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How To Start A Social Venture While Still In School

Written by Madi Werynski

Photography: JK Liu

Trishala was an insanely busy student when she co-founded The Dialogue Xchange, and here’s how she made it work.

It can be easy to be bogged down by the idea that you’re too busy to do anything, and feel like all of your focus is on your studies.

But, although being a student is time-consuming, it’s important to make time to nurture your passions. After all, they could turn into your source of fulfillment one day.

For Trishala Pillai, that’s exactly what happened.

Trish, who is now a resident of Waterloo, was born in Bahrain and moved around while growing up. She’s lived in 7 different countries, and all that travelling broadened her perspective on world issues and topics.

“I kind of realized that there a lot of topics or voices on core social issues that were being neglected.”

This exposure to the world inspired Trish to co-found a social entrepreneurship project with Pragya Dawadi, called The Dialogue Xchange. It’s a movement that brings difficult conversations about taboo topics to the forefront of everyday life. Its effects are so positive that even Canada’s Minister of Small Business and Tourism, Hon. Bardish Chagger, got involved as a participant in a TDX event.

Trish is deeply passionate about the mission, so TDX has grown from a side-project into a business for her. Here’s how she made it work.

Why did you co-found The Dialogue Xchange?

A lot of the time, when we think of social problems, we think of the large systemic problems like poverty, environmental sustainability, homelessness, among many others and rightfully so. With that said, I got overwhelmed – I found myself having many interests, an incredibly strong desire to make the world a better place and most of my time went by thinking about creative ways to address these multifaceted problems that seemed way bigger than me and my individual skill set. We tend to forget the things in our day-to-day that are smaller that we can change to create a big impact on the same topics.

I kind of realized that there a lot of topics or voices on core social issues that were being neglected, or not really brought to the forefront. And TDX is a community-powered forum for difficult conversations, and taboo topics, that we don’t really normalize in our day-to-day.

“It was really hard to initially strike the right balance between how much work do I have to put in to grow this movement, and how do I prioritize time.”

Once I started working on this project with Pragya Dawadi, I realized how big these problems really are and that conversation (or the lack thereof) is a huge issue. Then, in my third and fourth years of university, I curated a TEDx conference that really highlighted for me the importance of storytelling and digital media. When you give someone a platform to raise their voice, it can really have a solid impact.

Can you elaborate on start-up, funding, and sponsors in the beginning stages?

We started the venture back in my fourth and final year of undergrad. In November of 2015, after TEDx, I went and joined GreenHouse – an incubator for social innovators.

The social entrepreneurial funding scene is quite small. I think it comes down to showing your investors that there is a return on investment, which is hard to do with social enterprises, because we’re still figuring out how we measure that impact in the first place. I think this comes from social innovation being such a new thing.

“I think when you’re really passionate about something, you just find a way to make it work.”

We rely on a lot of different revenue streams. We rely on ticketing for community events, and a corporate program where we charge companies $x to implement a TDX framework and track engagement on relevant social topics.

A tip to social innovators would be to nail down and figure out your social impact, which will make it a lot easier for you to convince investors that yours is a worthy cost to invest in.

What did starting up The Dialogue Xchange look like for you, as an international undergrad student?

What I had working to my advantage was the fact that I was based in Waterloo, a city that is extremely receptive to trying out new models, business ideas, products, and services. I always say this, but I truly believe that we have a very unique community here.

There’s always a lot of traction and positive response here. We have four to five incubators for students here, too. I had the resources around me constantly on campus, and a hundred-and-one incentives to be an entrepreneur as well. There’s funding opportunities, mentorships, and coaching in this city.

Getting our foot into starting this enterprise was easy, but maintaining and balancing it proved to be very difficult. As a student, you’re constantly in multiple different projects or classes, or writing exams. It was really hard to initially strike the right balance between how much work do I have to put in to grow this movement, and how do I prioritize time.

“I made it my only plan A.”

But, I think when you’re really passionate about something, you just find a way to make it work. I keep telling myself if you want to create social good and make a dent in the world with conversation, and to use conversation as a tool to establish change, then you’ve gotta put in the hours and make it work. I made it my only plan A.

Do you have advice for other student entrepreneurs like you?

Know your strengths. We’re in a competitive world where everyone is constantly trying to one-up each other, and it’s easy to lose your sense of self. It’s really important, as early on as possible in the journey, to identify what your unique contribution is, and what your one trait or skill is that makes you so indispensable. Not to prove a point to someone else, but to build your own confidence.

As long as you’re solving the same problem, and that passion remains untouched and growing, that’s the most important thing.

Additionally, I really think it’s important to fall in love with one problem and understand the solution to it may change and pivot. As long as you’re solving the same problem, and that passion remains untouched and growing, that’s the most important thing.

Finally, as an entrepreneur, it’s important to be meeting people. You can fall into the trap, once you’ve built a network, where you forget to meet new people. You have to constantly keep your networks alive and nurture them, but we can forget to do that because we can think we’ve reached where we need to reach. But no matter who you are, if you’ve established a business or are just building one, you need to nurture that network and expand it.

 “There are a lot of things that don’t work in your favour even when you bring your 120% to the table.”

Also, persistence. Just keep going. There are a lot of ups and downs in the entrepreneurial journey, and there are a lot of things that don’t work in your favour, even when you bring your 120% to the table. It’s important to stay positive, persistent, and stay resilient.

What’s been the hardest part of it all? Anything that’s almost stopped you from moving forward?

Sometimes, regardless of the event, purpose, or how sincere you are with what you’re trying to do, it doesn’t stop you from receiving criticism. This can be from people you know, or sometimes it’s strangers, but it has been very hard. In the past, I’ve taken it very personally because I fell into this trap of trying to please everyone.

But I realize that’s a utopia–it’s unattainable. Learning how to take criticism seriously but not personally has been a hard process, especially when you’re so passionate about your venture. It’s easy to get defensive.

Another difficulty was figuring out what pace to grow at. We saw a lot of traction in our first year, but were incredibly understaffed. So, sustaining that level of traction and growth was extremely difficult. We had to be self-aware and take a step back and understand that the world wanted us to move at a certain pace, but we weren’t able to handle that, and if we were to move at that pace with a rocky foundation, we would ultimately fall.

Where do you want to see your project go? What do you think your next steps are?

I really want to see project teams across the country and internationally. I want to build a framework for community members across the globe to be able to implement TDX in their community, and track the progress.

I want to see it grow into a global movement that’s building a culture of active conversationalists who are not afraid to talk about difficult topics and who want to be at the forefront of change.

*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.