Andrea’s journey as a social entrepreneur began at 16 when she left A-levels to establish NABIO together with peers from Norway and Kenya. NABIO is a non-profit that would come to initiate and support over a dozen community enterprises to create income opportunities. Her interest to push for change through social entrepreneurship inspired her to pursue a marketing bachelor, which she is now complimenting with a MPhil in Development Studies funded by AKER Scholarship.
Andrea is the executive director at NABIO, a non-profit working to support women groups into commercial agriculture. They have provided an income for 21 women across four seasons. She is also a co-founder and CMO at VitaGUM, an Oxford-based start-up working to address refugee malnutrition and oral healthcare issues through an innovative chewing gum. VitaGUM won the graduate category in the Oxford All-Innovate Competition in 2020 and the Oxford Inspires Pitch competition in 2021.
Andrea is also an enthusiastic supporter of other social start-ups. As the VP at Oxford Social Entrepreneurs (OSE), she has been part of building a programme supporting new and early-stage social startups in Oxford, supported by the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship. The group has built a programme that has supported 16 start-ups through a tailored curriculum, workshops, mentorship, networking opportunities, and a resource database.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I never made a conscious decision that I was going to be an entrepreneur, it wasn’t something I aspired to be for the sake of it. Like young people often do, I had been confronted with some of the world’s injustice and contemplating what that meant to me personally. I wanted to be part of making a difference, and realised how impactful purpose-driven enterprises can be. I still don’t use the title ‘entrepreneur’ confidently. I would rather say I’m an entrepreneur in the making, passionate about the prospect of social entrepreneurship to address global challenges.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship to me personally is a way of working for change, a definition that is coloured by my passion for social entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is exciting to me because it holds the promise of building something lasting, scalable, and sustainable. It brings people together in a much broader way than many other ways of working for change.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
One of the most important lessons I have learned is the necessity of validating an idea, to listen to the end-user continuously and intentionally. It is easy to get distracted by your own idea, to loose sight of the different people that you are ultimately building it for. I’ve grown to deeply embrace the concept of co-creation, placing the end-users perspectives and input at the heart of the entrepreneurial process. It brings better ideas, saves you time, and maintains motivation throughout the process.
I’ve never had a moment of knowing that an idea is ‘good enough’, it would imply that an idea is a fixed thing. If you are looking to validate your idea, it means you are looking for a place in the world where your idea fits rather than moulding your idea to best fit the world. The latter is what makes meaningful entrepreneurship.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
I would say that the most important skill is to be able to place the target user at the heart of everything you do. Don’t fall too deeply in love with your ideas, don’t obsess over what appears novel. If you focus on the problem you want to solve and the people involved, the idea will evolve naturally alongside it.
I have found that this might make for less ‘spectacular’ start-ups, but for those that care about change it shouldn’t matter so much. When you want to be disruptive and sensational, it’s easy to lose touch with the real issue and the solutions that perhaps already exists in a space. I think some of the most exciting social entrepreneurship that happens is rather incremental – it’s not about thinking up something radically new, but figuring out ways of adapting and spreading solutions that already exist through small tweaks or better marketing.
I think the second key skill would be storytelling, it is what brings it all together. It is what keeps the founding team motivated, it is what builds your supporters, it is what the investors wants to see, and it is what will help you sell. It’s also really easy to be a storyteller if your enterprise is truly focused on a need. It can be really transparent when the story is added as ‘marketing fluff’ to give substance to a weak idea.
Finally, I want to include reflexivity, which is especially important and challenging when it comes to social entrepreneurship. The saying goes that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It is easy to apply this critique to volunteer tourism or the history of international aid, but it can unfortunately be harder to spot in social entrepreneurship. I really do think this is a key issue that deserves to be discussed. The voices of the end-users that should be at the heart of social entrepreneurship needs to be amplified throughout the process, shaping the business models created but also represented in founding teams and stakeholder groups. It is easy to grow discouraged when one takes reflexivity seriously, but instead of growing tired I think we need to recognise how much is gained from tackling it head on.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
I love making something people actually use and value. I love working in a team, the creative freedom, the thrill of reaching new milestones, and all the people that we meet on the way.
I can also get a similar satisfaction working with other entrepreneurs, because it is not so much about the founder role. I spend a silly amount of time chatting to people from other teams at OSE. I can get deeply involved in thinking through their challenges, linking people together, and sharing the resources I know – and they do the same for me. It’s a really supportive community to be a part of. I think the purpose-driven start-up community in Oxford is really quite unique, and I’m fully intent on staying involved in the network after I graduate too.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
There hasn’t been one defining moment, but a series of small victories. A memory that does come to mind was when the NABIO Nyela group had their first harvest and sent over pictures of baskets filled to the brim with tomatoes ready to be shipped, that was definitely a moment of celebration. But I still haven’t come to the point where I feel successful or satisfied. When a milestone is reached, I am usually thinking of the next one within a few hours. When you know your project well, you know there is always something else to work on. I am still an entrepreneur in the making, perhaps one day I’ll sit down and feel content, but that day hasn’t come yet.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
I have probably answered this in part already, but I have stopped trying to chase the idea of the “disruptive”. There are a lot of global challenges that people have already made reasonably good solutions for. However, they need better business models, contextual adaptations, or better marketing. I think the most meaningful entrepreneurship we will see in the future is in this space. A lot of progress being made is confined to certain demographics and regions, I would love to see entrepreneurs that tackle the challenge of extending these new opportunities to groups that are currently not included. That’s the entire motivation of NABIO now. In the past, we pursued quite a few ideas that sounded cool and novel. Now, we are fully committed to agriculture. What we do now is not very disruptive, but the impact is far higher. We aren’t offering something radically new, but we are combining existing solutions in a new way and offering it to a population that is usually overlooked. As a marketer, I see a lot of potential in simply bringing awareness and facilitating adaptation of solutions. Marketing isn’t just useful to make more people to buy Coca Cola – the same techniques and tools can be used to spread the word about sanitation practices or safe driving.
How have you funded your ideas?
A lot of different ways. At first in NABIO, we would rely on friends and family, but that source quickly dried up. We therefore got involved in establishing a non-profit cafe where parts of the profits were channelled into funding social start-ups. Later on we started a cotton-candy business and a basket e-commerce shop. However, starting businesses to fund the starting of other businesses takes a lot of time, it’s not very sustainable. Then again, we didn’t have a lot of options and we managed to make it work.
In Oxford I’ve been lucky to discover more sophisticated ways of gaining funding. Through VitaGUM we have been able to gain a reasonable amount of funds through Oxford-based competitions. We won the All-Innovate graduate category, for example. In NABIO we also managed to win an award with a cash-prize. In OSE part of my role has been to identify and record all of the funding opportunities that are in Oxford. There are so many competitions and events that can be used, and a lot are earmarked social enterprises!
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
OSE as a society offers all members access to our resource database, where we have collated all of the useful awards, competitions, and grants, that we have been able to identify. In the projects I am part of, we have made use of the All-Innovate competition, the Panacea Stars programme, and the Oxford Hub competition.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
Get involved in Oxford Social Entrepreneurs, and sign up to Oxford Hub and Enterprising Oxford. Show up to freshers fair and get involved in a couple societies!
I’ve had a lot of other influences throughout my journey. I found the social marketing literature incredibly intriguing, applying concepts and tools from the marketing realm to promote positive change. There is also the literature around co-creation and around innovating for those that are commonly considered irrelevant target customers – reading C. K. Prahalad’s “Bottom of the Pyramid” was really intriguing. There is also a great course called “entrepreneurship in emerging economies” at HarvardX, completely free. All of the stuff I have mentioned here can be critiqued on good grounds, but they also offer a lot of exciting perspectives and propositions that are worth discussing and building on.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
I know I am lucky to say that I have not been very affected. Working internationally, there has been times where I know I have less authority due to my gender, but it has not been a major obstacle.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
I know that Oxford Women in Business gather female leaders of various kinds to give talks and hold panels which are meant to be amazing. I know that there are female specific societies as well – I just feel that everything I’ve needed has been given to me by OSE.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
I think hidden entrepreneurs are often forgotten, the ones that are yet to take the first few steps. There are a lot of resources and support for women entrepreneurs that have taken the first few steps, but I think less is being done to encourage women that have a passion for entrepreneurship and isn’t yet working on it. It’s not just true for women. I think the bar for entrepreneurship needs to be lowered, showing people how simple it can be, how they might use their own lived experiences to innovate, and how many resources exist to support them along the journey. That’s one of the main reasons I am so passionate about OSE, we have put together quite a few founding teams from scratch where none of the team members have tried entrepreneurship before.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
I’ve noticed that there are many women, other genders too, that have a latent dream to become an entrepreneur but lacks the confidence that they would be able to pull it off. I’m lucky in the sense that I usually have little awareness of my own limitations, when I get enthusiastic I think I can take on the world.
Entrepreneurship is hard and tiring and difficult, but it has far more to do with grit and persistence than talent or innate ability. Recognising that entrepreneurship is a process makes it a lot less intimidating.
If I were to give any advice, I would say: get past that initial doubt, accept that you don’t have a perfect idea at the start, connect and team up with others sharing your passion, and be ready to grow and pivot along the journey. Just start with talking to people – find a co-founder, speak with the target users, talk to professionals in the space. You start out by talking to the people that you want to work with, the ones that you want to sell to, hearing whether they like your idea and taking on board what they say in order to advance it. Once you’ve connected to people that want to work with you, you can start taking super small steps to begin validating your idea. The hardest bit is overcoming that first hurdle from having an idea to creating something very small – whether that’s putting a team together or just doing some research by yourself.