Founder of the month: Aija Pope
Written by Clare Adamson
In this month’s edition, we had the privilege of interviewing Aija Pope, CEO and co-founder of Terra Waste. Aija went from working in public relations and communication to becoming the CEO of a deep technology company, a field she previously knew nothing about. Read along to discover the story of how her tenacity, grit and vision propelled her into the career of her dreams.
Navigating career choices
Born and raised in Riga, Latvia, as a young girl Aija’s life ambitions were to own a horse farm. Her love for animals was translated into wanting to become a veterinarian, a career path that speaks to many girls. However, when the time came to choose her higher education, she admitted to herself that she wasn’t ready to spend 6 years at university in the medical field. She had a deep desire for corporate success, but also considered herself free-spirited and creative, which is why she chose to study communications. Aija grew from being a project assistant at a PR agency to freelancing for various businesses where she was skilfully streamlining processes of communication.
Becoming a CEO
When the 2020 covid pandemic hit, her life, like many of us, came to a sudden halt. This unexpected pause gave her time to reflect and reset. Aija found herself scrolling through Facebook one night when she stumbled upon an advertisement for a business masterclass. Commercialization Reactor taught aspiring entrepreneurs a comprehensive roadmap and how-to class on launching a business. Aija had a dormant dream of being a CEO but had not yet discovered her business idea. She only knew that she wanted to be a part of something that would truly revolutionise life and leave a positive impact on generations to come. Through this masterclass, her passion was ignited, and she was introduced to professors who generously shared their knowledge and industry best practices, supplying her with the knowledge she needed to take the next step.
At the end of the course Commercialization Reactor organised match-making events with budding entrepreneurs and scientists with groundbreaking deep technology. Deep tech is differentiated from regular tech as the business model is based on high-technology innovation in engineering or significant scientific advances. It was through this event that Aija met her co-founder: Payam Zargarzadeh, a scientist from The University of Cranfield who had discovered a groundbreaking way to revolutionise waste management. There was instant chemistry between the team members. They joined forces with Shailendra Vyakarnam and Kristaps Cirulis, and the decision was unanimous: she would be the CEO of Terra Waste.
This considered, Aija felt a lot of imposter syndrome in the first years of the start-up. She was a first-time founder and CEO and sometimes felt out of place among the grey-haired, serious faced men she met at deep tech conferences. On top of that it was intimidating for her to be a first-time manager for people who were older than her and had more experience in the industry. She credits her persistence and tenacity in this role to the support of her team: “they gave me fertile ground to grow, if it weren’t for them, it would have been harder to get to this position.” One thing that Aija wished more people knew about her, is that although her jobs in the past have required her to be an extrovert, she also considers herself as an introvert. She was constantly being pushed out of her comfort zone in networking events and at mixers which took a lot of courage and guts to execute.
Terra Waste specializes in the remarkable transformation of non-recyclable waste into valuable, carbon-negative materials. Their innovation-driven technology, ‘htloop,’ is founded on the principles of Hydrothermal Liquefaction (HTL). This process enables the conversion of both organic and inorganic waste into bio-liquid under the influence of high pressure and temperature. ‘htloop’ facilitates the transformation of waste into crude oil, biochar, high-value chemicals, and organic raw materials that can be further processed to create sustainable, valuable, and circular products.
Founded in Latvia, Terra Waste’s journey began after the team’s initial encounter at the Commercialization Reactor. However, their ambition and success have now expanded beyond borders, with significant partnerships established in Austria. While the opportunity to establish their base in various countries was available, extensive research led them to choose The Netherlands due to its startup-friendly policies and laws. Aija highlights the innovative ecosystem and potential for collaboration and scalability in the Netherlands. Terra Waste’s future aspirations include raising 4 million euros to initiate the construction of their first pilot plant, marking the transition from a lab-scale operation to a semi-industrial-scale enterprise.
The value of effective communication
While Aija’s unconventional background in communications initially appeared to be a barrier to becoming a CEO, it is also one of the experiences she credits as having a great influence on her success. In her previous positions as a public relations officer for companies both internally and externally, she learnt how to communicate to resolve a plethora of situations. Through consistent practice, she developed a great capacity for conflict management, argumentation and sales pitching. She reflects that now as a CEO, a substantial part of her role is stepping into the spotlight to pitch Terra Waste to potential investors and clients. Aija is constantly selling their business and is responsible for convincing people that their technology is both valuable and durable.
This does not come without its challenges. Despite Aija being the lead spokesperson and CEO of Terra Waste, she has also discovered certain environments where potential clients and VC investors would rather talk to her male co-founders than her. This is an unfortunate reality for many founders who are women. Aija recounts examples of this in more conservative markets with traditionalist views on the roles of women. “Nobody was looking at me in the eye or directing their questions towards me.” This was disheartening for Aija, but these experiences only made her bolder. She was determined to prove that she had a thorough understanding of the chemistry and science that built the technology at Terra Waste.
When her colleagues who are men were not able to attend the follow up meetings, the other stakeholders had no other choice but to direct their questions to her. This opportunity was pivotal in her founder journey because it empowered her to break the stereotypes and prove that she was the right person for the job. By demonstrating her knowledge and passion she earned the respect of their stakeholders. Now Aija reflects that while she wishes her expertise was not questioned, but she’s also more at ease, knowing she doesn’t have to prove herself to anyone. “In the end we want the deal to happen, we are not there to prove anyone’s worth. The business has to grow, and we shouldn’t let our egos go into play,” when trying to make a deal.
Empowering other women
Aija shares more about her story and the stories of other women founders through her podcast: Baltic Boss Babes. One evening when she was chatting to one of her friends who is a CEO within the hospitality industry, they realised that despite the difference in their fields, they shared challenges such as being overlooked and undervalued. Together they hope to inspire more women to take that leap of faith and begin their founder journey despite the challenges stacked against them because “it’s a lot of fun.” They feature women from all around the world and have a waiting list of 30 founders who want to feature on their podcast before the end of the year.
“A lot of women are struggling with the fact that they are scared about whether or not they will make it, and what everyone will think if [they] quit [their] job and start something completely different.” To them, Aija would like to say, in the famous words of Nike, “just do it,” she continues “we can learn and adapt to almost anything, and so fulfilling some of your desires is an absolute must for women because there is nothing more fulfilling than feeling like something you created brings value to others and to yourself as well.”
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