Elena Sinel - Ed Tech Social Entrepreneur!

Over coffee and cake at Iris and June Elena helps you realise that making a difference is perhaps the most important thing we can do, and she lives by this ethos. She is the founder and CEO of Acorn Aspirations - a social entrepreneur making a huge contribution to young people. Through her hackathons she is able to inspire, engage and introduce technology to 11-18 years olds, facilitating relationships with experienced industry mentors. To mark International Women's Day Acorn Aspirations is organising a TEDx-style event at Google Campus on 8th March, where female founders, entrepreneurs and software engineers will be sharing their journeys and stories with the mission to inspire the next generation of female tech entrepreneurs. This will be followed by a 2-day hackathon on 12-13th March, where girls will be creating their own digital businesses. Hope to see you there! 


Meet Elena

Current Job Founder/CEO, Acorn Aspirations.

First Job Aged 18, Interpreter, British Council, Aral Sea – my introduction to poverty and systemic human rights abuse.

Education MA Conflict, Security and Development, King’s College London.

Languages spoken Russian (native), English, French, Macedonia, Arabic (just because I didn’t think it made sense to learn Amharic in Ethiopia!)

Favourite book The Gadfly by Ethel Voynich had a profound effect on me as I was growing up and nurtured that revolutionary and constantly-challenging-the-status-quo spirit in me.

Necessary Extravagance Tango! I am obsessed with Tango music and dancing – my secret indulgence! 

Favourite productivity tool Gruffalo calendar, of course – just waiting for an app version!

Female inspiration in business My daughter says Megan Smith is "cool". For me it has to be the trio: Megan Smith, Sherry Coutu (because she is doing an amazing job at inspiring children into the world of entrepreneurship with founders4schools) and Martha Lane Fox. 

Top networking tip As a single mum with 2 kids I am very selective about events I go to. I research well and attend events of strategic importance only, then connect and follow up with people immediately.   


The Journey 

Can you tell us about your background prior to founding Acorn Aspirations?

Prior to founding Acorn Aspirations I spent about 10 years travelling, volunteering, living and working in some of the most deprived and corrupt places in the world: Uzbekistan (where I originally come from), the Balkans, Ethiopia and Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh, hoping I would make a difference in the lives of ordinary people, until I had a wake up call and realised the international system was deliberately created and structured in ways that perpetuated conflict, deprivation and underdevelopment. I witnessed corruption at the levels of the UN, World Bank and International Politics, foreign aid being thrown at dictatorships due to vested geopolitical interest, innocent people abused just because they dared to question the status quo and people suffering at the hands of their own governments.  

What were your biggest takeaways from those experiences? 

My biggest takeaway was the realisation that "development" has to come from people themselves and not us, consultants trying to impose our own solutions to the problems we do not fully comprehend. I would like to think I have helped some people find their way out of poverty: when their lives no longer mattered to the governments (like disadvantaged women in the Aral Sea), or when I co-founded a Business Without Borders network in the Balkans and watched young people across 8 countries communicate through trade and entrepreneurship, whilst their respective governments were having political “disagreements”, or helped inspire and empower local craftsmen in Ethiopia and Bangladesh.

At the same time, my experiences have informed my current work and the social mission I am furthering: provide teenagers and those at risk of becoming NEET (Not in Employment, Education or Training) with opportunities to embrace technology and consider entrepreneurship as a viable career choice. I am placing teenagers themselves at the very core of their own development by offering them the tools that could accelerate their growth as individuals and professionally and an opportunity to transform their own lives – there is nothing as rewarding as knowing that you have made a real difference in people’s lives.

Tell us about the inspiration behind Acorn Aspirations

Acorn Aspirations was born at a time when I realised I could no longer "save the world", something I idealistically dreamed about from a very early age (dosed up on a lot of Russian classical literature, I suppose), and that I should instead focus on something more tangible and something that will make a real difference to people's lives in the long-term. I came to settle in the UK, broke away from an abusive relationship and decided to it was time to build my very own something, something I would be very proud of and something that will make my children proud as they grow up.

Education was a perfect challenge: it has not changed in more than 60 years, it no longer reflects the current job market and it simply is not equipping school leavers with skills that really matter in this ever so digital and technology oriented world we live in. At the same time, entrepreneurship was something I have been passionate about since age 18 working in the Aral Sea when I witnessed a real transformation in women who lost everything, but who were empowered to create change for themselves and their families through entrepreneurship. 

Fusing technology, entrepreneurship and education was just an obvious choice when I was deciding about what to do next and this is where Acorn Aspirations was born. 

What is the mission of Acorn Aspirations? 

Acorn Aspirations is pioneering a new approach that puts teenagers aged 16-18 in a position where they are empowered to build their own future. We do this through hackathon/start-up weekends where teenagers collaborate with software engineers, designers and entrepreneurs to build digital businesses of their own based on the problems they want to solve or passions they have. By the end of the weekend they will have learned how to code, have some basic understanding of branding, digital marketing, user experience, and business models, as well as learnt soft skills such as teamwork and communications skills.

Following the hackathon, teenagers will continuously be mentored by software engineers and business mentors, attend free workshops and events in coding, IP law, marketing, branding and network with entrepreneurs and peers embarking on the same journey. At the same time, we are building a digital platform that will encourage teenagers from across London, as well as outside of London to showcase projects they work on, seek expert support online and fundraise to take their businesses to the next level. Powering this with online courses and offering work experience incentives would make this one-stop shop for teenagers that are looking for something other than a traditional route to university or employment.

What is the single best piece of business advice that helped shape who you are as an entrepreneur today?

It would not be business advice, but a book (How the Steel was Tempered) I read in that highly impressionable age of 13 that somehow left an imprint in my mind and defined what I do in life and in business: 

Man's dearest possession is life. It is given to him but once, and he must live it so as to feel no torturing regrets for wasted years, never know the burning shame of a mean and petty past; so live that, dying he might say: all my life, all my strength were given to the finest cause in all the world…

To me, this cause is very simple: make a difference in people’s lives.


Acorn Aspirations

Tell us everything about your upcoming event #ACORNHACKGIRLS !! 

#ACORNHACKGIRLS is very much a passion project, but could well open a very special chapter in the core business of Acorn Aspirations, although I have never intended to have a specific gender-focused business agenda. A number of things have happened that made me want to do something in this space: In January in a conversation with my daughter's teacher with regard advice on GCSE subject selection, she mentioned the usual core subjects. I asked about Computer Science, which she simply brushed off with,  "It is not what the government considers as important or necessary, besides, she is a girl".

A few weeks later, I was invited to a private viewing of "Debugging the Gender Gap" which highlighted the shockingly low numbers of women in tech jobs, the gender pay gap and the stereotypes about what girls should or should not study. I will never forget my daughter's reaction after the film: "Mum, I remember this woman from the film, we met her in Parliament [Megan Smith, CTO of USA] you never told me she was THAT cool!" I wondered: "If a 40 min film had such an impact on Victoria, what would happen if ..." And this is how #acornhackgirls was born: a 2 part event where girls first hear inspiring stories from 20 powerful female founders, CTOs and software engineers, followed by a hackathon/start-up style weekend where the same girls get a chance to transform their lives and potentially, lives of many people around them.

What were the highlights of your previous hackathon event - #MakeItHappen? 

#MakeItHappen was an incredibly proud moment of my life: I did not imagine I would be able to bring together entrepreneurs, designers and developers with the sole purpose: to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs. It was amazing to watch the transformation of our young participants and watch them grow within just 2 days, embracing the challenge and confidently pitching ideas they truly believed in in front of some very accomplished entrepreneurs and CEOs: Mike Butcher (Editor-in-Large, TechCrunch), Neeta Patel (CEO, New Entrepreneurs Foundation), Stewart Niblock (CEO, Autotorq), Will King (CEO, King of Shaves), Nancy Fechnay (Flight.vc; Interim Director, Techstars) and Amali de Alwis (CEO CodeFirst:Girls). I wanted to create something big and for people to notice how incredibly important entrepreneurship was and how, if injected from an early age, it could transform lives.

What is the vision for Acorn Aspirations? 

The vision is very much global - Acorn Aspirations has big plans and our vision is to connect young people from across the world to opportunities that would accelerate young people’s potential and turn them into change-makers and confident leaders.


Women in Tech

Which business networks do you value? 

I am incredibly proud of being part of women-in-tech networks such as Ada’s List, Girls In Tech and Women Who Code and a very active pioneer of women’s and young girls’ right to be part of global technological revolution, not only as consumers but as active creators. 

How do you handle being a working mum - any advice for others? 

Embrace it! Children transform us in ways we never expect them to – life is never the same again, and yet life is unimaginable without them. It is a challenge, but a challenge I enjoy: I had my daughter Victoria when I was very young, she travelled since birth and has always been part of everything I have ever created. I try to involve her in my work, I discuss projects with her and make her and her friends part of all events and hackathons I organise. My son is only 2.5 and an absolute joy of a little boy – he has been coming with me into lecture halls since only a few weeks old! 

How can we do better to attract and retain women in technology? 

Immersing girls into the word of technology and entrepreneurship needs to start when girls are still in primary schools. Coding should be embraced and become compulsory, just as English or Maths is, because girls should understand how technology transforms the world around them and become creators rather than consumers – there is no reason why such entrepreneurial spirit cannot be injected from an early age as children by nature are incredibly creative. 

What you cannot see you cannot be - so make female software engineers and female CEOs visible, precisely what we will be doing during our AcornHack:Girls events; nurture intra-generational mentoring relationships, create and reinforce role models and make work flexible, particularly when family becomes an important consideration.  

Follow Elena! 

Charlotte Pearce - Bringing the Human Touch to Tech!

I was fortunate enough to steal an hour or two of Charlotte's time over breakfast at The Hospital Club. Given I am in contention with a plethora of other journalists, mentees, entrepreneurs and even Buckingham Palace, I am overjoyed to have had the opportunity to learn more about her inspirational journey to date. Charlotte is the founder and CEO of Inkpact which aims to bring handwriting back into today's digital world by helping businesses communicate with their clients in a meaningful way through personalised handwritten letters and notecards. Technology makes it all too easy to be lazy - Inkpact hopes to make it easier to get noticed again and reinvigorate our communication mediums. I hope to have captured her mesmeric qualities in the interview below - but I have never met someone so ambitious, kind and amazingly charismatic in equal measure. 



Meet Charlotte

Current Job CEO and founder of Inkpact


Education Management with Entrepreneurship at University of Southampton. I can't say it helped like it sounds like it would. Significantly more influential was running an organisation called Enactus whilst I was supposed to be doing my degree.  

Favourite productivity tool Old fashioned pen and paper to do lists every morning and evening. 

Favourite book A great book I read recently was The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. It's about how typically we put happiness after success and why we should reverse that formula. 

Go to meeting spot The Hospital Club 

How do you switch off Mindfulness colouring books! 

Guilty pleasure Grey's Anatomy & designer bargain hunting

Female inspiration in business

  1. Tamara Lohan - Cofounder of Mr and Mrs Smith and also one of Inkpact's investors! I hugely respect the way she has built her business, her family life and how she is successful but also still so down to earth, kind and will go above and beyond to help. 
  2. Sophia Amoruso - I really resonate with her as someone that is a bit of a rebel. Loved her book too!
  3. Emma Sinclair - The women has so much such drive and ambition and simply gets Sh*t done, I have learnt so much from her and still so much to learn! 

Top networking tip Be interested and interesting. So often networking can feel clinical and formulaic, simply treat people like people!


Tell us more about Inkpact - where did the idea come from and your successes to date? 

The beginnings of Inkpact were serendipitous and initially unplanned! At a personal development conference, I met a business coach who shared that he found handwritten letters an excellent communication tool to market to existing and prospective clients. Given this was not where his expertise resided I offered to write the correspondence on his behalf for payment. Shortly after he told me that these letters were receiving 100% read rates – an incredible conversion compared to his conventional 15% email open rate. He began to spread the word within his network and I rapidly acquired 5 clients and took on 5 letter writers. We wrote on white A4 paper and used blue envelopes to make it different! This was Inkpact 1.0!

Upon graduation I married my Company with my other passion – Enactus a social enterprise society– and realised that I could extend employment to a group of individuals who could not necessarily land a typical 9-5 job. I raised a little bit of funding and branded the Company Inkpact – making an impact to our clients and to people’s lives. I was able to prove the operating model from inception - customers wanted handwritten marketing communication and we were profitable from the first client. Around 7 months ago we looked to technology to help us scale. We built an online platform that enabled us to integrate with CRM systems and this contributed to our growth to 100 writers and 6 people in HQ. The core of Inkpact remains the people but it is very exciting that we can leverage technology to scale the social impact and stickiness for clients. 

You have been part of New Entrepreneurs Foundation 2015 cohort and now Wayra - how important have these been in helping you establish and grow Inkpact

I didn't appreciate how mentally difficult starting a business was. I was making money but it was still just me and my laptop before NEF. Being on the program gave me the impetus to build a team of amazing people, raise investment and be more ambitious. The most motivating factor about NEF is the support network of individuals who are going through what you are going through, and can ride the highest highs and lowest lows alongside. After NEF we spoke to pretty much every accelerator, as well as debating the merits of being on one, but we decided that Wayra could really advance Inkpact. Wayra understood B2B, SaaS, as well as the pain points of big corporates which could tangibly help us on our journey. Wayra is also 12 months facilitating longer B2B client relationships. 

NEF provided me with the mental stimulus to go bigger and Wayra has enabled the scaling/growth and execution! 

How did you raise finance and navigate the investment paradigm? 

When I first started Inkpact if you had asked me if I was going to raise capital I would have said absolutely not, and propounded organic growth. Having that 'client pays for your next client' mentality was great and was pivotal in us learning from customers, however, I quickly realised that if I wanted to scale the Company I needed to raise investment. I thought too small initially. I was going to raise a small round with a few investors, but they ended up helping me think bigger and facilitating a much larger raise to fund ambitions to scale across the UK and Europe. 

My advice: 

  1. Surround yourself with good people to give you great advice - I had never raised before so I had no idea how much to raise at what valuation! Talking to people who has been through it for a sounding board is crucial. 
  2. Raise more money than you need - Just because of the sheer time and effort involved - give yourself more headroom. 
  3. Smart money - Take the time out of your Company to invest in the fundraise to ensure you identify value add investors. 


The Journey

What are some of your other ventures that you are involved with alongside running Inkpact? 

When I first started the business I was making money but I wanted to earn additional income from something which would challenge me and also benefit Inkpact. I started doing consultancy work for big corporates and realised I had stumbled upon an insatiable demand from them wanting to know how entrepreneurs think and how to be innovative! However, consultancy is not scalable, and with the take-off of Inkpact I decided to marry my network of young entrepreneurs with my corporate clients and take a small cut - this company is called OR. Now I just joined the dots! 

What is your motivation?

I have a personal goal to be financially free by the age of 28. It is a big passion of mine to help young people become more financially literate; my aim is to be able to fund this social ambition whilst proving that age is not a limit to success. I aspire to be the Young relatable role model I never had when I was also young- all I saw at the age of 16 were 50 year old men running companies - it is hardly relatable. I also consistently endorse making money whilst helping people. Everything I am building shows that you can do both and this is something that drives me every day. 

What has been your biggest challenge? 

My biggest challenge at the beginning was not thinking big enough - I was my own limitation despite being quite a positive person! I thought starting a business was ambitious let alone building a team, going global and selling it for millions. Now the biggest challenge is to scale properly rather than just scale. I want to ensure I don't pursue growth and compromise quality; I want to keep the integrity of people at our core. 

What are your future ambitions?

We want Inkpact to be the go to destination that enables companies to go above and beyond for their customers. In the age of digital, switching costs for consumers have never been lower, therefore customer engagement is key! We envisage Inkpact right along the client life-cycle, be it lead generation, engagement with VIPs or churn minimisation. From a social perspective we will also continue to provide employment for people across geographies and backgrounds who couldn't otherwise obtain typical jobs. 

Are we doing enough in the UK to encourage start-ups, particularly with young people? 

Not everyone should and can start a business, but I think more people should be aware that it as a fantastic option! We need to teach innovative thinking, problem solving and financial literacy at a young age, we need to break the misconception that to start a business you need to have a revolutionary idea, I didn't invent handwriting or entrepreneurs, yet I have started Companies from both by joining the dots and executing something better or in a different way from our competitors. Teaching that type of thinking is key - how do you make something commercially viable, how can you solve that problem and generate finance whilst doing it - it is a different mind-set to box ticking like we are taught as school. 


Women in Technology

What is your opinion on the focus of the women in technology debate? 

There are lots of amazing women in technology and in business but it is still not enough! However, rather than focusing on the negative narrative and statistics, I believe we need to see a shift to knowledge sharing, showcasing and celebrating these female role models. Getting more women to invest in women, be it financially or otherwise. Inkpact currently has four female investors which is great!

What business support networks do you value and how did you curate them?

When I first moved to London I said yes to everything without knowing the outcome. I didn't understand the eco-system so this was the most effective way of navigating and eventually curating my network. Appreciating that you are the average of the 5 people you spend most time with, I was determined to surround myself with inspirational kick ass people. 

I also very quickly realised the benefits of coaching. So much so that I decided to get myself a coach in every aspect of my life. I have a coach for nutrition, fitness, life, public speaking and mental/wellbeing! If you look at the best in class athletes and the most successful people in business they all have the best coaches. Once I got over the erroneous stereotype that you only require a coach if you are doing badly, I reaped the benefits of immersing myself with experts in their field. I would encourage anyone to figure out what they want to improve on and then seek out help. 

What advice can you offer women who are looking to start their own business?

  1. Win win goals - I advocate that businesses can do a lot of good as well as make money. I would encourage everyone to remain cognisant of this from the embryonic stages of their venture. 
  2. Be a hustler - People don't ask enough. Individuals tell me how lucky I am that I met this person or got something for free but it's just as simple as offering a win win solution and asking. 
  3. Being likeable - I think that being likeable is massively undervalued. Being interested in others, being a nice person, doing the right thing and treating people well is critically important. People do business with people they like and trust and that is too often forgotten. If you want to persuade individuals to give you their time and invest in you, them liking and trusting you is half the battle. 

Follow Charlotte!