Sanchali Pal‘s entrepreneurial journey stemmed from a personal goal of diminishing her carbon footprint. In 2017, while completing her MBA, she had an idea to create an app to track user’s food choices and show how food consumption impacts climate change. After winning a place in HBS’s Startup Bootcamp the following year, her idea evolved into a broader goal of reducing carbon emissions. Working with other graduate students committed to fighting global warming, she co-founded, Joro, a technology platform that enables users to track and improve their carbon footprints on their smartphones. Within a tumultuous eighteen months, Pal raised capital. She established Joro as a pioneering tech startup working to combat one of the most pressing problems of our time—global warming.
In a focused interview with Shikhar Ghosh, Pal discusses her unexpected path to entrepreneurship, insights she gained on fundraising, and the daily realities of being CEO at a growing early-stage company. A transcript, lightly edited for clarity, follows each video segment.
Starting Joro Instead of Joining Tesla’s Team
What made Pal decide to launch her own company instead of accepting a role at a more established mission-driven company? Tesla, whose mission she admired, offered her a position after she graduated from HBS. She recalls, “I didn’t anticipate that I would be starting my own company right after school.”
But as she investigated the problem of climate change, she discovered a gap in the market. A product to help individuals track how food consumption affected their carbon footprints didn’t exist. “We have those tools for our health. We have them for our fitness. We have them for how we manage our money,” she observes. “But something as important as climate, we don’t have good tools for managing it.”
She realized, “there are so many smart people working at Tesla.” If she turned down the role, the production of electric cars would continue. But the product she envisioned might not materialize.”
I felt like if I don’t do this, then maybe this won’t exist in the way I think it should in the world. I had a pretty strong opinion about what this product needed to look like, and I wanted to be able to shape that.
A Mission to Offset Global Warming
Today, Joro is a mobile app that helps people take collective action on climate change, starting with their individual carbon footprints. The platform provides an “easy, fun, and accessible” way for people to make sustainable choices. Those individual choices “add up to big change when we make them together.” How does it work? Joro analyzes a user’s credit card statements as a first data input to estimate an individual’s carbon footprint. “We can do that on an automated basis without a ton of manual input from a user,” Pal explains.
If many people used the app, could it affect the pattern of global warming? Pal has data to demonstrate it can. “Consumer demand is responsible for 60% of greenhouse gas emissions in the world,” and consumer demand “directly affects more than half of the emissions in the world.” She continues, “If each person can improve our footprint by just 12%—so that’s a relatively achievable change for almost anyone regardless of their starting point—we can meet the Paris climate goals.” That equates to keeping global greenhouse gas emissions at a level of global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius. This, Pla emphasizes, is “a significant lever for change.”
Identifying the Right Problem
Since 2018, Pal has dedicated herself to building a viable company from an idea she passionately believed in. “The journey started as an idea for a product that I wanted in my own life and I went looking for it in the real world.” She remembers, “I tried lots of calculators online, carbon footprint tools; tried building my own Excel spreadsheet as a decision-making tool. I found them all to be frustrating or in some way deficient, and really not fun because so much about climate has been about guilt and shame, and so that was really the place that we started.”
She began by applying lean startup methods to her idea, “coming up with a short design version—no actual building.” She tested paper prototypes with people. Eventually, she developed an idea of “what a solution might look like to this problem that I had defined.” But she knew she couldn’t build the platform on her own. She began connecting with others who explored the problem from different angles—”who had worked on data, who had worked on software development around carbon footprinting tools.”
After convening a group who felt passionately about solving the problem, Pal and Joro won some initial grant money and developed a small low-fi product to test with users.” She elaborates, “We basically invested three to four weeks of intensive development experience and work to build a very minimum viable product of the app.” After testing that with about fifty to a hundred users over the course of several months, they began to conduct in-depth customer interviews to understand what was working, what wasn’t. Before she began fundraising, Pal wanted to see “significant interest from the users and high engagement.” At that point, she started exploring possible business models that she could build around the product.
Only once we felt like we’d gotten some customer research that there would be monetization on the other side of it, did we actually think about raising the money to build it.
The Fundraising Journey
As a graduate of HBS, Pal felt prepared to raise money. Did the process match her expectations? She confesses, “you can know the process, but you don’t know how to actually raise money.” Having contextual knowledge of investors’ expectations and term sheets, definitely helped. And understanding how to build a pitch deck proved useful. But, she adds, “there is no substitute for just going out and trying to raise money and failing, and then having to revise.”
No amount of reading can substitute for the actual experience of getting the feedback and having to go back to the drawing board again and re-explain yourself.
After winning grant money and building out an MVP, she felt ready to raise capital. “I put together my ten-slide deck and I set up some meetings with investors.” She had nearly ten meetings over the course of two weeks, she remembers, and “Every single one of them said no. I felt extremely disheartened after that. I thought I had done all my research and I would be ready.”
Many founders grow daunted by hearing “no” repeatedly. But Pal used the process as a learning experience. “After going through that process, I decided to change some of my deck.” She also reordered Joro’s story. To highlight the team’s unique value, she moved the team slide to the front of the deck. She also presented a “stronger opinion about which monetization channel was going to come first.”
Feedback also pushed her to gather more data on users. Increasing from 20 to 50 or 100 users gave them “more meaningful data about what was working” and help assuage investors’ concerns.
Some of these things you can only learn when you’re talking and getting real feedback.
After listening to feedback from investors, diving deeper into customer research, and adapting her pitch accordingly, Pal “went out to raise money again. And by that time, I was a little bit more successful in raising from angel investors and then eventually from a VC.”
Learning from Investors’ Feedback
What was the most important early feedback Pal received from investors that could help other founders? “It wasn’t good enough to present two different hypotheses on monetization.” They expected that she would have completed some testing and have an initial sense of which to start with.
She also discovered that first impressions and reactions remained consistent. People didn’t change their minds about the company over time, even if they took a second meeting.
I learned that it is hard for people to part with their money. If someone doesn’t have an initial reaction that maybe this could work, then they probably will never reach that.
To other early-stage founders reaching out to investors, Pal advises, sell investors on your team. “We’re the team to do this. This is the mission, this is the goal, and no one else can do it like we will.” She elaborates, it comes down to asking, “What change in the world are we trying to build? And is that something I’m motivated to do? Is this something that I believe we’re uniquely positioned to do?”
Emphasize that you’re the team to do this. This is the mission, this is the goal. And no one else can do it like you will.
How the CEO’s Role Changes after Raising Capital
How has raising funding changed Pal’s role as CEO? “It’s definitely is a big shift when you go from just one or two people alone in a garage or a basement working with basically no capital to having a little bit of capital and now a little space to build the product” she confesses. Her days shifted from working independently, strategizing, and meeting with investors or advisors, to building a business. She estimates that she spends roughly 25% of her time on product development. That entails, “new product feature ideas, building those out, testing with users, and working on that process with our developers and designers.”
Like many early-stage CEOs, she spends significant time—25% to 50%—on hiring and building her team. “I think about what’s next and how do we get to the next stage of growth.
I spend a significant amount of my time also helping empower the other people on my team.
Being CEO at a Mission-Driven Startup
Ghosh asks, “if you compare the internal dialogue you have with yourself about what you did that day and what you’re planning to do the next day, how is that different from when you worked in a bigger company?”
Some aspects are similar. Pal reflects that she appreciates having the ability to structure her work. “Just like when I was a consultant, I have to spend time work planning and being really organized about what hypotheses I’m testing and what research I need to gather in order to deliver what’s next.” The biggest difference, she highlights, is bearing full responsibility. That can be overwhelming at times. Additionally, as CEO, “there’s no buffer between you and the company.”
Establishing Personal Criteria for Measuring Success
How can Pal determine if the risk of starting Joro was worthwhile? She views it as an opportunity to gain skills. “Even if Joro fails, I will have become an expert on climate change” and potential solutions to address it. CEOs wear multiple hats, she notes. She’s become a product manager and managed her engineering team. Building a new consumer-facing software product has increased her understanding of consumer-facing business models. She encourages other founder-CEO to reconsider their experience in this light, especially when experiencing lows in the journey.
Even if your company fails, you will have become an expert on the problem and potential solutions to address it.
In addition to technical and operational skills, she values relationships with teammates and investors. Working at a startup opens opportunities to access experts you might not encounter while working at a larger firm. Pal notes that as a founder-CEO of a mission-driven startup, she’s met investors and experts and built relationships she could not have built otherwise.
When I think about longer term in my career—what impact do I want to have in the world? Climate change is a problem and I want to be a part of the solution. And if that’s through Joro, great. If not, then it will be a stepping stone until the next solution.
Getting Comfortable with Failure as Your Role Evolves
Many founders report feeling a pervasive sense of failure during the ups and downs of the founder’s journey. Pal relates, the “role of founder requires you to do so many different things. One minute, I’m filing our tax returns in California. One minute, I’m negotiating our HR concerns.” Next, she may need to master a software product she’s never used. Often, after she learns to master one task, another arises.
She shares, “As a founder, I feel like I am constantly failing because the job evolves so quickly.” After mastering one task or system, you “immediately have to do something completely different and become the best at that thing.” She reflects “To be a founder, you have to be comfortable with failure.”
You have to be comfortable with the end failure—the end outcome being failure of the company. But you also have to be comfortable with never being good enough.
Entrepreneurship, Pal quips, is based on the concept of minimum viable—everything. “And I’ve never done anything minimum. Most founders haven’t.” She continues, “going from being the best at one thing to doing a million things terribly is really hard.”
I have to be able to separate my myself from the company. I can’t necessarily determine what path the company is going to take. But I can determine what path I’m going to take. And what skills I’m going to gain.
Learn more about Joro’s mission, track your own carbon footprint and join the community to stop global warming.