Alexie Seller, CEO of Pollinate Energy and University of Sydney alumna, never expected to become a social entrepreneur so early into her career.
Although she 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’s School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering in 2010, 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 lied 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 Energy was born.
Pollinate Energy is an organisation which seeks to provide life-altering 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.
It was a big decision at the time to leave behind an engineering job in Australia for a small start-up, but I always wanted to explore to social value of engineering and knew that I already had the skills to help these people
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 six-year old company also recently merged with Empower Generation (based in Nepal) to become Pollinate Group, 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.
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.
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.
She was also pushed by her final thesis advisor Associate Professor Michael Kirkpatrick of the School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering to pursue a field that she was passionate about. At the University of Sydney, she was able to explore her interest in sustainability by studying renewable energy.
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,” she explains.
“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 one-week program held in Bangalore saw leaders from around the world interact with the communities Pollinate serve and grow an understanding of the social enterprise ecosystem. Pollinate plans on holding a second program later this year.