Paula Picardo is one of the founders of Xylo Sweden, a young company that wants to revolutionise the way we see waste and help businesses transition to the circular economy. She is a passionate entrepreneur that believes that “circularity is the answer to many of the problems that we face today”. Paula has an incredible energy and positivity, and I had the opportunity to chat with her recently. We talked about entrepreneurship, sustainability, circular economy and more.
You said before that beginning the journey as an entrepreneur is extremely exciting and terrifying at the same time. What inspired you to become an entrepreneur and how did you get started on this journey?
I was working in my dream job as a sustainability specialist in the construction industry focused on circularity. The company has strong values that I resonate with and had made some progress in driving change, but I realized that pushing hard was necessary to bring about significant changes in a traditional and male-dominated industry. Even if you work in a great company, I understood that broader industry and societal changes were essential for meaningful impact.
The construction industry is very wasteful. We worked with minimizing the waste and succeeded in reducing 20% in 2 years which was a huge achievement! I wanted to continue because there was a huge opportunity but it was pushed back. We showed results but our efforts were not fully embraced. I felt that it was possible to do better. I decided to explore opportunities outside the company to collaborate with the industry and actively work towards reducing waste.
I started by thinking about the textile industry. As you may know viscose is made out of wood. Wood waste is very complex because there is a lot of volume. It is expensive and takes a lot of space. To create viscose you need virgin wood. I realized that most of the virgin wood that we use comes from China and also from rain forests in Vietnam which is a big problem because it contributes to deforestation. I started to see the connections. The wood used in viscose fibers is soft wood. The construction industry uses soft wood. There are huge amounts of wood that goes into incineration that could go to a product. I started thinking about how we can link these different systems. I decided to give it a try. That was the beginning.
You saw an opportunity to do things differently. That there were solutions but this was not being taken into account.
Yes there was an opportunity. At the start I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do. But I had the right conditions to start this because I have good support around me. I don’t think that I am especially brave (smile). This is very important for people to understand. I took the decision because I was in a space that I could take the decision.
I can understand that. Sweden is a good country to start a business. Not that much bureaucracy and there is a lot of institutional support. If things fail there is also a good social security system. So why not do it?
That was my thought. What could happen and what could be the worst case scenario? I can fail and I lose one year of my savings but I will find another job. So I gave myself a year. I prepared a business proposal and I sent it to a lot of people and there was support. I realized that I had a huge network to tap on.
It is very interesting that you mention that. One of the things that I become aware recently is that most of us already have a good network, resources and the skills that we can leverage to get started.
This is what happened to me. I started to reach out to connections. I am super grateful for my previous company which allowed me to get to know so many people in this sector. If I hadn’t had my previous job in a great company with such amazing people, I would probably not have this opportunity.
Your previous work experience was a good stepping stone.
Yes it really helped to get started with my company. This is also something that I don’t often hear about in the stories of entrepreneurs. There is a lot that we can tap into. I didn’t realize how big and how powerful of a network I had.
What have been the biggest challenges with working with corporations and changing their mindset to prioritize sustainability? Can you share how you are helping these professionals see the opportunity in waste materials?
In my previous job, the biggest challenge was that people didn’t want to be told how to do things or change the way they work. Also the environment in the construction industry is very male dominated and unfortunately women are often not taken seriously, especially from the sustainability field. In my work I often go into sites and sometimes I would not be seen in the most positive way. That was the most challenging. But in some situations, I reached out to an ally – a good professional that was invested in sustainability. Through him, it was easier to reach out to people and help them change.
How are you doing that at Xylo Sweden? When you work with companies and people that push back?
It is much easier to talk about this now. After the war started and the construction materials got much more expensive, it became more visible that resources are not infinite.
But to answer your question, our approach when we talk about sustainability and resources, is to use positive communication. It has been proven that when you talk about it in a negative way, people close their minds because it is very uncomfortable. As human beings we want to protect ourselves.
That is why we redefined how we talk about waste. It is not about waste, it is about resources. This idea is very very helpful when you talk with someone who is very reticent. You have to make them understand that you are not there to challenge them. We are there to support them. A lot of these professionals have many years of experience. They are already doing a good job, but you can help them understand that they can do better. This is how you reach people.
This is how we connect all these people from these different industries. You have to show what is positive for them. What do they gain? What’s in it for them?
That brings me to my next question. One of the focus of Xylo Sweden is the collaboration. You talk about the multi-sector collaboration model. How do you help the different industries to work together?
When we approached people from the fashion industry, they were very receptive. They did not reject the idea to be in the same space as the waste sector. They understood that we were talking about materials. What is waste in some places, it is a resource in other places. It is important to make people understand that behind the waste, there is a resource.
Also you have to involve people and use their expertise. If I can make them understand how they can be part of the solution and why it is important, then it becomes easier. It is important to make people understand that we are all in this together and we can learn from each other. That is why we talk so much about collaboration.
Can you describe what is some of impact your company is making?
One benefit is making companies save money. You can reduce waste management costs because the waste is reduced. There are costs when you buy the material, costs for the people working with the materials and costs for the waste management. This financial cost you can significantly reduce, once you start to work strategically with zero waste. This is a clear and tangible benefit.
Another impact relates to the CO2 emissions. When you have less waste and you manage the material better, there are less emissions. When you account for emissions, you account for emissions factors and this is one scope which is called Scope 3. This is something that many companies report on. If you are a listed company, you will have to report on the different scopes, such as the electricity, fuel and the waste of the supply chain and inform your stakeholders.
In regards to societal change, we want to inspire people, communities and companies. As we work with companies in Sweden, this serves as an example for companies in other markets.
Waste is one of the biggest problems in the construction industry. We want to show how we can use it as a resource and sell the waste. This can be replicated to other corporations in Europe. Most businesses are led by profit. In this case they save money and we have better buildings and better waste management. When companies in Sweden see this as a solution and an opportunity, and not as a problem, others will follow and the system will change.
What is your approach to reach out the companies?
We attend the industry events to reach out to businesses directly and present our services. We also do a lot of inbound marketing. I am very active on Linkedin and promote our activities. We make our services visible in a very organic way. This is also because one of our values is transparency. We want to be super transparent with everything that we do. I am also a member of The Break Fellowship 2023 which is a huge network with a lot of SMEs which is also a way to connect with companies.
Final question, what keeps you motivated?
What makes me realize that I made the right decision is meeting someone like you that is inspired by us and other like-minded people. Since I became an entrepreneur, I connected with so many amazing people. It is extremely inspiring! So many people around us want to support women entrepreneurs.
Sustainability is my way of living. I try to be very mindful of that in everything I do. I want a world for the future. There is a need to see things in a different way. There is a need for actions that are better for the environment, for society and for the future generations. How can I not want to be part of this? How can I say no to this and go to the corporate job again? I want to be part of this ecosystem and that is what keeps me motivated. There is a transformation happening. All the industries are changing. It is alive and that gives me a lot of energy!
It is so inspiring to hear that! As we connect with like minded people, we feel stronger and supported and the movement becomes bigger.
Yes and hopefully I can inspire you to create your own company (smile). That you can feel that you are not alone, there is a lot of support and there are a lot of people like you who want to change things for the better.
I am here because I think that at the end of the day we all want to do our best. I feel confident and positive that the future is bright. There is hope in a very tangible way!
Xylo Sweden AB provides professional service for businesses on sustainability reporting, GHG emission accounting, nordic ecolabel certification. If you want to support their work please like and follow Paula Picardo and her co-founder Jinqin Yang at https://xylorevolution.com.
This interview was conducted as part of the Sustainability, Entrepreneurship, and Technology Master´s Degree at Tomorrow University of Applied Sciences, accredited through WU Executive Academy, Vienna.