Australians in Startups: Cara Zelas

When educator Cara Zelas and her husband got a dog for the first time, they expected companionship and love. What they couldn’t have predicted was that Little Dude would put Cara on the path to entrepreneurship.

Based on Little Dude’s work as a therapy dog in New York City, Cara has developed a six-book series and literacy based curriculum that teaches children 3 to 7 years of age about kindness, manners, feelings, empathy, respect, and courage.

Where were you born?

I’m originally from the North Shore of Sydney and went to school at Masada College, but I ended up in Bondi Beach before I moved over to New York.

What brought you to New York?

Love! In a “Sliding Doors” moment, I met my husband on Bondi Beach, outside the Pavilion. If I’d passed by two seconds later, I would not be sitting here. We fell in love really quickly and kept in touch for 2 years, then I decided to move to America.

What did you do in Australia before coming to the US?

I have a background in media and communications, and I worked in television production for a few years. Then I went back to university and did a teaching degree in primary education, and taught grade 4 at a school in Sydney.

What’s the inspiration behind your startup?

I moved to New York in 2011 and once I got here, I retrained and began working in a Montessori school. At the same time, I got Little Dude. He is a little fluffball of love. He gave my husband and me so much love and happiness that I thought: I’m so grateful for all the things in my life, and I want to give something back to the community I live in.

I found out about this wonderful organization, the Good Dog Foundation, which trains humans and animals for therapy work. We did that course and have visited places such as the pediatric ICU and cancer infusion center at New York Presbyterian Hospital, a charter school for children with autism, and aged care facilities.

For the Special Victims Unit we’ve supported children to help them testify in court cases, and we’ve helped students at NYU before their exams.

The combination of my background in education and doing this therapy work gave me an idea: When you’re kind to other people, you’re doing a great thing for them, and in return, it also gives you something back. I thought: How can I translate these valuable lessons I’m learning to young children? So I decided to write a series of books about Little Dude and a literacy-based curriculum to go along with it.

What advice would you offer another Australian coming to the US?

It’s very different here than in Australia in terms of how you connect with people. In Australia, I was very reserved; I didn’t have that confidence you see here. Australians tend to not ask people for help. Here people are much more forthcoming.

My husband’s American and an entrepreneur. He told me, “You have to put yourself out there and get out of your comfort zone.” That pushed me to go to random events and start talking to people. Just from going to those events and meeting people, I’ve become part of a really wonderful group for young entrepreneurs called Breakout.

What gets you up in the morning?

The surprising thing about the dog therapy work is the connection you make with other humans. That for me is the most rewarding thing. You go about your day and you’re on a mission – “I’ve got to do x, y and z” – and you may not have a chance to talk to anyone in a meaningful way. This is a great way to connect with others.

Where to next for your startup?

I’ve been approached by a production company in Sydney called Looper to turn the books into an animated series. We’re currently working together to make that a reality. I’m also in the process of writing another four books to add to the series.

It’s really exciting because I’m working with a musician. Children will be able to read the books and then sing them as well.

You can visit Cara’s website at WorldofLittleDude.com