Sometimes the descriptor ‘entrepreneur’ is definitely pejorative. You’re at a party drinking a beer, minding your own business, and some dude comes up to you. He’s nice enough, is (of course) wearing a suit, makes good eye contact. Then, out of nowhere, he just plows into his pitch — who knows if it’s even about his company? But, man, does this guy just love talking about business. And he doesn’t even know you’re a tech reporter yet!
Other times, however, the ‘entrepreneur’ label is the only correct way to describe someone; and it’s meant positively, as the only correct armor to safeguard this person from the world. Nineteen-year-old Olenka Polak is the latter.
She is a junior at Harvard studying economics and visual arts and has been granted access to graduate-level courses at Harvard Business School of which few other undergrads are allowed. In addition, she’s the co-founder of the film-dubbing app myLINGO, and today her startup is announcing that it has raised $750,000 in seed funding.
As with many good products, the original idea came from hard-fought experience, a way to fill a need. Olenka and her brother Adam are the children of Polish immigrants. Their parents don’t speak perfect English, which made outings like going to movies quite difficult. Olenka recounted the annoyance of her cousins who were visiting from the old country. When they went to a movie they only understood every other word. Some jokes didn’t perfectly translate, not to mention they didn’t fully understand the plot. “[My cousins] just didn’t enjoy the movie watching experience,” she told me.
Through these tribulations, myLINGO was born. It’s is an app that, when it’s ready, enable users to download dubbed audio tracks of newly-released films. The plan is for users to download the app for free then rent one-time-use dubbed tracks that sync with the audio played in the theater. Most studios have access to dubs, given that major motion films are released in numerous countries. Olenka and Adam’s business plan is to charge a few dollars for each rental. I gather the studios and myLINGO will divvy up the cut accordingly, although she wouldn’t get into the exact details of it.
Olenka sees this as a completely untapped market. “People, quite often, are language displaced,” she says. She’s right. I can easily remember times when I’ve traveled abroad and was unable to go to the cinema because of the language barrier.
There are, she says, around 102 million people in the world who are considered “language displaced individuals.” From there she translates that into dollar signs. If the average person sees four films a year, that means that a language dubbing app could increase the yearly worldwide box-office revenue by $3.4 billion. That is almost 10 percent of the current worldwide revenue today. “And that’s being conservative,” she adds.
You can see what I mean when I say she’s a natural entrepreneur.
Harvard seems to have realized this too. This past year Olenka was granted access to the university’s Innovation Lab where she received mentorship and guidance from numerous other faculty and students, many of whom were also female entrepreneurs. In addition, myLINGO won the school’s Innovation Prize last April.
Olenka hasn’t hesitated in making use of her academic network’s resources. She contacted numerous professors to aid her along the way, in addition to other students who may have some insights into app and business building. To make sure the audio technology worked perfectly in theaters, she contacted Columbia professor Dan Ellis, whom she describes as “the foremost genius in audio engineering today.” He hooked her up with one of his grade students to code the app. Today, this pupil of Ellis’s has been hired full-time by myLINGO as the company’s chief engineer.
All of this shows how helpful an academic community can be, and also exhibits the kind of tenacity and knowhow Polak has acquired along the way.
Throughout last summer and during her final fall semester she traveled endlessly to and from Hollywood. There she worked on building an advisor team and met with Hollywood executives for negotiations. She says she is in talks with many studios, and hopes there will be a further announcement in the near future.
It’s been quite a battle, however, getting studios to listen, especially for a nineteen-year-old girl who’s a first time entrepreneur. “My skin has definitely thickened,” Olenka says. The studios were resistant due to various legal reasons — mostly having to do with anti-piracy issues. It’s now looking like these negotiations are paying off.
All this wheeling and dealing definitely took a toll. She told me about how exhausting the work was along with the constant traveling to and from the West Coast. This led to her decision to take time off from Harvard. How long? It depends on how successful myLINGO is.
In the end, it’s rare to experience such an excitable and knowledgable entrepreneur, age aside. The fact that angels accosted her to contribute in the seed round after winning the Innovation prize is proof enough.
So, with a small team to build out the software and a seed round to boot, Olenka is moving to Los Angeles. The next few months will be what dictate whether her first business takes off or not.
And even if it doesn’t, she’ll still have quite a story. And she can always finish her Harvard degree.