We met with Ayra Taware, Founder and CEO of FutureBricks to discuss her entrepreneurial journey and find out how she got started, she replied: “Entrepreneurialism is not something that can be taught, you have to dive in and have a go”. If that is true then Taware has certainly jumped into the deep end – a female immigrant from India looking to build a peer-to-peer lending business in the construction sector.
The finance and construction industries have for many years been inherently biased against women. Big building developments often look for big returns and therefore tend to use tried and tested construction methods. There are not many investors willing to take the risk on new construction technologies. However, with a rapidly warming planet there is a real need for sustainable and affordable housing and while smaller building and construction companies are capable of providing these, getting them financed is often a challenge.
Taware’s interest in property and entrepreneurship was kindled through her father as she grew up in India and this led her to study at University College London (UCL). Whilst on work experience during her studies at UCL she saw this first hand working at Solid Space. Her role was to assess sites for property development but regularly saw that they did not progress due to a lack of finance.
“I come from a family that has always been involved in property, my dad is a first generation entrepreneur; he came from a very small village in India and moved to Pune which is a city of 8 million people and is where I grew up. I used to listen to stories of how he started the business; how he came from nothing and built his business from scratch.
I studied Urban Planning at UCL and learnt a lot of things I was not exposed to growing up in India such as how you get people to move around a city and to think about the break-out spaces. There was also the exposure to the real estate industry through the academy group.”
UCL appears to have been the perfect place for Taware to study and develop, meeting like-minded class-mates in an environment that encourages entrepreneurship. While at UCL Taware’s first business collaboration was with fellow international student Robin Karlsen.
“For the first year you will usually be given university accommodation but you don’t if you want to rent a private apartment or bedroom. It is very difficult for international students and we felt that problem as we went through the process. You would need a guarantor and we thought, ‘ok, let’s try and solve the problem’. So we went and talked to landlords and said that we’d take the properties and rent them to students. It was where the entrepreneurial journey began.”
With appetite whetted, Taware and Karlsen went on to start a new venture, Real Funds when Taware, whilst on work experience at Solid Space, spotted a need in the construction sector for alternative finance for the smaller house builders – a group that has had limited access to finance since the 2008 banking crisis.
Their crowdfunding platform won UCL Bright Ideas Award 2014. These Awards aim to help new companies by providing them with funding and training. Winning this was some achievement as they were in competition with 36 other companies for the award and had to present a full business plan to a panel of six judges, including specific ideas of how the Bright Ideas funds would be used to effectively finance the development of the business.
“My job at Solid Space was to look for sites for development, check there was planning permission and that the numbers stacked up. The problem was that they could not get financing. When I dug deeper into the issue, I realised it was a big problem in the UK as the government has set a target to build 400,000 new homes every year but only 115,000 were built in the last four years combined. The main reason for this housing crisis is the lack of access to finance to SME house builders. These are the ones who build the right type of housing supply – the 5 semi-detached houses or converting offices to residential. I saw a gap in the market. It’s something that we need – the country is suffering and has been for the last three decades. Prices are going up and up: the average deposit and rent in London is £80,000.
At UCL they had their own competitions where you pitched to win – we actually did win back in 2014 for our crowdfunding platform business. It was a very encouraging grounding. There were always workshops providing information about where to start, lectures, seminars and interesting business case studies etc. I hope that many other universities in the UK have such facilities because the fact that you get recognised for your efforts is very encouraging. It pushes you forward in every way – that’s what entering and winning to competition did for us.
I believe entrepreneurship can’t be taught, you can only go out there and do it. The sooner you do it, the better you get at it. It’s as simple as that.”
Whilst Taware describes First Stay as an ‘entrepreneurial adventure’, it was one that she intended to take further. Following graduation in 2015 she started FutureBricks an evolution of the idea of the crowdfunding for real estate from Real Funds. As an entrepreneur, having an idea is one thing, but getting it funded and making it reality takes real belief in it and often bags of resilience. For Taware this would prove to be the case, not least because she was entering the investment and construction sectors, traditionally white male dominated sectors.
“Initially it wasn’t easy at all. You get a lot of sceptics, especially as you are young and yes, female. Mostly it was because we were so young but I think you just have to prove yourself even if it is little by little. You always have an easy option: you can go back in the employment pool – it’s easier to give up when it is so hard. It really tests your resilience – is this really what you want to do? Do you really believe in your idea? If yes, how much do you believe it and to what extent can you go for it? To get funding I would pitch to 50-100 investors and 60% would reject the idea. At the same time as pitching you have to survive – how do you pay for yourself? I’ve gone through those struggles. I’ve rented my room on Air BnB and slept on the sofa! I’ve gone through it all and it really does test your resilience. It’s good in a way as it makes you think that ‘yes – this is it; I have to execute my vision!’. I think that’s what kept me going.
What was challenging was that our vision was so big so we had to break it down so I could get there one step at a time. We’re now in a position where we can fund SME housing projects which is great. Our vision is to fund as many small and medium-sized house building entrepreneurs as we can and indirectly help solve our housing crisis. On the other side of the market, we want to make investing in property as accessible to everyone as possible. Our platform minimum amount is £500 and we try to democratise this process of investing in property which is seen as so inaccessible or exclusive as you need a lot of capital to begin with. All of those barriers are broken through this and we hope to keep doing it. Those really are our two missions.”
These two missions aside Taware has grander ambitions for FutureBricks: to help address the challenging environmental issues the planet is facing and to effect more social issues that a sector which is the second largest employer in the UK can have.
“Going forward, because we are the financiers and have some control, we want to impose terms around our investment that say it has to be more environmentally friendly whether that’s using timber or something that’s sustainable. We’re also collecting data about how much material they are wasting and how much they are recycling, how many trees are cut down and how many are replanted. So we’re trying to impose the rules to make the housing as sustainable and environmentally friendly as we can – not just the end house but also the whole construction process – from the usage of material, to wastage and how much can be recycled as well.
From the lenders’ side what we’re trying to do (apart from making money as an investor on our platform) is to be able to see the social impact of your investment. The construction industry has a lot of economic ripple effect on footprints so you can see how many jobs your investment created. The construction industry is the 2nd biggest employer in the country. As an investor on the platform – yes you are making money, but your investment has such a good impact, from employment and then money that has to be given back to the local authority for the development and you can see and track all of that. So we want to be both sustainable and ethical as a company.”
Taware’s efforts have not gone unnoticed being identified as a rising business star and role model. Listed in the top 21 female founders in the Fintech industry by Innovative Finance, in the top 40 coolest people in Fintech by Business Insider. More recently FutureBricks was shortlisted in the London Business Awards and Taware was selected to go on a trade mission to New York one of one 14 UK Female Founders exploring international expansion and break down barriers in accessing capital for female entrepreneurs.
Whilst she welcomes the attention in order to help profile her business, it does not impact her business decisions as she has both feet firmly planted on the ground.
“I think the good attention you get when your work is recognised is very encouraging but it doesn’t directly impact the business because I think as an entrepreneur, you really know what is the bottleneck and what is the bottom line. I think that keeps you grounded in reality. You are always thinking about ‘what next?’ or ‘what now?’ ‘We’ve got the platform but how can we be better?’ It’s always about the drive to improve and be better, introduce more product. It’s that hunger in our belly as a company as well. So it doesn’t affect me in that sense but it’s about keeping your feet on the floor.”
Taware’s story illustrates, if one was needed that we live in a global world, one in which our children will need to compete for employment and collaborate to solve the challenges that lie ahead, be these gender and racial inequality, environmental challenges and social issues. She has this advice for our younger readers but there are nuggets for all budding entrepreneurs.
“I think that if you’ve found the gap in the market and if you think that you can really solve that problem better, or solve it in the first place, then go for it. I know it can be daunting and you might have a lot of doubts but I feel that especially if you are young like myself, then go for it; you have nothing to lose because later on in life you might have a family and a mortgage. This is the time to experiment and the time to be brave. The third piece of advice would be to be very determined; there will be a lot of challenges and things won’t go to plan; they never go according to plan so you have to be open minded and go through it – be resilient, keep at it and never give up.”
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