5 Questions with Imène Maharzi, Mentor at Techstars Sustainability Paris Accelerator

Jan 31, 2023

Imène Maharzi is an advisor, entrepreneur and impact investor, with over 10 years of experience in the field of impact investing.

As a Senior Advisor at INDEFI to support the development of the Sustainable Finance team in the VC/Tech sector, and as the founder of OwnYourCash with the aim of boosting women's economic independence, Imène Maharzi advocates for sustainability in finance, and gender equality.

In addition to serving as a mentor to mission-driven and tech entrepreneurs, Imene regularly serves as an ambassador for social initiatives as part of her continuous advocacy for these topics.

01. What are you looking for in startups when accepting to become a Mentor?

PITCH is how I would summarize my approach:

  • Problem: an important social/environmental problem to address, not some nice have incremental progress (or worse green-washing in disguise) 

  • Idea: an idea compelling enough to shape a future I want to help support the team build

  • Trigger: what made the founder or team decide to go fight against that problem? What triggered them? I use their story a proxy to evaluate their grit

  • Commitment: a founder or team who manifests a strong commitment to the topic at hand (and it does not mean working on it 100% of the time, as personal financial situations may vary)

  • Human: several human factors come into play, such as the team dynamics during the first conversations, our mutual energy fit (to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings and hurt feelings), the way they articulate their execution choices and own their past mistakes or current doubts.

02. What are some of the biggest learnings from your career and entrepreneurial journey that you bring to being a Techstars Mentor? 

Mentoring is a way for me to support and invest in a more hopeful future for us all.

I feel founders benefit the most when I share my own missed opportunities, half-baked successes and interpersonal misunderstandings. To help them reflect on their own road blocks, from a place of care, and come up with their own decisions. 

Especially in the impact space, no one has figured out the whole playbook yet, therefore we can only share so much and hope the next person will build/execute better. Or at least do different mistakes…which is in itself progress!

03. What is your favorite thing about the Sustainability startup scene?

It’s a particularly energizing mix of :

  • purpose-driven people who are all-in for the big cause, 

  • Tech enthusiasts, who often stumbled on Sustainability by chance, and stay for the complex problems at hand, 

  • people with sales or marketing skills who want to find purpose. 

Some believe in impact unicorns and climate deep tech, others lean on low-tech solutions. They come from all ways of life, which makes the scene particularly interesting at the moment.

04. Describe a situation with a startup founder or team where you felt like you made a difference. 

Misunderstandings between founders turned into resentment turned into break-ups and failed startups: this is a very common pattern. However not many dare or know how to tackle the problem early enough. 

During a mentoring session with only one co-founder, I asked a random question which made me understand how difficult it was for him to feel heard and respected in his team. I helped him realize that his opinions mattered for the future of his project, shared with him some practical tools to open a safe conversation in his team… and encouraged him to own his voice. 

Governance can seem like a big fancy word, to be considered when the start up hits a later stage, has a formal board etc. 

In my hard-earned experience, it comes down to decision-making, founder’s alignment and trust… aka essential building blocks to face the inevitable daily struggles as a team.

05. Access to financing remains a tough challenge for women-led startups. Is it easier in Sustainability?

Women-led startups are overlooked and underfinanced, in spite of dozens of initiatives, challenges, grants and media campaigns on the topic all around the world. The staggering low numbers are consistent from the US to Europe unfortunately.

Sustainability adds an extra layer to the challenges for all founders, as too many VCs and Angel investors tend to:

  • copy-paste their expectations and patterns of what a fundable start-up should be, what fundable founders should look like

  • not be familiar with (or be allergic to) hybrid financing structures (public/private, complex partnerships, Bottom of Pyramid structures), which are common in social entrepreneurship

  • overfactor technology in the impact and value creation, which is not always the case in sustainability

When it comes to women:

  • they are still too often seen as too focused on impact and care, and not as legitimate startup founders, running a mission-driven business,

  • their grounded ambition to actually build a solid solution for a big social/environmental problem is too often mistaken with a lack of vision,

  • when VCs / angels have limited experience in Sustainability, their risk perception is even increased. Therefore their biases and pattern-matching to SaaS start-up archetypes come in full force against women…

I hope more Angel investors and VCs alike take the time to educate themselves on the specific challenges and ethos required to grow a mission-driven business (not merely a tech company which happens to work on climate or biodiversity). And also consider with more curiosity that Sustainability startups cannot only be SaaS marketplaces: hardware products, BtoG solutions need adapted financing and support too.

And I also hope more people interested in Sustainability at large, with very diverse business backgrounds and values, start angel investing, to diversify the pool of early backers for women-led startups. And therefore provide them the means to grow as fast as their project requires, not as slowly as their bank account allows them to.

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