In late 2018, Anne-Louise Nieto ’05 and her friend and business partner Hanna Chiou were both getting ready to give birth — to their second children and to a joint business venture. They opened a pop-up toy store in Stanford, Calif., with the goal of creating a place where parents and children could play with toys before making purchases, as a response to the limitations of online shopping. Nieto says the retail experience inspired them to create their own product: a Reading Wand and bilingual books.
“There was a lot of intense interest in [bilingual] products,” Nieto says of the customers who visited their store. “We each have two kids and our older kids were 2 and 3 years old — and [Chiou’s] daughters speak Mandarin at home, and my older son goes to a Spanish-immersion preschool. I don’t speak Spanish, so I was looking for tools I could use.”
In September 2019, Nieto and Chiou launched a Kickstarter campaign for Habbi Habbi, their online company offering four bilingual hardcover board books in Spanish and English or Mandarin Chinese and English and a “Reading Wand,” which the reader taps on any picture or word to hear the words, phrases, and sentences read aloud in the two languages. They surpassed their Kickstarter goal within 24 hours and had a great first holiday season. This summer, they plan to offer three new books in each language, and several more are in the works for the fall.
Nieto and Chiou write all the books and oversee a team of illustrators, voice artists, translators and the production process. Nieto says the wand empowers parents who don’t speak the language to learn pronunciation with their children and that many also like how it engages young children without the presence of screens.
“I think [parents] would like to minimize screen time, and it feels like this is technology but in the service of teaching pronunciation and reinforcing language, [which is] hard to do without a nanny at home or bilingual school,” Nieto explains. “So it makes language learning more accessible, but without the screen.”
Nieto says it was her experience on the Princeton in France summer program just before her junior year that helped her gain an appreciation for learning another language. She says that it was immersion in the language that enabled her to become fluent in French (she lived and Paris and interned at a public relations firm).
She also credits her higher-education experiences both inside and outside the classroom with inspiring her to become an entrepreneur. After finishing her degree in political economy at Princeton and a stint with the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), she got an MBA at Harvard Business School (HBS) and then returned to BCG.
“As an entrepreneur, you’re basically just a problem solver, and I would say both my professional experiences and academic experiences at Princeton and HBS [gave me] the tools to become a problem solver and to be able to persevere and have the grit to keep going,” Nieto says.
At Princeton, she had a taste of the start-up experience when she collaborated with a teammate on the JV tennis team to bake cookies for their matches. Before they knew it, they were baking cookies for friends and customers all across campus.
“It grew to the point where eating clubs let us use their industrial kitchens, and we baked thousands of cookies,” she recalls fondly. “It wasn’t to make money ... it brought community together — and I think building a business is not so different from that.”