Read my interview with Tzvete Doncheva - PropTech, Mobility Innovation Ecosystem Builder. In Edition #7 of Fresh Perspectives.
An introduction to the series.
With Fresh Perspectives, I hope to bring talent from across property, housing and technology together.
This series doesn’t focus on the loudest or most senior voices in these sectors. Rather, I seek out leaders with a new perspective. Those on the front lines of big change in business.
They challenge the status quo. Transform attitudes. Process. Operations and customer service.
I hope that you get as much as I learn from it. That you - the reader - consider these fresh perspectives and how they might be applied to your own organisation.
An introduction to my guest - Tzvete Doncheva.
Tzvete Doncheva's intellect, illustrious journey and achievements within the VC space make her the ideal fresh perspectives guest.
Tzvete lives and breathes smart cities, mobility and Proptech. She is an Innovation Ecosystems builder, an Adviser for The Entrepreneurs Network and owes her meticulous work ethic to an extensive journalistic background. She is also an outspoken vocalist for diversity in innovation and women in leadership roles.
In this interview, we discuss:
- Why diversity of thought is a catalyst for innovation, creativity and future prosperity.
- How women in leadership can drive change by working to create an inclusive work culture within their organisations.
- How innovation in real estate is ushering in a more sustainable way to build and maintain property in the future.
- The critical role technology will play in addressing the nation's affordable housing crisis.
- How operational transformation within PropTech will allow for better tenant engagement experience and the opportunity for landlords to deliver more value to the end user, or client.
Shariq: Tzvete, I wanted to focus part of our conversation today on diversity and its importance in innovation. Traditionally, the property sector has been very male-dominated, both in terms of founders and funders. Do you think Proptech is similarly skewed in its diversity, or is innovation in property opening up more room for diversity?
Tzvete: Women occupy just over 1/5 of board level positions in the real estate industry. If we are strictly looking at gender diversity, there has been little progress over the last few years, despite the industry undergoing a digital transformation. When creating cities, buildings or places for the future, those that create them should reflect the people that they are creating them for. Diversity has many faces – gender, ethnicity, experience, education. The power of diversity of thought – catalyst for innovation, creativity and future prosperity.
It is inclusion and fairness - giving everyone an opportunity.
As VCs are identifying and funding innovation, our activities have an impact on the economy and society at large. Zoopla, one of the most transformational PropTech companies in the world was enabled in part by a venture investment.
Diversity in networks and decision-making at a funder level is key. When technology is brought into the property sector, it opens it up to not only innovation, but also to diversity.
Research shows there still is a high level of homogeneity of backgrounds in venture capital – with over 40% being consulting or finance. Only 1/3 of VC personnel are women. Nearly 2/3 of venture capital firms have no senior female members on their investment teams. It has been great to have Yasmina as a guiding figure that I could learn from when it comes to VC processes and practices.
I do not like to focus solely on gender, but women are underrepresented in the pipelines, investments and investor teams. 75% of pitch decks received by the industry have no female member on the founding team. The opportunity for participation is increased – this is where the importance of an inclusive innovation ecosystem comes in. The innovators, corporations, venture capital firms, public and academic sectors should work together to further drive positive change.
"I do not like to focus solely on gender, but women are underrepresented in the pipelines, investments and investor teams. 75% of pitch decks received by the industry have no female member on the founding team."
Shariq: Yes, I absolutely agree with you. How can women empower each other in your field in particular, how can they build an authoritative presence that shapes opinions and drives change in the sector?
Tzvete: We speak about male-dominated industries – real estate and venture capital – and I wish work is valued over merit. The confidence gap is holding women back. There is evidence that success correlates with both confidence and competence. If you are a woman in a position of power, you can drive change by working to create an inclusive work culture within your organisation. One where junior and senior (female) employees are supported and feel a sense of belonging. Help them grow by installing adequate support structures. Initiatives or workshops where a knowledge exchange between women in different levels of the company can take place. I can’t list all the amazing women that I’ve met since joining a PropTech VC. At Round Hill, Samantha Rush (Vice President, Head of Sales and Marketing) has supported me (even with presence) on many initiatives. A great example of a female leader I look up to. Her tips on female empowerment and leadership are worth the read.
That being said though in the majority of male-dominated work environments the few women present are not always supportive of each other. It may be because of internal insecurities and concerns about their own roles. Perhaps they remember how difficult getting to their current role was. If I could speak to them directly, I would ask them to understand that this is not a competition. Focus on the value you can add, rather than what you can take. Especially with challenging times such as now. Empowered women empower women - cliche but true.
Shariq: Which female leader is a role model to you, or do you look up to?
Tzvete: One of my VC role models is Sonali De Rycker from Accel. She has led investments in Monzo, Spotify, Soldo. I’ve read/seen so many of her interviews and one of her tips that stood out to me was along the lines of the importance of choosing to work for a team who believe in you as you are.
An entrepreneur I look up to is Michelle Mone - built her Ultimo empire from scratch, very modest background to the position that she's in today. Her story is inspirational because she had to overcome personal challenges when she was at the height of her career and she managed to do so successfully. When I was growing up my role model was Angelina Jolie (media background) and because of her -
Shariq: Her humanitarian efforts, yes.
Tzvete: Yes, she brought awareness to the humanitarian crises and is giving voice to people who wouldn’t have otherwise been heard. For this past International Women’s Day, she shed light on the situation in Afghanistan where women’s hard won rights and freedom are hanging in the balance.
I look up to the female innovators changing the PropTech space. Mila Suharev - co-founder of Casafari, a company bringing transparency to the property market by building the cleanest and most complete real estate database in the world.
Shariq: What according to you is a great example of recent innovation in real estate?
Tzvete : Contech innovations as alternative materials in the building industry. The construction sector obviously has a damaging effect on the environment. The process of making cement for example is the source of about 8% of the world's carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
To put it in perspective, if the cement industry were a country, it would be the third largest emitter in the world. Cement is the primary ingredient in concrete, which is the most widely used material in the construction industry. Concrene for example, is a new type of concrete, reinforced with graphene, which significantly reduces the carbon emissions.
"I look up to the female innovators changing the PropTech space. Mila Suharev - co-founder of Casafari, a company bringing transparency to the property market by building the cleanest and most complete real estate database in the world."
Shariq: At Plentific, we champion local trades businesses and local communities; we try and celebrate the efforts people make within their communities to start the conversation about safer, more affordable housing. Often what comes up as the first talking point is the housing crisis that we currently have in the UK. What role do you think technology can play in the housing crisis in the UK?
Tzvete: By 2050, ⅔ of the world’s population will live in cities. In the UK, the nation is growing by half a million people each year - only half of the homes required are built. We’ll need to develop infrastructure to house growing populations and adequately match the demand.. Quicker and more efficiently. One of the biggest impacts Proptech has on the property sector is the social aspect - how we can not only optimise existing houses or build newer, smarter homes but also make them more accessible to the end user.
One solution can be modular housing, or factory constructed homes through high-tech manufacturing processes. They take about half the time for completion and are more affordable. Modomo is one modular housing startup that provides bespoke, temporary (as little as 5 years) housing solutions. Another platform in the space is Modulous, which enables the high-speed design and delivery of quality, affordable and sustainable homes.
Shariq: What would you say has been your biggest accomplishment so far within the Proptech space?
Tzvete: The concept of achievement just as success is relative in meaning. Open to interpretation. In a role, it is important to add value and create impact. In less than a year I have moved over from the start-up to the venture capital side in the PropTech space, passing through urban mobility in between. Ecosystem building has been a core activity. Developing a community with different target audiences in mind is not as straightforward as it may look. Organising well-attended and engaging events is good, but I wouldn’t call this an accomplishment – I take it as a given.
It is valuable when the key actors of an ecosystem are brought together to share challenges faced, possible follow-up measures that need to be taken - whether pertaining to business frameworks, legal frameworks or enabling further innovation.
Helping to create ‘PropTech Connect’, the forum for Europe’s real estate ecosystem is a small success. It became an exchange of information and experience that wouldn't have happened otherwise. The open discussion during the event is as important as the follow ups. One of the accomplishments I can signal out properly is enabling innovation – identifying a PropTech player whose solution can be brought in and piloted by a corporate real estate entity. This is creating impact.
When venture capital firms invest in a startup, it is a partnership - funders supporting founders and their teams across the growth journey. Support can also come in the form of guidance or advice on crucial business areas when a startup is scaling. My other achievement relates to value-add for portfolio companies through initiatives and workshops on two very relevant scale-up topics - marketing and hiring.
Shariq: Let’s talk operations for a moment. Operationally, where do you think are the biggest opportunities in transforming real estate? Particularly when it comes to property management.
Tzvete: Plentific is unique in this respect because it not only brings together the different stakeholders within the value chain but it adds more economic opportunities.
Real estate is the largest asset class in the world. When structurally the property sector is not yet set up for innovation, the opportunities for a system transformation are immense. Leveraging technology to increase transparency and efficiency, while and improving profit margins of the industry are all areas PropTech start-ups and corporations are tapping into.
PropTech is connecting places to people. Both the concept and the needs of a ‘tenant’ or ‘end-user’ has changed. Technology empowers landlords and landowners to better serve and understand their ‘clients’. So they can deliver better services, as the real estate industry is shifting from a product to a serviced based one. Technological innovation also allows for a better tenant engagement experience and the opportunity for landlords to deliver more value to the end user, or client.
"Consider the economic benefits a company like Plentific creates. It saves people time and money, while creating a more sustainable way of living. For local communities, it helps them engage with a faster, vetted, more reliable trade service that they wouldn't have had access to otherwise. So, it gives them wider, more effective options. "
Shariq: So, one of the interviews that I resonate with - which you featured in, was 'Will the built environment ever be completely digital?'.
At Plentific, we're working hard to accomplish an ecosystem of our own. One where the stakeholders involved in property repairs and management have one source of truth and they become seamlessly connected to one another. Local communities thrive. Do you see other opportunities where tech can connect sustainability to profitability?
Tzvete: Profitability is important in any business but it shouldn't be the only end goal. Consider the economic benefits a company like Plentific creates. It saves people time and money, while creating a more sustainable way of living. For local communities, it helps them engage with a faster, vetted, more reliable trade service that they wouldn't have had access to otherwise. So, it gives them wider, more effective options.
The UN's Three Pillars of Sustainability are economic(profit), environmental(planet) and social(people) development and they are interlinked. Technology deepens the connection between the three. Innovation is not a product or a service, but a process – taking a concept from idea to impact. Driven from and for people. And yes, it can enhance the connections between a single multiple community. The follow-on effect could be profitability.
The built environment contributes around 40% of the carbon footprint. Perhaps a less known fact is that food waste also has serious environmental consequences. 1/3 of all food produced is wasted and over half of food waste in developed countries takes place in the home. Food waste is a loss of natural resources (land, water, energy), human labour and a missed economic opportunity. Furthermore, the world’s growing population means food production will need to increase by 60% to meet the 2050 demand. It is also a huge emitter of carbon dioxide. I think it is worth to firstly stress the importance of the problem and secondly highlight innovations working to address it.
OLIO is a platform that connects neighbours to share excess groceries. Rather than throwing edible food away, users can list it online and make it available for the local community to claim. The platform helps you meet your neighbours - the social aspect. Apps like Karma and Too Good to Go sell food from businesses which would otherwise throw it away. From a venture capital perspective, the sheer market size accounts for food waste being a trillion-dollar opportunity. From a community point of view, food tech apps allow businesses to access new customers and make a profit on over-produced meals. From an end-user or a community perspective, people discover new local restaurants and cafes – ‘saving’ food and costs. The cycle leads to less food waste (sustainability), for a positive environmental impact.
"The built environment contributes around 40% of the carbon footprint. Perhaps a less known fact is that food waste also has serious environmental consequences. 1/3 of all food produced is wasted and over half of food waste in developed countries takes place in the home."
Shariq: So, on a final note. What inspires you? What do you read or watch in your time outside of your work that drives your understanding of the sector further and other Fresh Perspectives readers could learn from?
Tzvete: A more general advice is to develop a morning routine. Especially when working remotely - it helps with productivity. Mine is going to the gym. When there, I would listen to audiobooks or podcasts. It is a good way to enrich your mind. A career advice is to identify your role models and study their path to success. I recommend Richard Reed’ book “If I Could Tell You Just One Thing. Encounters with Remarkable People and Their Most Valuable Advice”, a collection of the most valuable pieces of wisdom, shared by some of today’s most accomplished world leaders.
For real estate is one I’m reading of late called Smart Cities by Anthony Townsend. It’s a good one to look into if interested in infrastructure, transport and well smart city trends and innovations. I am currently reading Dror Poleg’s Rethinking Real Estate.
If you would like to learn more about venture capital, a podcast I regularly listen to is Harry Stebbings’ The Twenty Minute VC (20VC). One of his most recent guests was Ashton Kutcher (Co-Founder, Sound Ventures) who started his investment career as an angel. He shared more on how a diverse background (coming from the world of media) can positively impact deal sourcing and investing. The importance of cultural insights, different and yes Fresh Perspectives.
Shariq:That's very kind! I will definitely have a look. Thanks again for your time and your thoughts, Tzvete.
Round Hill Capital is an international private real estate investment, development and asset manager, active in Europe and the United States. In 2017, the firm incubated Round Hill Ventures, a pan-European PropTech VC, to capture the value created by technological innovation in the built world.
- Empowered women empower women: they can help others grow by installing adequate support structures. Initiatives or workshops where a knowledge exchange between women in different levels of the company can take place.
- One of the biggest impacts PropTech has on the property sector is the social aspect - how we can not only optimise existing houses or build newer, smarter homes but also make them more accessible to the end user.
- The UN's Three Pillars of Sustainability are economic (profit), environmental (planet) and social (people) development and they are interlinked. Technology deepens the connection between the three. Innovation is not a product or a service, but a process – taking a concept from idea to impact. Driven from and for people.
- Real estate is the largest asset class in the world. Leveraging technology to increase transparency and efficiency, while improving profit margins of the industry, are all areas PropTech companies are tapping into within real estate.
- Technology empowers landlords and landowners to better serve and understand their clients. So they can deliver better services as the real estate industry shifts from product to service based.
Talk to Me:
Stay tuned for the next interview in the series. And if you’d like to recommend a young leader for me to sit down and have a chat with, do let me know below.