- Rebecca Zuker, HBA '23 Candidate
- Jan 18, 2023
Throughout his academic and professional career, Tomas van Stee, HBA ‘13, always knew he would enter the entrepreneurial space once he discovered an idea that combined his passions — entrepreneurship and sustainability.
After starting his own business while completing his undergraduate degree, Tomas proved to himself and others that he had what it took to become a successful entrepreneur. The HBA program helped him develop his voice as an emerging leader, and Ivey aided in developing the soft skills necessary to be a solo entrepreneur in today’s competitive landscape.
“One element I remember being helpful was a communications course where they teach you how to be a motivational speaker effectively and they teach how to speak properly in front of crowds,” he told the Centre for Building Sustainable Value.
After graduating, Tomas took a role at Boston Consulting Group (BCG) as an Associate Consultant. In this role, he committed to acquiring skills that would be advantageous in the long run. The corporate world equipped him with the skills necessary to interact with large corporations, CEOs, and to be rigorous around operations.
After 18 months at BCG, Tomas felt he had the necessary corporate skills to ensure his dream would thrive. Created in 2015, EnPowered is an energy management company that helps customers control their energy usage and save up to 70% of their energy costs.
Tomas shared more about how his prior experiences shaped his thriving sustainable venture into the success it is today.
What was your inspiration for EnPowered?
There are two sides to it. So, I always knew I wanted this, to start my own company. I was looking for a huge industry that everyone hates and no one my age is in. To me, that was a good indication of the kind of industry I wanted to run, and energy is a trillion-dollar space. Basically, everyone in this industry told me that there was a problem worth solving that I could address.
Then the second piece, fundamentally I could dedicate the rest of my life to this problem and know that it was time well spent because, as you are well aware, climate change is real and it's getting worse every year. Additionally, the energy industry is not changing nearly fast enough. So, we need drastic innovation in the sector, and that's effectively what got us started. It definitely is not the easiest industry to start a company in, but it's a highly meaningful and motivating sector to dedicate my career to.
What are some of the biggest hurdles when it comes to creating a sustainable venture?
Firstly, clean energy technology is an incredibly complicated industry. So, we've had to pivot four times just to find the right product-market fit. And the first three attempts at this company all failed. And so, lots of hard pivots.
Tied to that would be the ability to persevere through quite a few hard times, especially being a solo founder. I mean, I'm happy I did it in the long run, but it's not something I would recommend to anyone else. So, trying to navigate an immensely complicated industry with no real prior experience was definitely a hurdle I had to overcome.
Secondly, this industry is not friendly to tech companies or startups in general. Compared to other industries with thousands of innovative companies, there's shockingly few innovative companies in the world of energy. It's kind of sad, given how important this industry is. Trying to get off the ground in the sector is much, much harder than it is in other sectors.
Then lastly, in the initial years, trying to attract talent was pretty tough. I was just some guy trying to start a company and I didn't have much of a budget. Truthfully, I didn't raise any money for five years. So, we were stuck for a long time. It was a long, solo grind. But with hard work and perseverance, we made it through.
Do you have any advice for current students or recent alumni that are interested in starting their own sustainable venture?
One piece of advice to any student who wants to become an entrepreneur is if you're thinking about doing it someday, but you're not actually working on side projects today, you're lying to yourself. Always have something on the side otherwise, before you know it, it's 10 years later. And if you're not careful, you haven't started your company and you have heavy golden handcuffs at your current job.
Additionally, it depends on the kind of company you want to run. There are plenty of ways to run a small sustainability company. I think there's way too many entrepreneurs who solve very basic surface level issues. So, if you want to have a real impact in the world, trying to find a way to build a company that's scalable and actually solves some of the underlying issues is very, very critical.
The last piece is just having the stubbornness to be willing to find a really hard challenge to solve. In my personal experience, the first few iterations of the company failed. So clearly, I didn't know what I was doing, but I just didn't give up. Just keep trying.