EnlightAID create trust between donors and organizations
Please introduce yourself to our readers
My name is María Verónica Celis Vergara, long I know, as all Latin Americans! I’m the founder and CEO of EnlightAID. I’m an architect turned, by accident, into a tech4good entrepreneur.
Why did you decide to found a startup?
To be honest, to found a startup came quite organically. As a team we originally intended to create an NGO to build schools in Latin America, but the thing is, neither of us as a team trusted NGOs enough to give them our money. Sadly we were not alone in this mistrust and there is good reason for it. The UN has stated that almost a third of donations, globally, is lost to corruption.
How could we ask from anyone to do something we were not willing to do? After a few iterations of our concept we landed on what EnlightAID is today: a social enterprise determined to build technology that systematically helps create trust between donors and organizations through financial transparency.
How long does it took from idea to product?
After we took the decision on what the product was going to be, launching an MVP was relatively fast, it took us a bit over three months to develop the first version of EnlightAID, launching it in late March 2017. Our second version has taken a bit longer though!
What about you target group?
We began by working exclusively with NGOs and individual donors, and after 1 and a half years of experimenting with small scale projects in 7 different countries we decided to incorporate companies to the mix. We strongly believe that in order to reach the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 we need to contribute to create the right partnerships. EnlightAID connects individuals who together are creating the next powerful change, NGOs and companies that execute and finance projects.
We are convinced that companies will be a fundamental driver of positive change through impact investment and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). That is why we are currently preparing a new version of EnlightAID which has a powerful CSR module, giving companies the tools to create truly engaging programs in their own terms. This module will give corporations the ability to create impact involving, as much as they want, their employees in the decision making process and even extending the possibility to choose to the community if they want to.
Is there a special USP at EnlightAid?
Absolutely ! Humanitarian aid is a complex ecosystem of actors. A series of activities and cash flows that used to take place in a reality without transparency and a process we, normal people, were simply not privy. EnlightAID visualizes the use of donations in real time. We show where, when and for what the money of the donation is used. And this embedded in a deep social media experience. By using Artificial Intelligence, we can analyze and compare projects for the first time.
We have created what we like to call Instagram for Humanitarian Aid. A place that is directly accessible from your phone, allowing you, your friends, your family, and even your business to help people and our planet. So how does EnlightAID work? As a donor I can inform myself on the EnlightAID platform about interesting foundations and can give my donations directly on the platform. Thus becoming part of the project. As a donor I see updates, transactions, statistics and can interact with the foundation. As an organization, I build up such real trust in my donations.
Furthermore, through EnlightAID’s global archive, we will be able, in the future, to benchmark projects and our AI will be able to instantly recognize irregularities. For example, imagine 50 schools being built in Chile using EnlightAID technology. With this information we can determine the average construction cost at this location for this type of project. This information can now become the benchmark for any future school.
How difficult was it to enter the market?
I think as a new product there are always difficulties entering the market, since EnlightAID is a multi-sided platform that caters to 3 very different kinds of clients: NGOs, individual and corporate donors, we have the added challenge of having to appeal to all of them at the same time.
So far our experience on-boarding NGOs has being quite fluid. Specially with medium to small scale organizations. They are very aware of the need and value that transparency and trust bring to the table in order to establish a long term relationship with donors.
Catering to donors has been harder. Through the process of development and testing of our first platform we saw that donations are an emotional decision. With the available products on the market, that depend on online donations, we saw that the success of a campaign highly depends on the quality of the content an organization can create.
Producing content is such as video and pictures is, of course, not free and in many cases organizations can’t afford to produce high quality content. This realization drove one of our most fundamental changes for EnlightAID beta. Since our goal is to help these organizations deliver as much positive impact as we can without adding too much extra work. For that we needed to create the right tools so the community would feel part of each initiative. In May 2018, Eres Yoeli who’s research focuses on altruism gave a TED talk at Cambridge, in which he spoke about the value of observability as one of the drivers for people to engage more with their innate desire to do good.
We decided to design tools that would help people engage with others in doing good deeds together, and not only a donations platform. Since that is what we will be testing in the coming months we will have to come back to you on the new learnings we find by taking this new approach forward.
Where can I buy your product?
Currently we are in between products, we have recently taken down EnlightAID alpha and are working towards the launch of EnlightAID Beta. People can sign up for news and to be the first users of the new version directly on our website. We are really excited to announce that we will be releasing the new version in early 2020.
Please let us know about milestones of your projects and how did you grow?
With the first EnlightAID we got to launch 8 projects in 7 different countries. We had projects in Mexico, Peru, Chile, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Madagascar and Norway. I think one of the most amazing milestones was to get, fundraise and successfully finish the first project ever to run on EnlightAID. It was called NI EN MORE and it was a project of women helping women who have been victims of gender violence in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico establish a sustainable fashion brand who gave them financial independence.
That project raised their funds, set up their fashion studio and produced their first capsule collection with the help of EnlightAID and every donated euro was accounted for. This project allowed us to show the world that an aid project could exist being 100% corruption free. It was an incredible win for us as a technology, but more importantly for the women in Mexico. From each project we have learned and this has allowed us to refocus and polish the platform, transforming it into the true social experience we are soon to launch. If you wish to see a preview you can find here a demo that shows part of what is soon to come.
What do you think about the German startup scene?
Haha that is a tough question to ask a foreigner, because I look at Germany, still as a foreigner! I think Germany and the startup scene are incredible. There is a sense of stability and encouragement for growth and innovation that other countries can only dream of. Germany as a market is quite interesting, since in a relatively small space you have a incredibly high number of people and a high purchase capacity. That is quite unique and I think it gives a lot of room for the startup scene to flourish since they do not need to speak multiple languages or understand multiple legislative frameworks to operate.
Neither Chile or Norway have this. Which are the countries where we are located. Norway, of course, has a high purchase capacity per individual or company but there are only 5 million people, less people than in Santiago de Chile! Chile, as a developing country has a much smaller purchase power per company and/or individual and only 16 million people. I think the particular conditions of Germany, in terms of population and concentration of wealth within the country, give startups enough room to develop and grow within their own market before they internationalize. I think that is a great strength!
How important is it for startups to participate at events?
I think it depends a bit on the product and on the team, for us in particular is fundamental to participate in events since we depend on reaching as much people as we can. For me personally, I’m an extrovert and I recharge my energy with the feedback I get from people. I value above all else the personal connection and I think that is something very hard to achieve in any other way. Yes, social media and digital marketing help a lot, but there is nothing like the opportunity for serendipity and true live human connection.
Winning the EYPVA: How important is this for you and EnlightAid?
For EnlightAID this is an incredible win. The EYPVA is such a prestigious award and looking at some of the previous winners and all of the selected companies of this year we can’t help it but to feel incredibly lucky and grateful to be among such incredible group of entrepreneurs.
For me personally, I still can’t believe it! I look at the trophies and the diplomas of the two awards we got and I still have to pinch myself. EnlightAID was born out of one of my most painful experiences, my family loosing everything, and it can be a bit of a heavy weight to carry at times.
I think I’ve also always struggled with self worth and having in the most literally sense 2 concrete reminders of the fact that not only us as a team think this is a good idea, but there is an expert panel of judges and a whole room of people who think this is what the world needs, helps me get up every day and continue to work even with more passion to make this as big and impactful as we can. Honestly, I don’t have the right words to express how thankful I am.
How difficult is it to attract investors and growth capital?
It has been quite difficult. We have investment from three private investors and two grants. One from the government of Norway and one from the government of Chile. These funds have allowed us to develop and launch the first version of EnlightAID, the testing of the alpha and the creation of our beta. Still, the amount of capital we have obtained is relatively small and we have had to bootstrap a lot of the costs.
We have applied to further funding both from private investors and accelerators and from public entities being rejected in multiple occasions because our product has still been used by a small number of individuals and organizations. On the other hand, statistically speaking, impact oriented companies along with companies led by women have less access to capital at a global scale. On top of that, having a Latin American CEO has also proven to be an added difficulty to secure capital.
That being said, the world is changing. Women and minorities are conquering spaces and it is definitely an exciting moment in history we are all writing. We are currently looking for funding, in order to increase our number of developers and professionalize our marketing. Something we will be working even more intensely on once we have launched EnlightAID beta.
Where is EnlightAid in five years?
Profitable! With EnlightAID we are trying to create a participative economy in which, once we are profitable, users will be able to decide with us how the platform develops. We have so many ideas on how to build a truly engaging process that empowers not only us as a team, but the EnlightAID community as a whole to drive the projects and impact we all want to see happening. On the other hand, we would really like to create, on the side of EnlightAID the NGO we originally dreamt with. I personally can’t wait for the moment in which we can have our own organization, that just as the other ones operates with full financial transparency on EnlightAID, to build sustainable schools for the most vulnerable children. Starting in Chile and growing to other developing regions.
Do you have any recommendations for young founders when starting their own business ?
For sure! Find something you truly believe in. Being an entrepreneur is everything but easy and you will need the power of that personal why flowing through your veins to not give up when things are difficult. Because things will be difficult at times. Processes are longer than we expect, you will work harder than ever before, you will have to make sacrifices, and all of that can take a toll. If you do not passionately believe in what you are doing then it will be really hard to keep going.
On the other hand, I can say that young founders need to be mindful of how you put together your team. It is definitely not enough to be friends, you have to compliment each other and be able to have honest and open discussions. Being among a founding team is one of the most intense relationships you can have and you have to like the people you are there with, respect them and value what they bring to the table to make it work.
More information you will find here
Thank you María Verónica Celis Vergara for the Interview
Statements of the author and the interviewee do not necessarily represent the editors and the publisher opinion again.