IMPACT 0100: HELPING SUSTAINABLE ENTREPRENEURS GROW
Sai Surya is the founder of Interseed and Young Sustainable Impact Southeast Asia (YSI SEA). He was involved in capacity building of early-stage entrepreneurs around the region to accelerate the pace of sustainable innovations through our digital platform and incubation programmes. This is his message to the youth of Singapore.
I sent this message on Jun 11, 2018, at 6:54pm to my team:
“Hey everyone, the partnership has fallen through. We’ll need to find alternative ways to secure funding.”
We were a handful of twenty-somethings behind YSI SEA, a business incubator which aims to build the capacity of young startups and youths to tackle sustainability issues. This was only our first year of running. At this point, we already had more than 50 funding rejections over seven months. But this rejection in particular hit us the hardest.
We had our hopes up on this specific partnership as earlier discussions went great – we had finally convinced someone of the importance of our sustainability incubation programme. Yet nothing materialised.
“Out of all days, it had to be today,” came the reply from Marcus, my business development lead. He had worked the hardest to push for this partnership and raise the funds needed to conduct the programme. It was his birthday.
I could feel the energy of the team dip almost instantly. When we first launched our Innovation Programme in December 2017, we promised participants a fully-funded programme – all travel, food and accommodation expenses were to be covered by YSI SEA.
This was because we firmly believed that an individual’s socio-economic background should not stop them from innovating for sustainability and building themselves up in a regional setting.
Now, with no funding, we had exactly five weeks left before our 25 regional startup founders would fly to Singapore to participate in our programme.
Several thoughts ran through my mind. What were we getting wrong? Were we not offering enough value? Wasn’t our cause sufficiently meaningful and tangible to warrant support? Why did sustainability startups feel like an after-thought when millions, even billions, of dollars flow into tech startup ecosystems?
Perhaps, a team with an average age of 23 asking for a fully-funded 5-month incubation programme to grow sustainability startups seemed like a far-fetched idea. Pre-COVID-19, the concept of a four-month virtual programme followed by two weeks of workshops and conventions in Singapore raised eyebrows. Plus, we also had no track record to prove ourselves.
To my immense gratitude, as much as the team was disappointed and heartbroken, not one of the 18 organising members proposed cancelling or postponing our programme. We all knew that with our collective passion and support, we were going to make it work one way or another.
And we did. Through sheer persistence, in the time we had left, we managed to raise the required funds with help of a combination of grants from the National Youth Council, crowdfunding and the support of our incredible mentors who believed in our work.
Six weeks later, our programme participants were in Singapore, pitching their business solutions to problems in agriculture, healthcare and circular economy sectors to a crowd of over 350 attendees.
The audience consisted of investors, industry experts and youths, with Minister for National Development Desmond Lee as our Guest-of-Honour. Watching the culmination of all our efforts and overwhelming positive feedback reaffirmed the importance of our work.
Fast forward to 2021 and we have conducted three fully-funded annual Sustainability Innovation Programmes to date, incubated 27 startups and worked with 75 regional entrepreneurs. We managed to build up a community of over 4,000 folks from all over Southeast Asia who are passionate about sustainability.
This is not to say subsequent years were free from challenges. But as our credibility grew, so did the number of potential partners. More companies were willing to contribute and pay attention to sustainability issues, which was a win for the industry at large.
More importantly and personally, facilitating regional collaborations and nurturing the capacity of young founders was the most fulfilling part of the journey.
Over the past four years, I have grown as a co-founder, a team member and as a person. Despite the daunting sustainability scene, I learnt the importance of starting small and starting simple. Working with inspiring young entrepreneurs and mentors taught me that the first step begins with understanding the problem one is passionate about.
Along with the team, I have and am still discovering what it means to be open to change. Sometimes this comes in the form of alternative perspectives which help improve an initiative. Other times it is about knowing when to be flexible, and when to shift a business direction in order for the organisation to evolve.
Recently, we decided to move away from our five-month programme to build a digital platform – Interseed.co. With this, we can now reach more founders to facilitate sustainable innovations and develop more talent ready to take on pressing sustainability issues.
Lastly, my biggest lesson has also been my greatest fortune – the people. People make or break the process. Surrounding myself with a community of like-minded friends, in the team and with the programme participants, means we understand each other’s struggles and hopes. We are young, hungry and committed to the same larger cause. We support one another during setbacks, and push one another to do better.
The journey has seemed, and will continue to seem, intimidating, lonely and uncertain at times. But having a community has grounded me and kept the flame of passion alive.
One other message was sent on Jun 11, 2018, in the aftermath of the rejection:
“This isn’t a failure; it is a chance for us to tell people that even with everything against us, the innovation programme ran. And it ran because we didn’t let it fall through.”
Don’t stop believing or give up hope because of external factors. With an open mind, and a strong community, let’s keep pushing — patiently but passionately.