Would you introduce yourself?
Sure, my name is Eleni Polychroniadou and I'm the Commercial Director at Sintali, which is a new company - we were founded a year ago and we help organisations quantify and verify their environmental impact.
We're data nerds and really believe that to truly make environmental change we also need to be able to measure progress towards all the targets that we hear so much about. We are a certification provider on behalf of the IFC - the private equity arm of the World Bank - for their green building program called EDGE.
How did you find yourself co-founding a company?
Honestly, by luck. I was thinking about it the other day and it's not that I woke up 10 years ago and said, one day I'm going to have my own company. What happened was that the team that are now at Sintali were working on EDGE in a different organisation. It was a small business unit within a big sustainability consultancy. Although green buildings fit within the sustainability sphere, certification programmes are quite different from consultancy. As EDGE started growing, we realised that we needed to spin the company out to maintain independence and focus on growing the green building certification scheme. And so it was a moment of transition and we looked at each other and said, "We can make this work, let’s start a company.”
My co-founder and I have never started a company before, but we really passionately believe in the mission, and really want to see this program succeed. The ultimate vision of EDGE is to get every building on the planet - new and existing - in every single country, to be green. We want to really revolutionise the way we think about green buildings so that they're not just a luxury, but really every kind of building is green. And so with that mission in mind, we took a leap of faith and just went for it.
Can you say a bit more about EDGE and how it differs from other green building standards?
Yes, absolutely. One of the key differentiators is that it has a free online tool called the EDGE App that allows anyone to go in assess their building compared to others in their region. The World Bank's done a huge data gathering job in the background to be able to calculate what a typical building would look like in every country, and in many, many cities around the world based on its profile. For example, how would an office building in London perform if it was built to current building codes and taking into account local climatic data, etc. You can plug in your office building details in London and then start to see what kinds of efficiency measures you could implement to improve that building. The software gives you an incremental cost, it gives you the return on investment, the efficiency savings, the utility savings, etc.
So it's a really, really powerful tool and it's free, because it was developed by the World Bank. Even if companies or even individuals don't go for certification, they can still use it in decision-making, to start to understand the cost benefit of efficiency measures and how powerful and available it is to decarbonise buildings. It's applicable for both new and existing buildings so that's one of the differentiators. And then on the certification side, it's a very agile certification scheme because it was founded with this idea of really making it accessible and scalable and applicable to every building, it doesn't require lots of extra studies and lots of extra work. Because it's all online, companies can use it to certify hundreds or even thousands of buildings.
Is EDGE in some way competing with other building certification systems like BREEAM?
Yes and no. In the traditional sense, it is competing against the BREEAMs, the LEEDs, the local green building certification schemes of the world, but I think in actual fact, what it's competing against is inertia! A large organisation might certify their HQ, but typically they're not going to certify the thousands of warehouses they have around the world though, right? So that's, I think, really the target market. EDGE was originally created for emerging economies, in places where LEED and BREEAM just weren't accessible, but then the World Bank realised, hey, this tool actually makes sense for the whole world and can help multinational companies scale their sustainability efforts and certify green buildings at scale. So EDGE expanded and is now available worldwide.
If the software is free, where does Sintali fit in?
We're completely separate from the software, we do the certification. Anyone can use the software, there's no obligation to go for certification. If someone chooses to get certified, then that's where we would step in. It's a two-step certification process where someone would assess their own building, it would go through an audit process through our partners at SGS and then come to us as certifiers to double check and make sure that their claims are verified.
Presumably you have to jump through some hoops to be a certifier, is that right?
Yes, definitely. For this particular green building program there are two global certifiers, ourselves and one other company, and then some regional ones.
What is your role in the company?
I'm the Commercial Director, I look after the sales, business development and marketing side of the business, just thinking about how do we get more people around the world to adopt green building, which is surprisingly harder than it sounds!
What objections do you have to get around?
Well, the funny thing is, no matter who I'm talking to, whether it's someone in Peru or China or Nigeria or Romania or the UK, the concerns that come back are usually the same. Generally, the questions that I get are how much does it cost? What's the value of doing this? Why go for certification? There's still a perception that building green, implementing resource efficiency measures, or implementing green measures is a big added cost on top of traditional design, which is not true. Of course it is dependent on context and on what kinds of efficiency measures you're talking about. But this is why the software's really helpful, because it shows you the incremental cost of building green. You can start to see that there are certain things you can do at a fairly low price point that actually improve your efficiency quite a lot.
But the second thing is really this value idea. I think we're seeing more and more of this kind of thing in the market where people are concerned about greenwashing. People are making so many different claims, and we hear 10 definitions of net zero, 10 definitions of what a green building is, people making these bold claims, and as a consumer, as an investor, as a stakeholder, it's really hard to tell what's actually going on. And so in terms of value, there is a lot of value in certification, in having a quantifiable and third-party verified piece of paper that just means somebody else has given you a check mark that you are saying something true. We've seen investors around the world really moving towards financing the net zero transition and they are definitely asking for certification. So really that's been the biggest driver.
What's a typical day like for you?
Every day is different, which I absolutely love about my job! I alternate between talking to prospects and looking at specific deals, to doing presentations and webinars and lots of content development and education. I think communication is one of the areas that we as an environmental community have not done very well on, particularly making information accessible to people who aren't in the environmental/sustainability realm.
I do a lot of content writing and putting together information to really break down some of this data to make it accessible. So some content development, some phone calls. I work a lot with partners as well because we work worldwide and we're a very small team, so lots of sales enablement and training and things like that. Quite a varied day, but it definitely keeps things exciting!
Did you go to university? Where, and what did you study?
I went to America, actually. I had plans to become a marine biologist and sort of fell into the environmental policy arena. I was really drawn to the idea that with an environmental studies degree you could do a little bit of everything and so I felt like I was getting a holistic education. I did science, political science, some statistics, some English literature, quite a mishmash of things!
And you can do that in the States can't you? The degrees in this country are a bit more focused, is that safe to say?
Definitely, and honestly, the reason I wanted to study in the UK and I ended up in America was because I was so indecisive about what I wanted to study! I actually would be a lawyer right now if I had followed the course I was accepted for in the UK!
So I went to the US, dabbled in biology, decided that it wasn't for me, tried some environmental science and really liked it, but primarily I chose a degree based on my interests. My degree is technically in environmental policy, but the skill I came away with was thinking about an issue from multiple perspectives and being able to look at the technical, but also the social side of things and piece together information from different sectors. I think that was the biggest thing that I came out with from that degree.
And did you do a post-grad degree?
No, I haven't, much to my parents' chagrin. I still get the question, "When are you going to go for a masters degree?". I always toyed with the idea of doing an MBA but now I'm getting an MBA live and very much on the fly so, it's OK.
What would you say was your first break?
I think the thing that's defined my career has just been having an open mind about the jobs that I accept, because in my head, when I graduated, I thought, "Oh, I'm going to work in the United Nations on climate policy or in the European Union and have a big impact through policy". And my route has been completely different, and I'm very grateful that it's been very different. It's only been that way because I've said yes to opportunities when they came to me.
When I finished university, I wanted to stay in America. I was trying to find a job, I was applying to NGOs, different organisations - there's no roadmap when you want to work in sustainability. Unless you're a technical person, there's no magic list of jobs you can take. I ended up working at a PR agency that was focused on clean technology. Even though I never intended to work in PR or communications, I took the job because I felt like I would learn from it. And that actually has given me a massive skillset that today I use in my role at Sintali.
And then similarly when I left the US for visa reasons and came to the UK, I was looking for a job again, there was no roadmap, what do you want to do if you're not a scientist or an engineer in sustainability? I got a call from a recruiter about a sales job at a sustainability software company and again, I was thinking sustainability software - I'm not really a software person, but OK, this seems interesting. I took it and I learned so much about the sustainability realm and stumbled upon EDGE. And now I have a company that focuses on green buildings.
I don't know if I've had a big break in the traditional sense that someone gave me a job and then suddenly all the doors opened, but I think my break was just going with what life was bringing me and keeping an open mind, and trying to learn along the way and let go of what I thought was the perfect career path.
Now Sintali is large enough to recruit - what do you look for in people when you're hiring?
A few things. Obviously each role is different and there are certain technical components to being able to actually do the job, but for me, it's really important to find people that genuinely believe in the mission of the company and in the broader fight against climate change. I think when you have a true belief and a true passion, that really comes across in your work. You can have two candidates, one is perfectly qualified, but doesn't have this emotional connection to the job and one who might have less qualifications, but has the emotional connection.
For me, it's really important to find people that genuinely believe in the mission of the company and in the broader fight against climate change.
How do you judge whether they have an emotional connection?
Conversation. Having a human conversation, I think it's quite obvious when someone is genuinely interested in something. When people have prepared answers, it can be quite convincing, but over a couple of conversations you can see that spark in someone's eye or they might start rambling off on a tangent about this thing that they're really interested in and you get a sense of their personality and of their true interests.
What else do you look for when you're hiring?
An open mind. I'm sure my answer might be a little bit different if we were a large organisation and we had a more rigid job structure, but as a small company things change really quickly and roles start to blur. I wear six hats and some of my colleagues also wear many hats and so it's important to have people who can respond to changing environments, who can do it with an open mind and enjoy it and see it as a learning opportunity, as opposed to seeing it as, "Well, this isn't in my job description so why are you asking me to do this?".
That's really important, I think, for a small organisation, but also for the environmental sector in general, because if I think back to where we were three years ago as a sector and where we are now, I mean, things change so, so quickly and I'm sure they're only going to continue to change. And so this adaptability and flexibility to a changing market, as well as a changing job for me is a really important asset.
What mistakes do you see people making when they apply for jobs?
Let's start with some basics! If there are typos in your CV and you're saying that you're a detail-oriented person, you are out, I mean, it's really simple. Those are the easy ones, right?
How many typos do you allow?
It depends on the job. If I am looking for a detail-oriented person, one typo and it is a no go. It's harsh, but it tells me that you haven't spellchecked your work, which tells me you're not a detail-oriented person. When I was applying for jobs, I would ask three people to read my CV and cover letter to make sure they were good to go.
The other classic mistake is having the wrong company name or just having a cover letter that is very clearly not relevant to the application. If you're sending a generic cover letter, which I generally have qualms about, at least make sure the industry and the company name are correct when you send it!
They're the simple ones. I started to realise when I was looking at lots of CVs, the importance of how information is presented, something I hadn't really thought about when I was on the other side of the table. Presenting the information on your CV in a way that's easy to read, and only including what's relevant, is really important because unfortunately, in a lot of cases, recruiters are just skimming CVs. You want to capture their attention enough to say, "Oh, let me spend a couple more minutes on this one," and actually start reading it in more depth.
And my last point would be when you're writing your CV or your cover letter, you'll say, "Well, I did this and then I did this and then I did this" and we don't really step back and say, well, why was this particular activity or task important to the organisation? I think my biggest piece of advice would be to think of applying for jobs as more like storytelling. At the end of the day, the person who is reviewing applications is still a human and we know that human beings respond really well to stories. And so if you can give yourself a narrative about why you've done things, what you're seeking to do, and why certain achievements are important, it'll be a lot easier for the person who's reading your CV to understand and relate to you.