Sara Berkai, founder and CEO of Ambessa Play

Sara Berkai photo - a young woman sitting down.

Sara is a highly accomplished CEO, spearheading Ambessa Play with her outstanding leadership skills and innovative ideas. She started her journey with grant funding, which included financial support from Innovate UK, the Design Museum as well as small grants. Such a boost of funds enabled her team to achieve the Women in Innovation Award from Innovate UK, which ultimately helped her secure roughly £200,000 in grant funding. Currently, Sara is in the process of fundraising with investors and has already secured the support of 3-4 investors. She is determined to raise £250,000 and is leaving no stones unturned to make this vision a reality.

What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?  

I have a background in technology, and my degree was a combination of business and computer science. During my studies, I developed a keen interest in everything related to the internet. I found myself volunteering to teach children how to code, as I believed that it was a fun way to pass on knowledge. Despite working in tech companies like Amazon and Cisco, I found teaching children more satisfying and enjoyable. While living in California and working for these companies, I never thought of becoming an entrepreneur. It wasn't a life goal or an ambition of mine. However, while volunteering and teaching kids coding and science workshops, I came across refugee children who had no access to electricity. They asked me if I could come up with something useful for them, like a flashlight. That's when I realised that I could use my software skills to build something that could be useful to them, but I had no knowledge of hardware. I decided to learn more about hardware during my degree, and also learned about the theory of education and how children learn. I made the most of using 3D printers in the library to build prototypes and test my ideas. I also knew that I didn't want this to be a charity, as I believed that social enterprises can be profitable, impactful, and scalable, unlike charities. My passion for technology and teaching children to code led me to discover my entrepreneurial spirit and create something useful for refugee children in need. It has been a challenging but rewarding journey, and I'm excited to see where it takes me next.

Upon joining the Oxford Social Entrepreneurship Society, I was delighted to find a supportive community that was focused on entrepreneurship. The society provided an opportunity for me to attend regular meetings where I could interact with other like-minded individuals and learn about different aspects of entrepreneurship. Additionally, I was assigned a mentor who I met with once every few months to discuss how my business was progressing and to seek advice on how to overcome any challenges I was facing. 

As I approached the end of my degree programme, I decided to join the Oxford Entrepreneur Society at the Westgate Library. This decision turned out to be a great one as the society provided me with a lot of help. They had a wide range of resources and tools that I could use to grow my business. In addition, I had the opportunity to network with other entrepreneurs and learn from their experiences. All in all, my experience with these societies has been incredibly beneficial and has helped me to develop my entrepreneurial skills and knowledge.

ambessa play logo
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?

Entrepreneurship is a term that refers to the process of creating and managing a business venture with the aim of making a profit. In simple terms, it is the act of taking an idea and turning it into a successful business.  

In my understanding, an entrepreneur is someone who takes on this challenge and sees a problem that they are passionate about, whether it affects them directly or someone they care about. They then work dedicatedly and tirelessly to create a solution to address that problem.  

The qualities that surround entrepreneurship are very important. For instance, an entrepreneur must be highly persistent and have a never-give-up attitude. Starting a business is not easy, and the statistics are against the success of startups. In fact, 90% of start-ups fail within three years. Therefore, being persistent is key to overcoming the many hurdles and challenges that come with starting and running a business. 

In addition to persistence, other qualities such as creativity, innovation, risk-taking, and adaptability are also important for an entrepreneur. These qualities enable them to come up with unique solutions to problems, identify new opportunities, and pivot when necessary. Entrepreneurship is not for the faint-hearted. It requires a lot of dedication, hard work, and perseverance. However, for those who possess the necessary qualities, it can be a fulfilling and rewarding journey. 

How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?  

While studying at Oxford, I stumbled upon an idea for a product. I began to develop it, and soon, my professors took notice and started asking if they could purchase it for their children. This feedback made me realise that there was a potential market for my product. So, I started creating new content by discussing educational tips, and we ended up with a newsletter with a couple of hundred signups. I was happy to see that the click-through rate was high, and 60% of the emails were being opened and read. 

This positive response from consumers led me to believe that there was a demand for the product, but I knew that just because people expressed interest didn't mean they'd actually spend money on it. To test this, I launched a Kickstarter campaign to gauge interest from potential customers. I received hundreds of backers and orders from five thousand kids. This gave me more data to confirm that this could be a viable business.  

One of the things I found most interesting was how my Kickstarter campaign allowed me to gather data on my customers. I was able to learn that a lot of our customers were located in America, Germany, and the Netherlands. These details wouldn't have been possible to gather without the Kickstarter campaign. I also found that Kickstarter was an excellent platform to assess the business viability and bring the project to life. So, the idea for my product came from a simple thought, and with the help of my professors' feedback, I was able to realise the potential market. By creating content and launching a Kickstarter campaign, I was able to gather data and confirm that my business could be viable. 

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why? 

To succeed in any endeavour, it is essential to develop the qualities of adaptability and resilience. These attributes allow us to navigate challenges and unexpected situations with agility and a positive attitude. While it is natural to feel discouraged at times, it's important to keep moving forward and not give up. 

One of the key factors that differentiate successful companies from those that fail is persistence. It's easy to become discouraged when faced with obstacles, but the most successful businesses are those that persevere through difficult times. They don't give up easily, and they continue to push forward until they achieve their goals. 

Another important aspect of building a successful business is listening to your customers. Your customers are the lifeblood of your business, and it's essential to put their needs first. Understanding their needs and preferences can help you develop products and services that meet their needs and exceed their expectations. By prioritising your customers, you can build a loyal customer base that will support your business for years to come. 

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?  

Each day is unique, and it never feels repetitive. Every day brings new challenges and opportunities. I am passionate about what I do, and it feels like everything is in perfect alignment. Although my work can be stressful, I still enjoy it and feel excited to start a new day. There is a sense of purpose behind my work, and it makes me feel fulfilled. I am happy to be doing something that makes a difference, and it gives me a sense of purpose.  

One of the things I enjoy most about my work is the diversity of tasks, and how every day is different from the one before. Unlike my previous experience working in tech companies, where I saw people working hard without fully understanding the purpose behind their work, I have a clear understanding of what I'm doing and why I'm doing it.  

Being an entrepreneur has given me a sense of meaning and purpose that I didn't have before. I am proud of the work I do, and I feel like I am making a difference in the world. Although there are challenges, I believe that the rewards are worth it. I am grateful for the opportunity to do something that I love, and to be able to contribute to society in a meaningful way. 

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?  

Leila Janah was an inspiring social entrepreneur who passed away three years ago. She founded two organisations, Same and LXMI, which aimed to provide employment opportunities to people living in poverty-stricken areas. Her approach of combining business with social impact inspired me a lot, especially because she came from a similar background as me - being the first person in her family to attend university. 

Another socially responsible enterprise I admire is Who Gives a Crap UK, a toilet brand that has a unique and playful approach to social impact. They donate half of their profits to building toilets in developing countries, and their products are made from environmentally friendly materials. Their fun, colourful packaging and witty marketing strategies make them stand out in the market while also fulfilling their social responsibility. 

Tony's Chocolonely is another enterprise that I find inspiring. They produce chocolate that is free from exploitation and slavery and aim to make the chocolate industry 100% slave-free. The company works closely with cocoa farmers in Ghana and Ivory Coast to ensure that they receive fair wages and have safe working conditions. In addition to this, they also have a playful approach to marketing, which makes them stand out in the chocolate industry. 

These socially responsible enterprises, including Same and LXMI, Who Gives a Crap UK, and Tony's Chocolonely, make a positive impact on society while still being profitable. Their unique and playful approach to social impact inspires me to do my part in making the world a better place. 

What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?  

After three long years of hard work and collaboration, we were able to co-design a wonderful product that aims to bring joy and happiness to refugee children living in camps. Witnessing their amazement and delight as they interacted with our product was an incredibly satisfying experience for us. We strongly believe that every child deserves to have access to an education, no matter where they come from or what their circumstances are. 

Next year, we have planned to visit 11 countries to introduce our product to even more children. We are eagerly looking forward to seeing the reactions of these children and how they engage with our product. We are confident that our product will provide them with a unique and fun way to learn and grow. 

Thanks to the overwhelming support we received through our Kickstarter campaign, we have been able to produce 2100 units of our product to donate for free to children in need. We are excited and proud to be able to make a positive impact in the lives of so many children. 

How have you funded your ideas?  

In my journey to start and grow my business, I received grant funding initially, and now I have secured investment. My first grant came from Innovate UK through the Design Museum, and I also received some smaller grants from different sources. I started with a grant of £5000, which was a significant amount for me at the time. This grant helped me to get off the ground, and I was able to utilise it to lay the foundation of my business. However, as I grew and expanded, I realised that £5000 was not enough to do much. 

Over the course of three years, I secured a total of around £150,000-£200,000 in grants. I received a £50,000 grant from Innovate UK and another £50,000 from Harvest. The grant funding helped me to continue with research and development, hiring staff, and investing in new technologies. However, securing grant funding was no easy feat. I had to write several long grant applications and go through multiple interviews. The success rate for securing grant funding was only about 3%, so I had to be comfortable with rejections and keep trying. 

Grant funding played a crucial role in the early stages of my business. It helped me to get off the ground, grow, and eventually secure investment. However, securing grant funding is a challenging process that requires a lot of effort, time, and patience. 

Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?  

Innovate UK is a government-backed organisation that provides funding and support to businesses and entrepreneurs looking to innovate and grow. They offer a range of services to help protect and manage intellectual property, including assistance with patent applications and legal advice on IP matters. 

In addition to IP services, Innovate UK has several programmes aimed at providing grant funding to businesses and individuals working on innovative projects. These programmes cover a wide range of industries and sectors, from healthcare to energy and beyond. 

For those working on social enterprises, there is a website called the Considered Capital Directory which provides a comprehensive list of funding options. This directory was founded by Esme Verity, who I first met through the Oxford Entrepreneur Society. 

The Considered Capital Directory includes a wide range of funding opportunities, including grants, loans, and investors. They also list competitions and other opportunities where one can secure funding for their social enterprise. 

Overall, Innovate UK and the Considered Capital Directory are two great resources for those looking to secure funding and support for their innovative projects. 

What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?

I mainly reside in London, which is my hometown and where I grew up. It's a city that offers an abundance of impressive resources, memberships, clubs, and networks that can be quite beneficial, especially for entrepreneurs. One of the clubs that I found particularly useful is the RSA House. It organises events and gatherings for entrepreneurs, providing them with an opportunity to network and connect with like-minded people. Being a part of such clubs and networks is undoubtedly one of the highlights of living in London. However, I must admit that when I was in Oxford, I found it a bit challenging to connect with people who were interested in business. Although things have improved over time, running a business in a smaller city can still feel quite lonely at times. In London, there is always something happening, and there are always people to connect with, which is why I always find myself drawn back to this amazing city. 

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them? 

If you're looking for funding options, I would recommend reaching out to the Considered Capital Directors. They are a team of financial experts who specialise in finding creative solutions to funding challenges. They can provide you with a detailed analysis of your financial situation and offer tailored advice on how to secure the funding you need. 

Additionally, if you're based in London, you may want to consider visiting RSA House. It's a historic venue that hosts a variety of events, including conferences, meetings, and networking events. It's also a popular hub for entrepreneurs and business professionals, so you might be able to make valuable connections while you're there. 

Any last words of advice?  

Starting a business can be challenging, especially when you have a big plan in mind. It is easy to get carried away and feel like a failure when things don't go as expected. However, breaking down the plan into smaller goals and steps can help you achieve success in a more manageable way. 

For instance, let's say that you want to donate a million toys to children in space within the next three years. The first step would be to figure out how to sell that many toys and partner with schools to make the donation possible. This may involve finding the right suppliers, creating a marketing strategy, and building relationships with schools and other organisations. 

Breaking down the process into smaller goals and steps can make it less daunting and more achievable. It allows you to focus on each step and measure your progress along the way. Remember, having an idea means that you have a unique mindset, and trying it out is worth it as you have nothing to lose. 

So, take the first step today and start working towards your business goal, one step at a time. With persistence and dedication, you can turn your big plan into a successful reality. 

Women specific questions: 
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur?  If so, how have you overcome them? 

According to research, only 2% of Venture Capital (VC) funding goes to women, despite the fact that women-owned businesses have grown significantly in recent years. This statistic highlights the challenges that female entrepreneurs face when it comes to obtaining funding for their businesses. It is important to note that while there has been progress in recent years, the statistics on financing women are still quite poor. 

Many female founders have found that ignoring this fact and focusing on pitching their business as a profitable idea is the best approach. However, it can be challenging to pitch to investors or venture capitalists who are predominantly men, especially if the business is geared towards women-specific products or services. This lack of understanding can make fundraising difficult, and it is essential for female founders to connect with other women in the same situation who can relate to their experience. 

One way to overcome this challenge is to seek out investors who are already familiar with the industry or market that the business is operating in. Female entrepreneurs should also focus on building a strong network of supporters, including mentors, advisors, and other business owners, who can provide guidance and support. 

It is worth noting that biases can also affect fundraising efforts. For example, if a business is focused on women's health or reproductive rights, it may be difficult to attract funding from investors who do not understand the importance of such initiatives. In such cases, it may be necessary to seek out investors who share the same values and beliefs. 

While the statistics on financing women may be discouraging, female entrepreneurs should not be deterred. With perseverance, hard work, and the support of a strong network, they can achieve their business goals and obtain the funding they need to succeed. 

What resources would you recommend for other women? 

Through attending Stack World events, I have had the opportunity to meet a diverse group of founders. These events are held regularly and offer exceptional talks on various topics related to entrepreneurship. One of the best things about Stack World is that you don't have to be based in London to attend their events. They also organise a Power Summit every year or two, which brings together some of the most successful and innovative entrepreneurs from around the world to share their experiences and insights. Overall, I highly recommend Stack World to anyone looking to connect with other founders and gain valuable knowledge and inspiration for their own entrepreneurial journey. 

How do you think institutions such as the University of Oxford could better support women entrepreneurs? 

I graduated from UCL for my undergrad studies. Recently, I attended a talk at UCL where a panel of successful women entrepreneurs who also graduated from UCL shared their experiences. I noticed that there is not much focus on this topic in Oxford, or at least not when I was there. There wasn't a lot of space for female founders to share tips on fundraising, and I think it would be great if female alumni who are founders were given a platform to network with other alumni who are investors or mentors. This kind of support system is not very visible in Oxford, and I hope to see more of it in the future. 

Do you have any advice for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?  

If you have an idea that you're passionate about, my recommendation would be to act on it and put it to the test. However, it's important to remember that you don't have to go through the process alone. Finding a community of like-minded individuals to support and guide you can make your journey smoother and more fulfilling. You can seek out online communities, local meetups or networking groups, or even reach out to friends and family who might be interested in helping you. Having a supportive community can provide you with valuable feedback, resources, and encouragement along the way. So, don't hesitate to share your idea with others and build a network of supporters who can help you turn your vision into a reality.