How I used my passion for tackling poverty to start my own business |

How I used my passion for tackling poverty to start my own business

By Aisha K

Updated Updated

When Victoria Mandefield moved to Paris for her education, she was not only appalled by the amount of visible poverty around her, but also the fact that people had grown accustomed to homelessness.  

Having volunteered for social causes since she was a teenager, Victoria established Solinum (a non-profit that tackles poverty through innovation and digital technology) and Soliguide, the company’s online platform providing vital information such as foodbank and shelter locations, to support the homeless and people in difficulty within France.  

In 2022, Soliguide recorded almost two million searches, highlighting its essential role in tackling societal inequality.  

In addition to being featured in Vanity Fair’s 30 under 30 list, Victoria was also honoured by AACSB (the world’s largest business school alliance) as an influential leader in 2023.  

From engineer to CEO 

Solinum company image

Victoria describes herself as an engineer at heart. “I started Solinum when I was a civil engineering student, but I realised I needed other people working with me. That meant going to business school to learn about creating business plans and marketing fundamentals,” she said. 

During her management degree at Audencia Business School, she solidified her business knowledge through courses such as finance, which she says she still uses to this day in her company.  

“One of my favourite aspects of business school was participating in summer school at the University of California, Berkeley. I took classes in leadership and innovation, and I really enjoyed the way in which professors taught course material. 

“My school also offered a specialisation in entrepreneurship which was great because all the students I was surrounded by wanted to start their own companies like me. I was able to apply my learning through starting up Solinum, supervised by faculty members who were really good in their specific fields,” she adds. 

She also notes how business school helped her worked on her weaknesses. “I was initially awful at giving business pitches, but through classes I got better over time.” 

Respect the research process when starting a business 

Victoria acknowledges that becoming an entrepreneur in 2023 is an easier pursuit compared to when she first started, but it’s important to work out what the problem is that you’re trying to solve.  

“There are three things that helped me understand homelessness and poverty in France. The first is hands-on experience. That meant volunteering for different types of social causes and taking on a variety of opportunities. 

“The second thing I did was listen to people that are living in poverty and talk to social workers who work with the public and government bodies. This has been one of the key successes of Solinum because the heart of our business is taking into account user experience and focusing on the design element.  

“Before we launch a new feature or Soliguide is released in a new territory, we ask for user feedback, ways in which we can improve and if there’s anything specific to that territory that we can focus on.” 

Thirdly, she considers research to be an essential part of understanding the problem and encourages students to think about the root causes as well as the issue.  

“It’s important to not just treat symptoms but find the main issue at stake. In most cases, the solution is less flashy and less sexy because it can be quite technical, but it’s going to be infinitely more useful.” 

What successful leadership looks like 

Solinum company image

“A great leader is someone who knows how to handle stress, because if you don’t then you’re going to give it out to the people around you, which can lead to a toxic work environment.” 

Victoria admits she struggled with anxiety when starting out, but what helped the most was giving herself time and being gentle with herself. “The nature of leadership means taking on challenges that get more difficult over time. The problems that I had four years ago don’t bother me at all now, and the issues that I’m dealing with currently would have stressed me out back then.”  

As a self-confessed introvert, she also struggled with networking and making connections. “It didn’t feel natural to me, but I’ve learned that you grow accustomed to things with the more experience that you have. 

“It’s about taking small steps to develop outside of your comfort zone. I still consider myself an introvert, but I no longer feel the same level of stress when attending a work event. In fact, I enjoy going to them now.” 

She believes another key trait of a successful leadership is being passionate and determined about what your business is trying to achieve. “If you’re leading a company, I think you should be passionate to the extent that you want the whole world to know this is the most important thing in the world. 

“There are some really tough periods you have to overcome as an entrepreneur and if you’re not incredibly passionate about what you do then you’re more likely to quit at the first hurdle.” 

The proudest moment in her career 

One of her favourite aspects of her job is bringing people together to work on a common goal in reducing inequality.  

“I had a meeting recently with the biggest non-profits in France and the French government. Seeing them work together on Soliguide, a project I created as a student, was amazing to see. I was proud of the fact that this was the exact reason I started my non-profit – to work collectively to end poverty.” 

Her advice for aspiring entrepreneurs 

For any business students who are considering following in her footsteps, Victoria recommends asking yourself why you want to be an entrepreneur. “Work out whether it’s because being an entrepreneur is something that’s seen as cool and trendy or because you’re genuinely passionate about an issue that you’re trying to solve. 

“Entrepreneurship is a long journey so I’d ask students to think about what makes their heart beat faster and what will get them out of bed in the morning for years to come. It also doesn’t mean that you have to start a company by yourself. It’s possible to create an impact at every level in an organisation.” 

She also recommends taking stock of your skillset and how you can add value. “If you’re really good at one particular skill such as programming or video editing, you can make it work somewhere.”

This article was originally published in . It was last updated in

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