At BrilliantRead Media, we always strive to bring some of the meaningful and powerful stories from India and around the world to empower and motivate our growing community of entrepreneurs, investors, management students and aspiring entrepreneurs. This week we invited seasoned entrepreneur and business leader Shailendra Singh for an interview with us. He is a mentor, business consultant, sales coach, advisor, change enabler, business leader and seasoned entrepreneur. He is the Founder & CEO of SustainMantra. Let’s learn more about his inspiring journey and his advice for our growing community!
Excerpts from our exclusive interview with him:
We are aware of your contribution to the ecosystem, talk us through your background and your journey as an entrepreneur/coach, please;
I grew up in Mumbai and did my Schooling and Engineering (Chemical) from UDCT ( now known as ICT) in 1985 & my MBA from J. Bajaj Institute of Management in 1992 & then started a career which spanned chemicals, coatings, pharma ancillary, plastics, packaging & with leading Global MNCs.
In 2008, I went to Singapore and held a Regional Position covering Asia-Pacific with a leading Chemical company. I also had the privilege as a young man to visit and intern in the USA with a large chemical company, where I could meet professionals of similar background from other parts of the world and learn about them as well as teach them about India.
In my career, I was fortunate to have experiences which ranged from starting up a company literally from nothing to building an entire company, with nearly 100 employees, two manufacturing plants & a technical laboratory.”
In fact, during those days in 1995, I remember I worked from home for almost 2 years, at a time when working from home wasn’t heard of in India. My experience whilst in Singapore enabled me to interact with business people from various countries including China and I realised that solving problems and trying to get to the root cause of an issue is where I revel in as an individual.
Being in front of the customer, listening to their issues and trying to solve them gave me the high as a professional. I also learnt the value of integrity, straight & simple talk & of walking the talk. I was able to build therefore a great set of relationships across the world, with colleagues, customers & individuals from a variety of fields.”
On coming back to India I headed a Japanese MNC in India for a period of 4 years, where the primary role was to bring about a culture change in the company to being a more growth-oriented organisation. This was also a great learning experience for me.
In 2019 I decided to focus on building something of my own and that is how SustainMantra was born. In my engagement with various NGO’s, smart individuals, companies in plastic waste management I realised that most of them were passionate, but lacked the ability to build a business, which is self-sustaining.”
I coached a few of these companies, which was a mix of early start-up and established but struggling companies, and am happy to say that a few of them have found a new lease of life. Getting into PWM as a natural step as my career had connects with the plastics/packaging filed all along, but working in the POWM space I realised that plastic pollution was the poster-child and actually there were much more deeper-rooted problems that we faced as a planet and that drew me to Sustainability & Circular economy.
As I began my entrepreneurial journey, I felt I had been transported back in time to 1995, except that this time, the problem I was trying to solve had global ramifications and importance. This really got me excited and I have found that the ability to talk straight& simple, listen rather than hear & having a flexible and adaptable attitude with an open mind willing to absorb and listen to new ideas, approaches is vital to success.
As of now, I have a portfolio of 5 companies in the field of sustainable textiles, plastic packaging, plastic recycling and equipment manufacturing that I consult for in Sustainability & Business Development. I am on the Fashion for Good Mentor list for assisting global start-ups and also do honorary work for AIPMA & am in the process of launching the Foundation for Innovative Packaging & Sustainability, amongst a few other such exciting initiatives, in the field of sustainable environment and sustainable finance.
What attracts you towards entrepreneurship instead of a corporate career?
In my case, I have already had a long corporate career, so I have seen that side of it and enjoyed all the benefits that come from it. In that sense, I am a recent entrepreneur but with the real-world experience of building businesses.
Let me answer this question in a different way. Post the 2008 global meltdown and now with the pandemic, I believe that the traditional employer-employee relationship has transformed. Gone are the days where you felt the sense of security once you had a job with a Corporate.
There is no long-term assurance and in the coming decade, it will be the era of the Gig Economy! This requires every individual to be highly self-aware of what their skills and attitudes are what really inspires and motivates them to do what they are doing.”
These are essential qualities that an entrepreneur should have. The road to entrepreneurship is a rocky one, so this is not for the faint-hearted & ultimately a sense of cautious optimism, ability to take knocks and rise up & similarly not get too carried away by success are the bedrock of what a good entrepreneur is. I also believe that a sense of kindness, fair play and straight talk are essential qualities too, that will stand in good stead.
‘Sustain Mantra’ is such a unique name; talk us through more about it, please. Our audience would also love to know what kind of problem you are solving with the help of your start-up?
Sustainability is a wide field and as a human species we are still evolving our understanding about what this word really means, hence as I entered this space and thought of setting up my company, I wanted a name that would be simple, had an Indian root & convey the essence of what we are trying to do, hence the name SustainMantra.
In fact, the logo also has a meaning which I can explain at some other time. SustainMantra is about demystifying sustainability & enabling the circular economy. We focus on the MSME segment and work with them in simple, straight talk and our first endeavour is to get them to understand the return on investment between a sustainable action & their company’s bottom line.
We build comfort with the owners & encourage/handhold as they take the first steps towards sustainability. The first step as you know in any change is that of assessing where we stand today and that is what we at SustainMantra enable our customers to do.
Baseline their ESG footprint & directionally show them pathways to improve on the footprint. We believe that if the first step is made with confidence then the subsequent journey becomes that much easier and self-sustaining. Our core values are the 4C’s- Collaboration/ Commitment/ Commerce/ Communication, each of which is crucial for this transition to happen.
At SustainMantra therefore we provide Sustainability consulting & project execution services & have recently added curating & executing “meaningful” CSR Strategy & Projects. In doing so we have collaborated with various organisations, namely FIPS (R&D, Education), Dhartie Warriors (On ground Plastic Waste Management), PureChase (Sustainability Hiring) & continue to work on this front actively. I will be happy to announce a few more such collaborations soon. SustainMantra also provides free mentorship to start-ups and also is willing to guide individuals who are looking for a career in sustainability.”
During this COVID-19 crisis, what are the measures you have undertaken to continue your business without disruption?
Covid-19 has indeed proved to be a huge disruptor, however thankfully we have managed to get through the initial period without too much of an issue.
In fact, the pandemic has stirred up interest incorporates to look even closer at Sustainability and that in a sense has helped us. Our business model consists of a lean team which is not at all resource-heavy and has minimal overheads.
The freelancer model ensures each and every work can be handled remotely, where we don’t need to do physical meetings. Every aspect of the business is online and tech-enabled to ensure automation as much as possible.
How do you manage yourself and keep on going despite the challenges? What drives you?
You know when you love your work it doesn’t seem like work! I believe passionately in Sustainability & Circular Economy as the pathways to the new world. Of course, the challenges are humongous & there are days when it all feels hopeless, but to me, this is my life’s mission now.
There is a saying that if you believe in something passionately the universe conspires to help you and sure enough, there are small events that renew my faith in the track I have chosen and get ready and energized to keep going on. I must say that this is a marathon runner and not a sprint, so it is imperative that one pace one-self, be realistic on what can be achieved and keep celebrating the small wins., take time off when needed, recharge and get back.
Recently what occupies my mind space more and more is how do we transition to the new world, whilst making a social impact as well. As a country, I feel that there is no dearth of creativity, technology enhancement and disruptive ideas, but as we move to this new world, we must be conscious and carry with us the least privileged of society as well. The new world should be based on principles of fairness, justice, gender equality and provision of basic need like clean water, sanitation and eradicating hunger.
What use it is to be the world’s 4th largest Economy, whilst a major part of the citizens doesn’t get basic social rights.”
Given the rapid pace at which the world is changing, what are the leadership traits that are necessary for success?
The ability to effectively lead is a crucial factor in the success, or lack thereof, in entrepreneurial ventures. By understanding and embodying what it takes to lead effectively, entrepreneurs can maximize their chances of success.
In your opinion what is more necessary: Idea or a good team for a successful startup?
In my opinion, and if pushed to the wall, I would choose a good team. You know they say that a bad strategy implemented precisely is better than a great strategy poorly implemented! Further, a good team will have the ability to take an average idea and improve and enhance it.
To be successful, you should team up with co-founders who share your vision behind the idea and you also need to hire the right people for the right position so that it gets implemented in a proper way.
You are always positive and motivated, what keeps you going?
I love my work. Anything you do in life you have to have a passion for and should not feel like work.
I enjoy the challenge of developing novel technologies to become a truly disruptive force in investing by leveraging Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.
We would love to know your advice for all those starting out as an aspiring entrepreneur?
Be humble, realistic, focused, prepared for a long haul & celebrate wins, as much as you can. Sharpen your listening skills & never let go of an opportunity to use, as a sounding board, people who believe in you. Take constructive criticism in stride & work on the suggestions & don’t get disappointed by naysayers and non-believers.