Shaila Sahai is the Founder of We Take Part, an investment crowdfunding platform that connects eco-conscious investors and green tech entrepreneurs throughout Europe, including European overseas territories.
Victoria talks to Shaila about focusing on clean tech and climate tech solutions exclusively, goals of contributing to the acceleration of the process of decarbonization, and how the idea of a crowd-investing platform that targets only green tech is welcome from the fintech ecosystem and potential investors.
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VICTORIA: This is the Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots podcast, where we explore the design, development, and business of great products. I'm your host, Victoria Guido. And with me today is Shaila Sahai, Founder of We Take Part, an investment crowdfunding platform that connects eco-conscious investors and green tech entrepreneurs throughout Europe, including European overseas territories. Shaila, thank you for joining me.
SHAILA: Thank you for having me.
VICTORIA: So, can you start off just telling me a little bit more about We Take Part?
SHAILA: We Take part is a crowdinvesting platform based in France. We will be connecting eco-conscious investors, who could be individuals but also institutions, with startups from the green tech ecosystem in France and in Europe. We're going to use projects such as equities. It could be also bonds, green bonds. So basically, it will be investing in a company in exchange of shares in those startups.
VICTORIA: Great. And you have a background in financial services. What led you to get the idea to start this platform?
SHAILA: Yes. So I come from the financial services world professionally, so I worked in equity services. So basically, my job was to make sure that trades were correctly made and settled in the stock exchange markets. Then I also went to work in the financial management corporate side in banking. I had, after some years, a global vision of finance management that led me to after some time, I quit my job and started working for myself as a financial management consultant. So basically, it was financial consulting.
And after some time, I specialized in working with small companies and startups, helping them in financial optimization and also in financial development strategies. And I wanted to do more for those companies after some time, so more than consulting and helping them internally. I wanted to develop tools for them to find more financing solutions than just going to a bank asking for a loan, for example. Most of the time, I could see them feeling blocked when they could not, for example, get a loan from the bank. That led me to develop a crowdfunding solution for them to help them.
Also, the fact that we chose to target only green tech startups comes from a personal conviction of mine that we should really focus on and prioritize climate change solutions right now. And we should, as a society but also in the economy, focus on sustainable solutions to help and contribute actively to the decarbonization of the economy in general.
VICTORIA: That makes a lot of sense. And can you give me an example of a type of green tech that is being crowdfunded, or you want to be crowdfunded on this platform fund?
SHAILA: We want to focus on clean tech and climate tech solutions exclusively. A lot of competitors and investors right now focus on renewable energy, and, of course, this is a very important problem. We want to give access to other startups that develop solutions to clean, for example, the atmosphere or oceans and also the earth for agriculture matters. We want to give them access to investments too. Also, to include people in the investment process because the subjects such as, for example, agriculture, or transportation, construction solutions also are a priority, and they really interest people directly.
Some matters, such as renewable energy some people understand those matters, but most of them don't feel really connected to those problems because they seem like far from their daily preoccupations. So we want to focus on solutions that will directly help people in their...affect and impact people in their daily solutions.
VICTORIA: Right. So not only are you democratizing this investment into green energy and green tech, but you're also expanding the idea of what does that mean? What types of projects are we doing besides just alternative fuels, right?
SHAILA: Exactly. It is true that fossil fuels and all those high carbon emissions energy industries represent three-quarters of the carbon emissions globally. There still is one quarter that we need to transform that needs to be totally, yes, changed. So we need to go further than that, and we need to take part. And that's also the reason for the name of the company. We need to take part in the whole action change plan.
VICTORIA: Right. And I think about that when I've talked to my friends about climate change and how it affects people and the fact that it is already affecting people. And that certain neighborhoods and certain communities are taking a disproportionate share of the impact of climate change.
SHAILA: Absolutely. I personally come from an island. So I'm from the Caribbean, from an island called Guadeloupe. It's a French territory. In the Caribbean, for example, or South America as we know, as we see in the media, the consequences of global warming and fossil industries are extremely visible, and the impacts are huge. The landscape, for example, is changing dramatically. The air pollution is awful. Forests are disappearing. So those are very visible effects.
That's also a reason why it was important for us to include green tech solutions from those places because a lot of innovators are from there because they live with the direct consequences. They innovate in those areas. But those territories, unfortunately, are mostly forgotten, even by big countries, so that's also a reason why someone has to get interested in them.
VICTORIA: Right. I could imagine that it's difficult to find capital if you're from that area and you're solving a problem that's not one of the big ones, [laughs], right?
VICTORIA: Are the projects that you're looking to crowdfund; do they tend to be small? Are they large? Or what's the size of the projects that they're looking for?
SHAILA: So exactly for that reason of accessibility, we decided to first of all, from an investor point of view, we decided to make the investment ticket to set it to €100. But also from a company in funding needs, we decided to also set the minimum funding amount to €50,000. So that means that we really want to support early-stage companies which are not necessarily attractive to big investors or banks, which are not profitable yet but still have good potential of development to support their solution because most of them really deserve to be supported and need to get their product out.
Obviously, the aim of our company, of our solution is to make profit and also to lead investors to make profitable investments. So we will have, of course, financial criterias before selecting startups getting into our funding process. But the main focus will be to give them access to investments that would not be attractive, very attractive to big investors or banks.
VICTORIA: Right. And you just founded this back in April, and you're at pre-seed stage. How are you feeling? [laughs]
SHAILA: Well, I feel overwhelmed [laughs] because there's a lot of, you know, this is a good thing that this area of operations is very regulated. That comes with a lot of paperwork. So I have to go through this right now before really launching publicly the activities. But, in the meantime, I feel very excited because I am personally motivated.
The aim is bigger than making profits. The aim is to contribute to the acceleration of the whole process of decarbonization. It's also to give more sense, more meaning to investment in general but also to give access to new people to investment. And by that, I mean people who are climate-conscious, people who want to make a change, to see direct changes in their environments because I know that the cause is greater than me. I'm very excited as well as exhausted.
VICTORIA: [laughs] That's good. I think you'll need that passion to keep you going. Have you had anyone tell you that you should consider a nonprofit, and why have you decided to make it for-profit?
SHAILA: No, so no one has told me this [laughter] yet. I guess that's because of my background. I come from finance. My partners or people that I meet because of this project know that I eventually know what I'm doing. They are not suggesting nonprofit. Also, I truly believe in making good business. I think that this is possible, and I want to be part of those people who make it possible.
For a long time, prosperity, economic prosperity was a synonym for just aggressive business and huge industries, globalization, et cetera. And now, because of the climate emergency, we understand that something needs to be done. But I think that globally, the system is still scared of making a radical change because of profits reasons. Profit can be made while making a sustainable business. So I wouldn't even consider a nonprofit because we need to change the narrative. I think doing good is not going to mean doing things like being idealistic or following just a dream. We need to make it a reality.
VICTORIA: Right. And when you're in a for-profit business with a meaningful impact, you can focus on making the business work versus trying to find donors or trying to always prove how much you're giving back to the community. It'll make good business sense, and I really like that's the path that you're taking.
VICTORIA: Wonderful. What has your process been for validating this idea? Do you interview lots of different people? How do you know that it's the right market fit?
SHAILA: In the last years, I have seen the whole narrative change. That is what I was talking about in the way business needs to be made. When I was working in banking, I have seen those new standards, ESG standards coming, appearing. I also know that this is going to be a norm very soon. That means that the way we do business is really going to change like in reality in corporate practices.
So, first of all, this is the right path because literally corporate practices are going to change and are going to align more and more with ESG criterias. Very soon, it will not be possible at all to continue to operate business without sustainable practices, obviously the way the large groups are going to change and are changing already. And small businesses are going to be built with ESG standards in mind too.
Another part of the change is coming from the solutions. Are they sustainable? Are they energy efficient? Are they contributing to decarbonization, or are they polluting more? Is it possible to fund them because of that? So I think there is a whole transformation of the economy, and we need to be ready to follow up with the change. And we all need to be ready to fund this economy, not only governments but also private and small private institutions, individuals.
Also, the green tech ecosystem, in general, is just exploding. This is a fact. For example, in France in 2020, we had a number of 800 green tech startups in France. In 2021, those startups increased, and the number of startups increased. And we could count 1,800 startups just one year after. This ecosystem also is growing massively, and the market is there.
VICTORIA: That's really exciting. And what is the startup community in Paris like?
SHAILA: Well, the startup community is very active in Paris. France is a huge generator of startups. As you may know, Station F is the biggest incubator in the world. It is a very dynamic ecosystem. Innovations are appearing every day. And France supports the startups a lot. Yes, it's very dynamic.
A lot of things are being made, and it's an ecosystem where we know each other. We meet each other, and we know what needs to be done. We talk with each other, especially at Station F, where I am not located, but still, a lot of meetups are there, a lot of events are going on there. So this is a place for startup founders to meet and talk. So we know that a lot of things are going to happen.
VICTORIA: That's very exciting.
SHAILA: Yes, it is really, very encouraging.
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VICTORIA: Have you found a lot of people get your idea right away? Do you feel people are excited about your product when you talk to them about it?
SHAILA: Yes, that was very, very surprising to me. Everybody I talked to was getting the idea very quickly. I haven't met any reservation from people around me or from partners, from people I was approaching business-wise. Well, I think the climate emergency is such that people get the idea immediately. Also, fundings, for now, are not enough for the green tech ecosystem. So the idea of a crowdinvesting platform that targets only green tech is really welcome from the ecosystem, the fintech ecosystem, but also from potential investors too.
VICTORIA: That's great. It must make you feel validated that you know you're on the right path. [laughs]
SHAILA: Yes, this is very helpful to me, yes.
VICTORIA: Wonderful. And what's next on your roadmap? What's the biggest challenge you see ahead of you?
SHAILA: So, yes, the next step for us, once we receive all the green lights to operate on the French and European market, will be to build our investors community. For now, we are waiting for this green light from the financial authorities to start publishing and communicating at a large scale to the public about what we are going to do. So our next challenge is really to reach out to people to convince them to join us and also to make sustainable investment understandable and accessible to first-time investors.
VICTORIA: Do you feel like you have the tools to do that? What do you think is going to be difficult about that process?
SHAILA: On that part, I think the most difficult part will be a traditional aspect of the business, which is competition. The thing is we need, in this particular area, we need currently to face two problems. The first one is the greenwashing problem that a lot of companies use, and we are not aligned with those greenwashing practices, and this could be confusing for people. Because the truth is as much as the climate change emergency is real, there is also a trend of offering all types of green services and products, so this could be confusing for consumers, for people.
The first challenge will be to differentiate and really to make people understand that sustainability is in our core values, but it's also our why that this is the reason why we're doing this. This is not a greenwashing opportunity for us. Also, yes, in this competition matter, the other thing is that we are not going to focus only on renewable energy. So there is some type of education we need to provide about our products, about the meaning of the solutions, and the impacts of the solutions we're going to finance, even when they are not renewable energy related.
VICTORIA: Those sound like exciting challenges to work on. [laughs]
SHAILA: Yes, really.
VICTORIA: Once all the paperwork is finished.
SHAILA: Exactly. So this will be basically marketing, marketing, and communication issues.
VICTORIA: Wonderful. Why crowdfunding versus regular government funding for these types of projects?
SHAILA: It is important to enhance alternative financing solutions because the reality is that most businesses in their early stage will not be financially strong enough to ask for financing solutions such as bank loans, for example. That means that they don't have enough capital at first to engage in more debts. What they need is to reinforce their capital in an early stage.
When the founders, for example, do not have basically the money themselves to fund their own company, calling the crowd to help is a very good solution to reinforce their capital. So they have more power after that to go for other types of financing solutions such as fundraising huge amounts from investors, from institutions, or to ask for, for example, bank loans. They are strong enough then to go for more and to develop their solutions and scale up.
VICTORIA: That makes a lot of sense. And I'm wondering if, in your process, since April, have there been any pivots you had to make where you were going in one direction, and then you learned something and decided you needed to go a completely different direction?
SHAILA: Yes, to be honest, my first idea was to target startups from the European overseas territories only. So that was my first idea. When I did my market study, I discovered that the market was too small. It was a very interesting market because those startups are far from the countries they are related to. French Caribbean islands are geographically far from the French territory, French country in Europe. They have some localization barrier, for example, to reach the national market. And that is the case for any other overseas European territory.
So my first idea was to give them access and give them visibility in the national territory because crowdfunding is an online solution, but, well, the market was too small, for example. So this was not a good path to go. And I had to reevaluate and do another market study because also my main goal was to answer an environmental need.
VICTORIA: That makes a lot of sense. And it is interesting how your idea of the market evolves once you really start building something and start getting information about it.
SHAILA: I can give you another example of a switch of the idea, of the initial idea I had. We wanted to start operating immediately in all Europe. We learned that because of the European regulations of the markets, we need to go step by step and country by country. This made us focus first on the French market. And we know now that we will be able to reach the other European ecosystems one by one. That helped us refine our marketing strategy.
VICTORIA: Interesting. So when you started building your product or building the idea, and you went country by country, was there a concern about getting too specific to that country? Or was it easy to build out to a new country once you were ready to move on?
SHAILA: It's quite easy in the conceptual stage because the European Union has really standardized a lot of economic or financial regulations. So we have a system of like an economic or business passport which makes it quite easy. But the main problem is really being able to adapt to different languages, Spanish, or German, or English, or Italian, to adapt to those markets with their specificities, which are linked not only to their language but those still are marketing aspects. But other than that, thanks to the European Union system, it is quite easy to really build a whole European strategy.
VICTORIA: Right. I feel like that should be a part of an ad or marketing [laughter] just for the European Union.
SHAILA: It could be. It could be, right.
VICTORIA: Well, that makes a lot of sense. And we understand as well, being an international company, that being able to adapt to different languages does present its own challenges.
VICTORIA: Well, wonderful. What advice would you give to yourself at the beginning of this project if you could go back in time?
SHAILA: You know, it's funny because I have been familiar to business for a long time. I come from a businessmen family. And also, I've been working as a financial management consultant for small companies and startups for some years before. But still, I didn't maybe gather enough money at first to start this very capital-consuming business. So I would advise myself to gather twice the money I had before. [chuckles] Even if we found solutions and we are totally equipped, but well, I was maybe...I didn't prepare enough capital at first.
And also another advice would have been from the start to not forget to sleep [laughs] because this is really crucial to maintain good health when you start a new project, and especially a very energy-consuming one. The health of your project and of your company also depends on your own health.
VICTORIA: Wonderful advice. [laughs] Everyone who's working on something they're passionate about should remember that. You're 100% right. It's dependent on your own health first, right?
SHAILA: Exactly. It could be the passion drives you so much that...and you know the amount of work you effectively have to do, so you can really get caught in the amount of work. But sleep is a very good strategy to keep going.
VICTORIA: I love sleep. I'm a big fan. My sleep schedule is a little messed up because I was in the Azores last week.
SHAILA: So the jetlag was big.
VICTORIA: Yeah, but it helps me because we're kind of an early riser family anyways. Yeah, I can have time to have my coffee before I start work. [laughs]
SHAILA: Right. I see, yeah.
VICTORIA: Is there any other final takeaways you want to give to our audience?
SHAILA: I would ask the people who listen to really join us as soon as we are ready to launch and to talk about We Take Part to their friends and family. Also, to reach out because we could help understand more what we can do, how we can help, and how investing and supporting sustainable business how important it is. And when it's correctly made, and it is profitable, it is profitable for everyone, for the whole society, not only for an economic system.
VICTORIA: Wonderful. And we'll have the opportunity to include any links or marketing in our show notes.
You can subscribe to the show and find notes along with a complete transcript for this episode at giantrobots.fm. If you have questions or comments, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find me on Twitter @victori_ousg.
This podcast is brought to you by thoughtbot and produced and edited by Mandy Moore. Thanks for listening. See you next time.
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