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Monspire Meets Viola Jardon

In the next Monspire Meets we chat to Viola Jardon, Senior Programme Manager at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, about how startups innovate to meet gaps in the market. Having witnessed first-hand the power of entrepreneurs to drive meaningful change, Viola is calling for a collaborative approach to solve sustainability issues.


Tell us a bit about yourself, Viola.

I am the senior programme manager at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)’s Accelerator. As part of Cambridge University, CISL has been around for more than 30 years and we launched the Accelerator in November 2019. My work involves designing programmes to support entrepreneurs, startups and SMEs who have created innovative products and services that help solve systemic sustainability challenges, both environmentally and socially.

Prior to that, I was the founding member of the London Fashion Fund, where I started working with startups and entrepreneurs in the creative industries. Before then, I worked as a consultant in the built environment. I am proud to have had a varied career across tech, built environment and creative industries, both in Asia and the UK.

I settled on sustainability because it brought together my two passions: innovation and solving the world’s biggest challenges.


How do you assess the state of the UK's startup scheme?

The UK startup scene is thriving, particularly in hot sectors such as sustainability. We are seeing a groundswell of change with more and more young people paying attention to issues such as climate change and social justice. As a result, there are more people than ever wondering what they can do as individuals and professionals to help.

Coupled with this, the Covid-19 pandemic happened and left many people wondering if they could pivot from the corporate world into setting up their own businesses, whether as consultants, or developing products or services. It is natural then that a good number would turn their attention towards the sustainability space. We see more and more businesses putting sustainability as both a mission and a cornerstone of how they want to grow. They may not be able to do everything perfectly, but they want to take a step in the right direction. This creates opportunity for startups.


What do you believe are the challenges facing startups?

Founders start a company because it’s personal to them. They truly believe in what they are doing and want to make an impact. But one of the common challenges for almost all founders is managing finances. How do you get investment to grow? Or are you bootstrapping? Almost all founders we speak to, regardless of their stage, have some sort of financial challenges they need to overcome. As they grow, cashflow becomes the big issue. Once you have issues such as suppliers and client payment terms, cashflow is a big concern.


What do you believe are the skills business owners need?

From where I stand, the most important thing a business founder needs is people skills. Regardless of whether this is to source investment, build a team or acquire customers, business, at its heart, is about people. Even investors who come to our programmes to give talks to founders, say: “Investors are people too, treat us like it”. You just need to know how to work with people and leverage people. That in itself is a real skill you need to master. You can’t do everything alone, so you need to find and attract likeminded people to help you in the job.


What is your advice to anyone looking to start their own company?

My first piece of advice would be to find a niche. Know what you’re good at and your USP. People also forget how important it is to do your homework on the market. Do you understand your market, or have you just had an idea out of the blue? It is great that you have an idea, but you need to validate that idea through different channels.

I would also advice any business founder not to fear failure. Every time you fail, you learn something new. And that in itself is valuable.


Do you believe startups can be a key part of solving sustainability problems?

Sustainability is a challenge no one can tackle alone. It is a challenge for anyone and for everyone. From a startup’s perspective, they are more innovative and can move faster than large corporates. If a startup develops a solution, then often they can bring that to market quicker than a large corporate. That’s a role the startup plays, but entrepreneurs alone cannot just change everything.

From our perspective, we believe the only way to rewire the economy is to join the dots and bring together: policy makers, Governments, NGOs, financial institutions, corporates and SMEs. Only if we work together can we turn the tide in sustainability.