interview

She Starts Up: Fabiola Duro – INNVEST

“Innovation knows no limits and now it’s an extraordinary time for it, as technological change and industry disruption seem to be accelerating and linking individuals, organisations, and nations as never before.” – highlighted Fabiola Duro, founder of INNVEST in her interview with EU for Innovation for “She Starts Up”. Since 2017, Fabiola through her initiative – INNVEST – leads in creating the first angel investors network, which together with visionary people tackle national economic challenges in Albania and beyond. With a background in diplomacy and business administration and 18+ years of experience, Fabiola has been focusing on the start-up ecosystem, for over a decade now. One of the most recent initiatives or spin-offs of INNVEST is IMAA “Innovation Management Academy Albania”, which has become recognised as a leader in intrapreneurship and entrepreneurship education, by bringing together the diverse ICT and other key sectors’ talents & hidden gems with corporates.

Read about these projects and more on the personal development journey of Fabiola, the woman who is so passionate about #entrepreneurs, #intrapreneurs and #innovationecosystem below.

EU4I: Can you tell a little us something about you, your background and how it links to what you for INVVEST? Also, if you could elaborate about what it means to be the Founder and CEO of such an initiative as INNVEST?

Fabiola: Since the first years of my childhood, I have shown a specific interest in managing challenges thanks to creativity, education, work and perseverance, to achieve professional objectives to realize what I have always wanted: the freedom to change, improve and impact myself and then everything, that surrounds me. For this reason, in 2002 I chose to study at the University of Tirana, Faculty of Economics, Business Administration, acquiring skills in management and communication, to pursue then my Master studies in Economic Diplomacy at the Mediterranean Academy of Malta. I started the first academic career by holding the position of Assistant Lecturer in the branch of Business Communication and Entrepreneurship in the Department of Management and Communication for SMEs at the Faculty of Economics in Tirana. To advance my career, I thought of myself as a “business case”. Of course, we can read about painting, colour palettes, but only when we get in front of a canvas and start painting, we can put our knowledge to the test and really understand our abilities. As an accomplished individual with 18+ years of experience focused on national and international economic development for start-up’s, MSMEs, SMEs and corporates, next to my work experience in projects on public, private, local, regional and international entities, have directly impacted my professional formation and intuition as an entrepreneur.

Starting a business, was eventually, a logical step in my professional work, so the transition seemed easy. In fact, the challenges have not surprised me as I was, and still am, quite well-prepared to have not only one, but multiple solutions at hand, based on integrity, independence, flexibility, creativity, and my vision. I truly believe that experience is my best mentor. I love the day-to-day aspects of it. In an ever-changing world, innovators take the path of uncertainty to explore, innovate and create. In this way, challenges turn into opportunities! Whatever the challenges are, they turn life into a dynamic venture. This is how my life has been in the course of the last years at INNVEST and IMAA as a founder.

EU4I: You are the solo founder of INNVEST. What do you think are the key successes of an initiative such as INNVEST that aims at facilitating investment opportunities to start-ups / new business ideas?  

Fabiola: The network of angel investors at INNVEST has an impact in investment opportunities for start-ups in our country, since angel investors are often the first ones to recognise, search for, and finance promising new businesses, with social and environmental impact goals. Based on the experience built over the last decade on “the fragile ecosystem”, I could state that when start-up founders hit a certain point — often after dipping more into their savings than they’d like, or exhausting what family and friends are willing to chip in — they start to explore other opportunities. One of the most attractive, yet challenging, options is landing an angel investment. I truly believe in the four important key pillars to success and empowerment of this network, which are: 1. Flexibility – when compared to alternative forms of business funding, business angels are typically negotiable because they invest from their own money; 2. No interest or repayment required; 3. Business angels provide valuable knowledge and a great experience; and 4. Business angels are everywhere. Angel investors can provide businesses with much-needed growth capital. Angel investors place high value on the strength of a company’s management team for the start-ups and they want to see a clear path to “return on investment”. By becoming a bridge between investors and start-up/business ventures, INNVEST is an intermediation actor that helps turn the ecosystem into a main factor for development.

EU4I: Can you tell the readers a bit more about the cooperation between INNVEST and EU for Innovation programme? I could name a few initiatives of INNVEST supported also by EU for Innovation, such as the series of IMAAs, but there is more… could you briefly explain them?   

Fabiola: EU for Innovation, is one of the key partners for growth and eco-system development. Together we designed, built, created several impactful & successful initiatives. INNVEST has been partnering with EU for Innovation, which powered more than 25 tailored events such INNVEST Summit (5 yearly editions since 2018), Women Move Forward Forum, research on start-up needs’ assessments and Covid-19 resolutions, and more than 10 webinars on sectorial innovation. Furthermore, IMAA is a “highlight” of our cooperation because it emerges as an official spin-off of INNVEST in 2019: its business model was developed with the support of EU for Innovation’s Team. Together we built one of the most important and unique educational formats for Innovators within the corporates, start-ups, MSMEs, SMEs, aiming at developing skills,  and supporting the green and digital transformation of businesses in Albania.

EU4I: To your perception, have EU for Innovation activities contributed enough to the development and promotion of the innovation and start-up ecosystem in Albania? What should and could be done more, and in which direction?

Fabiola: Besides what was mentioned above, in terms of activities that were driven by INNVEST and powered by EU for Innovation, which I truly believe did contribute to the development and promotion of the innovation and start-up ecosystem in Albania, there is more. The objectives in the short term, are to establish a series of meetups that will offer opportunities to emerging innovators, start-ups and investors. The idea is to create a unique space for brilliant minds, where art, culture, technology, infrastructure, architecture laboratories, science, AI, innovation, business opportunities, and creativity come together. We truly believe that the visions of INNVEST and EU for Innovation converge and will continue to support and bring together leading entrepreneurs, investors, innovators and policy makers to address national and regional economic challenges. 

EU4I: Do you envision further continuation/ strengthening of cooperation between INNVEST & EU for Innovation programme? How? Any idea/ recommendation for improvement and future cooperation?  

Fabiola: Mutual goals and vision are two impactful steppingstones for the continuation of cooperation for Albania’s ecosystem. Being impactful and sustainable are essential for our path towards the big EU family. As I mentioned earlier, the biggest challenge remains awareness raising on INNOVATION, to not see that as a need but as a necessity. In this perspective, the help and support of all private and state actors is needed to educate the new generation about the necessity for innovation, digitisation, continuous and sustainable innovative education. Having common objectives, will facilitate a closer cooperation between EU for Innovation and INNVEST, thus we will be able to “dive” and jointly “drive” towards strengthening the innovation ecosystem, fostering entrepreneurial development of start-ups and the entire business sector.

This could be done by diversifying the A2F in funding innovative start-ups and innovation support providers, such as INNVEST, in facilitating access to finance (ex. equity funds) and support to innovative, high-potential growth-oriented SMEs and businesses.

EU4I: Do you envision further continuation/ strengthening of cooperation between INNVEST & EU for Innovation programme? How? Any idea/recommendation for improvement and future cooperation?  

Fabiola: Mutual goals and vision are two impactful stepping stones, for the continuation of cooperation for Albania’s ecosystem. Being impactful and sustainable are essential for our path towards the big EU family. Impact comes first in our vision. As I mentioned earlier, the biggest challenge remains education on the need for INNOVATION, not seen as a need but as a necessity. In this part, the help and support of all private and state actors is needed to educate the new generation about the necessity for innovation, digitisation, continuous and sustainable innovative education. Having common objectives, will drive closer cooperation between EU for Innovation and INNVEST, thus we will be able to dive and jointly drive towards strengthening the innovation ecosystem, fostering entrepreneurial journeys of start-ups and the entire business sector.

This could be done by diversifying the A2F in funding innovative start-ups and innovation support providers, such as INNVEST, in facilitating access to finance (ex. equity funds) and growth/ scaling up support to young, innovative, high-potential, growth-oriented SMEs and businesses.  

EU4I: We see the INNVEST team, and you personally are always busy launching/ promoting new activities & initiatives of INNVEST. Could you tell a few highlights of 2022 and maybe disclose any hints for future projects? 

Fabiola: Yes, I could mention two very successful projects implemented by INNVEST as an ISO, supported GIZ Albania through ProSEED): “Stage to Start Strong – Bridge to Scale up” whose impacts were very concrete, with immediate economic, social and sustainable impact. In just 90 days, 22 youngsters out of 30 talents, involved in this pilot project, were hired by 10 of the most prestigious ICT companies in Albania.

Another inspiring project implemented in 2022, aiming at developing “green skills” under the “Fit4Green” initiative of ProSEED, in cooperation with MoFE, AKPA and civil societies in Albania, was the so called “#Green Pacting”. More than 30 students and unemployed people had the opportunity to learn on green transformation and circular economies, by visiting the most promising Albanian corporates, which have already kick-started the green transformation in our country.

Moreover, IMAA has developed more than 8 academies tailored to #Intraprenurs and this year we initiated the “digitalisation academy”. This is the most recent service offered; it is about an intranet platform “IMAA Talent Acquisition” in Albania, that intends to act as the “virtual meeting place” for talents or students looking for a job in any of the most prestigious companies in Albania, which on the other hand are looking for talents/ employees.

Another highlight of INNVEST, was the 4th edition of “INNVEST Summit 2022– Investing for Impact” for the Balkan region, organised on October 12-14 in Tirana. Innovative ideas and angel investors had the opportunity to support or develop joint projects. INNVEST acted as a catalyst for the entrepreneurial ecosystem, bringing together entrepreneurs and innovators, via B2B / direct meetings and rounds of negotiations. The digital fair showcased the most innovative products and services of companies, as well as the ideal meeting place between young innovators, university students, talents, start-ups, national and international companies. Innovation in Tour, Revolutionary Art, and other innovative projects were side events of the Digital Fair/ INNVEST Summit, 2022.

Regarding what 2023 holds, well I could disclose that the annual INNVEST Summit 2023, planned to take place in October, is going to be definitely one of the highlights of the year. The topic of the upcoming summit will be “Future Finance”, focusing on field-building initiatives, dedicated to unlocking the deployment of strategic, impactful, gender-smart capital at scale and beyond.

Follow INNVEST for more.

EU4I: To your view, what are the key pillars and factors of success for INNVEST, this female-founder driven initiative?  

Fabiola: Integrity, impact and sustainability; yet the biggest asset and victory for me is the TEAM. A team, that conveys and communicates values from which they have space to be themselves, to express their opinion, to have decision-making power and to seek continuous education and their own professional development. This is the essence of the culture at INNVEST / IMAA. Our team is represented by five amazing women.  In 2020, we developed a series of “success stories” represented by the initiative “#100sekonda #10rastesuksesi #100vitekryeqytet”! We have been inspired by great visionary women entrepreneurs.  

EU4I: What would you like to share with readers to potentially encourage them to start their own innovation/ entrepreneurial journey?

Fabiola: I truly believe that innovation has no limits, and it is an amazing journey, but it should be aligned with education, from early ages and stages to “no limit”. The way we envision and create new products, services and businesses is changing – so if one wishes to remain relevant, s/he needs to change along with it. My advice would be: think “system-wide” not “user first”; don’t predict the future, visualize it; build for adaptability; test before you invest; slow strategy, fast execution. The future is uncertain, but you can still plan for it, and by planning, you can be part of shaping it.

Where to next? INNVEST and IMAA are crystal clear on this Innovation Journey and path together with EU for Innovation and all other actors of the Albanian ecosystem.

EU4I: Would you like to share any favourite inspirational/ motivational quote? 

Fabiola: INNVEST aims to lead with leaders in the digital space. INNVEST and its network will lead together the Future Finance (FF) That future is now, and we are more than ready for it! – My 2023 in a nutshell.

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