Founder Profile: Harsha Ravindran (Penn25)

MEET HARSHA RAVINDRAN, TEENAGE ENTREPRENEUR

SUPERSTAR FOUNDER OF STARTMYNAME.COM and ASCENDANCE

Born in Johor and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Harsha began her entrepreneurship journey at age 11 as she watched her mom bootstrap a business to support the family. Harsha and her sister followed their mom along on business meetings, helped brainstorm new ideas, and attended talks at a local social business incubator.

In her early teens, Harsha co-founded Ascendance, a global youth movement in Malaysia that works with over 35,000 students across 28 countries. For these efforts, she received the Diana Award for Social Action and Humanitarian work from the Diana Foundation, UK.

As Harsha traveled through South East Asia, she learned that nearly 70% of the 70 million small and medium business enterprises there had no online presence. So when she was 17, she founded StartMyName.com which designs, builds and maintains websites. Harsha quickly garnered over 400 clients, which helped these small offline businesses scale online, aiding many small businesses to sustain and grow during the pandemic.

Harsha shares her raw experiences navigating the entrepreneurial world at such a young age in her recently published book, “The Makings of a Teenage Entrepreneur” and she’s built an instructive companion online platform.

Her book documents both the fun, exciting experiences and the serious, hard-hitting stories of her journey — from positive experiences like speaking at TEDx events and getting accepted into the University of Pennsylvania to more challenging circumstances such as learning how to manage clients, build teams and work hard to make the business grow.

Harsha says, “I hope that all of these experiences will inspire others to become entrepreneurs as well…If you have an idea of what you are passionate about, go for it and find the right environment of people that can foster the idea into reality.”

Harsha is currently doing a distance learning Bachelor’s program at Penn in the College of Arts & Sciences. Her expected graduation date is in 2025. She’s currently home in Malaysia, but hopes to be on campus either this coming semester or next.

What inspired you to start your business — what opportunity in the market are you seeking to address?

Other than being a student at Penn, I also previously co-founded Ascendance, a global youth movement in Malaysia, where I’m from, that works with over 35,000 students across 28 countries. To date, we work with over 700 communities in South-East Asia alone and have received the Diana Award for Social Action and Humanitarian work from the Diana Foundation, UK.

In the 7 years that Ascendance has been running, I’ve been fortunate to work across the South-East Asia region in meeting and helping many small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Primarily during the Covid-19 pandemic, we noticed that many of these SMEs did not have access to tools or the expertise needed to go online affordably, with these issues disproportionately affecting businesses run by housewives, single-mothers and women who were supporting their families.

With over 70% of all the 70 million SMEs in South-East Asia having no online presence, we decided to start StartMyName.com to address this 3 trillion dollar market by providing SMEs with a simple, fast and affordable way to take their first steps online through template based websites, while providing opportunities for them to further grow online through our extended services and packages. I was fortunate to be able to help 400+ SMEs go online affordably through StartMyName.com and help these small offline businesses scale online, aiding many SMEs during the pandemic to sustain and grow.

Our aim is to bridge the growing digital divide and help accelerate the growth of the region, as these SMEs contribute billions of dollars collectively to the South-East Asian GDP and failure to help them go online could have detrimental long-term economic effects on these developing nations.

What is it about your personal background, experience, or perspective that fuels your passion for this venture?

My life changed when I was 11 and my mother (a single mother herself) decided to quit her job and become an entrepreneur. With 2 kids and 2 aging parents to support, I watched her bootstrap her business from handing out flyers in malls to where it is today — working with top C-suite execs, global MNCs and more.

At every stage my sister and I were there with her, observing, learning and participating in whatever she did. We followed her for business meetings, talks, workshops; brainstormed ideas together on the next project she would be working on. I even learnt how to make simple, affordable template based websites because I made her business website when I was about 13. It showed me how something so pivotal such as going online could be done in such a simple way with the right support and knowledge, and it saved my mom the time, energy and funds in figuring it out, letting her spend them instead on her actual work.

At the same time, watching my mother, and by extension to her network, being surrounded by entrepreneurs from her friends at a local social business incubator, ET Ideas, taught me so many invaluable lessons, from goal setting, confidence, thinking skills, creativity, compassion, leadership, problem-solving, persistence, communication and more. It completely transformed who I was from a shy, unconfident kid to a straight-A scoring, confident and focused individual who believed that even the sky was not a limit.

It enabled me to co-found my venture, Ascendance, at age 13 with other students (aged 13 to 19) whose parents were also entrepreneurs with the aim to bring the exposure, guidance and platform we received to mainstream education. We started ground-up like most of the entrepreneurs I serve today through StartMyName, from cold-calling teachers and companies alike, traveling to schools around the country and region, going for potential partnership meetings, handing out flyers at booths at malls and events, figuring out how to use Facebook for branding/marketing, showing up to physical events, organizing and executive projects of all sizes with whatever resources were available around us.

In the last 7 years of running Ascendance, we have built it into an international youth movement that has worked with over 35,000 students from 28 countries. Today we partner with the Malaysia Ministry of Education to slowly bring our work to every school in the country and are reaching out to other countries around the world to do the same. We received the Diana Award in 2019 by the Diana Foundation, UK for our social work and humanitarian efforts.

This year we are also piloting our “Teenage Entrepreneur Challenge” (one of our initiatives) with Wharton Interactive to bring a glimpse of Wharton’s world-class education to students from developing communities with other initiatives such as our Global Young Changemakers Conference bringing in a crowd of almost 20,000 students in 2021, with an expected crowd of 50,000 this September for the 2022 iteration.

What are one or two of the biggest wins or most encouraging experiences you’ve had so far?

Seeing our clients grow has been our biggest wins so far. For instance, one of our clients, a housewife and mother of 3, was running a completely offline traditional skincare product business from products she developed at home using natural ingredients. She first started working with us for a simple 1-page website to list her products online, over time, as her business grew from it, she started upgrading her website slowly. Today, she has a full-fledged e-commerce site with us that aids her sales and business. At the same time, she grew from making 10k sales annually to 100k, growing her business by 10X from her online presence.

Source: Start My Name

What has been one or two of your biggest learnings so far?

My biggest learning has been to listen to the customers. Many times when we think of helping offline businesses go online, we believe that we have all the answers and that they are in need of our help. However, I’ve discovered that these offline businesses are run by extremely talented (though often overlooked) entrepreneurs from the ground up who have come up with brilliant ideas, processes and systems that have kept their businesses growing for years and their families alive.

Instead of trying to force down our own preconceived notions of what “going online” means for a business, we’ve been able to help our clients so much more by listening and observing to what they are already doing right and find ways to enhance it with the technology we bring to the table.

Our templates are hence modelled based on feedback and conversations we’ve had with these entrepreneurs, supporting what they’ve been doing instead of trying to replace it. After all, they are the ones who know their own customers and communities best.

What is an obstacle that you are grappling with as you continue to build this venture?

Gaining support to scale has been a little tough as we are at a point where I am raising a seed round so that we can improve our technology to serve a wider audience and gain the resources to tap into the larger market of over 70 million small and medium businesses.

What has been the most rewarding thing about starting your own business?

Meeting and learning about the creativity of these brilliant and strong SME owners who continuously surprise me with their ingenuity and awesome ideas in meeting their sales targets, attracting new customers and coming up with new ideas and products.

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to serve this community as its taught be what running a business is all about at it’s bare essentially — serving others through creativity and innovation while making profit to sustain oneself in return.

How can the WAFFA community help you?

I am looking for potential angel investors who would like to contribute to our seed round. This is the first time I am raising a round and would be grateful for any advice and support possible. We are raising a seed round of $600,000 with a minimum check size of $25,000.

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