Reframing Your Perspective: Asteroid Technologies CEO to Speak at GSX 2022
During the past few years, diversity, equity, and inclusion have become catchwords as organizations consider the diversification of their staff, executives, and patrons. For security, these issues offer teams a way to strengthen defenses against attackers because a variety of mindsets and backgrounds can bring new perspectives to the table.
Monday’s GSX keynote speaker Mateo Salvatto, CEO of Asteroid Technologies, sees the issue of inclusion through multiple facets—straightforward business, societal, moral, and deeply personal. All these factors helped him create Háblalo, an app that helps anyone with a communication disability communicate with others by using features like text-to-voice translation, voice-to-text translation, and more.
Salvatto’s mother taught deaf students for more than 30 years, and during that time Salvatto, now 23, became friends with some of those students. He credits that early exposure for helping him develop an awareness of the obstacles the deaf encounter on a regular basis.
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While Salvatto has held a lifelong interest in technology, his formal education in Argentina focused on electronics. He participated in a national robotics league and was part of the team representing his high school that won the 2016 Nadav Shoham RoboTraffic Competition.
Up against teams from schools and countries seen as “superpowers of robotics,” he says, walking away as a champion was an inflection point for him.
“We grew up convinced that people that changed the world were not from our countries and with lots of money that we didn’t have,” Salvatto says. “So, our only chance was to be really good at high school to try to apply to American universities, and try to build a career there, and then try to do something big. …So you grow up believing that if you want to thrive, you must leave for the States.”
It made me kind of angry that we have the technology to put a rover on Mars, but a deaf person can’t report a crime.
But his team’s win in Israel convinced him that he could at least build something without first raising millions from investors or leaving his home country. And it was home—his mother, his friends in the deaf community—that nudged him away from robotics and into coding.
People who are deaf encounter “lots of problems on a daily basis that you and me probably don’t have,” Salvatto says. As he investigated the issue, he quickly realized that despite sign language and lip reading, communication with others remains a problem for the deaf whether in Argentina or in any other country—especially during emergency situations, such as hospital visits or interactions with police officers.
“It made me kind of angry that we have the technology to put a rover on Mars, but a deaf person can’t report a crime,” Salvatto says. “That was the starting point that got me to code something to help my disabled friends and my mom’s students.”
After he started working on Háblalo in 2016, Salvatto created an initial version of the app while finishing high school and slowly improved upon its basic framework.
Eventually, the app gained popularity—notably after Salvatto spoke at a TED Talk in South America.
“Suddenly, we had 40,000 users of the app, which was of course a disaster because I had no support team,” Salvatto recounts. “It was literally just me in my parents’ house.”
So Salvatto started to reconsider the app’s scope and presence, knowing that he would need investors if Háblalo was going to succeed and continue to help others. While working multiple day jobs and pursuing an MBA in night classes, Salvatto reached out to potential investors. But they were not interested.
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“We didn’t get any because no one trusted that this would be a profitable business,” he says.
Salvatto understood investors’ skepticism since the Háblalo app is free to download and use.
“From a moral point of view, I don’t get charged for speaking, so why would I charge someone with cerebral palsy to speak?” Salvatto says. Also, the app does not host advertisements since it would disrupt the user’s experience.
But it was also his desire to use a business to encourage a positive societal change that buoyed his belief that Háblalo could be profitable in an unorthodox fashion.
“I don’t come from a business background, but I fell in love with the idea of how really building impactful business models can really change society way more than developing the technology itself,” Salvatto says.
So, with two other partners, Salvatto founded Asteroid and all three started investing in the app themselves. As of today, Háblalo has almost 300,000 users worldwide.
Asteroid’s business model, exemplified by Háblalo, is that while the app is free to individual users, it is sold as a platform to larger businesses, organizations, and governments. Some current corporate clients include Nespresso, Samsung, and Santander Bank. This model asks organizations to reconsider their perception of people with a disability, he adds.
“I believe that a huge problem with inclusion—or exclusion—is narrative,” Salvatto says. Most failed attempts to solve an accessibility or inclusion issue miss the mark because they try to adapt the person to society instead of trying to adapt society to the person, he adds.
“People—and mostly organizations—tend to perceive the disability before the person,” he says. “They forget that this is a person with an income and they have to consume services and products.”
Salvatto says he sees that most organizations approach inclusivity as if offering to do a favor for a disabled person, failing to see the competitive edge it could give them if approached differently.
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“This is a business strategy which will have a return on your investment from a communication perspective, from an economic perspective, user base, brand reputation, et cetera,” he explains.
Salvatto points to Santander Bank as one example of success using this approach. Since partnering with Háblalo in Argentina, the company has experienced 4.5 million impressions on social media during the last six months. And there have been other impacts in their brick-and-mortar operations—roughly 400 new accountholders identified as disabled, according to Salvatto, plus several existing disabled clients opted to level up from a basic portfolio (such as a checking or savings account) to signing up for additional services, such as investment accounts.
“When you try to innovate on something, you must be able to look at things from other angles,” Salvatto says. “The only things I think that we did well is that we looked at inclusion from another angle.”
Listen to others and try to be a bridge between them and the solution they need.
Whether for business or security, when it comes to inclusion and innovation, “the hardest job here is to be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” he adds. “Any idea you have about a solution to a problem, you must fall in love with the problem itself and then be open enough to understand that you don’t know how to solve it.”
Salvatto recommends that anyone hoping to address these issues be confident or ambitious enough to try while balancing these drives with enough humility to learn from traditionally marginalized persons.
“You must be humble enough to sit down with the user and shut up and ask the proper questions to what they need. Listen,” Salvatto says. “Listen to others and try to be a bridge between them and the solution they need. Innovation is all about that.”
For more insights from Mateo Salvatto, listen to his keynote address during the GSX general session on Monday, 12 September, at 8:30 a.m. ET. A livestream of his remarks will be provided for GSX Digital attendees.
Sara Mosqueda is associate editor of Security Management, the publisher of the GSX Daily. Connect with her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @XimenaWrites.