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Social impact, innovation, and entrepreneurship

Saleema Vellani
"I get really great ideas from talking to diverse people… different experts in different fields that are relevant… and trying to see how someone else would look at what I'm doing."

On this episode of the ClientSide Podcast, Nathan Anibaba talks to Saleema Vellani, the Founder and CEO of Ripple Impact, about everything from social impact and emerging entrepreneurship, to her exciting new book ‘Innovation Starts with I’. An entrepreneur, philanthropist, and innovator, as well as an adjunct professor, Saleema’s fascinating insights into best utilizing your passion aren’t to be missed.

Transcript:

Speaker 1:

This is ClientSide from Fox Agency.

Speaker 2:

Hit it. That’s what I’m talking about. Wait.

Speaker 3:

Okay now. From the beginning.

Nathan Anibaba:

Saleema Vellani is an award winning serial entrepreneur, keynote speaker and professor, and the author of Innovation Starts With I, which is out now on pre-order. At 21, Saleema co-founded and launched Brazil’s largest and number one language school to finance an orphanage and social development programs, which has taught several thousands of students to date. Currently Saleema is the founder and CEO of Ripple Impact, which helps entrepreneurs increase their influence and impact to accelerating the growth of their platforms and businesses. She also teaches design thinking and entrepreneurship at John Hopkins University, and is a frequent guest lecturer at business schools. Saleema Vellani, welcome to ClientSide.

Saleema Vellani:

Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to be on your show.

Nathan Anibaba:

Yeah. Absolute pleasure speaking to you. Your background and history is absolutely fascinating. Let’s start there. At 21, you co-founded and launched Brazil’s largest language school to finance an orphanage and social development programs, which has taught several thousands of students as we said in the intro. You’re an adjunct professor, you’re an author, you’ve set up many other businesses as well. In addition to that, you speak English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian. Born and raised in Canada, lived in the Dominican Republic, Italy, the USA and East Africa. And you have Indian roots. How do all of these experiences influence your worldview and the way that you think about building business and entrepreneurship today?

Saleema Vellani:

Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think that just thinking about my own story, now that I reflect back at it, I think that I actually became an entrepreneur without realising I was becoming an entrepreneur. And when I was doing all those things, I was just busy chasing my passion and my vision and just going for it and really trying to solve, not only trying to solve a problem, but trying to solve my own problem of trying to survive and live abroad when I was young and in my early 20s and wanting to live abroad in Brazil and Italy. And it really just started from planting a great idea. And I think it was ultimately I was in survival mode during the financial recession back in 2008, 2009. And it was ultimately just taking ideas that I had to survive that crisis abroad and not able to get a job.

And it was really about reinventing and testing things, and testing ideas, and be able to take one of them that did really well upon testing and pivoting and iterating and going through the learning cycles of figuring out, okay, now there’s a problem to solve after I executed the idea and then pivoting the business around solving that problem for our clients. And I think it was not so much trying to solve a problem or trying really hard to be an entrepreneur, but it was really doing what, I don’t like to say just do what you’re passionate about. But when I was in an uncomfortable situation, how do I solve that for myself and how do I test different things? And I think the testing of ideas is really key because we don’t always have to be solving a problem. You can have ideas and ideas that align with who we are and chase after them and make them happen. And then we can sort of fit them around the problem that we could eventually solve later.

Nathan Anibaba:

Really interesting. There’s so much for us to talk about because you’ve achieved so much at still such a relatively young age. I hope you don’t mind me saying that. But we’re going to talk about everything from your book to social entrepreneurship to talent and building teams, which I know you have a keen interest and expertise in. And also sort of growth, your own personal growth as an entrepreneur and how you help other businesses grow. But let’s start by talking about your book, which you’ve recently written, which is also on pre-order right now, Innovation Starts With I. Innovation starts with self-awareness you say. What do you mean by that?

Saleema Vellani:

Yeah, Innovation Starts With I. It’s a very interesting concept that I think through. It started off when I was keynoting my first keynote a few years ago at a women in tech conference. And it was just a slide that I thought was interesting. It was a concept about innovation starts with I. I was even not sure if because there was obviously a lot of controversy around that because innovation isn’t just about I or the leader. It’s about teams. It’s about working with other people. And so I wanted to basically state that innovation is not just about the individual per se, but it starts with that individual. It gets ignited through our uniqueness, through our authenticity, through our mindset and having that innovative mindset. And it gets executed and it happens with teams and communities and can have a ripple impact into the world, which my book is all about.

But essentially, I think that there is a lot of focus when it comes to innovation and entrepreneurship on empathy. Let’s solve a problem. Let’s try to understand the people that we’re trying to solve a problem for. And I think that the issue with that is, in my own experience, trying to just solve a problem or just trying to understand other people without really understanding who you are and what are your unique skills. What are you doing that’s aligned to who you are and knowing your sweet spot, which is essentially what comes easy to you, what puts you in flow, what you can become really good at. It’s not necessarily something that you already are very good at, but where there’s that untapped potential. I think really finding that sweet spot and developing it. And I say it’s like discovering and developing your sweet spot. I think that’s key. I think that’s really, really key. And I think it takes a lot of self-awareness to do that.

And self-awareness is important in order to have empathy, and I think self-awareness is not just knowing how we see ourselves, but how other people see us. And I think that it’s not a new concept, but I think that it has been left out of the innovation conversation.

Nathan Anibaba:

Who is the audience for the book? Is it a relatively new sort of entrepreneur sort of startup founder? Is it a more seasoned founder that has a few more notches under their belt? Is it more for sort of, I guess, intrepreneurs in established organizations that want to make that leap? Who is the book for and what do you hope that readers will take away from it?

Saleema Vellani:

Yeah. So it’s essentially for, I write it for the closeted entrepreneur within us. So oftentimes people that are looking to make a change in their life or pivot in some way and are wanting to grow more professionally and personally. So I think it will resonate with anyone that’s trying to go through more of that growth and discover more of themselves. But ultimately it’s for the entrepreneurs. It does attract quite a few people in the innovation space as it is a different lens in the innovation world. It’s a more human lens. In the book, I talk about each chapter is a different human capability. So we talk about future of work skills, but ultimately each chapter is a different, I call them human capabilities, since you can take those capabilities and adapt and switch them to different contexts.

And so it’s really for the entrepreneurs, early stage, especially that they want that mindset shift, they want to hear stories. They want to learn how other people have done it because the book is just my… I mean, there’s a lot of my personal story, but I’ve also interviewed 100 different entrepreneurs and innovators and leaders and getting their insights. And so it’s rich of insights and personal story and some quotes and yeah, it has quite a bit, a lot of tools and frameworks. So there’s actually a digital workbook that goes along with it. But essentially it has a lot of tools and frameworks for people to actually put into action the learnings from the book. So it’s not just reading – it’s actually being able to apply it to one’s life and grow to the next level, whether you’re trying to take your business to the next level, make a pivot. We’re all, I like to say, hybridpreneurs in a way where we should strive to become a hybridpreneur, because I think a lot of people think, okay, you’re either an entrepreneur or you’re an intrepreneur, and I think that I struggled because I was like, “Well, why can’t you just be both and not look at it like one or the other?” Why are people always like, I need to work this many years to start my own thing or I just want to quit corporate and just do my own thing. And I think we’ve seen a lot of entrepreneurs failing and we’ve seen a lot of people that don’t last in jobs and that actually hurts our economy. We have to support those large organizations.

So how can we come together and stop looking at this as in a very siloed way, but actually see that we should be practicing hybridpreneurship, where we’re doing multiple things that hedges our risk that we can diversify the different things that we do, where we’re doing something that we earn our money from, that makes us a profit.

I don’t like to say just follow your passion or chase that to make that money. I think that we all have to find creative ways to do that. And I think it’s really about being authentic and figuring out how you can do that without feeling like you just have to have a job to do this, and then you can do that. But I think that ultimately it’s being creative with how you split up your time between the activities that you earn your money from, the activities that you’re passionate about, the things that you can learn and grow from, as well as giving back to the community and having an impact.

Nathan Anibaba:

What’s been the most surprising or interesting thing that you’ve learned through researching and writing the book? I’m fascinated by this because I think most people have a book in them. But what’s been the most interesting or revealing or surprising thing to you through researching the book, through doing those interviews with the other entrepreneurs that you found out through writing it?

Saleema Vellani:

Sure. Yeah. So one of the biggest things is, well, first off, with the book, for anyone that’s trying to write a book, it’s like a business. You have to build an audience early on. You will go through different pivots along the way. It’s not easy. And so depending on what kind of book you’re writing, just like with businesses or startups, you know that it’s going to take long, but it always takes longer. And I would say that one of the biggest insights I had through the process was when I got stuck, I decided to go and talk to people. So I went on what I call the 100 coffee challenge, which is another story of itself. But I went and interviewed 100 people cause I was like, I want to make this book bigger than myself. I want to learn from other people because I don’t want to just share my own insights because we’re constantly influencing and being influenced by other people.

And so just going through that process, it built a lot of great relationships. It led me to actually, I ended up doing a few design thinking workshops around the world. I traveled to Liberia, to Morocco, to Portugal, to Panama I actually visited through those interviews. People were like you should go talk to more entrepreneurs in emerging markets. Go talk to people. Don’t just focus on North America. And being a person that works globally, I decided to go and go down to the fields, go down to these communities, go to these coworking spaces and innovation hubs in different countries. And I realized that our world is a lot smaller than we often perceive or think. And so that was a very interesting insight that a lot of the same problems we experience among entrepreneurs, I mean, of course they vary in different countries, but ultimately there are a lot of the same issues around the mindset and resilience, having emotional resilience and having these capabilities like the self-awareness, the empathy, collaboration, a lot of the different capabilities that my book talks about.

Nathan Anibaba:

Really interesting. Final question on that because I’m fascinated by this. What did you take away from the entrepreneurs in emerging markets and developing countries that is different to that in North America or even Western Europe? Because in North America and Western Europe, there are developed markets. There is infrastructure. There’s more certainty around a number of things. In emerging markets, it’s emerging for a reason. So to a certain extent, there’s an even greater responsibility or reliance to be innovative or to be creative or to be resilient. What have you learned or taken away from the entrepreneurs in emerging markets that is different and more beneficial to their environmental situation?

Saleema Vellani:

Yeah. So it’s very interesting and that’s where the differences become more apparent is that entrepreneurship is more what we would think real entrepreneurship out of necessity, really trying to solve a problem in those countries or in the societies where it’s a day-to-day thing. I was actually just talking to some Zambian entrepreneurs and they were like, “Hey, how can we use design thinking to sell more fish?” Or very, very basic problems. So it’s not so much we don’t have as much of the wantrepreneur, people just wanting to become an entrepreneur because they think it’s a pass to freedom or because of the lifestyle or all the different reasons that we often experience here in more advanced economies. But oftentimes in those countries, people are really trying to solve problems in their own communities and their villages.

And so that was very interesting that they’re often not doing it, they often have a day job or doing something else, but they’re really trying to do it oftentimes as a nonprofit or as a way to really solve a problem that’s important in their country. And so that was that also, there’s also a big lack of the entrepreneurial infrastructure in several of those countries where the governments and there’s not a lot of support or resources or communities. Now there’s been a lot with a lot of like What’s Up communities now that have emerged and different communities have emerged, coworking spaces, collaboration and innovation hubs. But again, it’s very much around the people that have access to that. So you do have a lot of inequality in those countries where there are people that have access to those resources that are connected to the global community and have access.

And then there’s the ones that we often don’t even get to know or read about because they’re in their villages and they’re entrepreneurs, artisans working in markets, all kinds of stuff in there. They’re the ones that we often don’t get to hear about. And they often have a lot of resilience because they’re out there hustling. So I think that oftentimes they have the hustle, they have the resilience, they have a lot of what it takes to become an entrepreneur, but they often don’t have the resources. Whereas here, we often have the resources, we have access to education and all that, but then the emotional resilience is hard because-

Nathan Anibaba:

The grit.

Saleema Vellani:

The grit. Exactly.

Nathan Anibaba:

Definitely. Really interesting. Let’s talk a little bit about social entrepreneurship. What advice do you have for businesses that want to make money, but also want to do some good in the world the same time? Because it’s not easy to do both. It’s hard enough to create a product or a service that people value and want and want to spend their hard-earned money on. In addition to that, what advice do you have for people that want to make the world a better place as well as just creating a product that solves a problem?

Saleema Vellani:

Yeah. So I would say that for that, I think there’s been the emergence of social entrepreneurship, which now there’s a lot of different opinions around that. It was very, very big about a decade ago and now it’s sort of like, okay, do you want to be called a social entrepreneur? How is that being perceived? A lot of people have shifted towards saying, “I’m an impact founder, impact entrepreneur, or I’ve incorporated social impact into my company.” And we see a lot of interesting hybrid models because we see that oftentimes when people just focus on social impact, it’s very, very hard to scale. It’s very hard to often get the resources they need to sustain themselves. And a lot of them don’t want to move towards a nonprofit model, but we’ve seen a lot of creative models emerge where I always say it’s important to have study your growing revenue first, be able to have growth on the profit side and then be able to incorporate social impact into the activities of the company. But once the company is on its own feet.

And so I think that oftentimes we see people that are, let me try to solve this social impact issue. And it can be really, really hard without having a sustainable way to grow and then from a revenue standpoint. So I think that whether you have impact incorporated into your company, whether you’re able to be sustainable enough to work with corporate sponsors or work with partners in a very strategic way to incorporate that impact. I think that there’s a lot of opportunity right now to… One thing that we do with my company right now is we’re based in the U.S. but we also have a headquarters in Colombia. So I’m very passionate about growing and hiring people in different countries and growing our team and being able to work with people in different economies around the world, not just necessarily within the advanced economies, but really trying to create jobs in a lot of the emerging economies. And so that’s something I’ve always done from the very early days of my journey as an entrepreneur with my translation business.

In a way it was more competitive. It’s cheaper to hire people in a lot of those places, but they also had the talent and they now had the internet access. So a lot of the translators I worked with were in emerging market countries. And so I think ultimately try to figure out what does impact mean to you? What are your impact metrics? And then figuring out how you can incorporate that, whether it’s growing your team in different markets and different emerging markets, whether it’s having a product that solves an issue or an impact arm of the company that can provide whether it’s scholarships or you can get really, really creative with partnerships. I think that with this future work that we’ve already entered, it’s about these unconventional partnerships that we have to sort of get creative and figure out how we can actually have an impact without it costing necessarily everything to the company, that it will often kill the company. But how can we do it in a creative way where we’re leveraging partnerships?

Nathan Anibaba:

Let’s talk a little bit about your business. You’re currently the founder and CEO of Ripple Impact, which helps entrepreneurs increase their influence and impact through accelerating the growth of their platforms and businesses. What problems do your customers typically have and how do you solve them?

Saleema Vellani:

Yeah. So currently my company, Ripple Impact, what we do is we’re sort of a business accelerator also with we also operate a bit like a creative agency. Since we not only give strategy consulting, we give advice to entrepreneurs, especially solopreneurs that are struggling because they don’t have teams and they’re trying to do it all themselves. They’re the visionary, they’re the executor, they’re the strategist, they’re also the designer oftentimes, or they’re trying to work with different people that help them execute in some way, but they don’t always have the right strategy in place. And so they’re not always doing work. They’re oftentimes busy, but not necessarily busy in the right way. And they often buy into the lifestyle of an entrepreneur thinking that it will give them a path to freedom and that being able to have that balance, but they often times find themselves very overwhelmed trying to do everything themselves.

And so it can be very hard to grow, and forget about scaling. It’s hard for them to really grow. And so we ultimately step in at that point for entrepreneurs that are serious about building their businesses. We help them. We provide strategy, consulting, advice around branding, repositioning themselves, business, marketing, and mostly those areas of business branding and marketing. And then we also have our team of strategists. We also have an execution team that helps. So we have designers, we have video editors, we have a creative team that I mentioned is based in Colombia and in different parts of the world. And we ultimately are able to provide this service really, really accessibly. It’s very accessible to entrepreneurs because they don’t have to worry about hiring their own team. They don’t have to worry about hiring just the business coach. And then now they have to do it all themselves. They don’t have to just buy into these expensive programs where it’s like, “Hey, we’ll teach you everything, but now go figure out how you’re going to do it,” and overwhelm them since a lot of us are very overwhelmed with information.

And so my company is really for people that are not just like, “Okay, I just want more information.” They’re like, “No, I want advice that’s good, that’s proven, from a team that’s helped build my own platform. And I also want help repositioning myself to show up how where I want to end up versus where I am right now.” So with that repositioning, it really helps drive business and accelerate their growth and attract opportunities based on where they want to be versus where they are right now.

Nathan Anibaba:

Really interesting. You spent a lot of your time today talking about or really helping your clients build global teams of talent. And I guess that’s what you’ve had to do for yourself in your own businesses. What have you learned about the best way of identifying the best people, recruiting the best people, understanding what qualities the best people share regardless of their background and ethnicity, et cetera? What have you learned about hiring and working with the best people?

Saleema Vellani:

Yeah. So some of the things I’ve learned, we’re constantly recruiting. And so I would say that really trying to see how much homework the candidates have done before talking to you. So if you’re doing an interview, you really want to vet and see how much research they’ve done on your company and who you are. Just seeing that they’ve done their homework, that they’re proactive, I think that’s key. And so that shows that they might have an entrepreneurial mindset or come in eager to come and make a difference and contribute their best. I think also interviewing a few different people is key because I think that oftentimes you might think the first person we talked to, “Oh, I liked them.” But then when you talk to two or three more people, you’re like, “Oh.” So I think really trying to figure out what’s the criteria and then against that criteria, who is qualified or who aligns with that criteria.

And then also try to see what kinds of suggestions they would have and actually tell them a problem that you’re going through and see how they would… I’ve tried hypothetical ones, but I think it’s always best to actually just give them a real problem. Hey, this is what we’re going through. How would you solve this? And try to see how they think. I think that it’s one thing to have skills. I think it’s another to actually see what’s their ability to learn and think. Are they a fast learner? How much are they able to adapt a lot of their emotional intelligence skills? How good are their communication skills, their resilience skills? Are they going to show up motivated and are they going to be fun to work with?

And so a lot of these different questions and really getting creative. I think that I always try to design interviews in such a way that, and also adapt on the spot to see how they would react and what kinds of ideas they come up with. And I think then at that point, when you’re ready to hire, I think it’s key to do the testing. As I mentioned, testing is such a key component of everything that you do as an entrepreneur and really trying to test them through after the interview on tasks or a practice test or there’s different ways you can even do that virtually with some accountability in there. But essentially trying to see how they’d actually perform before bringing them on board because an interview is not enough. And so you want to see how they actually work.

And then at that point, having some sort of test period, or the first couple of months to just see how they would work and how good a fit it is for both parties and then bringing them on full-time or however you want to structure it. But we generally go through a process like that since we find it works best to do it in those steps.

Nathan Anibaba:

Really interesting. Just bringing the interview towards a close now, Saleema. Last few questions about sort of your own growth as an entrepreneur over the last few years, well, since the age of 21. And then we’ll get into our favorite questions, our speed round. How do you grow your skills as an entrepreneur? Mentorship, books, resources, podcasts? How do you keep growing and developing as an entrepreneur?

Saleema Vellani:

Yeah, I think it’s about constantly touching base and growing my mentors. Who was my mentor a couple of years ago, probably isn’t my mentor today. So it’s constantly upgrading my mentors and who I connect with and kind of learn from. I think having conversations without them being formal mentors. For me, I just think talking to people, different experts in different fields that are relevant, or sometimes not even exactly my field, but trying to see how someone else would look at what I’m doing. And I get really great ideas from talking to diverse people. I think that reading books, I think joining communities is great for accountability around that. So if it’s being part of a book club. I like to join different communities with different sorts of professionals where I sort of get access to those resources or those trainings, webinars, et cetera.

I think also just being out of one’s comfort zone, I think that’s the most important thing. And for me, it was always traveling. I travel quite a bit. Now it’s obviously not as easy and not as frequent. But I think really trying to be in a different place, I think that that, for me, has been really, really important. Just being in a different country, being in a different setting in a way that’s really close to the local community, that has taught me a lot to adapt. And I’ve learned different languages. I’ve learned about different cultures. And I think travel is such a key component for that growth. And I think just building in those learning opportunities, whether it’s taking courses, talking to all sorts of people, reading books. I think it’s really spending time alone as well and really trying to be less busy. I think trying to calm our minds a bit too sometimes and allow the space for ideas to come in. I think that’s really key as well.

Nathan Anibaba:

Really interesting. You mentioned books there. Which books have been most instrumental in the way that you think about entrepreneurship, your own business journey, your own growth as an entrepreneur? Which books would you go back to time and time again?

Saleema Vellani:

Yeah. One of my favorite books, it’s called Steal Like An Artist and it’s one of my favorite books.

Nathan Anibaba:

Austin Kleon.

Saleema Vellani:

Yes. It’s a lot of fun. It’s just a really great read and I can just read it and every time I’ll pick up something different from it and-

Nathan Anibaba:

Great book.

Saleema Vellani:

It’s just really well illustrated and different, creative visual book. And I love that book. There’s a lot of other books that I have on my list as well that I often go back to and read a chapter from. But I have to say that one’s my favorite because I think it really shifted the way that I saw things and enabled me to innovate more as an entrepreneur and be able to not feel bad about [crosstalk 00:26:48] existing.

Nathan Anibaba:

Stealing someone’s idea.

Saleema Vellani:

Yeah. Like taking existing things and adapting it in a new way because I was always trying to start stuff from scratch. And I was failing at that. And every time I failed, I was like, “Hey, why am I solving all these other problems when I should just work on problems that have already been solved?” But maybe there’s room to do more with it.

Nathan Anibaba:

Yeah, definitely. Really quite a liberating book actually, sort of one of those books that really gives you permission to do the things that it makes sense for entrepreneurs to do. Why are we trying to reinvent the wheel when everything that we’ve tried to do has already been done probably 10 times better by other people. One of my favorite books as well.

Let’s get into our speed round now. These are our questions a little bit more about you, the person behind the brand. I’ll fire some questions at you. If you can fire some short, sharp answers back, that will be great. First question. What’s your guilty technology pleasure?

Saleema Vellani:

That’s a good question. My guilty technology pleasure. I’d probably say online shopping. I didn’t want to say that, but I’d say between Amazon and one of my favorite stores, Anthropologie, I just get their notifications and I tend to browse. I don’t always shop, but I just tend to look at stuff.

Nathan Anibaba:

What excites you most about your current role and position?

Saleema Vellani:

I love the fact that even though I’m the founder and CEO, I can really step down and let my team lead. And so it’s really exciting to have built a team where I can empower them to take the lead. And I can also just be down and work in the trenches with the clients on these problems and really work behind the scenes to help them shine and be successful. I really, really enjoy that.

Nathan Anibaba:

If you weren’t doing your current job, what would you be doing and why?

Saleema Vellani:

If I wasn’t the CEO of my current company, I’d probably go work for another organization where I can have a bigger impact, which I also considered when the pandemic hit. Probably work for an organization where I can actually be an entrepreneur in residence, really change things around. I know a lot of companies need that and I started to dive into that space a bit. But I decided to just go on my own again and start another company.

Nathan Anibaba:

I’m really excited to know the answer to this question because you’ve lived in so many different, amazing places. But if you could live and work anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?

Saleema Vellani:

That’s a hard one because I like so many different places. I’d have to say probably I have my heart in Latin America since that’s where I spent a lot of time and specialized in as well in my career in education. Though I’d probably say I’d probably go to Colombia just because a lot of my team’s there and it’s a beautiful country and there’s just a lot of diversity. I’d probably just make stuff happen out there and it’s in a similar time zone.

Nathan Anibaba:

Good answer. And my final question, Saleema. What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs on how to create profit with purpose?

Saleema Vellani:

I’d say focus on figuring out the profit part first and then keep purpose in mind and you can definitely have purpose in your vision. But figure out how you can make the profit first and then you can really focus harder on the purpose and actually make more impact.

Nathan Anibaba:

Excellent. Saleema, thank you so much for doing this.

Saleema Vellani:

Yeah, you’re welcome. This was really, really fun. I really enjoyed it. Thanks for so much for having me on the show.

Nathan Anibaba:

If you’d like to share any comments on this episode or any episode of ClientSide, then find us online at Fox.Agency. If you’d like to appear as a guest on the show, please email elva@fox.agency. The people that make the show possible are Elva Bonsall, our booker/researcher, David Clare is our head of content. Ben Fox is our executive producer. I’m Nathan Anibaba. You’ve been listening to ClientSide from Fox Agency.

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