Namrata Sandhu, Cofounder & CEO of the carbon accounting platform Vaayu, will speak at AsiaBerlin Summit 2021. In an interview with Tech Sheroes for Good podcast, she talks about how she moved to Berlin to work with German multi-national e-commerce Zalando and how it led to founding her startup in Berlin in the sustainability sector. We also touch upon Vaayu’s international expansion, focusing on Asia and the relevance of startup communities in the city. Here are some edited excerpts of the podcast conversation.
Vaayu is an automated platform made especially for retailers to help them calculate and lower carbon emissions. It recently raised pre-seed funding of $1.6 million. Namrata is originally from India & grew up in Bombay. “Growing up in a city like Bombay probably massively shaped my life and my career and everything I’ve done. So I think growing up in the 80s, and the 90s, in Bombay, I saw a lot of poverty. So I think seeing that firsthand all the time while growing up had a huge impact on how I thought about sustainability, human rights, which influenced my future and everything that I did,” she says.
What made you shift from London to Berlin?
I was trying to see how you could communicate sustainability to customers in stores. I moved from London to Berlin, where I started to work at Zalando. I first worked on the private label business again, looking at the manufacturing on the factory side and worked on how we could move up products and make them more sustainable. I then moved into this Zalando group, where we worked a lot more on the brand level and seeing how we could use the platform to move brands towards becoming more sustainable and help guide them in their journey. So I did that for a few years.
Then took a little bit of a career break last year just in time for the pandemic. Then I had a bit of time to reflect on my next steps and what I wanted to do. I saw with the pandemic that there was a lot of movement into E-commerce. E-commerce has a substantial environmental impact & we saw the growth accelerate really quickly. We really understand what businesses want to do and be better. We thought, can we give them the tools from a carbon side to help them take climate action?
I wanted to work in a certain industry and focus on and become really good operationally or understanding the kind of the challenges. I think with sustainability, the better you understand the industry, and you really are entrenched in it, that’s when you can really start to find solutions. The retail sector was super interesting to me because it grows and has been growing for a long time. So I think there was a significant impact to be made.
I was in Arcadia, primarily offline & traditional brick and mortar stores. I saw it moving towards E-commerce, where a lot of the environmental impact was also there. So moved to Berlin, specifically to work at Zalando to understand how different E-com businesses work and what kind of potential there was to think about sustainability differently within E-com.
Let us now talk about that the challenges that you’ve faced. First of all, as a woman entrepreneur, and secondly as a woman of color, with Indian roots.
Sure, I think I would identify more with just being an immigrant and not being originally from the country in which I’m setting up the business. I think that has a huge impact, just from the perspective that the network that you have is completely different. I think you’re not, necessarily have gone to college, or grown-up, or have those long-term relationships. So the breadth of your network is quite different. I think you really need to build up a network from scratch, which is pretty significantly different if you grew up somewhere and you know people and you went to certain schools. So I think it makes it much more challenging from that perspective because you have to work your way from the ground up trying to meet people, network, talk to them and do a lot more around that to build the network of people you need around you to one just set up the company to fundraise to do basically everything you need to be able to do.
For someone like you, who’s started from the bottom up, what value do you think Berlin has provided you? And how do you think that the startup ecosystem in Berlin has helped you with that?
I think Berlin has changed a lot over the last few years in the startup ecosystem has become really strong and that played a really big role. We were a part of the Silicon Allee Berlin Founders Fund which really helped us a lot. They’ve been a great network and a great group of people to support diverse founders and women to really help us network which was really helpful. So I think starting to see organizations like that come up in Berlin has been super helpful. I think you’re really starting to see the ecosystem mature. I think it becomes super International, which means the kind of appetite for people from different backgrounds and diversity, and things like that have changed a lot over the last few years. I hope over the next few years, as we’ll see significant changes, because we’re also starting to know about more founders from diverse backgrounds, women starting to get funded as well, which I think is pretty new, especially in Berlin.
Talking about internationalization, being a Berlin-based startup is there a scope of Vaayu’s internationalization? Is it on the cards?
Oh, yeah! So we consider ourselves as a software company, completely international from the start. So we’re able to serve his clients all over the world right away. We have a significant portion of our customers across Europe and some in the US and some reaching out to us from Latin America & Asia. So we’re able to serve people across the world & that’s the exact idea we’re not limited, because we’re building software to any specific geographic location.
So do you think the solution you’re providing could be beneficial for the Asian retail sector? Or do you think in the future, will be impactful or whether it can scale up?
Yeah! I think markets are surprising in some ways because the customer appetite for it is actually quite high, even in Asian countries. You’re starting to see that you usually wouldn’t expect to be that advanced because many people are approaching us from other countries.
I think a lot of what sustainability has done is it’s driven consumers to ask for more, demand more, and want to see more from brands, which pushes brands and businesses. We’ve seen it on the policy and government side as well, where people have felt the pressure to act & to take steps and I think we’ve just seen the power of the consumer just being really, really strong.
I think in Asia, we’re starting to see that happen and likewise in Latin America, we see that a lot in Brazil and Mexico. So I think you’re starting to see the customers ask for more and, therefore, brands are looking for solutions because they know their customers demand it so they want to be able to do that as well. I think, generally, the point of view we come from is – brands want to do better, they are just missing the opportunity and the tools that help them understand what better looks like. And that’s exactly the gap we’re trying to fill.
Do you have any message you would like to give to our audience, especially young woman entrepreneurs?
My only message would be, don’t take no for an answer and keep at it and keep trying, and you’ll always get there in the end. To listen to the conversation in detail you can listen to the podcast by clicking on this link.
About Tech Sheroes for Good Podcast
This article is a part of the ‘Tech Sheroes for Good’ Podcast which has partnered with AsiaBerlin Summit 2021 to interview women leaders in the impact sector. Through this podcast, host Saurabh Singh interviews amazing women leaders from all across the globe and shares their incredible journey, passion, and motivation. The podcast talks focus on the intersection of Technology and Sustainability.
About AsiaBerlin Summit
The AsiaBerlin Summit offers a platform to establish an international startup ecosystem between Berlin and Asia. We focus on the internationalization of startups across sectors such as Smart Cities/UrbanTech, HealthTech, FinTech, industry 4.0, AI, and Blockchain. Besides expert panels and keynotes by investors and startups on Days 1 and 2 — we will have an Embassy Day program planned in partnership with various embassies of Asian countries complemented by cultural programs as well as satellite events during the Summit. Find the full program of the Summit here.