21 May 2015

Urvesh Shelat: Bab'l Books


Urvesh Shelat (MBA 2015)

Tell us about your business.

Millions of parents in the U.S. and around the world can’t enjoy the simple pleasure of sharing a bedtime story with their children because quality children’s books aren’t available in their languages. More than 20 million school-aged children in the U.S. live in multilingual households, but few children’s books are available for smaller language groups. Those of us who grew up in English households often don’t notice, but that means millions of bilingual families struggle to support literacy because they lack the appropriate tools. Bab’l Books aims to fix that problem by helping authors and publishers translate their works to reach new markets both in the U.S. and abroad, helping authors earn more and families read more. We use the power of crowdsourcing to translate children’s stories into less common languages to expand the library available to multilingual families.

Tell us about yourself.

I was born and raised in Lowell, Massachusetts, where my mother worked as a bilingual teacher. Since joining her in her classroom as a child, I’ve thought I wanted to work as a teacher of some sort. I went to Harvard College for my BA, where I studied History and Science (Chemistry). As an undergrad, I worked with nonprofits including the U.S. Fund for UNICEF and a local high school mentoring organization. After Harvard, I did my master of philosophy in history at the University of Cambridge in England, and I joined the Boston Consulting Group in London where I worked with global businesses and nonprofits before coming to HBS. Aside from work, I’m an avid runner. Since “failing” Little League at home plate as a kid, I decided running was more my style, and I run marathons and half-marathons.

What have you learned from HBS?

More than anything, HBS has taught me to not shy away from risk and uncertainty. It can be easy to find comfort in the prestige or predictability of certain career paths, but HBS has challenged us to be leaders where leadership is lacking. When my classmates and I started thinking about challenges facing bilingual families, it would have been easy to dismiss the idea simply because it wasn’t in vogue for the moment. But HBS and its entrepreneurial culture more broadly reframed that as an opportunity where we could be first movers. We didn’t need someone else’s validation to show us that it was an attractive idea.

Where is your business headed in the future?

In a world where more and more people are moving across national and linguistic borders, we want to be the trusted source for children’s books for anyone, anywhere, in any language. Authors bring the creativity and art of storytelling, and we help launch them from one limited language community to millions of new consumers. We want to be the partner of choice for authors and publishers anywhere to make their stories as mobile as their consumers are becoming.

What do you, personally, hope to accomplish in the future?

My professional goal is simply to lead a life that is useful to others. We’re working on building a business that, though perhaps not avant garde, is core to the daily lives of millions of parents. Making their lives easier and more fulfilled is our aim. Personally, I’ve been lucky enough to have lived for various stints in the U.K., Germany, India, and Japan. Along the way I’ve picked up bits of about half a dozen languages; I’d love to be able to speak five or six fluently.

An interesting fact or two about yourself.

Despite being an active rower and runner for years, I cannot throw, catch, or hit a ball to save my life.

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