DECNA is Zachary Benetatos, Mallika Boobna and Marie–Louise Maitre’s vision for the future of youth employment. These three young entrepreneurs from the Hult UG campus are the Paris Hult Prize regionals winners and their story goes far and beyond the Hult Prize competition. In this interview, they open up about their experience while proudly representing Hult, their challenges and setbacks, and the future of their business. In a session with truthful reveals and an exciting announcement, they’ve shared their story with us.
What is DECNA?
Zach: We are the first-ever on and offline recruitment network in India. We are disrupting the HR industry by not only giving them jobs online that they can apply for, but we are also creating and facilitating a special and unique environment where they are able to make that one–on–one connections, because in India is all about who you know. We want to be able to give those contacts that only a few people have and make it available to everyone.
Mallika: DECNA is a Hindi word which means ‘vision’. We have named our company DECNA because it is our vision to give the youth the job they have always wanted through our platform. How do we do this? We do this by running a series of industry-specific showcases, making them job-ready and connecting them with employers, giving these young individuals the platform to showcase their established skills and trades they want to show these companies.
How was the team formed and how have team dynamics played and evolved?
Z: I’d say when starting a business, it is not as easy as forming a team like in a class project. If its a class project you form a team based on who your friends are, but when you are running a business it’s much different and you are going to realize that it is much more difficult. We’ve faced many obstacles together as a team, but we learned a lot about each other, about ourselves. The journey was very hard. There would be times in which we would sit down and hug each other and times when we just didn’t want to speak to each other and see each other. It was really intense, and that is with every team, but you need to be wise about how you treat any team and if respect is there I believe you can combat a lot of those team dynamic issues.
Tell us about your journey, from idealization to the Castle.
Marie–Louise: DECNA started as a class project in Storytelling and Persuasion. It was there that we meet each other. We had to do a project in which we had to create a social enterprise. This business was DECNA. We presented in front of the class, we won, we participated in The Vertex…
Z: It is important to recognize that DECNA has changed 15 times or more. Change is important. That’s what we learned because what we presented in class was different from what we presented in the Vertex, and that was different from what we presented in the regionals and the accelerator. We went from waste collection to fashion, you name it. There were teams in the accelerator who where pivoting in the third week of the program.
ML: Just find the right path and came back to the roots when it’s needed. In the end, we came back to the first idea, with some changes, but we remember who we are at our root. When we were at the Castle it was very competitive and when you are in an ambience like that you are naturally aware of everything you can do to improve and to see us before, in the beginning, reminded us of who we are and what we wanted to accomplish.
M: The one thing that worked very well for us is our passion for DECNA, although we never knew what DECNA is or what we wanted it to be properly, all we knew was that we have to change the world through DECNA.
Z: The vision remained the same. The business idea might have changed but the vision to focus on India, help the youth in India remained. India is the most competitive job market in the world, so with the Hult Prize challenge being creating youth employment we saw India as being the place to be..
ML: You need to have a strong ‘why’ and the ‘how’ and ‘what’ will change, but you need to have a strong ‘why’.
How was the experience at the accelerator? How was the program?
Z: The total experience lasted 5 weeks. Every week had a different topic, and they hosted events with topical experts that would come from all around the world to come and speak. The first 3 days you had an intense amount of workshops, going from 8 in the morning all the way to 6-7 at night, and then you’ll still have to work on the business. Thursday you’ll have office hours which meant you’ll work solely on your business, but during that time you’d also have to meet with your mentors, so that was a bit difficult. Every Friday was ‘Pitch Friday’ which was the day when you’d have to pitch your business in front of the judges for that week. So it was somewhat of a routine but at the same time, it was very hectic because your mentors are the ones that decide who goes to the United Nations, so your goal and your job when you’re there is to convince everybody to believe in your idea and join your tribe. While the experience itself is very intense, it’s a lot of fun, too. There were activities like yoga, mindfulness, parties every Friday…
What was the hardest part of the experience?
ML: I think it was for us not knowing where we were going, because when we arrived at the Castle our idea had changed again. At the Castle, we arrived directly to the bottom 3. At least we knew we were doing something wrong, but it was kind of hard for us. We tried to make it better so we took all the feedback and the second week all of our work paid off, because we were in the middle, and the third week we were top seconds. But it’s really being able to take the critics and not stay there, trying to get better again and again.
How was your experience in India? At what point did you go?
Z: Our experience was full of unexpected twists and turns. We were already in contact with three IB world schools, and we were going to conduct our pilot of what we have created, and we were going to do it related to waste management – the old idea of the business – and the night before we were supposed to go to the school they decided to cancel. And there we were, in India, on the other side of the world trying to test our pilot and then the school cancelled on the first day we arrived, so we were so stressed.
We went to the Hult office in Mumbai, and they just started calling every school they had partnerships with. We leveraged our Hult network among the students themselves from India and we managed to get another school to agree to do a test project in a day. We had to hire a driver and we went an hour and a half away from Mumbai to a village in Khardi, and this was obviously not our target market because we were looking for IB world schools, but we were so thankful that this happened because by us going to that local school in a village we knew this was a bigger problem than we actually imagined.
So that school cancelling on us helped us in so many ways and was the best thing that happened to us while in India. We were actually able to get a girl in that school named, Sapna, her first internship in the arts and then that internship led to a job. We have a bear which is our mascot in her name.
How did you balance studying and the Hult Prize?
M: It was difficult to manage studies with DECNA. We tried to organise ourselves in the best way possible. We made sure that we at least meet around 4 times a week because the regionals were close. We went to India in the reading week. We came back to a lot of assignments but we continued with our group meetings to take into account everything we had learned from our pilot in India and prepare for the regionals. We were trying to raise money in the middle of all this in order to go to the regionals and thus organised fundraising events in the school like the ruffle and pitched to everybody possible for their support. After a lot of difficulties, we were lucky enough to be able to go to Paris for the Hult Prize Regionals. We hardly got any sleep in those 2 days and we reached London at 10 pm on the third day and had an exam the following day at 9 , so we studied the entire night. Marie–Louise ended up in the hospital because she was so drained from all the work. It was really bad.
What do you wish you had done differently?
ML: I think knowing what our strength and weakness is so we can directly save time and be more productive. It was very nice being at the Castle because being there made us improve exponentially. It was like being in a jungle and knowing that the lion is very dangerous, so you adapt very, very quickly to the environment and learn so much. This was nice – but if we add to that what we are going to do and tell the students what they need to do before, it would just help them have a guide in the jungle.
M: I think we should have networked more with the people and have a better time so we could have been more productive instead of working so much in the business with a frustrated and blocked mind Sometimes it is important to take an hour of the day to do the things you like to do in order to be in a healthy state of mind.
What is DECNA headed to?
Z: We are very excited to announce that we are going to launch an inclusive membership community for anyone who wants to create a social enterprise. With your membership, you will gain access to a series of events and industry specific showcases here in London. Some of our workshops will be Hult Prize specific! To give a taste of what is coming, we are planning to give the opportunity for our members to talk to the Hult Prize 2018 winners attend exclusive events, cocktails, networking, gala dinners with some of the experts who were there in the accelerator and even some of the judges who decide who goes to the UN.
How has the experience changed you?
ML: Being more adaptable to any kind of situations. Being a team, making good decisions, having a leadership vision of the team. Being united.
M: I think we all grew as individuals in the competition. I personally am shy and it takes a lot of effort for me to network with people but the competition forced me to talk to people. Now, it’s easy for me to start conversations and make connections.
What would you recommend to anyone wanting to get to the Castle?
Z: Go and do a pilot. No matter how developed your idea is, go and test it. Talk to as many people as you can talk to, make videos, pictures, get feedback. You’ll be able to use that later.
M: Talk to people who have already competed so you can get the tricks and tips. And if you don’t have an idea yet , don’t worry, the idea is just 30% of the entire competition, and it can always change, don’t wait for the perfect idea and just keeping going forward because things will happen.
How can Hult students be a part of DECNA?
Z: Applications for membership will open next month and our first big event will happen in October. If you are interested in joining the team please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
What are your final remarks for the readers?
ML: Just do it. Sometimes you idealize too much a moment thinking you need to be prepared for something. But being unprepared sometimes is the best, because that’s when you learn the most, and for us, that’s been the case. Just do it, seriously.
Z: Imagine being in a stage in front of 6000 people naked. That is how it feels in the beginning. For me, in school, I had always done very well, and this is the first time in my life where I was so challenged and I was in such a position of embarrassment, of shock, of fear, of so many mixed emotions. I mean, you’re pitching what is an idea in front of multimillionaires. No matter how much experience you have, no matter how great you think you are or your team is, at the end of the day you can learn from anyone and just take the journey as a learning opportunity and a chance for you to learn from everybody that you meet in all walks of life. Throughout the Hult Prize journey, I was able to learn how doing well in business and doing good for society are not mutually exclusive. In fact, if done right, they can complement each other. That’s when you have made a true impact.
ML: If I can do another remark, it’s to nourish your connections because at the end of the accelerator you have so many connections, but if you don’t use them it’s useless. You need to keep in touch with those people because it’s going to help your business in the future. No matter who you met, try to keep in touch with them, they can give you something in the future. Try and learn from them and be open to other opportunities.
Z: You’ll be surprised of the opportunities that will come when you help others. Instead of thinking of what you can get from, people you meet, think of what you can offer them. this can really spark a real true connection and can help you grow your business. Be humble, be personable and be likeable. You shouldn’t act like you know everything, you should say, I’m here to learn, I am so grateful for this experience’.