“Mentoring is a bit like dancing with a partner. It’s very important to adapt to the necessities of the other party,” says Maria Rojas Fraile.
The chemical engineer turned impact-investment director knows all about adapting one’s skill set for new roles. Rojas Fraile spent 14 years at Spanish energy-giant Repsol, progressing from managing chemical and refinery processes to working in the company’s corporate-venturing division investing in technology startups.
“While I’ve learned something from every venture I’ve been involved in, you always remember the first one. For me it was Ezzing Solar, a Spanish company connecting the whole value chain of the solar power sector,” she recalls. “They currently have good growth. It was a solid investment and Repsol continues to have the company in its portfolio.”
“I knew the entrepreneurs very well and I was deeply involved in the due-diligence process. I think it was special for me, because I learned every step that’s necessary to take if you want to invest in a company.”
“It also made me realise how I really like working with entrepreneurs and helping people to develop new ventures. I’ve spent my whole career doing things for the environment and trying to understand the technologies that can help to reduce CO2 emissions,” she says.
Rojas Fraile is now a director at Spanish cleantech-investment firm Net Zero Ventures. It’s an article 9-impact fund that invests in revenue-generating climate tech companies with ESG considerations integrated into their strategies.
Having worked with entrepreneurs for a large part of her career, Rojas Fraile has perspective on the difference between investing in early-stage startups versus more mature companies. She says it’s often more rewarding to work with an entrepreneur from the inception of their venture and to see how their idea turns into reality.
“When you invest in a company that’s mature, the team is usually consolidated, stronger, and has proven capabilities, so the investor is more focused on checking what it has already been told about them. But if you meet entrepreneurs at the start of their journey – when their idea is coming purely from the heart – then you learn much more about them and their personal reasons to do it. You can also see if a team is going to work well together or not. This is very important from the investor perspective,” she observes.
Although working with entrepreneurs is part of her daily life, Rojas Fraile admits that she is risk averse by nature. From this contrast comes respect for the risk takers and a thirst to learn about their ideas.
“I do not define myself as a risk-taking person, so I value being in contact with people who are comfortable with risk,” she offers. “I think we can learn a lot from entrepreneurs, as they have a different way of seeing problems and finding solutions. Sometimes their ideas are crazy, but we need these crazy and unconventional ideas that society can develop for the future.”
As a Helsinki Incubators’ mentor for bio- and circular economy ventures in the Biosphere incubator programme, Rojas Fraile is now working with Finnish startup CleanWaters. The company – which grew out of a university project – is collaborating with researchers and environmental organisations to develop an advanced-monitoring solution for combatting microplastic pollution.
Rojas Fraile believes there is no one-size-fits-all approach to mentorship. She says every startup differs in the support it needs and that it’s up to the mentor to figure out the best approach.
“There are plenty of courses and programmes available to help entrepreneurs with things like marketing, protecting IP, commercialising, and internationalising. But the role of a mentor is to provide specific guidance in areas where it’s lacking,” she says.
Rojas Fraile appreciates that mentoring is an opportunity to work with a wider range of companies than she can in her professional investor role.
“At Net Zero Ventures, I need to invest in companies that align with the fund's theme and the maturity stage corresponding to the fund's investment thesis, which excludes numerous potentially intriguing companies.” she explains.
“But through mentorship I can work with companies outside of my investment focus. I can meet people who have great ideas in areas that I may not be as familiar with. I’m not only here to teach entrepreneurs – I'm also doing this because I myself want to learn,” she says.
Rojas Fraile is based in Madrid, but came to Helsinki at the end of August to meet the entrepreneurs and the other mentors in the programme. She was immediately struck by the diversity of backgrounds.
“I met mentors with many different profiles. Not all have backgrounds as fund managers. Some have been entrepreneurs themselves, with stories of both success and failure. The mentors help one another too, so I feel like I’m part of a community.”
“It’s a great honour for me to be part of the programme and I will do my best to help the startups as much as I can,” she adds.
This is not Rojas Fraile’s first venture into Finland’s startup scene. While working at Repsol she made an investment in Oulu-based TactoTek, a company that develops smart and sustainable moulded structures, now internationally recognised and acknowledged by major automotive original equipment manufacturers (OEMs)
“As I’m based in Spain, it's very important to get out and participate in programmes in other countries like Helsinki Incubators so we can meet future companies to invest in,” she says.
Rojas Fraile also appreciates being close to the University of Helsinki and its broad pool of researchers. When meeting academics with brilliant technical ideas, she can help them to make the jump from laboratory to market.
“The disruptive ideas related to technology are my favourite ones,” she admits. “These usually come out of academia, so being involved with the University of Helsinki is a very good opportunity to connect with the local ecosystem.”
She says the reward with mentoring comes from seeing a company succeed, even if their journey takes many years.
“I usually try to follow the companies that I mentor and be in contact them with after the mentorship period too,” she says. “It’s good to feel that you did something for them in the beginning and can be part of their future – whatever that may be.”
The University of Helsinki's entrepreneurship programmes, the Helsinki Incubators provides support and opportunities for bold thinkers in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area interested to take their ideas and turning them into impactful ventures. Interested in taking part in our pre-incubators and incubators? Subscribe to our newsletter for updates on when the next calls open.