Sofiia Verkhorturova is a third-year PPE student at Hertford college, as well as a co-founder of Unbox. Unbox is a platform that offers students a unified career discovery experience from the day they step onto university campus to the day they graduate. This will mean that students do not get overwhelmed and can instead discover new career paths, get personalised guidance and curate digital ‘career portfolios’, all in one place.
Unbox has a 3-strong leadership team, of which Sofiia is one. In the past the company has been entirely bootstrapped, with the whole team working on a volunteer basis. However, Unbox recently gained a grant of £5000 by winning the All-Innovate Ideas Competition run by the Foundry. This and other small grants enable them to meet their running costs so far.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I was educated in Russia for the most part, but it wasn’t until coming to Oxford that I thought about the possibility of pursuing entrepreneurship. In the summer of my 1st year, I did a micro-internship at a startup in London called BibliU, which I loved. The culture of the company was flexible and yet results oriented. I learnt that I valued making impact and having autonomy in the workplace. This made me think about working in start-ups for myself. Another changing influence was when I attended a talk, run by the Foundry, with Microsoft about the digital transformation in education. I noticed two things: that it was a room of about 50 people, but I must have been the only undergraduate there and one of three women. I was struck by how so few undergraduates seemed to be pursuing entrepreneurship, which gave me the idea of starting the Hertford Entrepreneurship Society, which later grew into Unbox.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
I’d think about an entrepreneurial spirit. The modern world moves so quickly, which means it has become even more important to take responsibility for your life and to keep learning throughout your journey. For me, this means that an entrepreneur is someone who stays interested in innovating, collaborating and executing. To take a slightly more philosophical tack, it’s also someone who is very driven to make an impact. Entrepreneurship allows you to tap into this core need, as well as the need for autonomy in an increasingly interconnected world. So, for me entrepreneurship is about learning and about impact.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
I wouldn’t say there was one specific moment: the nature of building a start-up will have many continuous ‘aha’ moments. In fact, your idea is supposed to change through an iterative process. As our team became exposed to more and more information about the reality of the problem, as a doctor examining a patient, we changed our vision of the solution bit by bit too. Personally, I appreciate the moments of confidence in the strength of Unbox. I speak to the most important people to our business, namely the customers. For example, when I hear testimonials from students who talk about gaining extra confidence and broadening their understanding of what’s possible thanks to us, I feel huge validation for Unbox.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
a. Adaptability – you can have hunches about how things will work out, but you need to adapt constantly to the reality of things.
b. A growth mindset – you need to believe that you, people, and things can always grow, learn, and change. Obviously, this needs to be supplemented with realism.
c. A mindset of abundance – you need to understand the importance of collaborating with others, both externally and internally, if you want to bring something great into existence.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
There are so many! Right now I’d say it’s my team, I feel so grateful to be working with people that I look up to. We have a call every evening at 8pm. We go from talking about our strategy as a business, to what we’re having for dinner and to debate the future of work and education, which is awesome! Having a tight-knit team is so rewarding to a turbulent start-up journey.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
Again, there are so many – but I’ll mention the most recent one. I watched an interview with the CEO of Airbnb Brian Chesky, and it really showed me the resilience one should have when starting the company. It communicated well the ‘unsexy’ aspects of entrepreneurship. And it’s true – it’s a lot of work! Seeing this example of determination even despite the setbacks was comforting
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
Actually, I think I’d ask some technical questions. I’d ask: ‘how do you carry out effective iterations? What is the right mix between using intuition and data in making strategic decisions? How should one think about building a product roadmap?’. I’d also love to learn about the design trends he’s most excited about.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
In the summer we decided to expand Unbox so that students from universities outside of Oxford could get internships too. Within two weeks of advertising on Facebook and LinkedIn, we had over a thousand student applications and 200 start-ups had told us that they wanted to get involved on the other side. This was when Unbox was more about matching students to start-ups rather than career discovery but seeing the clear need for innovation in the early careers market was really satisfying.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
I’d give two key ones. The first is ‘nail it before you scale it’: this idea that you want to be doing something as well as possible before you actually set it in motion. You need to get everything sorted before you go for it. Weirdly, that applies to what I was just talking about for my ‘most satisfying moment’: even though it was great to have so many applications in summer, the team was flooded with work. We’ve done all our calculation expecting we’d have around 350 applications, instead we got 1,000! This meant a few delays and a lot of stress.
The second is about effective communication. My team and our idea have evolved a lot, and in the process, we have had difficult conversations and learn handling our emotions very well. Personally, I’ve learnt that it is very important to let someone know as so as you have in issue with some of their work, contrary to the norms of politeness.
How have you funded your ideas?
For pretty much our whole history Unbox has been entirely boot strapped. All the students that were part of it were volunteers, so it really relied on people being excited about our mission. At various points, though, we have had little bits of funding. For example, when we were still the Hertford Entrepreneurship Society rather than Unbox, Hertford JCR gave us a grant that lasted us a couple of months. In a way, having little money has been great because it meant that everyone that got involved was intrinsically motivated. Yet as we move from an initiative pairing students and start-ups, to building a universal platform around career discovery, we will need money. So, I imagine this will change in the future.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
Yes! We won the Best Undergraduate Idea prize at the Foundry’s ‘All-Innovate Ideas Competition’. This was an incredible experience; we pitched in front of different judges from consultants to serial entrepreneurs. We were preparing our pitches from nine in the morning to nine in the evening, so seeing that these impressive people were impressed by Unbox was a phenomenal feeling. The competition came with £5000 prize money, which will help Unbox in the next pivot.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
The good things are the networks of support that exist in Oxfordshire! The Foundry, OUI – Oxford University Innovation, and Enterprising Oxford (we worked with Sam, who helped distribute our newsletter), have all helped us and that’s been amazing, so I’m really grateful to Oxford and to Oxfordshire for that. Having said that, there is definitely more to be done in Oxford. The university is academia-focused, which means that entrepreneurship remains an uncommon choice for undergraduates. I think there could be more happening here to connect and inspire students. There needs to be a more fundamental mindset shift for students, which the higher-ups could help bring about. People at Oxford should be trying to use their careers to make the biggest impact possible, and for me they’re going to do this by also becoming entrepreneurs, rather than by just going into corporate jobs.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
Firstly, I’d send them to the Oxford Foundry. They have lots of useful events, which will give them advice and resources. But I’d also tell them to speak to many different people: talking about your entrepreneurial interests will inevitably attract likeminded people. When I was running the Hertford Entrepreneurial Society, we were a group that cut across various disciplines; there was an English student, an arts student, a languages student, and two PPE-ists. I’d never have met all these people if I’d stuck to my own bubble of people that you might ‘expect’ to be interested in your idea. Finally, a book recommendation, called Personal MBA and the start-up school by Y combinator.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
Definitely. I think that on the whole, women tend to be less confident in their ideas than men are. Even speaking personally, people are telling me all the time that Unbox is phenomenal, and my first temptation is always to argue with them than to accept the compliment. I think this is particularly important with entrepreneurship, because it means that women might shy away from their ideas, even if they are good. The recommendation then, that I myself strive to follow, is to be confident and to ask for things. You don’t get what you don’t ask for.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
I think that finding a mentor is really important. At the start of Unbox we met a mentor, Devika Wood, who founded a start-up called Vida and single-handedly raised £3.5M. We had her speak at an event at the Hertford Entrepreneurship Society and then ended up chatting for a long time after in the college bar. So, I would recommend every female entrepreneur to find a mentor; Devika has been a hugely positive force behind us.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
I think that things like this Wonder Women initiative are important; women need exposure to stories about other women, because women looking to start businesses need to hear that it’s not impossible and learn where to seek guidance. One potential area where I think the University of Oxford could do more would be in curating more diverse opportunities. For examples, initiatives where students can be connected to the alumni who have set up their own businesses. Also, I think more events could be organised, particularly those led by women or people of diverse backgrounds, because it’s important that this kind of messaging is coming from the top.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
I think I’d tell them to talk to lots of people. Especially, to find people who are like-minded who will support you on along your journey. In starting a business, you will need to surround yourself with people who can help you and who will work with you. The people you surround yourself with can make or break an entrepreneur, particularly as a woman working in an aggressive sector.