Features - Entrepreneurial Alumni
Posted 01 December 2016
New York Program
August 2013 Intake
Social enterprise developer Jeremy Slater (NY, August 2013), a graduate of the University of Leeds, works for Pollinate Energy, a social business operating in 4 cities throughout India. Founded in 2012, Pollinate Energy is an award-winning company that brings life-changing products to people who need them most, namely the residents of India's millions of urban slums. The company endeavours to have an impact on widespread usage of kerosene by providing clean, durable and affordable alternatives, principally solar lights. Jeremy's role in this Bangalore-based social start-up is to help Pollinate Energy expand their business across India by establishing and building operations in a new city, their fourth in so many years. Read on to find out how Jeremy took a leap from Equity Fund Managers' Assistant to working for social start-up Pollinate Energy in his fascinating and insightful account below. (Pollinate Energy takes applications for their programmes all year round).
Jeremy explains, "the solar light remains Pollinate's best-selling product, but since 2012 we have diversified our product range to improve even more lives. Since inception, we have sold over 18,000 products reaching some 80,000 people, saving them millions of rupees and cutting thousands of tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere. Our research and surveying lead us to Lucknow, primarily due to its strategic location (near the nation's capital, Delhi), promising market size and its proximity to numerous other cities with high numbers inhabiting urban slums. Since the decision was made back in July, we have identified and surveyed almost 300 urban slums, built up a small local team, have made our first 20 solar lights sales and conducted three fellowship programmes, hosting over 20 international fellows.
How did you get into this line of business?
After begrudgingly leaving the US at the end of the Aug 2013 Mountbatten Programme, I leveraged my new found international experience and started as an equity fund managers' assistant on the emerging and frontier markets desk at what was then called F&C Investments (now BMO Asset Managmenet EMEA). I spent almost a year and a half working for F&C before seeing that a clear career path was appearing before me and I wanted to get off. I didn't hate the job by any means, but I just wanted to do something different. And different I did. I quit my job and applied for a 6-week entrepreneur fellowship programme in Ghana. The programme, on which I mentored local entrepreneurs and attempted to improve their businesses, was the hardest six weeks of my life and it's only now, with retrospect, do I see it as a positive experience. It was this brief experience that opened my eyes to this "new" world of social business and led me to my current role with Pollinate Energy.
How did you go about setting it up and getting established?
With a lot of help. I was tasked with taking Pollinate's proven business model and implementing it in Lucknow, with the aim of taking it to the point of financial sustainability and handing it over to the local team by May 2017, at which point I will return to the UK. The initial stages were by no means a cookie-cutter approach and I found it particularly difficult acclimatising and switching to the way that business is done in India, which is made more complex by the fact that each city is starkly different, with their own unique customs, workstyles and economies. As I said, I had a lot of help. I was lucky enough to hire a local MBA graduate, Siddhartha, as a city start-up intern, without whom I can confidently say that I would have got nothing done! Many of the operational challenges that have arisen have been due to India's strict laws on what foreign businesses (Pollinate Energy is wholly-owned by an Australia-based parent company) can do here, rendering seemingly simple tasks such as the registering the business, hiring a team and establishing relationships with local suppliers, onerous and complicated.
What else is in the pipeline?
Building on our base in Lucknow, we are planning to scout several other cities in the state of Uttar Pradesh with the aim of being in 20 cities by 2020. This may sound like a preposterously ambitious target, but as we continue to learn from past successes and failures, each new venture should become a slicker, more cost-effective operation. We are also building on our solid reputation as a solar light supplier to further help our customers with other products, such as water filters, fuel-efficient cook stoves and solar fans.
What has been the proudest moment in your working life thus far?
I tend not to dwell on pride, but I will say that choosing to do something valuable, both socially and environmentally, has changed the way I view work and it has fulfilled me in ways that no other job has.
What has been your biggest mistake/learning experience?
Not taking advantage of opportunities presented to me, particularly during my privileged school/university years. Now, instead of coasting, I try and stretch myself as much as possible.
Any words of advice/wisdom would you impart to others thinking of setting up their own business?
The biggest lesson I've learnt doing this frankly bizarre job is that starting a business is not this high-minded, insurmountable mountain; the preserve of just a select few "born entrepreneurs". It is simply having an idea, surrounding yourself with good people and not shying away from the risk of failure.
Please visit https://pollinateenergy.org, and applications for all their programmes are perpetually open.