10 lessons on persistence and drive from purpose-driven entrepreneurs

Purpose-driven entrepreneurs are revolutionizing the way we do business, aligning their business goals in harmony with nature and societal wellbeing, as well as making a profit. In picture: UpLink Top Innovator Orianna Bretschger, CEO, Aquacycl
Purpose-driven entrepreneurs are revolutionizing the way we do business, aligning their business goals in harmony with nature and societal wellbeing, as well as making a profit. In picture: UpLink Top Innovator Orianna Bretschger, CEO, Aquacycl
Image: World Economic Forum / Mattias N
  • Purpose-driven entrepreneurs – those with business models focused on accelerating progress on societal, environmental and economic challenges as well as making a profit – are creating positive change all over the world.
  • Since 2020, UpLink has empowered some of the world’s most exciting early-stage entrepreneurs to scale their solutions.
  • 10 UpLink entrepreneurs, who are attending Davos 2023, share their lessons on persistence and what it takes to overcome some of the most difficult challenges they have faced on their start-up journey.

Purpose-driven entrepreneurs are revolutionizing the way we do business, aligning their business goals in harmony with nature and societal wellbeing, as well as making a profit.

But, as Aaron Tartakovsky, Co-founder and CEO of Epic Cleantec told us, "there is simply no how-to guide" or a perfect recipe to becoming a successful entrepreneur.

Whether you are an innovator, expert, or investor, or even if you are just taking the first steps on your entrepreneurial journey, these key learnings from UpLink’s Top Innovators can help you feel inspired, navigate obstacles, and fend off a fear of failure.

Here, 10 UpLink innovators (who are all attending the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos), share their advice on what it takes to overcome some of the most difficult challenges faced by entrepreneurs.

Successful entrepreneurs make courageous decisions. You need to have the courage to do the same

Aaron Tartakovsky, Co-founder and CEO, Epic Cleantec, USA

One of the greatest obstacles I’ve faced as an entrepreneur is becoming comfortable with a constant state of uncertainty. You often hear entrepreneurs describing the journey as building a plane while flying it, and I’ve found that to very much be the case. There is simply no “how-to guide” for what we’re trying to do, which is to transform the way cities have managed their water and wastewater for the last 250 years!

We’ve had to take on the unique challenge of simultaneously driving change forward on multiple fronts – technological, regulatory, public perception, to name a few.

But in spite of all the unpredictable curveballs thrown our way, we’ve always managed to persevere due to sheer grit and the North Star that guides our work, which is that our solutions will have a significant and positive impact on the lives of communities throughout the world.

For every successful enterprise, know that someone once made a courageous decision. You should have the courage to do the same. Whether or not the business succeeds -and hopefully, it does- you'll emerge from the experience with a new set of skills and knowledge that will make you stronger and set you up for future success.

While not every day is an easy day doing this work, every day is a good day knowing you are doing your part to move the world in a better direction.

An empowered team can truly change the world

Sowmya lakshmi Balendiran, Co-founder and CEO, Sea6 Energy, India

My single bit of advice to anyone aspiring to start a business is to build a strong and highly tight team with diverse skill sets. This is especially crucial if you are trying to take on some of the world’s biggest challenges. The team must be able to overcome the ups and downs of developing a solution that has never existed before. Including and empowering people to believe in the vision with passion is also important when creating a successful impact-driven organization. We have taken this aspect very seriously at Sea6 as we believe that an organization is only as good as its people. Finally, we must learn to enjoy the journey every day. A happy workplace with an empowered group of people can truly change the world.

If you have the passion, keep pushing! Be persistent and versatile

Vriko Yu, Co-founder and CEO, ArchiREEF, Hong Kong SAR, China

As a scientist by training, I have learned how to analyze and research a problem, to be able to brainstorm solutions, and then question and assess the results to find the definitive resolution. This skill aided me in developing a unique and effective product – such as our 3D-Printer Reef Tiles – but it did not prepare me for what comes next.

As an entrepreneur, I had to learn that if I wanted to impact change, I needed to be persistent and versatile and value the importance of sharing responsibilities. By being persistent, I was able to achieve a goal that I am deeply enthusiastic about, even if others see it as impossible. Being versatile allowed me to think critically and logically, and to accept and integrate new ideas and perspectives by constantly learning and unlearning the knowledge and skill sets required in each given situation. Finally, building a team that I can trust, a team that I currently am immensely proud of and one of the essential reasons for the success we have achieved so far. So, if you have the passion, keep pushing!

Find as many like-minded people in your sector as you can

Jo-Anne Chidley, Co-founder, Re (Return Refill Repeat), United Kingdom

We wanted to create systemic change for how people reuse their consumer products and in 2017 there was little interest in reuse. We had to connect the dots for brands, retailers and consumers, providing them with the answers to hesitations in adopting a reuse model. Every entrepreneur knows that obstacles are problems to be solved and opportunities are created from these obstacles. So you need to understand the obstacles better than anyone.

One advice I would give other people who want to start a business that solves one of the world's challenges is: Network. Find as many like-minded people in your sector as you can. You will need that support network for when the going gets tough -and it will. Engage with big businesses as soon as you can, they will support you. And give your support where you can as this will always be reciprocated in some format when you need it.

Fail fast, fail cheap. Get something out to market as soon as you can and never wait for perfection because it doesn’t exist. The sooner you get feedback to iterate the better. Seek out obstacles, questions, naysayers and feedback about your business.

Cradle-to-Cradle principles are tried and tested to support a new way of doing business and will future-proof your products and services. Measuring your business through a multi-attribute verification will help protect your values and beliefs as well as your business ideas.

Create value for different stakeholders

Rodrigo Oliveira, Founder, Green Mining, Brazil

Engaging people to embrace solutions to fight climate change and global challenges is not the hardest part. The most difficult part is aligning climate objectives with companies and government objectives. At Green Mining, we understood that to align on actionable strategies, we needed to show investors and companies that we have a profitable circular economy solution for them that uses fewer resources, saves costs, improves EBITDA, etc.

One of the main challenges in developing and scaling a solution is understanding the 'pain points' and creating value for different stakeholders. If the solutions address a deep pain point, there will always be someone willing to pay for it. Monetizing your solution is crucial to guarantee its growth in the long run. That takes time, and sometimes you'll need to adapt or pivot your idea. The advice I would give to a global change-maker is to be resilient and persistent. But also be ready for many other challenges during the journey.

Be open to how your solution, and even the problem itself, might evolve!

Jo Aggarwal, Founder and CEO, Wysa, USA

Be open to how your solution, and even the problem itself, might evolve!

Our first foray into mental health involved a machine learning platform that analysed mobile phone data, including screen and sleep times. A clinical trial proved that we could identify people at risk of depression with 85% accuracy. The trial also revealed that only 1 in 30 people had access to therapy, yet everyone showed a reduction in symptoms. Simply asking people how they were feeling had a positive impact on mood. We had to choose between building a cool mental health technology using machine learning and biomarkers for those fortunate enough to have access to therapy, or solving access for those with nothing.

Wysa’s launch brought cognitive behavioural therapy via AI conversation to anyone who wanted to talk, regardless of any symptoms of depression. Five months on, we received an email from a teenage girl telling us that Wysa was the only thing that helped after attempting to take her own life. She couldn't speak to anybody else. That’s when we knew that we were on the right track. Since then, we’ve had hundreds of messages from people claiming Wysa has saved or improved their life.

Encourage people to give you feedback

Tatiana Malvasio, Co-founder and COO, Kilimo, Argentina

My biggest obstacle was building a culture that gives speed, focus, and flexibility to scale and take care of people, customers and collaborators simultaneously.

My advice is to share your ideas with as many people as possible and encourage them to give you feedback. That'll have the double benefit of getting ideas to improve your business and make powerful connections. Talking with different people from the academy, private, public and NGO sectors has helped us reach our goals and find partners.

Build resilience

Derek Gallo, Co-founder, Awí Superfoods, Brazil

My biggest obstacle was getting enough traction in the various businesses to attract investors. We have not yet overcome this, but we have put the company into a "more patient" mode, reduced cash burn, and focused on more strategic movements that can reduce risk. That includes attracting strategic partners with equity stakes instead of being paid in cash. For the farm, for example, we are partnering with a reputable NGO to structure some community programs via blended finance models. For the pulp factory, we are looking for a strategic investor to provide an off-take agreement and strengthen B2B ingredient sales. For the ice cream business, we will partner with an advertising agency focused on nutritionists.

My message to impact-driven entrepreneurs out there is: build resilience; think about a medium-term strategy; make sure you select the people on your team with diligence rather than opportunistically; and keep your solution focused, as investors want to see traction and doing too many things can be hindering.

Hold on to the vision of change you want to see

Runa Khan, Founder, Friendship, Bangladesh

The biggest obstacle I have faced as an entrepreneur was trying to do something which had never been done before and hearing people say: "Impossible. If no one else could do it, what makes you think you can?". From friends, funders, and donors, 'impossible' was the word they all used.

I held on to the vision of the change I wanted to see. Solutions were mine to find and implement. I focused on finding practical and simple solutions and implementing them step by step. I always worked 'with' the people for whom the interventions were designed. Only after a proven success I focused on scaling. I saw that everyone wanted to be part of that success, and soon all stakeholders came forward to join the work.

My advice would be to hold onto your vision- no mission drifts allowed, hold on to your core values, and stay true to the goal and your work ethic.

When failure comes your way, accept it and learn from it

Thomas Norman Canguilhem, Co-founder and International CEO, EcoTree, France

You usually have passion, some luck, and you work hard. But entrepreneurs often lack -and I speak from experience- the ability to jump from one failure to the next while maintaining the same motivation. It's vital to understand that failures and mistakes are part of the process. There's only entrepreneurial success with failure. You need to be able to identify failure, acknowledge it, process it objectively, and ultimately learn something from it. That is a critical factor for success. EcoTree is my third business venture. On my entrepreneurial journey, I've learned to accept and even welcome mistakes and failures and correct my trajectory accordingly. For that reason, I often like to quote Nietzsche's "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" and apply it to my endeavours as an entrepreneur.

About UpLink: Since its inception three years ago, UpLink now works closely with 340 innovators solving the world's most pressing challenges, from waste management to ocean restoration, from wastewater to mental health solutions. These innovators are provided with a platform where they can connect and support each other, join events, get public exposure, and gain access to experts and investors that can help them grow. UpLink is more than a platform for entrepreneurs. It provides a pool of trusted innovations that funders can explore and invest in, thereby building an innovation ecosystem for the sustainable development goals.

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