You don’t need to be perfect — Following on from taking breaks, I also wish someone had told me that work doesn’t need to be perfect. There is always a line between productivity, quality and efficiency. For many tasks, you could work on them for two hours or four hours and the quality improvement would be incremental. Learning when to stop and accept work as good enough was an important lesson, particularly when time became my most precious resource.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Eleni Polychroniadou.
Eleni is the co-founder and commercial director of Sintali, an environmental certification body that was founded to verify the impact of the built environment around the world. Sintali acts as a global certification partner for IFC’s EDGE green building program, transforming the built environment and creating a pathway to ensure that every building on this planet is green. In her role, Eleni leads the commercial division of the organization and drives business development activities to help the EDGE green building market grow internationally. In her spare time, Eleni is co-leading the Global Shapers London Hub, where she facilitates a volunteer group of 45 young men and women looking to make impact in their local community.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
First of all, thanks for having me! The important thing you need to know about me is that I am a big climate nerd. I care about all things climate change related and sustainability. I have always been passionate about helping people and have spent my life trying to make a difference. During my childhood I tried to find avenues to make an impact, from raising money for orphanages in Africa to doing beach clean ups and reforestation volunteering trips. My drive to help comes from a position of privilege. I was very lucky growing up. I grew up in a safe and privileged environment, something that I know not everyone has the luxury of experiencing. I felt the inequality in the world and wanted to do something about it.
Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I always admired Greenpeace growing up. I vividly remember telling my parents that I wanted to become a climate activist and join the Greenpeace protests, but I was too young at the time (you had to be 18 years old). One of the things that stood out to me, and perhaps the reason it stuck in my mind, was that Greenpeace took action. Even as a kid, I got very frustrated by lots of talking and false promises. I struggled to sit still and instead wanted to participate in activities and events with outcomes. I also always cared very deeply about helping people and making a difference. I wanted to solve poverty, plant all the trees possible, end world hunger, the list goes on… I cared a lot and wanted to do something. Greenpeace was the ultimate example, or role model, for me. They were people who cared deeply about changing the world and did something about it. Fast forward to today, it feels very relevant to be discussing this amid the current environment, where we see a lot of corporate and government commitments on climate change, and very little action.
How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Making a difference to me means that I am adding good into the world, leaving something positive that wasn’t there before. That can be defined in many ways, but for this context it’s about positively contributing to solving a challenge. That could be inequality, climate change, poverty, discrimination…any challenge that affects people or the environment. I find it incredibly frustrating when people identify multiple issues in the world but then choose to not act on them. When I think about the choices I make and the life I live, I try to intentionally contribute to a solution.
Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
Absolutely. At Sintali, we are on a mission to green every building on this planet. Buildings account for 28% of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, which is a very large portion! Up until now, green buildings have been seen as a luxury good. Typically, green buildings are the fancy headquarter buildings or luxury apartments with beautiful roof gardens and solar panels. And while those are green buildings, green buildings can also be your local supermarkets, the social housing, the big mall around your house or a series of offices. It doesn’t have to be a luxury good. So that’s what we are trying to change. We are working on educating the broader market on what is possible, and pushing them to realise that if we want to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change, we need to change the built environment at scale. We are also fighting greenwashing by certifying buildings against the EDGE standard, which is a green building program that was developed by IFC (the private equity arm of the World Bank). By certifying buildings against the standard, we make sure that all the claims people make about green buildings are actually true.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
If you had asked me a few years ago if I saw myself working in the building and construction sector, I probably would have laughed. I thought I would stay in the clean tech space for my career. But things change rapidly! Overall, I care about addressing the climate crisis and working towards a better future. I was introduced to buildings as a side part of my previous job. I vividly remember listening to a talk about green buildings as part of my onboarding and realising the impact of the built environment. Buildings are all around us, yet so often we take them for granted. We never really think about the impact of the buildings we sleep in, work in, buy food from, get health services from… Yet, they play such a big role in the climate crisis. It’s also a sector that isn’t going to go away or transform immensely in the way transportation and energy are. The more I delved into it, the more I began to realise how important the sector was and also how much impact I could have.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
A lot of it was about timing, and the right conditions. I was quite scared of taking the leap. I could see all the risks in front of me, the potential instability, the potential failure, and I was anxious. But I also hit a point mentally when I realised it was now or never. The final moment was that I realised I couldn’t see an alternative to trying. I remember sitting in a meeting in my old company and thinking, I want to try this. My decision had been made and I just needed to cognitively catch up and make it happen.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
I spent a lot of time brainstorming and putting ideas on various documents, slide decks and spreadsheets. Really thinking through a plan is key when you want to set something up, and making sure you have the pieces ready. The biggest step, however, to getting Sintali off the ground was having the right people by my side. I could not have set up Sintali without my co-founder, Tom. People make or break a company. From my experience, it would be very difficult to set up a company without a good business partner. Having the right partner in place is essential for success. To split responsibilities, to share experiences, to bounce ideas off of each other…the benefits are endless. I can’t recommend this enough for anyone interested in getting into entrepreneurship.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Perhaps the most interesting development has been my own internal growth from running Sintali. When I was an employee, I saw things in black and white. There were clear decisions that needed to be made and it was frustrating when management wouldn’t make them. For example, investing in a comprehensive sustainability program or supporting a cause pro bono. Now being on the other side of the table, the world has become shades of grey. I still stand by my moral compass and feel empowered that I can make decisions that align with the company’s purpose and values, but it isn’t as clear cut anymore. I have to balance many more considerations, from the company’s profitability to our long-term investment strategy and direction to our public image. Going through this experience has helped me understand my previous managers and leaders more, and I think helped me evolve as a leader myself. You can stand by your values and be driven by purpose, and still need to make tough decisions.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
Thankfully my co-founder, Tom, has stopped me from making too many silly mistakes! The mistake that stuck in my mind the most was making a bad judgment call with a potential partner. I overthought a situation and it led to accidentally offending a potential partner and ruining a relationship. The main takeaway I got from that experience was that you don’t need to pre-emptively worry about what other people think and make decisions on their behalf. Give people a chance to decide for themselves!
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
Nobody can do it alone. I have had many people supporting me along the way and continue to rely on this support to drive impact. I think the person who has influenced me the most was someone who helped me realise why I enjoy what I do. When I first started in sales and marketing, I felt conflicted. Sales didn’t feel as though it fit my character. I talked about it with my mentor at the time, and he pushed me to understand what sales and marketing is really about: having a good conversation. Ever since we had that discussion, and with some more life chats along the way, he helped me embrace that I love connecting with people and promoting sustainability.
Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
We just completed the certification for a single home in Mongolia, which is a pilot for energy efficient homes in the region to help show the market what is possible. It’s actually the first green certified building in the country! The project incorporates innovative passive house technology and design to reduce heat energy demand to almost zero, with the remaining need catered for by renewable energy. The house does not use fossil fuels, which means it does not emit any smoke in the winter. This significantly improves the air quality for the individuals living within the home, as well as the broader region. The individuals living in this efficient home will also have higher comfort levels and lower utility bills, which makes a big difference as this home is targeted for low and middle income families.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Governments can start by putting better policies in place, which are binding and help drive behaviour throughout society. Policy is the foundation of change and having strict regulations in place can incentivise companies to behave very differently than they currently are. For example, we talk about this transition to net zero. Very few countries have legislation in place for this, which means companies can delay and continue building poor performing buildings because the regulatory risk of non-compliance still feels far away.
Another way to help us address the problem is for financial institutions and local governments to incentivize the green building market by offering better interest rates, tax breaks or added benefits for companies and individuals who are trying to implement green buildings. While it doesn’t address the root problem, it changes the perception of the value of green buildings and can accelerate uptake, which in turn acts as a catalyst for further growth and getting more green buildings implemented around the world.
Finally, the broader community can support the effort by demanding green buildings from developers and landlords. There is a classic issue of the vicious cycle in the industry, where everyone is waiting for each other to act before taking any action. Someone has to break that and it’s great that it comes from consumers as a market-driven economy can change drastically when it is demand-led.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each).
- It’s okay to take a break — When we first launched the company, I worked non-stop. All day, all night, during the week, on weekends, it never ended. The to-do list never seemed to finish and as a small team, I couldn’t delegate to anyone else. I was watching myself burn out but couldn’t see an exit. What I eventually came to realize is that the work will still be there tomorrow, and nobody’s life depends on whether I can get that piece of content out on Thursday instead of Wednesday. I think as founders, and especially as young founders, there is a tendency to over-inflate the value of our work. Don’t get me wrong, our work is important. But so is our health. You don’t have to give up your life, health, or sanity, to run a business.
- You don’t need to be perfect — Following on from taking breaks, I also wish someone had told me that work doesn’t need to be perfect. There is always a line between productivity, quality and efficiency. For many tasks, you could work on them for two hours or four hours and the quality improvement would be incremental. Learning when to stop and accept work as good enough was an important lesson, particularly when time became my most precious resource.
- Everyone is constantly learning — This one still gets me. It’s so easy to look around and assume everyone else has answers and you don’t. But if there is one thing I have learnt in the last year and a half, it’s that everyone is on a learning journey. There is no point in your career when you wake up and you suddenly have all the answers and the experience. Be kind to yourself, focus on learning and gaining knowledge when you can, try different things, fail fast and learn from what you do.
- Age and experience aren’t the same — I get imposter syndrome sometimes with my age, feeling that other people are more experienced or qualified than I am. As a young professional, it can be easy to get dismised because you look young (it happens to me frequently). But here is what I have learnt, and I want to pass on to others. Age and experience aren’t always equated. You can have experience as a younger professional, and your work is still valid. For example in my field, there are tons of people who do marketing for sustainability but I have more experience working on marketing the specific product globally, except for the two or three people that have been doing it in other companies. I may not have 20 years of experience in marketing, but I know I have significant experience in my niche.
- It’s a marathon, not a race — A previous colleague of mine told me this a few months back and it really stuck with me. When we first launched the company, I felt like I was on a hamster wheel, running and never getting to the end point. I kept trying to speed up and kept failing at reaching the finish line. Here’s the thing though… there is no end line. It is a constantly evolving journey and you need to pace yourself and set yourself up for the long haul. At least from my perspective, I hope I am still at Sintali growing the business until I retire. That is a marathon, not a race.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Every individual has so much power to make a difference. It’s not just the actions you take, but also your sphere of influence and how you use yourself as a member of society to make a difference. Whether you do it professionally or in your personal life, you have many chances to make a difference. Don’t miss them!
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to talk to Bill McKibben. He was actually an emeritus professor at Middlebury College, where I studied, but I didn’t get a chance to meet him. Bill has been incredibly influential in the environmental activist space and I would love to chance to talk to him about lessons learned over the years and what we need to do moving forward to engage society and drive impact.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can also keep an eye on what Sintali is up to on our company social media channels: https://www.linkedin.com/company/sintaliltd/ and www.twitter.com/sintaliltd and https://www.facebook.com/SintaliLtd/
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Young Change Makers: Why and How Eleni Polychroniadou Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.