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October 4, 2022

UT student creates startup aimed at providing energy to Indian communities

Kennedy Weatherby
Business junior Sahana Raj sits outside Mary E. Gearing Hall on Oct. 17, 2023.

While visiting her family in India, Sahana Raj experienced numerous power outages, preventing her from turning on the lights and fan or cooking dinner with her family. Her family experienced power outages that lasted anywhere between one and a half to three hours, up to three times a week. This experience prompted Raj to initiate her own startup, Energy Umbrella.

With a passion for social impact, Raj’s vision aims to change the world one community at a time by helping provide reliable energy access to communities in India. Energy Umbrella aims to provide an affordable and efficient alternative to solar panels which can be utilized in the denser residential areas of India.

Raj said the idea sprouted not only from her and her family’s experiences, but also from the surrounding communities which experienced even longer and more frequent outages. Raj, a business honors and management information systems sophomore, joined the UT Social Entrepreneurship Learning Lab, which focuses on examining issues students care about and finding solutions to those problems, as a freshman.

“I was brainstorming a bunch of issues that I’ve seen personally impact my family or things that have impacted me, and, when I thought of reliable energy access, that was something I thought could be a really interesting project to explore,” Raj said. 

Energy Umbrella provides an alternative to solar panels that can be utilized in denser Indian communities where traditional solar panels aren’t feasible. Raj, with the help of engineering professionals, designed a portable pod with flaps that open up to act as solar panels. 

“I’m not an electrical engineer, so energy itself is pretty outside my own familiarity and comfort zone,” Raj said. “Having to meet with a lot of people has been challenging, sometimes taking very critical feedback about this technology.”

Since then, Raj started building her full prototype and began meeting with investors to pitch Energy Umbrella, hoping to raise funds for manufacturing and distribution. For Raj, pitching extends beyond simply raising funds.

“It’s really nice when you get to present it in front of an audience and watch people believe in you and your idea,” Raj said. “I get to pitch to people who have never been to India, never experienced this problem firsthand and watch as they empathize with people that they’ve never met before.”

Raj’s social entrepreneurship learning lab mentor, Tej Reddy, a business honors and MIS junior, detailed Raj’s commitment to balancing Energy Umbrella with her school work.

“The night before the incubator pitch, she and two of her friends … were at PCL working on their pitch for seven (or) eight hours straight in one study room,” Reddy said. 

Earlier this month, Raj participated in the Tejas Club’s Shark Tank event, where four student entrepreneurs pitched to local venture capitalists. Smaran Velidi, a business honors finance senior, helped organize the event and said Raj captivated an audience that hadn’t experienced consistent energy shortages.

“She really made you feel like you were in those people’s shoes,” Velidi said. “Starting the presentation off with a dark room, a dark slide really set the scene and was able to create the environment that, for a lot of people, it really felt like they were there.”

Beyond assisting communities in India suffering from unreliable energy access, Raj hopes her work with Energy Umbrella can inspire future entrepreneurs.

“What’s really important is that, hopefully in some sense, over time, I can help other people do the same and also work on startups that they’re really passionate about,” Raj said.

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