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Changemaker: Celebrating International Women’s Day 2021

To celebrate International Women’s Day, we are interviewing Natalie Wadley, CEO of ChangeMaker. ChangeMaker is currently participating in our 3rd Cohort of the United Utilities Innovation Lab. The UK based company uses mobile robotics machinery to 3D-print bespoke low carbon concrete items on site more quickly and with less waste than traditional cast or precast. They are working with United Utilities to showcase what the future of a greener, more sustainable water industry could look like.

Tell us about yourself and your entrepreneurial journey?

I am a 36-year-old mum to two children and a crazy spaniel. When I’m taking time out, I can be found stomping around the fields and woods (it’s more about walking boots than high heels these days). I was born into a South Yorkshire mining family. My parents moved to Gloucester where I grew up in an inner-city ward that was deeply impacted by poverty and inequality. From a young age I was driven to find a way for me to level the playing field, not just for myself, but to find a way to have a role in improving the lives of others around me. I decided that education was my route to being able to influence the direction of my life, by ultimately giving me greater choice.

I worked three jobs during my A-Levels, so I built a very strong work ethic from a young age that has proven invaluable as I’ve evolved as an entrepreneur.  From there, I went on to work within both the charity sector and the private sector. I learnt an incredible amount about how to increase equality, and how to watch the bottom line!  I am proud to have shaped and influenced an award-winning legacy of social impact and purpose-driven businesses that are still going (and growing).

In 2017 I co-founded ChangeMaker 3D Ltd. Since becoming an entrepreneur I’ve come to really understand the immense opportunity that opens up when a business truly aligns purpose and profit. However, it still takes daily effort to balance my passion to increase sustainability and equality with the commercial need to sustain and grow a successful tech company.

How did your business idea come to you?

In truth, the idea of ChangeMaker 3D didn’t just come to me alone – it was grown together with Luke my husband and fellow co-founder. Our business values are aligned and we have a complementary skillset developed throughout our professional careers. Prior to launching our business, we spent two years working together for a corporate company to establish its Digital Print Social Enterprise, which is still growing today. We are both entrepreneurial in spirit and we knew that eventually our path would lead us to our own business adventure.

When we set up the business, we didn’t have a fully formed plan, we just knew that 3D printing was a technology that could leverage massive impact for business, people and the planet. We passionately believed that the technology’s flexible application would open up the commercial opportunities required to become a successful business, and we just decided to go for it!

As your company grew, what were the primary challenges? 

We have always been clear that as a business we will lead with the purpose and positive impact that is created, underpinned by the innovation and technology capability. Distilling this into a simple and clear value proposition has been difficult. People need to understand and trust the technology, as well as the impact it represents. When that is being presented by a risky startup that message is even tricker to get right.

In addition to this central challenge, there are the usual startup barriers such as cashflow, raising investment and risk appetite, and getting in front of the right people at the right time! When we started out we were warned about the ‘valley of death’ – the place you find yourself when you have the business solution but the cash and opportunities do not move towards you quickly enough. We certainly experienced this, and we managed it by working closely with all stakeholders to create the time we needed for the opportunities unfold.

As an entrepreneur, what is it that motivates and drives you?

I am motivated to be a person and a business which acts as a force for good. To demonstrate that business can – and should be – profitable while still being achieved through ethical and sustainable models. One of my biggest motivators is to bring something new into existence – creating, innovating! Working alongside incredible people who think and act so differently is energising and makes me want to push harder to succeed. I am often told that I am very driven, which is both a blessing and something I need to be mindful of, remembering to have patience! But I am also driven by the journey as much as the outcome. Shaping a successful business that leaves an impactful legacy is very important to me.

What advice would you give to other women entering the entrepreneurial world?

The advice that I would give to other women is the same that I would give to all underrepresented groups of people who want to become entrepreneurs. Your ideas, voice and passion matter, the world needs them, now more than ever! Try not to overthink, or undervalue your views, and always listen to your gut instinct. Don’t fear pivoting from one product or sector into another – it’s one of the best business decisions that we have made.

Depending on the sector you enter, you may find that you are frequently the only woman around the table. Just 13% of people in my sector (Construction) are women, so it’s quite common for me to be the only women working on something. It is really refreshing to have so many inspiring women on the United Utilities and L Marks Lab team.

My advice is to take a sense of pride in it. Don’t let it unnerve you or limit the impact that you or your business intend to have. Communicate respectively, and always from a position of authentic truth.

Irrespective of gender, race or background, I have come to learn that change really happens when we are able to move past process and unlock the opportunity for ‘people to work with people’. I’ve spent a lot of time learning how to cultivate my ability to meaningfully connect with people, to find common ground and shared business drivers. It is the combination of a clearly defined value proposition and the ability to simply be ‘human’ that will transform your entrepreneurial journey and business opportunities.

Finally, take every opportunity to gain mentorship, guidance and advisory input. One of the single most important business decisions we made was to establish an advisory board. The board has evolved over the four years, but the right people at the right stage of the business have really helped to shape what we are today.

What’s been the most rewarding moment of your journey as a founder/entrepreneur?

The first three years of the business were full of knockbacks, dead-ends and challenges. But during that time, we gathered a massive amount of knowledge and the business is stronger for it today. We’ve connected with some incredible people who truly believe in our vision, people who have championed the business and helped us to just keep moving forward.

One of the most rewarding times for me came part way through the Covid-19 pandemic when we decided to open up discussions across the infrastructure sector. This decision led to us being selected for the United Utilities Lab, which we are incredibly proud to be a part of.

Where do you see your business in the next 12 months?

This next 12 months will be the most defining for our business! We are moving ever closer to scaling up, gaining the funding and resources we need to establish ourselves amongst UK leaders in low carbon 3D concrete printing.  The next 12 months will deliver full scale demos for infrastructure, and maybe even the first 3D printed affordable home here in the UK! There will be even more leaps of faith, tough decisions and a serious amount of hard work, but I wouldn’t have it any other way!