The Startup Interview: Polorum

Oonagh Mannix and Helen Williams (left to right), Co-Founders of Polorum

“At many startup events, in particular, events for tech startups, there are often only one or two other women present.”

— Helen Williams, Co-Founder of Polorum

Being female entrepreneurs is of huge importance to the pair. Helen notes that “at many startup events, in particular, events for tech startups, there are often only one or two other women present.” Female entrepreneurship is most definitely a growing practice globally, however, Helen’s comment acknowledges that there is a long way to go before women are fully integrated into tech and entrepreneurial circles. “It’s the same on our courses,” says Oonagh, “there are very few women.” It comes as no surprise then that Polorum has become as much about improving much-needed communication links in rural Africa as it has about promoting the potential of and opportunities for women in the business and tech spaces.

“We can’t just anticipate their needs — we’ve done a lot of research, but we need to ask them in person.”

— Helen Williams, Co-Founder of Polorum

While working on a lesson plan as part of her community development project, Oonagh realised that adapting simple marketing techniques — such as the use of a mobile phone to advertise one’s business — could prove a life-saving solution to the communication issues faced in the region. After some initial concern over the technicalities of the proposition (namely the use of a computer), Oonagh returned to the UK and, after putting things off for a while, set to work on designing a simple computer system to allow for the collection of mobile phone numbers and the distribution of community alert messages via text message. “We now have a working prototype which is currently being tested in Africa,” notes Helen. “It’s been there since February and we’re now working on gathering mobile numbers and training the community in how to enter them into the system.” But the pair note that there is a long way to go before a finished product can be presented: “We’ve got a lot of development we want to do and we’re keen to collect feedback on the ground to understand how it could be used best by local communities,” Helen says before commenting, “we can’t just anticipate their needs — we’ve done a lot of research, but we need to ask them in person.”

“The community has really been getting behind it and the partner charity I was working with have been watching in anticipation for months.”

— Oonagh Mannix, Co-Founder of Polorum

“So what does the future hold?” I ask. Despite their long list of development plans, Helen assures me that their finished product is not all that far off. “Then, our plan is to go out and sell it,” she exclaims. As any entrepreneur who has launched a business in Africa knows, the sales and distribution stage brings with it a whole range of new problems, however, the team appear up for a challenge and are fully aware that such a technical product (although simple by standards in the developed world) will involve a considerable amount of one-to-one training. “You said you’d be going out and selling it. Who will you be selling it to?” I ask, remembering that the initial idea received a lot of support from Oonagh’s volunteering and charity colleagues. “We’ll be selling it as a complete package, perhaps with training on the side, to charities on the ground who can pass on the technology to local communities,” Helen tells me. “The community has really been getting behind it and the partner charity I was working with have been watching in anticipation for months,” Oonagh adds, clearly aware that, until that point, I had not been entirely convinced. “There was definitely some skepticism on the ground,” Helen says, “but the pilot project has really demonstrated the capabilities of our product. It isn’t believable until you see it.” “Do you think you’re product can be used outside of Africa?” I ask. “I’m hesitant to answer that because we haven’t done any detailed research into it, but I’ve learnt that there are always uses for something which one never anticipates so yes, hopefully,” says Helen.

“Entrepreneurship: It’s about acknowledging and exploring what you don’t know.”

— Oonagh Mannix, Co-Founder of Polorum

To finish our chat, I want to return to the first part of our conversation, about entrepreneurship. I’m interested in how Helen and Oonagh would define an entrepreneur, given that this is the title they’ve given themselves. “I think the big difference between an inventor and an entrepreneur is that an entrepreneur is happy to take an idea or invention, acknowledge that they don’t have all of the skills needed to bring it to fruition and, rather than struggle with it, choose to build a company around it and find the people who can make it happen,” Helen says. Oonagh agrees: “It’s about acknowledging and exploring what you don’t know.”

The Startup Interviews

A series of interviews with the founders of Scottish start-up businesses, conducted by Christopher Sladdin in 2014 and 2015.

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Christopher Sladdin

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Digital Consultant @PwC_UK 👨🏻‍💻 | Musician | British & Wannabe German | Passionate about #Startups 🚀 & Transparency in Business

The Startup Interviews

A series of interviews with the founders of Scottish start-up businesses, conducted by Christopher Sladdin in 2014 and 2015.