71-time Vogue Cover Girl on Her Entrepreneurial Journey
Natalia Vodianova, recognised for her advocacy work, founded Naked Heart Foundation 15 years ago to tackle disability. This year, she launched Elbi India, the country's first philanthropic rewards-based subscription service in the form of a digital platform.
Take us through your entrepreneurial journey.
It might sound surprising but I’ve had this entrepreneurial approach since early childhood. I knew I had to do something to support my single mother and sister with cerebral palsy and autism. I started selling fruits at the local market when I was 11 and then helped my mother set up her own fruit stall. Since my modelling journey, I have always held this approach — give back to society and to try and help as many people in need as I can through my ventures.
Most of the funding goes to all-male founder teams in the UK, as per recent reports. What, according to you, then are the struggles of female entrepreneurs?
Unfortunately, female entrepreneurs aren’t considered equal to their male counterparts in certain industries. The rise of so many female entrepreneurs all over the world, especially in India, is very encouraging. Once more and more female-founded businesses perform well, people and investors will be encouraged to invest more money into their enterprises. We need to encourage and educate women on entrepreneurial practices across all levels. For example, Elbi is partnering with several like-minded organisations to bring about business training for women in rural areas of India as part of a fundraising project. We hope to reach a million girls with this programme.
Which start-ups have you invested in?
Currently, I am involved in several start-ups but the ones I am particularly excited about currently are Flo and Elbi. I co-founded Elbi with my business partner Timon Afinsky. Flo is a leading one-stop health app for women during their entire reproductive life cycle — from menarche to menopause. Flo provides curated cycle tracking and predictions, personalized health insights, expert recommendations and a private community for women to share their questions and concerns. Flo now has over 100 million downloads and is growing every day.
How does Elbi India function?
We have a global app, which allows people from all over the world to give easily and be rewarded every time they give through ‘Lovecoins’. Elbi in India is focused on local causes and charities. Each rupee equals to one Lovecoin and you are rewarded for your giving. Lovecoins can be used to redeem anything from the latest high-end fashion accessory to securing tickets to the next must-attend exclusive event. Elbi India also rewards subscribers with the ElbiDrop, which gives them the chance to win exciting experiences as rewards for ‘doing good’, whether these are with Bollywood personalities, fashion icons or sports stars. We have associated ourselves with various beneficiary charities such as Cry India, Magic Bus, UNFPA and the WE Movement.
What edge does Elbi have over other forms of charity?
We are not here to compete with other charities but to enhance and support their work. Elbi would resonate well with the younger generation because of the ease of donating and the reward. Our concept believes in rewarding users for their donations as doing good has become the new cool.
Although a platform designed to be used by millennials, we have also collaborated with charities across sectors and are covering a variety of causes. Through cross-sector partnerships, we also aim to expand the outreach of the platform beyond its digital identity. We wish to establish Elbi as a brand that is synonymous with philanthropy.
How was your experience of working with Isha Ambani and Twinkle Khanna.
Isha is a close friend of mine and is a member of the advisory board for Elbi. Her vision and philanthropic work resonate with mine and when she heard about the Elbi app, she was quick to get on board and was the inspiration behind my visit to India.
Twinkle is both a powerhouse and an inspiration. Her commendable work on periods and tackling taboos in India using film and media has made a huge difference in India and beyond. We have campaigned on similar issues and I am immensely pleased to have her support and contribution towards the Elbi Drop and Elbi Love Shop. Through her film Padman, she has raised substantial awareness of menstrual hygiene amongst the youth and has incredible expertise to offer in this domain.
What’s your business goal for the next three years?
Through Elbi, our aim in the next three years is to reach out to as many socially conscious millennials as possible and get them to start giving on a regular basis. Through our app, we also want them to feel secure while donating and be assured that the money goes to the right places. We are trying to expand the outreach of the platform and engage in more substantial measures which have an impact in real-time. The immediate goal, for now, is to ensure that the Elbi, Flo, Always and Dharmalife collaboration meets its desired objective of reaching a million girls. We wish to engage in more such fruitful collaborations, interactions and alignment with various organizations to further our philanthropic objectives.
Could you give us some interesting insights into your life learnings as an entrepreneur?
For anyone starting a business, don’t be afraid to expose your project to trusted external feedback. Listen to it and make it count. But above all, don’t be scared of bad feedback. You are borrowing other people’s opinions because you want your project to really work so listen, analyse, understand how to improve and be ready to re-address your project or even divert your direction.
As the business involves managing other people’s money for good cause, what are the lessons learnt along the way?
Making people feel valued for their action has an impact. The gift often lies in the giving. This happens when you don’t simply ask people to donate money, but also get back with the feedback on their previous donation or its impact on others.
(This article was first published in the December 2019 issue of Entrepreneur Magazine. To subscribe, click here)