Career Spotlight series VII : Spandana Palaypu - Founder of ZoEasy
Updated: Oct 4, 2020
The Career Spotlight series aims to shine a light on people from a range of different academic backgrounds and career pathways beyond the less traditional ones to inform, inspire and empower others to explore their own interests and talents. I’m constantly inspired by so many people around me who have taken the leap, challenged the status quo and pursued their passion which in some instances is different to what they studied at university. So, I’m hoping I can share their own accounts and stories to help you on your journey. To find out more about what inspired this, check out the launch blog here.
I had the pleasure of watching Spandana talk at the One Young World summit in the Hague in 2018 about her start up ZoEasy, so I knew right after I had to reach out. She founded ZoEasy, a platform which educates and matches blue-collar job seekers to the right employment opportunities using ethical and transparent hiring. They also educate them on the pros and cons of migration, working conditions and cultural similarities/differences, to increase transparency and facilitate informed decisions.
Her team has worked relentlessly to generate a database of 65,000 job seekers from the Indian Subcontinent, South East Asia and Africa. Moreover, they launched a pilot and successfully facilitated employment for 150 job seekers, who now have better salaries and working conditions. They've also connected over 170 job seekers to training programs by Education for Employment (via Accenture) to help diversify their skills and explore different employment opportunities, especially during COVID. They are now leveraging partnerships (State Governments, One Young World, Credit Suisse, Expo 2020 Dubai, WEF Global Shapers, International Labour Organsiation etc.) to enable international level training programs for youth and drive economic empowerment. They’ve even been recognized by platforms like Forbes, the World Economic Forum, Financial Times and KPMG, truly incredible!
Her top tips for anyone wanting to launch a start up is:
Invest in yourself
Validate your idea and grow your network
Storytelling is key
And finally, make mistakes, persevere and be wise
What did you study at university and how did you find it?
I graduated with a First Class Honours in Business and Management from Aberystwyth University, UK.
As a 17 year old who was about to graduate from high school, making a decision that could decide your entire life and career path can be pretty daunting, to say the least. There were so many subjects I loved; from Biology to English Literature to Business and Economics, I wanted to explore it all! However, one thing I knew for sure, was that I was very entrepreneurially driven and super passionate about creating impact in the areas of Education, Employment and Health.
With this in mind, I decided to move halfway across the world (born in India, brought up in Dubai) to a beautiful little student town in Wales to pursue a BSc Econ (Hons) in Business and Management. I preferred this over more specific courses like Accounting and Finance, as it was extremely flexible and provided a broad range of subjects to work with. Though the course was more theoretical / research based, the Program really put every skill to the test and ensured that students were given a taste of all the major functions required to run a business successfully.
My 3 years at University were incredible and really helped shape me into the person I am today. The town’s vibrancy and natural beauty, combined with students from various cultures / backgrounds really allowed me to expand my horizons. We also had access to a wonderful faculty along with practical/theory based leadership & course specific seminars which resulted in valuable networking opportunities. Overall, the experience not only gave me a more positive outlook towards life but instilled that self-confidence to help me set off on my entrepreneurial journey.
How have you applied your major in your career field? And what are other courses you took or you wish you would have taken that would also add value in your career?
I have actually been able to apply a lot of the stuff I learnt during my 3 years at University. However, I think the module that made the most impact was probably the Research Project in Management, i.e. my Dissertation! This was my first “independent” peek into the startup world, as my topic focused on incentive strategies for retaining talent within entrepreneurial firms. In the process, I got to interview Founders from a diverse set of industries and Startups of various sizes. I also interacted with their employees, some of whom were from the blue-collar community, on a one-to-one basis, providing deeper insight and an all-round perspective.
My summer internship in KPMG’s Consulting Department during my second year also had a significant impact, as it was the first time I actually ventured into the world of work. I was given the opportunity to work with seasoned finance and consulting professionals whose support, encouragement and advice helped me develop the necessary skills to strategize, plan, pitch and implement my startup idea in a systematic manner.
I wish I had done a few more internships during my time at University, I feel like it would have given me a lot more thought clarity and expanded my network.
Also, though my University offers this course now, I wish “Entrepreneurship and New Venture Creation” was a compulsory module during my time. It would have been great to have this as a foundation, especially during ZoEasy’s early stages!
How did you find your way to where you are today? Share a little about your professional journey. Also, what motivations fuelled your career path?
Five years ago, I was 20, fresh out of college, still figuring out my next career move. My first inclination was to pursue a career in Consulting at a “Big 4” Firm, and after gaining some experience, eventually start a social enterprise. However, I have always been entrepreneurial and socially driven, with a particular passion for education, employment and youth empowerment.
Since childhood, I’ve had the privilege of interacting with people from diverse backgrounds and different walks of life, a large majority of which were the migrant blue collar community. However, I noticed a disparity in the way this segment was treated. I’ve met English Teachers from Nigeria working as cleaners and I’ve met Software Engineers from the Philippines working as waiters to make ends meet.
Most migrant blue collar workers go overseas in search of economic empowerment. However, recruitment in this sector is archaic and cumbersome, as it relies on low qualified middle-men who prey on the financial desperation of workers. This community mainly comprises youth, where many young people lack the basic education, guidance and skills needed to pursue overseas careers they aspire to, thus, making them susceptible to fraud and exploitation. Many job seekers (and employers) cross 6 layers of middle-men, and can pay up to USD 3,000 in advance for a job they aren’t fully aware of or prepared for. There is also often a disparity between skills and expectations of job seekers and employers, leading to conflict, low productivity, high costs and attrition.
So what did you decide to do to address this issue?
To address this, I founded ZoEasy, a platform which educates and matches blue-collar job seekers to the right employment opportunities using ethical and transparent hiring. We understand job seeker requirements, assess their skills/psychometric, enhance skills via training, and place them with best-fit validated employers. We also educate them on the pros/cons of migration, working conditions and cultural similarities/differences, to increase transparency and facilitate informed decisions. We are now leveraging partnerships, and our established networks to enable international level training programs for youth and drive economic empowerment.
In a short span, our team has worked relentlessly to generate a database of 65,000 job seekers from the Indian Sub-Continent, South East Asia and Africa. Moreover, we launched a pilot and successfully facilitated employment for 150 job seekers, who now have better salaries and working conditions. We also connected over 170 job seekers to training programs by Education for Employment (via Accenture) to help diversify their skills and explore different employment opportunities, especially during COVID. We are now leveraging partnerships (State Governments, One Young World, Credit Suisse, Expo 2020 Dubai, WEF Global Shapers, International Labour Organsiation etc.) to enable international level training programs for youth and drive economic empowerment.
What do you love most about your job?
Honestly, there are so many things that I love about being a social entrepreneur!
From seeing your idea slowly turning into a reality, to the learning curve you experience as a first line entrepreneur, the journey is absolutely amazing.
You are exposed to so many elements of running a business, so early on! From implementing tech, to building a team, to raising capital and networking with the right people, you pick up unparalleled skills in every area!
The element that acts as my major driving force is the social impact and awareness we are trying to bring to a community that usually goes overlooked.
Through my work, I’ve had the privilege of connecting with people from different backgrounds and walks of life, and also establishing networks that I would never have imagined. I got the chance to meet so many inspiring change makers and help facilitate impact through my networks with One Young World, the Global Shapers Community at the World Economic Forum, State Governments etc. and received amazing guidance from Challenge Partners like Credit Suisse via One Young World’s Lead 2030 Program, and Expo Live’s Innovation Impact Program, an Expo 2020 Dubai Initiative. We’ve even been recognized by platforms like Forbes, the World Economic Forum, Financial Times and KPMG, something I would never have imagined during the initial stages of my business.
All in all, these last 5 years have been truly inspiring, and the amount of support and guidance that we have received has honestly been exhilarating; it may be risky, but couldn’t have chosen a better path to follow!
To what degree did you parents’ impact or influence your choice of degree or career? If your parents weren’t supportive initially, are they more convinced now?
I come from a moderately traditional South Indian Family, which means education (i.e. how qualified you are) and financial independence are two of the most important factors to settling down well in life. To achieve financial independence, the conventional route (according to society) lies in becoming a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer or working for a MNC. There is often a social stigma that comes with studying Business & Management and using this as a basis to pursue an entrepreneurial career path.
Luckily though, business and entrepreneurship are not new to my family, and they were extremely supportive both when I wanted to study Business at University, and when I declined a full-time opportunity with a Big-4 Firm to start my own social enterprise. It almost feels like yesterday, when we gathered in the living room to discuss these decisions and even mapped out an entire decision matrix for clarity!
During the company’s early stages, my parents’ dining table was my office space and I used to work about 14 – 15 hours a day. There were times I’d forget to eat, and of course, plenty of self-doubt moments about whether I had made the right decision. Though it was stressful, my parents and (younger) sister have always been there to reassure and give me the strength to keep moving forward. Moreover, my father has been an entrepreneur his entire life, and my go to person over the past 4 years. His experience, knowledge and wisdom have been an amazing guiding force and expanded my vision to prioritize the bigger picture!
What are some of the biggest challenges you face in your industry? How has COVID-19 impacted your role?
More than my role, COVID-19 has impacted our work significantly, as education (vocational training) and employment have taken a major hit. Some of ZoEasy’s major industries like Hospitality, Aviation, Retail etc. have been put on hold, with many people being laid off or sent on unpaid leave. However, in the UAE, most people affected by this are still being supported by their employers through the provision of food and accommodation till things fall back in place.
In times like these, saving a job is just as important as creating a new one.
Hence, with full-time recruitment coming to a halt, we had to pivot our effort towards identifying and facilitating outsourced / productivity based employment opportunities in industries that have seen a surge in demand (e.g. E-Commerce, specialized cleaning etc.). This creates a win for blue collar job seekers who may have otherwise been on unpaid leave due to a lack of work opportunities, and employers who have access to a flexible service and diverse workforce. We have also launched CSR based training programs to help people diversify their skill sets and use the same to leverage other potential opportunities in the market.
COVID-19 has also spurred a lot of creativity and innovation! With everything (including hiring) going digital, we’ve actually been able to improve our overall technology and platform to ensure greater transparency, and a smooth process for both job seekers and employers.
What’s your advice for someone interested in pursuing a similar career path? (practical tips)
Invest in yourself
Jordan Belfort, aka The Wolf of Wall Street, famously said “Your number 1 investment should be in yourself, it always pays the best interest”. Being an entrepreneur is all about adaptability and innovation, hence, it’s very important to create a culture of constant learning and stay ahead of the curve.
If you know you’re entrepreneurially driven but are unsure of where to start, use your time at University (and just after) to experiment and discover what you’re truly passionate about. Try to do as many internships as you can in order to get a taste for more practical “outside the classroom” experiences. In fact, make a list of 10 – 15 areas of interest, identify startups that are disrupting the space and try to score an internship with them. Not only do you get a taste of the Startup culture, but you can also explore different aspects of the business at a much closer level. It’s a great way to diversify your skills and gain clarity of thought in relation to your likes, dislikes and overall values / beliefs.
Validate your idea and grow your network
If you ever want to start your own company, I would highly recommend reading “48 Hour Start-Up” by Fraser Doherty MBE. It’s a great book which helps you practice those first steps that need to be taken when building your startup from scratch; Also, it’s quite a fun exercise!
One of the best pieces of advice I can give is the one my mentor gave me- start with your finances, know your budget and always validate your numbers. This is a great planning tool, especially in terms of understanding the capital, team and resources you need to grow and finance your project. More importantly, become a master at what you do! Put yourself out there in the market, do your research, meet with people, understand the pain points and address the gap accordingly! It is also extremely important to have a good support system of mentors who can guide you during the early stages, so get networking from the very beginning!
Storytelling is Key
There are usually two kinds of people, those who are extremely proficient with numbers, and those who know how to tell a story. As an entrepreneur, it is imperative that you find a balance between these two characteristics, and here’s why;
believing in your idea isn’t going to cut it, you need to get others to believe in your vision as well, otherwise that growth trajectory won’t come anytime soon.
You may have all your facts and numbers down, but storytelling is what helps put things into perspective and engages your audience on a deeper level. The more you practice, the better you get at it, so keep pitching and modifying! See what clicks with different stakeholders, see what doesn’t and always ask for honest feedback. Constructive criticism is the best thing that can happen to you!
And finally, make mistakes, persevere and be wise
Don’t let the fear of making mistakes or the “What If” complex stop you in any way. In fact, the more mistakes you make the better, because that’s how an entrepreneur learns and constantly improves. I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but mistakes are the stepping stones of success.
However, if your mentors or well-wishers give you advice/guidance, especially when there’s nothing in it for them, just take it (and don’t forget to thank them for it)! They are a lot more experienced and can foresee things that sometimes first-line entrepreneurs don’t. Just think of it this way, would you rather be clever and learn from your own mistakes or be wise and learn from others mistakes? Trust me, it’s just better to listen and prevent the incident from happening as opposed to taking the heat and then learning from it; saves A LOT of time and energy!
What’s your favourite travel destination and food?
When it comes to food, there are two kinds of people; those who eat to live, and those who live to eat. I’m definitely one of those who lives to eat! My love for food is indescribable, every taste, every smell is an experience in itself.
Over the years, I’ve been privileged to travel across the globe, learn about new cultures and try out local cuisines. There are so many dishes that I absolutely love that it’s really difficult to pick a favourite!
However, this is one combination that I know I’ll never get bored of, and definitely can’t live without:
A well-cooked two-egg Omelet filled with Indian spices (e.g. salt, chili powder, turmeric, curry powder etc.)
A massive serving of white rice
Rasam: a traditional sweetish-spicy South Indian (vegetarian) stock which can be mixed with rice and / or lentil
To end the meal - yoghurt (mixed in rice)
It’s simple, but super delicious and filling!
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