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Alumna’s Tech Startup Wins $100,000 in Google Funding

Sign-Speak technology helps deaf community communicate with hearing community

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Yami Payano

Sign-Speak, a new startup co-founded by American University alumna Yamillet “Yami” Payano, won a prestigious Google for Startups Black Founders Fund award for $100,000. It also won first prize and $20,000 in funding in the LATINX Launchpad-SoCal pitch competition series, sponsored by HIP (Hispanics in Philanthropy). Payano was also just named one of the top youngest innovators in the "25 under 25" round-up by DC Inno.

Sign-Speak is a service that uses real-time AI Sign Language recognition software to automatically translate American Sign Language (ASL) to English, and English to ASL. There are more than 430 million Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals around the globe, and Sign-Speak’s overarching mission is to help them interact freely in a hearing world.

Payano leads business efforts at the startup and works to ensure that her technical team develops an equitable and responsible product. Her hopes are to change the lives of millions of people and to inspire women with similar backgrounds to live courageously.

AU and the Making of a Startup

Since fall 2020, Payano has been working closely with the directors of American University’s Center for Innovation’s (AUCI) Incubator program for help on launching the startup. Sign-Speak also received funding from the university’s I-Corps program, which is sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

“We were so excited when Yami contacted us about the amazing project she has been working on since graduation,” says Kathryn Walters-Conte, director of American University I-Corps. “Her venture, socially conscious entrepreneurship, perfectly represents this university and its values. The AUCI and I-Corps program are thrilled to support her startup.”

Google for Startups Black Founders Fund

The $5M Google for Startups Black Founders Fund provides cash awards up to $100,000 to selected startups with Black founders. Sign-Speak is one of just 50 winners this year.

But Google is just the beginning. On the eve of Hispanic Heritage month, LATINX Launchpad-SoCal awarded Sign-Speak with its first place $15K award, in addition to the audience favorite award of $5K.

With these funds, Payano and her co-founders, Nikolas Kelly and Nicholas Wilkins, will hire new staff members to expand their reach. The company has already piloted its technology at two organizations that have provided invaluable feedback. Payano’s team is now refining its technology and working to secure contracts with additional companies.

The AU Connection

Payano, a first-generation college graduate and Afro-Latina immigrant, is a College of Arts and Sciences alumna. She graduated in 2018 with a BS in mathematics and economics, along with a minor in Mandarin.

At American University, Payano’s full slate of activities prepared her well to lead an emerging company. She served as Student Body president, and she helped establish AU’s President’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion. Payano, who was originally from New York City, but grew up in the Dominican Republic, founded the Cross Campus Organizing Network, which advocated for immigration policy reform to offer equal access in higher education.

Payano was awarded the highly selective Gates Millennium Scholarship: only 1,000 students were selected from more than 54,000 applicants. She also received a prestigious Boren Scholarship, which gave her an opportunity to live in Beijing, China, for a year. And she received the Outstanding Service to the University Community Award from AU, which recognizes students who have made a lasting impact on campus.

Technology, Serving the Underserved

Payano has never backed away from a challenge, and she says that she enjoys solving problems. While launching Sign-Speak, she says that her biggest obstacle was the ability to make her technical ambitions a reality, forcing her to confront all the technological barriers standing in the way of accomplishing her dreams.

“As my abilities grew, so too did my understanding of the ways in which technology can better serve the underserved in our society, particularly for marginalized communities,” she says. “Sign-Speak is part of that tradition.”