I’M PULSE | Lefika Otisitswe
“The environment needs to change. We provide the Impulse!”
Have you ever wondered what type of people work for Impulse, what they actually do, and what drives them to work for this start-up? Well, buckle up because, in this interview series, we put all team members in the spotlight. Lefika is the first one on the Impulse stage and not just because he’s the founder and CEO of this company. As a winner of UT’s Most Entrepreneurial Student Award in 2020, he has more to share than his solid start-up pitch.
I thought it would be good to start from the beginning, back when you founded Impulse. Could you tell me how that process went for you?
I felt ignorant because I was consuming all these products but didn’t know if they aligned with my sustainable ideals. However, I didn’t know how to calculate my footprint either. As I was going through this personal dilemma, I got in touch with someone at the UT who told me about carbon compensation. After refining the idea for a few months, Impulse was born in April 2019! Initially, the idea was just to have Holocene, allowing consumers to compensate emissions for products in an online store. However, when we were pitching our idea to possible clients, there was this hunger to do better than just compensating. I felt conflicted as well, as this solution didn’t counteract the existing carbon footprint, it does not actually reduce human imposed carbon emissions. That’s when we came up with the reduction system, whereby we not only analyse your product but also analyse the processes in your company and advise on how to reduce your emissions innovatively.
How did you come up with the name IMPULSE?
We didn’t want it to be a cliché name for an environmental business, like ‘green impact’. We tried to think of a name that was more tech-savvy and linked to our ideals. At some moment, we got it: we believe that sustainability is an impulse of ours and thus our goal is to help everyone act sustainably in an impulse. The carbon-problem is a technology-driven lifestyle-issue. To improve we need to change. And except for some whistleblowers and early-ideologists, most of us need an impulse from someone, somewhere, sometime to start our change process, be it personal or business. That someone, somewhere, sometime is IMPULSE.
And what advice would you give me if I were to found a start-up with a similar fancy name?
You need the right team. The people you choose should complement your skillset, share the same drive for change and help you grow the company. Without a good team, there will be unnecessary bottlenecks in the development of your start-up. The second thing is your network. You can have the best idea in the world, but if you don’t have a network to get you where you need to go, that idea will remain an idea until someone else with a good network takes it up.
I am sure that you have experienced some hurdles as well. Could you share one of your biggest ones?
As a university student, I had to learn how to plan. Studying was my full-time job, but when we founded Impulse these two priorities started to compete for my time. If you don’t have good planning skills, there is a big possibility that these two will both collapse. You need to learn how to prioritize. I had my fair share of struggles, but I wouldn’t do it differently because I appreciated the experience. My dad always said to me: a man that fails to plan is planning to fail. My father wrote his whole plan for life down. He even planned when I would be born and when I would graduate. I’m not a master planner like my dad, but I always plan for at least five years.
‘We believe that sustainability is an impulse of ours and thus our goal is to help everyone act sustainably in an impulse.’
*laughs* Everything! If we look at it from a legal perspective, I am liable for the entire company. It’s my responsibility to make sure that everything within Impulse is done in order. Therefore, I am heavily involved in all teams. I also have a strategic role: I lead the company to help to pave a clear pathway to where we’re going. The mission of Impulse is to give businesses and consumers a route to a sustainable future. Therefore, we want to become sustainability experts of choice.
How do you think other team members perceive you in this role?
I hope everybody who works for Impulse doesn’t see me as the classical CEO but as their peer. I think this is possible as we all work for Impulse because of the same vision, and it is with this vision that we work. My managerial style is relaxed and independent. I want everyone to feel free and to work towards how they want to work. However, we are also result-driven.
Result-driven can feel like a lot of pressure, how do you keep the chill company culture?
We challenge you, but we don’t want you to get a burn-out either. Therefore, we have a system of helping each other. When you think you cannot do the task, you let the whole team know, and there will be someone to help you. In this way, we ensure results with the minimum amount of stress.
Do you feel like this blurs the lines between the functions and possibly makes people take advantage of each other?
Every time we add someone new to our team, we introduce them to our organizational chart. This chart shows how we would like to set up our company ideally. However, due to our small team, that is not entirely possible yet. That’s why we have hat assignments. You can get assigned permanent or temporary hats. For example, Guido temporarily worked in the life-cycle analysis team, but he is the permanent services manager.
As you described the hats and the role you have in the team, what traits make you irreplaceable?
Actually, nobody is irreplaceable. There are for instance multiple soccer teams that managed to become the champion of their leagues even on more than one occasion and leadership. But there are many more teams that never won anything. A successful team is the result of a complicated match of factors, I am more than anything grateful for the role I am allowed to contribute in.
I think of myself as someone that brings everyone together like I am a connective body. I can relate to most people, and make other people understand each other. Our team consists of people from different genders, different cultures, and different ages, but we work well together. I like all aspects of the company: from communications to services and HR. I also enjoy networking, strategic thinking, and trying to think of the next goal for our team.
You have a wide interest span, but are you skilled enough in all these aspects?
Well, I’m probably what they call a multipotentialite, and time will tell whether I’m skilled enough to make this a success, but so far so good. I am a foreigner, I have only been living in the Netherlands for four years now, and I come from a different culture. However, I have built a network for myself, and start a company with the laws of this country, which four years ago I did not know. Even people my age who were born here often don’t know how to do that.
It takes a type of mindset and commitment for someone like me to make the people around you understand what you’re trying to do, and have people back you at these ideas. I met Dutch people that didn’t speak English, that now do because they want to be on that level with me. I have had people from Twente giving me money… *pauses for dramatic effect* Dutch people want to see the return of their investments because they value their money. If a Dutch person is giving you their money to use, then you should know that they trust you with their life.
‘You can have the best idea in the world, but if you don’t have a network to get you where you need to go, that idea will remain an idea until someone else with a good network takes it up.’
How did you work towards your goals as a first-year student? I can imagine that getting used to the Netherlands and university life is already quite a challenge.
I took every opportunity there was that could potentially help me to get closer to the ideal picture I have of myself as a sustainability person. I found the design lab, whereby I was heavily active in all sustainability events. Also, I always made myself heard in what I think. Many people like how I envision sustainability, so I started to gain respect. If outside companies attended those events, I would go up to them and tell them about my ambitions and get their LinkedIn. I did all this because I understood that I needed these people to get where I wanted to go.
In a first-year project, I also met Maurice Beijk. Maurice gave us a tour at a factory that he helped at reducing their emissions immensely. I was impressed. I needed to tell him about my ambitions, so I did. He was impressed by my pitch and invited me for a meeting with him in which I told him more about my ideologies and aspirations. Afterwards, he invited me over to his house to meet his family. That’s when I met his son Guido (who now is our services manager), his daughter and his mom. When they were discussing where to go on holiday, I suggested Botswana. My family hosted them for four weeks, and we travelled around. Since that holiday, Maurice introduces me to people as his son from Botswana, which still feels weird.
Why is it weird? It sounds like a wholesome and beautiful story.
It is weird because you don’t expect a random Dutchman treating you as his son, taking care of you, and changing your life. Guido honestly feels like a brother to me, and our two families are very close. When my dad passed away, they called Maurice first to come and tell me. Later I found out that Maurice is Mr Sustainability of this region and also in the Netherlands. Maurice would take me to his meetings, where he introduced me to all these people before I even had a start-up, and it only got “worse” when I had one!
Coming back to when you told Maurice about your ambitions, why do you have this dream to help Botswana towards a more sustainable future?
Honestly, frustration caused this dream. Botswana is one of the few countries in the world that has direct sunlight throughout the whole year. Moreover, we only have 2.5 million people. Botswana could easily power everyone with solar energy. It made me wonder why we are not the leading country in solar energy. I wanted to study in a country where sustainability matters. If you go up to someone in Botswana and talk about carbon emissions, they will respond like: ‘what are you talking about…?’
How do you integrate these personal career goals for Botswana into the work you do for Impulse?
The reason why I set up Impulse, is because if I can be successful here, I can be successful in business anywhere. I believe the way to combat climate change is by reducing companies’ emissions, as they often emit most of them. I also want to create a bridge between Botswana and the Netherlands. I believe that these countries could help each other in terms of knowledge, services and products. Even though I know that things won’t always go your way, I learned from my family that when you’re very positive and strategic, you can make your fuck-ups look like things that you planned.
Thank you for all your stories and insights! To wrap up this interview, could you share a personal tip as inspiration for others to reduce their environmental footprint?
I want to encourage people to think consciously about their consumer decisions. When you buy a product of five euros from Amazon, is it worth the packaging, the shipping and all? Absorb life-cycle thinking in your life!