Do you know that every second and entire truck full of textiles goes to a landfill? Did you also know that a coffee waste plant can recycle thousands of kilos of coffee an hour into biofuels to help run buses? We didn’t! We learned about many such exciting and innovative sustainability solutions while speaking with Alina Bassi, founder & CEO of Kleiderly, who will talk at AsiaBerlin Summit 2021 on 5 October 2021. Kleiderly is a startup that recycles old clothes and other textile waste into new durable materials.
Alina is also the co-founder of Founderland, a community aimed to support Europe-based women founders who’ve faced obstacles tied to their ethnicity in their business journeys. A Chemical Engineer by education and entrepreneur by passion, Alina is a Google for Startups Female Founder alumna & joined the Forbes 30 under 30 class of 2020. Her mission is to lower the carbon footprint of the fashion industry and save tonnes of CO2 emissions.
In an interview with Tech Sheroes for Good podcast, Alina talks about her move to Berlin, how it led to founding her startup in Berlin, and the challenges she faced as a woman entrepreneur. We also touch upon Kleiderly’s journey as a brand and how various Berlin-based accelerators helped Alina create a successful brand helping many major brands reduce their carbon emissions. Here are some edited excerpts of the podcast conversation.
What has been your experience as a woman entrepreneur in tech? Are there any challenges for women of colour in the industry?
I think my experience has been really good. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve had any hugely negative experiences. When you’re so different to other founders or people, it can be a good thing. I see it as a USP or an asset and I think it sets me apart. But at the same time, it can be very difficult because the startup scene can be very male white-dominated.
In that case, sometimes you feel as though you may be judged, or you may be thought about differently and compared to your peers. So I have struggled with some of those potential biases that one may face. But all in all, I think I’ve had a really good experience, and I’m really enjoying the journey within the tech scene.
What is the solution that you’re providing through Kleiderly?
With Kleiderly, the solution that we’re focusing on is really to resolve the problem of clothing waste in the fashion industry. This is such a huge problem that we really don’t know enough about it.
One of my personal struggles is that a lot of it comes with education, and having to tell people what the problem is. Whereas, I feel like that now I know it inside out. So it is a bit of a struggle because when you’re doing something fairly new, you have to explain the problem in much more detail than something that might be clearer to other stakeholders or other investors.
What have been your challenges of starting up in Germany? What can be done at a policy level, or, at any other level?
I think, getting around the bureaucracy, especially when starting a company is really difficult in Germany. In the UK, my experience was that you can literally set up a limited company online in five minutes. So I went into the process very naively thinking, it can’t be that difficult. Then you suddenly come across all sorts of different company forms, and you don’t know what to do and it takes months to set up a company. I was really shocked as to how I’m going to do this.
I think that a lot can be done on a policy level to make things as easy as possible. I think there are so many barriers to setting up a company here, that it may not necessarily deter people but it doesn’t exactly help. As a founder, your time is so valuable and if you’re spending half that time just figuring out how to set up your company, it’s not really effective.
I know that Germany, and Berlin in particular, really want to endorse and make Berlin, the Silicon Valley of Europe. If we are to do that, then we need to make it as easy as possible for people moving here to figure things out and set up companies quickly. as possible.
What was your experience with Google for Startups and other accelerator programs? How did you grow your network with it?
I’ve done three accelerator programs. One was funded by the European Social Fund from the State of Berlin. The other program was the Google for Startups program, and another was run by a venture capital firm in Paris. All of them were fantastic at that time. So I really looked for what do I need right now? How can I get that from an accelerator?
The first one that I did was funded by the European Social Fund. That was fantastic for understanding – how to set up a company, getting in touch with local lawyers and notaries, and all the stakeholders. You need to get everything done. But a few months later, the difficulty I had was not knowing anyone who had really founded a company. It’s very early on that I realized how important it is to have that network.
A few weeks later, I ended up getting into the Google Female Founder Program and that changed things considerably. There were 20 amazing women on that program who have done so much within their startups and their careers. A lot of them are now my friends. I’m really grateful to have been on that program but also the ladies at Google themselves.
Finally, I did a program by the venture capital firm Plug and Play. Their goal was to get brands working in retail, in contact with larger fashion brands, or larger retailers like Lacoste, Galleries Lafayette etc. That whole program is based around you pitching to them and then the corporates choose you to be on the program. That was great because all of a sudden without having to actually go out there and do outreach, I had the opportunity to pitch directly to so many different fashion brands.
So each program was very great at that point in time. Now I’m not looking to join anything, just because there’s too much going on. But they were fantastic at the time!
According to one of the reports from Deutsche Startup “Germany has a total of 28 unicorns. But out of these, only one is led by a woman”. Why do you think there is so much under-representation of women entrepreneurs in a German startup scene?
I don’t know to be honest! It’s a really tough thing to hit the nail head-on. I think sometimes it is due to a lack of representation. If you don’t see many entrepreneurs within your network, then you’re less likely to even think that it is something you would do. Not that I knew anyone who had founded a company before but I really think that you are the sum of the five people you spend the most time with.
Men are probably more likely to have someone within their social circle, who has started a company, therefore they think they can do it. Then obviously that has a ripple effect. In the same respect, women just don’t have that one person that shows them that it’s possible.
I hope that that changes, and I think it is changing. I’ve definitely seen it amongst my own social circle, that people now consider this as something they can do. Representation really matters. Until you see other people in that stage of life that you’d like to be in, it’s difficult for you to gauge how to get there.
Why sustainability? What motivated you towards it as a child?
I think the reason why climate change really worried me when I was younger, and still does is that – we all act as if the Earth is just going to be there intact as we expect it and we can consume and consume, without changing our behaviour, and it will just keep giving. The truth is – that’s not possible.
When I first learned about climate change, it really started to concern me that our survival is at risk. If that’s the case then why are we all not working towards it? Surely, that was my basic understanding as a child. Everyone should be working towards doing something around sustainability because we all need to ensure that we have an Earth to live on. I guess I was really naive, in thinking that.
But this year, in particular, has raised so many of those feelings again. When you see floods, fires, and these impacts so close to home in Europe, you realize that it’s not picking. It will affect everyone equally.
Many European VC funds are building a community around ESG initiatives as they want to diversify their portfolio. Although sustainability is deeply embedded in the mission of Kleiderly, how difficult is it to pitch a hardware-based solution vis-a-vie a SaaS platform?
Much harder! I’m not joking. Sometimes I think why didn’t I just think of a SaaS tool. Would have been so much easier. I thought about it on multiple stages while starting Kleiderly. But I go back to my purpose, or the reason why I’m doing this.
We can have as many SaaS platforms out there as possible but if we didn’t have hard solutions to actually resolve things, it doesn’t matter. We could calculate our carbon emissions to the ascendant if we want but if we don’t have a solution after as to how to remove it, or how to combat carbon emissions, then what was the point? So, again, I go back to my purpose of why I’m doing this. But it is really difficult. I think it would have been much easier to have started an easy to scale SaaS platform.
What are the major challenges faced by the big brands who approach you? What is the solution that they were missing?
The problem is that brands know that waste is a huge problem. It’s a problem they face but they have the ability to essentially palm it off at the moment. You can say, I’m going to send it to textile recycler X, who’s going to deal with it for me. But textile recycler X may not have a solution to do it. So then they send it to someone else, and it becomes a really long supply chain of people shifting goods all around the world.
Now more companies are trying to take responsibility for all parts of the supply chain. But they also understand that more and more consumers are becoming aware of these problems and are questioning them. Some platforms are rating brands, according to their sustainability and targets. This movement is encouraging brands to actually make a difference.
I think if I had done this 10 years ago, I don’t think that any of them would be interested. I guess now is the right time. We’re lucky that we live in a Fridays for Future world where many more people are aware of the problem.
What advice would you give to the next generation of women leaders?
I would say go for it. You can do it. But don’t forget to lend a helping hand and pay it forward, and give it back to the women coming up.
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.