When I spoke with Shivani Siroya before the Unreasonable Institute, she explained the simple mission of InVenture, the organization she founded: InVenture’s goal is to help successful micro-businesses grow beyond the sole-proprietorship phase, hire more employees, reinvest its growth and, in the process, help lift communities, rather than individuals, out of poverty. Siroya, CEO and founder, described InVenture as the first micro-investment platform from which individuals can invest in small businesses from under-served communities around the world. By providing those businesses with investments, which they normally are not able to access, Siroya said InVenture would help them achieve growth and financial independence, which would in turn empower them to combat poverty in their communities.
With the technical side of InVenture working well, Siroya said that what inspired her to apply to be a fellow in the Unreasonable Institute was her goal of “filling in the gaps.” These gaps included learning more about social media, exploring how to best demonstrate to investors and others the value of helping a micro-business became a small or mid-size business and expanding the role of investors into partners. “We’re seeing our investors as advisors to us, and we think it’s important to have investors as partners,” she said. And like most fellows, she was excited about the prospect of face-to-face time with mentors. “We’re hoping to get the type of guidance you can’t get in a 45-minute meeting or an e-mail exchange,” she said.
To learn how the reality of the Unreasonable Institute compared to her expectations of it, I spoke with Siroya shortly after she returned to her office in Santa Monica, Calif.
Melissa Zieger: What was the most important thing you learned during the Unreasonable Institute?
Shivani Siroya: I learned from the mentors and throughout the institute, of course, but one of my biggest takeaways was how much I learned from all of the fellows. I learned how other entrepreneurs are talking, how they’re working with their teams even though their teams are dispersed geographically and what their best practices are. The fellows got together in groups once a week. Our group was called the Humble Champions, and every Saturday we’d meet for five or six hours. We’d go through our tasks and hold one another accountable for our goals. It was a nice open forum where I felt comfortable telling people what I was struggling with as well as what was going well. We had to share whether it was easy or not. We’ve continued with the weekly meetings, which are conducted over e-mail. It’s very motivating because you do not want to disappoint your group.
Another important thing I learned is to trust myself more. As a startup I had second guessed myself a lot about important decisions, including how to grow InVenture. But being told by the CTO of HP that we need to scale, I began to stop doubting myself.
MZ: Were you surprised by anything you experienced at the Unreasonable Institute?
SS: Yes. I went in feeling very excited and very confident. We had just gotten funding and office space. So I went to the Unreasonable Institute and then was intimidated. There were people there who have been running organizations for quite a while. But, after meeting with the mentors, we feel like we’re on the right track. Overall, the experience inspired me to think bigger.
MZ: Where does InVenture stand at the moment?
SS: Right now we have four full-time staff and we’ve raised $300,000 in the first seed round from angel investors. We also recently won an Echoing Green Fellowship – one of the social enterprise fellowships – so that’s an additional $90,000. We’re adding new entrepreneurs to our portfolio. So far we’ve funded 36 and we’re now adding another 25. Two days into the Unreasonable Institute we launched our new web site and we’re looking for partners with whom we can expand into India and Mexico.
MZ: Did what you experienced at the Unreasonable Institute cause you to make any changes to InVenture?
SS: Yes. I think the Unreasonable Institute inspired us as a team to think more about our larger overall vision and I believe that’s actually strengthened us. What we learned from other fellows has challenged us to speak about our vision, our path and how we arrived here versus just pilot results. I think that’s helping us make more solid connections with others. I think that sometimes being human is very refreshing.
MZ: How do you think your experience at the Unreasonable Institute will benefit you in the future?
SS: One of the great things I discovered at the Unreasonable Institute is that we found so much on which we could collaborate. We’ve all be very conscious of measuring the impact we’re having. We’ve developed methods. I found that a lot of people were struggling with measuring impact, so we were able to help each other out, and for me it’s reassuring to know how willing all of us are to work together on common challenges.