How crowdfunding can help to improve the planet

12 Apr 2018

Sheeza Shah, founder and CEO of UpEffect. Image: UpEffect

Through UpEffect, CEO Sheeza Shah is supporting social entrepreneurs with a sustainable vision for planet Earth.

UpEffect was launched in 2016 as a crowdfunding platform for social enterprises dedicated to making the world a better place to live in.

In the space of two years, founder and CEO Sheeza Shah has steered the UK-based organisation to become what she describes as “the go-to platform for entrepreneurs who are driven not by how much money they can make, but how many lives they can impact”.

UpEffect offers companies a helping hand in launching their crowdfunding campaigns and getting their product to market. Shah said: “To date, our enterprise-solution approach and campaign-consultant model have driven a 100pc success rate at securing funding for their start-ups, raising over £220,000 to launch products and impact lives across 10 countries.”

‘Entrepreneurs with the potential to have a profound impact on the world should have the opportunity to turn ideas into real ventures’

Earlier this year, UpEffect announced that it would now allow campaign creators to choose their currency, while also enabling backers to support their selected company in any preferred currency.

Shah has been recognised as one of Computer Weekly’s Most Influential Women in Tech 2017 and as one of the Top 100 Asian Stars in UK Tech 2017, among many other accolades.

She writes for the blog on the UpEffect website and her work has also been published in HuffPost and The Guardian; in the latter, she uses her position as a Muslim woman working in the social enterprise movement to outline the link between Islamic finance and ethical capitalism.

So, how did it all begin?

Shah comes from a professional background in computer science but she has been passionate about effecting change for global issues since she was a child.

Though she was a regular volunteer for many years, she began to feel that it wasn’t enough. “I came to learn how inefficient the traditional charity model was. Time-based aid and relief produced short-term results, which meant we were masking the problem rather than actively resolving it.

“Resources were stretched. Funds were drying up. These organisations were dependent by design and impact was often limited.

“I realised we were going about it wrong. If we were going to succeed at tackling today’s greatest problems, it could only be achieved and scaled through sustainable and impact-based business.”

With that, Shah set to work meeting social entrepreneurs and soon realised that many of them relied on crowdfunding to bring their business ideas to fruition.

“I maintained the belief that entrepreneurs with the potential to have a profound impact on the world should have the opportunity to turn ideas into real ventures. So, I made it my mission to help and build social enterprises and improve the success rate of new companies creating transformative social and environmental change.”

And so, UpEffect was born in 2016 to do just that.

Small fish, big pond 

So, what kind of companies meet the UpEffect criteria? As its website suggests, you could be teaching children how to code, creating a medical device to save lives or helping a community to get electricity – the possibilities are endless.

Shah said: “When potential entrepreneurs submit an application and say, ‘We are changing the world,’ the company asks them, ‘How?’

“While our initial calls with founders can feel like an intense audit, our subsequent calls are akin to old friends working together to bring ideas to life.”

As an alternative to Kickstarter or Indiegogo, Shah said UpEffect stands out due to its nurturing element, providing incubator-like assistance and effectively helping smaller fish to swim in a big crowdfunding pond.

One thread at a time

One great example is Thraedable, a social enterprise giving a voice to migrants and refugees through ethical clothing. “Thus far, they have organised workshops for over 200 disadvantaged people who had the opportunity to express themselves through art while enjoying a moment of inclusion and personal development,” said Shah.

“Thraedable successfully raised $14,000 from 266 backers on UpEffect to convert these artistic expressions into ethical clothing, and 50pc of profits will be shared with their partner NGOs to further support these people.”

Indeed, when it comes to eco-friendly fashion, Shah endeavours to practise what she preaches in her daily life – and it involves breaking some bad habits. “Oh, I’ve been absolutely terrible in the past. I used to easily spend hundreds of pounds every time I went shopping. I fell for the cheap prices and throwaway culture. Ever since I’ve learned about the impact of the fast-fashion industry, I’ve been actively moving towards a life of minimalism.

“I now think twice or thrice about each purchase and try my best to only buy from brands prioritising the environment and clean supply chains.”

This can tie into many other areas of human activity, Shah explained, as she also advocates for a decrease in meat intake, a preference for vegan and recycled products, and going plastic-free where possible.

Diversity debate

In an environment where women founders tend to find it more difficult to succeed and gain funding, how does Shah navigate her business?

“We’re doing our little bit of helping this at UpEffect,” she said. 50pc of UpEffect companies are founded by a person of colour and 37pc are female-founded.

“From personal experience, I’ve been very fortunate to not have experienced direct discrimination due to my gender but that is not to say the problem does not exist. We see many ‘women in tech’ events championing women’s rights but we’re leaving men out of those conversations. Having an all-female panel is not the answer. Without engaging both sides of the table in this debate, these statistics will not change.”

If at first you don’t succeed …

“There really is no potion for achieving overnight success,” according to Shah.

“Success comes from many years of grit and persistence. I think it’s important that founders go into business with the right expectations to succeed. Sometimes, ideas genuinely fail due to no fault of your own. It’s OK. Get up. Get feedback. Improve. Pivot. Adapt. Change it and try again.”

Shah dispels the notion that entrepreneurship is an easy arena to compete in. “There is nothing glamorous about being a CEO. You deal with every problem in the company, from handling unhappy clients, building a product without bugs, dealing with nerve-racking situations to building a team that fits with the company mission. At the same time, when you see your hard work convert into success, there is no feeling like it.

“It brings us so much joy to see the transformational journey of the entrepreneurs that we work with every day. Witnessing an idea convert into a successful business and make a real impact in a community is incredibly satisfying.”

Updated, 8.35am, 18 April 2018: This article was amended after receiving clarification from UpEffect with regard to the percentage of its companies founded by people of colour and women.

Shelly Madden was sub-editor of Silicon Republic