Nadia Hamilton


Nadia Hamilton

Nadia Hamilton founded Magnusmode in 2012 to help people with cognitive special needs achieve greater independence and confidence, inspired by her brother Troy, who has autism.

MagnusCards is a free app with digital step-by-step guides for everyday processes, like changing the bedsheets, going to the cinema, or taking the bus. These decks help users learn life skills and empower them to take charge of tasks at home and out in the community.

Magnusmode also works with corporate partners like Colgate, CIBC and Toronto Pearson International Airport to create specialised decks and promote inclusion and accessibility.

Nadia’s work has been recognised by the 2016 Startup Canada National & Regional Woman Entrepreneur of the Year Award and the 2011 Project Wildfire Social Business Award.

Ogunte: What energises you?

Nadia Hamilton: I draw my energy from my family. I’m extremely passionate about what I do because it’s inspired by the challenges my brother faces every day, that he has faced his entire life, and that he will likely face for the rest of his life, as someone who has autism.

Living and loving someone with autism has forced me to see the world through their perspective, and to take note of the ways in which society is not equipped to embrace and welcome them as community members.

I’ve dedicated my life to changing that. Using technology, we’re building a bridge from where people often end up when they graduate from high school, which is the couch, to the world.

Through the ups and downs of running a company, my brother remains my inspiration, and I know he will to the end. This company will go on far beyond me; it has a life of its own. We are proud to have users all around the world who are engaging with our technology to enhance their everyday lives. That’s the power of enabling true independence and inclusivity.

Nadia Hamilton-Magnusmode-small

Ogunte: When did you decide to launch Magnusmode?

Nadia Hamilton: In my mind, it transitioned from an idea into a reality when I was searching online for help for Troy. I was calling up places, but a lot of the services and support out there is focussed on younger people who’ve just been diagnosed. Basically, children. There is a total lack of support for adults like Troy who, after they graduate from high school, are very much dependent on their caregivers for the rest of their lives.

I was frustrated that this problem remained a problem, and that the government and other institutions that exist to uplift and support community members were not addressing it.

I guess I decided to do something about it because I’ve always been somebody who likes to create solutions. I wanted to use my creative skills, my relationship development skills, and my ability to innovate constantly to solve real problems. And the biggest question on my mind was: What is going to happen to Troy when I’m not there, when my parents aren’t there? This question is on the mind of every single caregiver out there.

There’s a whole bunch of money going into researching a ‘cure’. There is no cure. We need to give people the tools they need to live with the level of independence that they want. Now. There are people struggling and facing challenges today. We can’t wait 10 years for research, we can’t wait at all. We need to help now.

Every day, I look at my brother and see that he wants to do things that he is not currently empowered to do. It’s not fair. It’s a human rights issue which has propelled me to do something that I never imagined myself doing when I was growing up.

Ogunte: What did you want to do when you were growing up?

Nadia Hamilton: I didn’t really know. I was studying History and Political Science, subjects I still love. The one idea I had was to become a police officer. I’ve always had a strong sense of civic duty and empathy, and felt a need to take action to protect the vulnerable in our society.

It’s that same need that I embody today, as President of this company and in the solutions we’re finding. Inspiring my employees is about impressing upon them that this is more than a job, it’s a mission that is rooted deeply in us.

I’ve always had a sense that I wanted to build a legacy for my brother, so that the world will be a better place for people like him, when I’m gone.

I developed this really deep-seated empathy

Ogunte: Where do you think that instinctual civic duty came from?

Nadia Hamilton: I think it comes from the experience of growing up in a caregiving role. Growing up with someone who is mostly non-verbal, I developed this really deep-seated empathy. I had to learn to understand when he was feeling sad or isolated or bored, and act accordingly.

My siblings and I were always looking out for Troy, protecting him in the schoolyard, and trying to avoid him having a meltdown. We always looked out for each other, and this is something that shaped who I am as a person. 

The experience also instilled in me an utter disdain for bullies and for inequity. I witnessed it up close, on a smaller scale, when I saw people treating Troy like a second class human being.

Whenever I see anyone vulnerable or disadvantaged in the news, whether it’s someone with autism or Down’s Syndrome or in a wheelchair or even a child, I really, really take it upon myself to help if I can.

Magnusmode - Troy-at-the-ROM-small

Ogunte: Which specific challenge are you facing at Magnusmode?

Nadia Hamilton: Recently, the decision to create a technology platform has been a big challenge for me because I don’t have a background in tech. As someone who is a perfectionist and a little bit of a control freak, this meant that I had to put my trust into the hands of somebody who could do what I couldn’t: program.

However, I have no doubt that it is the most efficient and effective way to build a digital life skills library. Now, instead of carrying around a big booklet of step-by-step instructions, we leverage mobile technology that literally fits in the palm of your hand. Through the MagnusCards app, users can access thousands and thousands of card decks, guides, and tips for navigating life. It’s also important that it’s in a socially-accepted form, so it’s not stigmatising anyone who is looking for help.

It was a tough decision for me, but it’s getting better as I build a team of people who’ve gained my trust by delivering results.

Hiring is a constant challenge. Right now, we’re looking to hire a project manager to take ownership of the schedule for developing card decks with our customers, and manage our contractors. That’s the gap we’re looking to fill next.

We’re always looking to bring in talented people who are passionate about the cause and want to change the world! Get in touch, if that sounds like you! Our team is based all over the world now, we have people in the Netherlands and Costa Rica, so it’s a global effort to coordinate. I’m having to adapt to new working habits as I go. But, it’s 2018 and we’re a global company: we have users in over 70 countries, so why not work with illustrators in Italy?

Ogunte: What are three key lessons you’ve learned over the course of your journey so far?

Nadia Hamilton:

1) Contracts are extremely important. It’s vital to be crystal clear on what everyone is expected to deliver, beyond a shadow of a doubt. I’m naturally detail-oriented, but I’ve learnt that certain things really need to be clarified verbally from both perspectives, as you’re putting together the contract, so there can be no misconceptions.

If there’s a question later, you should be able to go back to the contract and see exactly what was agreed, and ideally it shouldn’t be open to much interpretation. There can be no confusion. When contracts are unclear, it leaves the door open for chaos. I try to avoid chaos as much as possible! 

2) Project planning. By this, I don’t just mean planning out key dates, but creating an entire work back schedule for every single little thing you need to do, even for a year, for you to meet that deadline. It’s best to be as thorough as possible and put everything in place, months in advance. I’m not perfect, but I’ve come a long way with this.

3) An unwavering focus on results. When I was getting started, I didn’t have any business experience, I came straight from university. I’ve learnt that absolutely everything you do has to be clearly in line with your objectives and has to advance the mission.

For example, say, I’m spending time on a social media calendar. That, on its own, means nothing. I need to ask myself: What are you hoping to achieve? How will you know if you’ve succeeded?

Now, my team structures everything in terms of measurable goals: We are making this social media calendar in order to convert this amount of traffic into inbound sales, by this date. When that date comes, everyone is clear on whether that effort succeeded or not. This is how you move forward with the mission.

I have to be very firm on this because I receive invitations for so many opportunities. I have to be strict with saying no: Thank you, but I’m sorry this does not fit in with our objectives right now. There’s way too much to do, we need to keep our focus.

Ogunte: How do you keep track of your learning? Do you use mentors or coaches?

Nadia Hamilton: I would be nowhere right now if it weren’t for the mentors I have in my life. At the start, I was consulting them about aspects that I had no experience in, like cash flow analysis, revenue projections, profit and loss statements.

There was a ton of self-learning and learning from mistakes, but having mentors enabled me to gather a lot of information to weigh up when making decisions. Sometimes, their advice might fit my situation exactly, and show me a solution very quickly. If it doesn’t fit, then I’ve still got work to do, but having their input has been instrumental for me as a developing leader. To have that quick turnaround on a question is invaluable at that stage.

One thing I love about being an entrepreneur is that not a day goes by, or even an hour, that I don’t learn something new. I’ll learn from a mistake, discover a different way to do something, or develop an idea for a new way to evolve the product.

I learn in my spare time, too. I read politics, history, literature; I learn about data science from talking to my boyfriend. There’s no point to anything unless we’re constantly absorbing and engaging with everything we’re experiencing. I want to know as much as I can, so I can make the most informed decisions.

My love affair with learning has really helped me stay on my toes, and be better prepared as a business leader.

Ogunte: What advice would you give to a young woman interested in a career in STEM? How has your experience been?

Nadia Hamilton: The tech world is a man’s world. We’ve worked out of two tech startup spaces. In both situations, I was one of the only women, and above that, I was definitely the only black woman! It’s something that I’ve noticed especially in retrospect.

It is different dealing with men than with women, though some would argue otherwise. For me, I have three brothers, and I haven’t really felt like being a woman has held me back or meant that I’m not taken seriously.

My advice would be to stand tall, act confident and show people how to treat you.

Know your stuff, be passionate, then just go for it! You have to know who you are as a person and what you’re hoping to achieve. Once you’re living the mission and vision of your company, there’s not anybody who can tell you not to do it. It will literally shine through your skin and your eyes.

Everyone admires fearlessness and determination. I know I gravitate towards and respect people who have that sort of mentality, so make a plan and work hard towards it.

And if you fail, it’s only ever temporary. I’ve failed so many times. You just get up and keep at it.

Every time I’ve failed or had a disaster happen, it’s always turned out to be a blessing in disguise because we learnt from it or something even better came along.

I look back on it, maybe not the next day or the next week but certainly years down the line, and I think: Thank God, I didn’t get that, or that that never worked out. I don’t believe in regret, and I don’t believe in being too scared to take the first leap. There’s nothing to lose, we’ve got one life. Just do it!

I honestly think Nike hit jackpot with that slogan! (laughs) I say that to myself all the time. I was in Peru climbing Machu Picchu when, halfway up, I thought I couldn’t go any further. It was so hard! And then I thought: just do it. What are you gonna do, stop? Turn around and go back down the mountain? No! You’re already halfway there, just do it!

Ogunte: Where do you hope to be in 2030?

Nadia Hamilton: In 2030, I want Magnusmode to be a truly global company. This has always been my dream. I see this character of Magnus not only on the app but on clothing, on buildings, everywhere. I see him helping people to coordinate their day-to-day lives using different types of technology - AI, AR - harnessing everything that’s out there to be the Super Mario or the Mickey Mouse of the autism community.

I read National Geographic all the time. When I see kids in poverty in India and parts of Africa, I think about what could have happened if Troy had been born in another part of the world. Yes, North America is far from perfect, but we’re very fortunate to be here. In some places, Troy would be abandoned, or hurt, or even killed.

So, I see us playing a huge role in transforming what it means when you’re diagnosed with autism. It’s not like, Oh gosh, what am I going to do? It’s like having a child for life! No. It’s more like, This person has autism, and here are all the tools that exist to support them to live and have just the same – or even higher! - quality of life as you and I.

That’s the high-level mission.

Magnusmode Nadia Hamilton and Amanda

Ogunte: Who are the women in social enterprise who inspire you?

Nadia Hamilton:

1) Julie McDowell is one of my mentors, a social impact investor. She inspires me and has contributed endless resources to Magnusmode and my journey, in so many ways.

2) Vicki Saunders is the founding Executive Director of SheEO (like, female CEOs), which is an organisation that we are proudly a part of. She’s growing the worldwide movement to support, finance, and empower female entrepreneurs.

3) Tonya Surman is the founding CEO of the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto. The competition I won to start my company was through them. She’s just a powerhouse, unstoppable!

All three of these women just did it. They built highly successful companies. They had an idea and made it happen.

These are women who also managed to balance successful personal lives, which is very important to me. They are incredibly dedicated to their families. That’s the kind of success I aspire to.

Ogunte: Thank you, Nadia, you’re wonderful.

3 ways to use MagnusCards App

Nadia recently won the BBPA Harry Jerome Young Entrepreneur Award, a prize that recognises the achievements of highly deserving individuals in the African-Canadian community.

Download the MagnusCards app on the App store and here for your Android.

Interview produced by Naomi Pyburn for Ogunte. 
Learn from other ImpactWomen interviews here.

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