The Accidental Entrepreneur

Kalista Zackhariyas’ childhood of neglect and uncertainty made her determined to help cure the harsh side of social media with Sparkseeker.

It was out of necessity that Kalista Zackhariyas, founder and CEO of Sparkseeker in Fort Lauderdale, became an entrepreneur. Having grown up outside of Toronto as a child of foster care, she was emancipated when she was 15. She was in and out of homelessness, juggling school and work—or trying to. “At one point I just started lying about my age and getting into any job because I would I knew I could learn fast, and I knew I could perform well,” she recalls. “But eventually they’d figure out how old I was when they did their due diligence and I would get fired. I said to myself, how am I going to be gainfully employed and not have to worry about my age hindering my ability to earn an income? And that’s what sort of drove me me very accidentally into entrepreneurship, because I figured if I worked for myself, I could never get fired.”

After achieving a measure of success by her 30s, Zackhariyas found herself sitting in her car in Canada wiping ice off her windshield, which made her remember being a teenager, sitting in the cold on a park bench outside a skating rink, without a jacket, and being ignored. “I remember thinking how desensitized we’ve become, how self-absorbed,” she recalls. “It showed me that there was a deep need to care, to give back. I made a commitment to myself that someday, when I could do better, I would do better.” It was as if that shivering teenager sent a message to the 35-year-old career woman. That moment represented an epiphany for Zackhariyas: She moved to Florida and an idea began to percolate: How to marry technology with social good. That was the genesis for Sparkseeker.

Zackhariyas, who was winding down a six-year tenure as managing partner at Paintball Promos, found herself increasingly focused on social media, and she was dismayed by what she saw. “There was a ton of ads and there was a lot of hate speech, a lot of bullying, a lot of meanness on these platforms—and a lot of misinformation,” she recalls. “Over time, I could see how I would be looking at or talking about something, and next thing you know I would start to see ads for it. I started to understand that I was being tracked, that my consumption was being used and I was being exploited on these platforms.” It was dispiriting to her: “We could be using the power of this platform to do so much good. I was thinking as a businesswoman, as an entrepreneur, who saw that there was a gap in the market to create a different solution.”

She was in the midst of her deep dive when she realized that she was neglecting the aspirations of that little girl on the park bench.

“I was into exploring all these different themes and solutions and I realized that this completely takes me away from wanting to do social good,” Zackhariyas remembers, “but I thought, if we get a million people on this platform—just a million, forget billions—and we took 2% of our revenue and we work with social impact initiatives to really implement on-the-ground solutions, how much impact could we create as a community? And so that really was the foundation for how Sparkseeker came to be. We would deliver an actual solution to an old problem while leveraging the power of that platform to do social good. The focus is to bring in organizations and apply a portion of our revenue, with very intentional corporate social responsibility, towards these initiatives. The second part of that is to also broker deals between organizations that we have onboard with nonprofits that we see great alignment with, and being able to connect those.”

“We are in a startup phase so right now; we’re launching to markets,” Zackhariyas explains. “We are actually in a sales cycle right now, being able to onboard a lot of the communities that we need, so we are predominantly B2B with a B2C element—the consumer-facing app—that will launch a little bit later.”

In a video on the Sparkseeker website, Zackhariyas says, “I never expected to find myself in tech.” But when she took the plunge, it was going to be her way: No invasive data practices, no selling of data, no manipulation, and no third-party tracking. What it does offer is a transformative social engagement platform that Zackhariyas hopes will revolutionizes digital interactions with its human-centered design. Its video-centric approach creates a space that fosters community engagement, advocacy, sharing, and tangible actions. It’s a mission that would make the vulnerable teenager she once was proud—and hopeful.

Photo by Eduardo Schneider

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