Mateo Salvatto is the founder and CEO of Asteroid Technologies, a tech startup with a client roster that includes banks, real-estate companies, and governments, and is head of innovation for ORT Technical Schools in Buenos Aires, where not long ago — he’s 22 — he was enrolled as a student. With his brother he cowrote the new book, The Battle for the Future, about the role of technology in society’s future, and has also collected a slew of honors from around the world, including the Humanitarian Innovator of the Year from the MIT Technology Review, Best Social Innovator Worldwide from Peking University, and Outstanding Entrepreneur by the National Congress in Argentina.
Salvatto often asked his mother why no one built a technology tool to help her students. Then, after he and a friend won first place in an international robotics competition in 2016, he took that challenge on himself. “We were the first [Argentines] to win it, so that gave me the confidence to actually jump into the project and develop it,” he said. Salvatto began building Háblalo in his bedroom at home — it is now used by nearly 200,000 people, is available in 55 countries, and can translate in 50 languages.
In an article in MIT Technology Review, Salvatto described the app “as a way of being able to subtitle the world around you and for the telephone to speak for you.”
Salvatto, who will be a Main Stage speaker January 11 at PCMA Convening Leaders 2022 at Caesars Forum in Las Vegas, spoke with Convene over Zoom as he waited to board a flight at the Buenos Aires airport.
What were your expectations for Háblalo? What did you think was going to happen with it?
Growing up in Latin America, it’s really, really different. I have family in Spain and in the U.S., and [in Latin America] you always grow up thinking that the people that succeed are not in your country. The people that succeed are in Silicon Valley or in Europe or in New York, or in Miami — not in Buenos Aires. And you grow up with that, building low expectations for your future, locally speaking. Which is kind of sad, but it’s a reality that most young people in Argentina and many other countries of the region face every day.
My expectations were really low. I developed this to help my mom’s 40 students. I didn’t develop it to be a huge startup or what it is today — one of the top five inclusion apps in the world. My expectations were to help a few people, as many as I could, and that was it. And now, I have a startup that reaches 200,000-plus people, and we are building an ecosystem of corporate inclusion. We are building a huge movement, not only in Argentina, but in the world, that puts inclusion at the top of the conversation. And I’m proud of it, but I never expected to have something like this built by me, of course. I thought that if I wanted to build something like this, I should look to Silicon Valley. But no, actually, no.
I was struck by the fact that I could download the app for free. Could you talk about the decision to make Háblalo freely accessible to many people?
Here’s a story: In 2019, I went to a school near Richmond, Virginia, and stayed for 10 days, giving classes on robotics and entrepreneurship. And when I gave my first talk about how Háblalo helps people, when I mentioned, “Yeah, and it’s 100-percent free, and it doesn’t need the internet,” a kid — he was, I don’t know, 13 or 14 — raised his hand and he told me, “Wait. I have two questions. Why would you make it free if it can be $1.99? That’s cheap. And why would you go through the effort of making it work without internet like that, if everybody has an internet connection?”
And I started laughing, and I told him, “Hey, you should come home with me.” My decision to make Háblalo a free product is because of two main things. First Háblalo started as a project for deaf people, but it’s now a project for people with cerebral palsy, ALS, autism, aphasia, and many other disabilities that particularly affect communication. And all those people have had a life of suffering injustice. They cannot report a crime, they cannot go to a restaurant comfortably, they cannot go to see a doctor comfortably. So first it was a philosophical kind of thing — I didn’t want to charge people to speak if I don’t get charged to speak. Lots of impact funds and investors always told me, “Hey, but it’s $1.99 to speak. It’s not that expensive.” Yeah, sure. But you don’t pay $1.99 to speak — you don’t pay at all. It’s your right to go to the police station and report a crime. You don’t pay for that. Why should they, just because they have a disability? That was the first part.
But also, it is from a strategic point of view. In the U.S. or in Europe, the banking system is more developed than ours. Many more people have a credit card, for example, that they can use in the Google Play store and pay for the app. But here, a huge part of the population doesn’t have a credit card and you don’t buy gift cards in stores for these kinds of products. So, they are not able to pay in any way for this product. It was something philosophical and strategic in combination — that’s why Háblalo is free.
But it also is to send a message, right? We do have a business model where sell a tailor-made version of our app for companies and governments for a monthly fee, so they can provide face-to-face services in their stores, banks, government offices, etc., in an adaptive, accessible way. With that, they get reputational impact — social impact — and they get to reach more clients or reach their actual clients that they didn’t reach before. They get to make a difference between them and their competition.
Why did we do that? Because Háblalo is free [to individuals], and the people who pay to sustain it are the companies and governments that should have been providing services for these people long ago, and they didn’t.
As an entrepreneur who also travels to teach and speak, has the pandemic changed how you think about communicating?
Of course it has been a difficult time, because I used to travel on four or five planes a month, and suddenly zero, nothing. I used to give talks in many countries — suddenly, zero, nothing. Emotionally, it was really a hard process. I don’t think it has been for the better, because of course the pandemic is a horrible situation, but in trying to make the most out of it, or in trying to find something positive about it, the pandemic has come at the best possible moment. Why? Because as humanity, we are starting to face global issues, global problems, that no state alone can solve.
The U.S., as a country, can’t solve sustainability. Neither can China or Argentina or South Africa. We do have to work together. The U.S., or China, or South Africa, they cannot solve the problems of cybersecurity, of cyberterrorism, on their own. This pandemic was the first global issue that told us: “Hey, you need to work together. I don’t know how, but learn, because you are not going to survive if you don’t cooperate somehow.”
Can you talk a little bit about confidence and innovation? People are faced with big problems and even people who in the past felt confident may be wavering because the challenges are so big.
Confidence is one of the biggest attributes that you must have if you are trying to develop a professional or academic career related to new technologies or the future of humankind. Today, you can do almost anything that you want with algorithms. But the difference between us and algorithms is that algorithms don’t have the communication power that we have and don’t have the creativity power that we have. They don’t have the leadership power that we have. In a world governed by algorithms, you will need people with huge self-confidence, but who are at the same time humble; people who are creative; people who are able to solve difficult problems; people that do not get frustrated easily, which is really a hard task for my generation.
If you look at the charts on what are the skills that bigger companies like the Fortune 500s look for in the next years, of course you will find data scientists, programmers, and engineers. But you’ll find a lot of the main skills that they will require for the next 20 years are critical thinking, leadership, and ability to be creative or to solve problems quickly or to adapt quickly. The best investment if you’re facing a professional or academic career right now is to invest in yourself, and the skills that make you unreplaceable by an algorithm. And confidence is, I think, one of the main ones.
I love telling my story because I like to use myself as an example of what humanity can do. If an 18-year-old in an undeveloped country of Latin America, far down south in the world, in a middle-class family, absolutely average, could build something that helps 200,000-plus people, imagine what any of us reading this or listening [at Convening Leaders 2022] or any of us can do with enough knowledge of the injustices in the world? Every one of us can add a little bit to this new way of living.
Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.