popular as Scrabble or Monopoly.’
Fenichell is Tunisian but grew up in Saudi Arabia and moved to the States when she was 13 to attend boarding school. She started her career in advertising then did an MBA at Columbia Business School. ‘My parents told me that advertising wasn’t a "serious" job. They wanted me to be a doctor, lawyer or banker. My father used to wait tables in Tunisia and would bring home a newspaper instead of tips – he wanted to educate himself, move to a different country and create a better life for himself. He always had big ambitions for me, too.’
Fenichell did go into banking. She spent the next 12 years working as a tech and media analyst for the likes of Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley and UBS but wanted to do something ‘more meaningful’ after having kids. She went on to write a children’s book and a TV script called Silicon Sally, then launched advisory firm Beetle Capital and video app company Rockpack.
‘I was in my early forties and struggled to fit in with my team of young engineers and social media experts. I used to wear trendy t-shirts from Portobello Road just to try and look cool,' admits Fenichell. 'Back then, the tech sector very much favoured youth and college dropouts who knew how to entertain and connect. But now, growth is coming from areas such as education, health and robotics – areas where you need insight, expertise and experience.’
She also experienced discrimination when pitching for funding for Rockpack. ‘Because I was married with two kids, investors automatically assumed that I wasn’t ambitious. They thought my business was a hobby. They didn’t take me seriously.’
They certainly are now.