Eleni Polychroniadou is the co-founder and commercial director of Sintali, an environmental certification body, which was founded to verify the impact of the built environment around the world. Sintali acts as a global certification partner for IFC’s EDGE green building program, transforming the built environment and creating a pathway to ensure that every building on this planet is green. Eleni leads the commercial division of the organization and drives business development activities to help the EDGE green building market grow across 170 markets. She is responsible for helping businesses understand how to decarbonize their portfolios of buildings, building partnerships with financial institutions to accelerate the pace of green real estate investments, and developing a global marketing strategy.
In her spare time, Eleni acts as the co-curator of the London Global Shapers Hub, where she leads a team of 40 volunteers. Founded by the World Economic Forum, the Global Shapers Community is a network of young people under the age of 30 working together to address local, regional, and global challenges. She is also a trained Climate Reality Leader, delivering training on climate change and lobbying local government to adopt more stringent environmental policies.
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Table of Contents
Thank you for joining us today. Please introduce yourself to our readers. They want to know you, some of the background story to bring some context to your interview.
Eleni Polychroniadou: Thank you for having me and allowing me to share my story. I have always been passionate about helping people and have spent my life trying to make a difference. Since I was a kid, I would try and find ways to give back to the community. I was environmentally conscious but never considered that my career would be in sustainability. It just never occurred to me that you could have a career driven by impact! I was fortunate enough to go to the US for college when I was 18, and that ended up being a pivotal moment for me. I went to Middlebury College in Vermont, where I was exposed to environmental science and many opportunities that have helped shape my professional path. I ended up graduating with a degree in Environmental Policy and I have spent the last seven years meandering my way through the sustainability industry trying to find where I can have the most impact. Along the way, I have gained many useful skills that have given me the foundation to run a business today.
You are a successful entrepreneur, so we’d like your viewpoint, do you believe entrepreneurs are born or made? Explain.
Eleni Polychroniadou: I believe entrepreneurs are made. Entrepreneurship involves many things, from taking risks to thinking strategically to innovating and pushing boundaries. In my experience, those types of skills aren’t inherent in people but they are cultivated in certain environments. If you look at the most influential entrepreneurs to date, you can see similarities in the way they were raised or things they have experienced.
If you were asked to describe yourself as an entrepreneur in a few words, what would you say?
Eleni Polychroniadou: Someone recently called me an “impact entrepreneur” and I have latched on to that description. As an entrepreneur, I am very impact-driven and focused on driving change. I would say my other characters would be “connecting dots.” I am much more of a connector than an innovator and use that to drive my work forward.
Tell us about what your company does and how did it change over the years?
Eleni Polychroniadou: My company is on a mission to green every building on this planet. Buildings contribute significantly to climate change, almost 40 percent of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, but typically aren’t at the forefront of climate conversations. We are doing two things at Sintali. First of all, we are educating the market on what is possible with green buildings and showing a clear pathway to implement green buildings at scale across portfolios of buildings (so think thousands of buildings, not just individual green buildings). The second thing we are doing is fact-check that these claims are true. We are an environmental certification body, which was founded to verify the impact of the built environment around the world. We act as a global certification partner for IFC, a member of the World Bank Group, and certify that buildings meet the EDGE green building standard. The market is changing very rapidly. We have been talking about green buildings for decades but the uptake has been very slow. It’s only in the last two years that companies are starting to take it seriously and even consider implementing green buildings at scale (something which had not been done before). A key reason for that is the financial industry, which is now pushing for green finance investments.
Thank you for all that. Now for the main focus of this interview. With close to 11.000 new businesses registered daily in the US, what must an entrepreneur assume when starting a business?
Eleni Polychroniadou: Competition is definitely at an all-time high, but the market landscape is also rapidly changing. Entrepreneurs are at an exciting point in time to launch new ideas and test a market that is shedding layers of what was considered the “norm”. Think about how quickly our concept of workspace changed. All of a sudden, working remotely went from a benefit that some companies offered to a norm. E-commerce rose rapidly and flagship stores are struggling with reduced foot traffic. Things we took for granted two years ago no longer stand. As an entrepreneur, that means a couple of things. First of all, test your assumptions about the market under different scenarios. What does it take to affect the assumptions? Second of all, stay agile. Don’t invest a lot of money and effort in something massive if you can start smaller and pilot it first. As my co-founder, Tom, always says: think big, start small, scale fast.
Did you make any wrong assumptions before starting a business that you ended up paying dearly for?
Eleni Polychroniadou: I don’t think we made wrong assumptions per se but we struggled with the decision to hit the ground running and play catch up later. We launched the business quite quickly and probably should have spent more time setting the foundation and planning our strategy upfront. The result was a lot of sleepless nights and some scrambling to try and get everything done at the same time. It worked out in the end but in retrospect, I would advise entrepreneurs to make sure they have a 3-month plan, a 6-month plan, a 12-month plan, and an 18-month plan upfront. Things always change but it’s good to have a guiding strategy in place to keep you focused and ensure you stay accountable to certain milestones. Otherwise, the day-to-day running of the business engulfs you and it becomes much harder to keep an eye on the bigger picture strategy component.
If you could go back in time to when you first started your business, what advice would you give yourself and why? Explain.
Eleni Polychroniadou: Building on the previous point, make sure you have the infrastructure in place to support you as you grow. For example, do you have a way to collect data that can feed into your decision-making process? Do you know what data you will need to make future decisions and how you will quantify success beyond cash flow and revenue? How do you ensure you’re on track and growing at the pace that makes sense for the business? There are many details to consider and spending the time up front to think about them can save you some headaches down the line. Unfortunately with new companies, it’s also fair to say that you just have to run the business to figure out exactly what you need and gather enough data in the first year to be able to then set the parameters in the second year. It’s not quite as clear-cut as coming up with ideas upfront, but something that can help.
What is the worst advice you received regarding running a business and what lesson would you like others to learn from your experience?
Eleni Polychroniadou: The worst advice I have received is that to be successful, I need to sacrifice my mental health and work around the clock for several years until I get a “big break”. There will always be some sacrifices you need to make, but we are humans with needs beyond the business world. I adamantly believe that you don’t need to give up your entire life and sacrifice your mental health to run a business. It is possible to be successful in business and a rounded, healthy person. It’s on each of us as leaders to set that boundary for ourselves and set that example for others.
In your opinion, how has COVID-19 changed what entrepreneurs should assume before starting a business? What hasn’t changed?
Eleni Polychroniadou: The basics of setting up a business remain the same, from looking at a viable business model to identifying a need in the market. The things that have changed are the broader market conditions. The pace of change is something fairly unprecedented, which requires entrepreneurs to stay adaptable and flexible in their approach. The market is rewarding agility and nimbleness.
What is a common myth about entrepreneurship that aspiring entrepreneurs and would-be business owners believe in? What advice would you give them?
Eleni Polychroniadou: I think the biggest myth about entrepreneurship is that the only way to succeed is to have a completely out-of-the-box idea. Even the term entrepreneur is charged. When you think of entrepreneurs, you are probably thinking of Elon Musk and Steve Jobs. But what about someone like Oprah Winfrey? Would she be on your top 5 entrepreneur list? Oprah is arguably one of the leading entrepreneurs in the United States, but she doesn’t fit your standard idea of entrepreneurship, and that is because we associate it with product innovation. Entrepreneurship can be many things but in many cases, it’s about finding a new way of doing things or a new avenue to explore such as a new market or intersection of existing ideas. Be creative in your interpretation of entrepreneurship, and you will find your path.
What traits, qualities, and assumptions do you believe are most important to have before starting a business?
Eleni Polychroniadou: Starting a business is not easy by any stretch of the imagination. I think for me, the most important traits to build up in preparation would be resilience and collaboration. The road is inherently going to be bumpy so building your sense of resilience and ability to withstand change, turmoil and a fair amount of stress is important. Starting something from scratch takes a lot of courage! This is where collaboration comes into play too. Taking this journey alone can be very challenging. Collaborating with someone can make a huge difference and can often be the difference between failing and succeeding. In many cases, having someone to work with also improves your resilience because you have someone to support you, as well as someone to support you during challenging times.
In terms of qualities, I think you need to have a certain risk appetite to start a business. There is always a chance it will fail and you need to be comfortable and prepared for that as something that might happen. Typically to be ready to take that risk, you need to believe in what you’re about to do. So perhaps a second quality is determination! Other than that though, I don’t think there are specific qualities in people who start businesses versus those who don’t.
How can aspiring leaders prepare themselves for the future challenges of entrepreneurship? Are there any books, websites, or even movies to learn from?
Eleni Polychroniadou: I have read so many books about entrepreneurship, leadership, running businesses, and processes. I think this particular segment of literature is very full of options, so I do highly recommend doing some digging and seeing if there are resources specifically for your sector. Two to call out from my experience. First of all, Simon Sinek’s book called Start With Why. This has been one of the most influential books for me because it helped me reframe the business, how we communicate to customers, and shape my approach to the commercial side of our business. Understanding and communicating why a business exists as opposed to what it does can hugely change your market perception and affect everything. Second of all, Lewis Howes’ podcast called the School of Greatness, which interviews various influential people in business and across industries. Digging into how other people have succeeded has helped give me insights into my leadership style, ideas to try in the business as well as avenues to explore for growth. Understanding other businesses can help fuel yours!
You have shared quite a bit of your wisdom and our readers thank you for your generosity but would also love to know: If you could choose any job other than being an entrepreneur, what would it be?
Eleni Polychroniadou: I honestly can’t imagine myself doing anything else right now. At some point in the future, I would like to enter the climate policy realm either through an international institution like the United Nations or on a national government level. But that is many years ahead!
Thank you so much for your time, I believe I speak for all of our readers when I say that this has been incredibly insightful. We do have one more question: If you could add anyone to Mount Rushmore, but not a politician, who would it be; why?
Eleni Polychroniadou: That is a very tough question. This is probably a slightly controversial answer but I wouldn’t add anyone. There have been so many influential individuals in the United States and around the world and I think pinpointing just one would be diminishing the collaborative work that happens behind major movements. For example, the environmental movement has many leaders who deserve recognition, but ultimately it is the collective effort that has led us to where we are today.
Mike Weiss, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Eleni Polychroniadou for taking the time to do this interview and share her knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Eleni Polychroniadou or her company, you can do it through her – Linkedin Page
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