Shailendra Singh is the founder & CEO of SustainMantra, an organization that helps demystify sustainability for MSME sector companies. He talks in plain language, with no jargon, so it is clear to the company the direct relationship between a sustainability action and its benefit to the company. He believes in the 4 C’s – Collaboration, Commitment, Communication, Commerce as the cornerstone of any sustainable action, to make a lasting impact.
He strives to make planet earth a better place to live in for its inhabitants through grounded & actionable sustainability initiatives, that strive to take less and give back more to the planet. Today we got a chance to interview him, let’s know more about him & his inspiring journey.
We hope this can inspire you to become a successful person too! It is worth listening to a successful entrepreneur or to people who share their success stories. We can significantly learn many things from the experiences of them, by listening to their story.
Excerpts from our exclusive interview with him:
Q1) Tell us a little bit about your start-up and your journey, 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 that spanned chemicals, coatings, pharma ancillary, plastics, packaging & with leading Global MNC. In 2008 I went to Singapore and held a Regional position covering Asia-Pacific with a large 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 backgrounds 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 that 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 realized 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 learned 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 organization. This was also a great learning experience for me.
How Sustain Mantra Born:
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 realized 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 was a natural step as my career had connected with the plastics/packaging field all along, but working in the POWM space I realized 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.
Q2) What was your key driving force to become an entrepreneur?
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 real-world experience in 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, the 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.
Q3) How did you come up with the name for your business/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.
SustainMantra is about demystifying sustainability & enabling a circular economy. We focus on the MSME segment and work with them in simple, straight talk and our first endeavor 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.
Sustainability & Circular economy to the uninitiated can be very confusing, because of so many “jargons” that are used. I believe that we need simplicity in our approach to Sustainability or in other words a few “Mantras”, and that is how the idea for the name SustainMantra came about.
Q4) What service(s) or product(s) do you offer/manufacture?
Broadly we offer four different services:
- Sustainability Consultancy:- this deals with baselining the ESG footprint of the client, writing a strategic sustainability plan/report, advising on a net-zero carbon emission strategy, advise on waste management, plastic waste regulations, and such items.
- Sustainability related project execution: – we also help clients execute actual projects in the field of renewable energy, water management, waste management, sustainability audits & such.
- CSR related consultancy and project guidance:- we help our clients curate CSR projects such that these have a significant social impact and align with the client’s social goals.
- Organisation Development:- HR services, Sales & Marketing advice & other such services.
Q5) Why should people choose your product/services?
This is a great question and I believe that our differentiator is our ability to talk to clients in a simple language (no jargons) & build trust with the client.
Our team is also made up of people who have had decades of experience in the industry and they understand the exigencies of running a business and the need to be able to be focused and explain the return on investments of any sustainability initiative, in a clear and considered manner to business owners. Let’s face it, the first concern of any business is to ensure that they get value for any investments they make.
Q6) How do you market your business, and which tactics have been most successful?
We connect with potential clients through the personal network of the team. We are also active on social media platforms like LinkedIn largely & we participate in several webinars, events, etc…
I have found that word of mouth referrals, personal connections are the most effective ways for business generation.
Q7) What risks are you facing?
The highest risk we face is the lack of awareness, about sustainability and how this can be beneficial for their organization in the C-suite of several companies and also with owners of MSME companies.
Sustainability applies to all companies across industry sectors and to service providers too. With a 6 million + potential client base, in India alone, we believe we have a significant runway to grow our business.
Fortunately, also for us, there are growing International & National regulations which are developing in the arena of resource efiici9ency, resource utilization, Circular economy, which is bringing this subject of sustainability to the centre of attention in companies.
Q8) Did pandemic (COVID 19) affect your business? if yes how?
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 that 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.
Actually, Covid-19 helped our business, as during the lockdown period, several of us, got a chance to slow down and focus on what is essential in our lives and in our businesses. Clients who were not too enthused by spending on sustainability also turned around and reached out to us, for a greater understanding, of how sustainability actions could help them, as they get back to business post-COVID-19.
Q9) Have you considered any alliance/partnership/funding?
Collaboration is one of the core values of our company and so we are always looking for alliance and strategic [partnerships. I am happy to say that we have several of these in place already.
In general, I would say that most companies that operate in this space are still immature in their approach and do not understand that collaboration is key to success. This subject I so vast that no single company can be an “expert” across all aspects of sustainability.
As for funding, at this moment we are not looking for funding and I don’t see us needing funds for another 2-3 years.
Q10) What are your responsibilities as the business owner?
My prime responsibilities are making sure that SustainMantra is known to the business community as a company that is one of high integrity and honesty. We talk in simple direct easy to understand language. I would say that I am also responsible to ensure that our team is making the best effort possible to meet a client’s needs. If we are able to do this well, the business will follow automatically.
Q11) How many hours a day do you work on average & can you describe/outline your typical day?
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 reenergized 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 the provision of basic needs 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.
Q12) What is your greatest fear, and how do you manage fear?
I have learnt over the years that the best way to manage fears is to take it head on. No point in worrying excessively on issues, it is best to bring it onto the table & address it.
Q13) What comes first for you money or emotions?
In business, one has to think from a rational mind and not be too biased one way or the other. As a person, I am probably more emotional than money-oriented. Having said that I believe that one needs a good team to be successful in business. 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.
Q14) What piece of advice would you give to college graduates who want to become entrepreneurs??
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.
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