Alexie Seller, Co-Founding Director of Pollinate Group and University of Sydney alumna, never expected to become a social entrepreneur so early into her career.
Although Alexie always had a strong interest in the humanitarian sector, having worked with Engineers Without Borders for two years and volunteering both domestically and internationally, after graduating from the University of Sydney, she immediately began working as a Mechanical Project Engineer at Australia's Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANTSO) where she did mostly site and design work.
Even though her strength ultimately lay in managing teams and bringing people together around solving problems, she still felt that before she could make a substantial impact in another field, she had to spend years fulfilling technical work and building up her skills.
However, after traveling to India two years after graduation and witnessing the widespread energy poverty in underserved communities, Alexie realised she already had both the knowledge and capability to create positive, immediate change in people’s lives. It was then that the idea for Pollinate Group was born.
Pollinate Group is an organisation which seeks to provide life-improving products such as solar lights, water filters and cookstoves to underprivileged communities in India and Nepal.
The company’s unique model, which involves the distribution of sustainable products through mostly female sales agents from disadvantaged backgrounds, effectively empowers both families to create healthier homes and women to become community leaders.
Alexie has achieved success in a short amount of time. She was recently named Advance’s 2018 Social Impact Award Winner for her work promoting clean energy use and women empowerment.
Pollinate, the 2013 recipient of UN Momentum for Change award, has served over half a million people in over 1200 communities and helped save almost 30,000,000 litres of kerosene and 65,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.
The seven-year old company also recently merged with Empower Generation (based in Nepal) to accelerate their impact, a feat no one else in their sector has done before.
“When we announced the merger, everybody thought we were crazy,” reveals Alexie.
“Mergers fail all the time, and it’s extremely difficult to get people of two company cultures, let alone two different countries, to come together under a new company.”
Although she now works in social business, Alexie attributes part of her success to the skills she acquired while studying at the University of Sydney and working in the engineering field.
At the time when I was deciding on my course, the University of Sydney was the only university in the region offering a combination of engineering and arts. I know it's unusual, but I think it's a winning combination. Where engineering focusses on technical, problem-based learning, arts is creative, open and diverse. It offered me space throughout my university career to be open to new ideas, to read, and to apply my mind to something other than maths!
She specifically cites the importance of her project management skills, which helped her navigate the complicated merger between Pollinate Energy and Empower Generation and keep on top of all the timelines, budgets and stakeholders.
“A lot of my engineering background really helped in this situation because I switched back into project management mode during the merger and treated it like I used to treat engineering problems,” she reflects.
Alexie also emphasises the importance of her multidisciplinary education at the University of Sydney, where she received both a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Engineering (Mechanical).
The combination of these degrees largely contributed to her success in the business field, equipping her with the ability to identify problems through a variety of lenses and the tools and technical skills to address them.
I strongly believe in developing combination skillsets, things that complement each other and don't restrict you to one job or one career track. I am grateful I made the decision to pursue the two areas of study.
Alexie is only getting started. When asked about her vision for the future of the company, she emphasised her desire to further engage with women entrepreneurs in these marginalised communities to help them develop the skills to succeed.
“When we first meet these women, they are hesitant to leave home to work because of their home duties, however, after their first training, they undergo a massive transformation in a short period of time.
“They are now far more independent, making large amounts of sales and deciding for themselves when they want to leave home to attend training or work.”
Alexie also has an optimistic outlook on where the social enterprise industry is headed. She specifically highlights the growing amount of research and investigation in the field, as social enterprises are working more closely with each other to share insights about what they have seen and learned.
“We are working more constructively with what we’ve previously called our competitors, who are doing similar kinds of work to us but with very different cultural and market contexts,” says Alexie.
“It’s nice to see that people are getting more connected and collaborative in the space.”
This year, Pollinate Group launched an Executive Leadership Program to build on their successful Student and Professional Fellowship Programs, which give socially-minded individuals the opportunity to connect with underprivileged communities in India and gain hands-on experience working in a social enterprise.
The last program brought leaders who support Indigenous rangers in Northern Australia to India for an intensive, immersive one week program, exchanging skills to lead social and environmental change. During this world-first cross-cultural knowledge exchange the leadership teams collaborated on challenges that they face building inclusive and diverse social enterprise solutions to empower local communities.