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The rise and challenges of social entrepreneurship

Skoll Centre Early Career Research Fellow Tanja Collavo hosted a workshop at Marmalade 2017 on the strengths and weaknesses of the social entrepreneurship sector in England… and where next.  

The State of Social Entrepreneurship in England – Strengths, Issues, and Solutions.

What is the state of social entrepreneurship in England? In the course of my DPhil research at Saïd Business School I interviewed key people at social entrepreneurship organisations, revealing a snapshot of strengths, weaknesses, worries and ambitions for the future development of the sector. At this workshop I presented some of my findings and asked participants to give their thoughts and elaborate actionable proposals around the issues most important to them.

The debate was lively! The overall agreement was that the sector is growing, vibrant, diverse, exciting, and constantly changing thanks to the very low barriers to entry. Its core strengths are its ability to break silos across sectors and organisations, and its democratic nature, encouraging bottom-up solutions to social problems and the retention of the wealth produced at the local level. Additionally, the perception is that the quality of products and services delivered by social enterprises is constantly improving and that this is a great business card to increase their market penetration both in the business-to-business and business-to-consumer markets. In this sense, many workshop participants welcomed the shift of the sector towards business and believe that more and more social enterprises should aim to become business-savvy and competitive.

But participants also agreed that there are still many key issues holding back the growth and success of the social entrepreneurship sector:

  1. No one talks about failures

There is very little learning inside the sector because media, intermediaries, social entrepreneurs and enterprises talk a lot about successes but hardly ever about failures.

  1. The passion paradox

Most ventures start because of founder’s personal experience with or passion for the problem they are trying to tackle. This has obvious positives but also can lead to a “do something now” mindset promoting easy solutions and immediate action more than the elaboration of long-term strategies. Further consequences can be the lack of professional sectoral knowledge and lower inclination towards collaboration due to high levels of personal ownership and commitment, also associated with stress and burnout.

  1. Difficulty accessing supply chains

A third issue present in the sector is the low presence of social entrepreneurial organisations in supply chains, both in the business and in the public sectors. In fact, in most cases, social ventures are too small to bid for contracts and too young to have a proven track record that would facilitate their winning supply or service contracts.

  1. Too dependent on government and poor finance

Participants described the sector as still too reliant on government and as lacking appropriate financial support matching its funding requirements and specificities. Financial support was described as particularly scarce at regional and local level, with core sector and financial intermediaries being based in London and mostly focusing on organisations and areas geographically close to them.

  1. Lack of collaboration amongst support organisations

Finally, the group agreed on one of the main findings of my research projects: the lack of collaboration among sector intermediaries. This leads to a duplication of efforts and to a degree of confusion among social entrepreneurs and enterprises about where to look for support and how to reconcile the different messages they hear from the different intermediaries they are affiliated with.

Out of this list of issues, the workshop participants picked two areas that they thought were especially relevant in order for the sector to keep on thriving: the access of social enterprises supply chains in private and public sectors, and the low collaboration among sector intermediaries.

Social entrepreneurship in supply chains

The group tackling the issue “access to supply chains” found several core causes for this issue. Some causes can be attributed to failings of social enterprises themselves:

  • a lack of transparency and metrics that would lower the perceived risk of social ventures;
  • a low understanding of tender processes;
  • and the inability of social enterprises to scale and integrate or collaborate in order to bid for big projects and commissions.

Other challenges are created by the surrounding ecosystem:

  • procurement practices and contracts that do not favour the involvement of social enterprises and small organisations in supply chains of corporations and public bodies;
  • the existing regulatory environment;
  • and the still low recognition of the value and specifies of social enterprises outside of the sector.

Proposed solutions to improve the situation relied on the involvement of social entrepreneurs and enterprises and/or in that of sector intermediaries. Social entrepreneurs and enterprises should, with the help of intermediaries, lobby both the government for changes in legislation regarding tendering processes, and private companies to convince them about the possibility to collaborate with social enterprises to enhance the sustainability and credibility/effectiveness of their CSR practices. Furthermore, on their own, social entrepreneurs and enterprises should collaborate to win contracts and present stronger evidence about their performance and competitiveness, which would reduce the perceived risk for procuring organisations. Finally, sector intermediaries and research bodies should: analyse where the Social Value Act has worked; prove the benefits of values-based supply chains; and ensure social ventures involvement in supplier network platforms like Ariba.

Increasing collaboration amongst intermediaries

The second group of participants decided instead to work on the problem of low collaboration among social entrepreneurship sector intermediaries. The origins of this situation can be found in the presence in the sector of multiple umbrella bodies and intermediaries that publicly state that they are cooperating and collaborating with one another but in reality are very territorial and not interested in what other intermediaries do because “they occupy a separate niche in the sector”. In addition, many intermediaries have very specific views and beliefs about the definition of social entrepreneurship, about what the sector should look like, or about its role in society. This makes it difficult for them to really collaborate beyond sporadic cooperation for specific projects and events.

In this case, the proposed solution was to start from existing successful platforms involving several intermediaries (such as the Social Economy Alliance) and create a “network of networks”. This would have shared ownership and governance, would avoid exclusive definitions, and would initiate collaborations among different organisations around specific projects, such as “improving the access to supply chains for organisations in the social economy”. Cooperation on specific projects could be a starting point to create trust and a mutual understanding. At the same time, this “network of networks” should map out all the different intermediaries present in the sector and develop an online list differentiating organisations according to their core competences and easily accessible for organisations interested in obtaining support from the ecosystem. The creation of such a database would simplify the research process for individuals and organisations in need of help and would create the opportunity for intermediaries to understand where their respective strengths are and, thus, for sharing best practices and outsourcing to each other non-core activities.

What’s next?

The meeting finished with some networking and the hope that these solutions could lead to some concrete initiatives in the sector as well as to other opportunities to meet and discuss also the other issues present in the sector and ways to solve them in a collaborative way. Is anyone there up for the challenge? From my side, the door is open to anyone willing to know more or to jointly organise something along these lines to help the social entrepreneurship sector as well as other parts of the social economy grow and thrive even more.

Want to learn more about the interconnected networks within social entrepreneurship and social enterprise? Come along to Tanja’s talk ‘Networks in social entrepreneurship – how to support the sector while mobilising it‘ on Wednesday 17 May, at the Saïd Business School, Oxford.

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Why research matters for social entrepreneurship

Author: Julian Cottee

University social impact centres like the Skoll Centre are contributing to the growth of social entrepreneurship in a number of important ways, examined in a recent report authored by the Bridgespan Group, with the Skoll Foundation and the Skoll Centre. One side of the work of our centres is educational: we raise awareness of social impact with the student body, and equip future professionals and leaders to work in the sector. This work and its future development were explored in an article series curated by the Skoll Centre in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

But besides educating, the other USP of social impact centres is our position at the heart of knowledge-generating research institutions. Bridgespan’s report highlighted two key contributions to come from leveraging our academic connections. First, our ability to convene practitioners and researchers to support learning and innovation; and second, the generation of actionable insights for social entrepreneurs. Two of the report’s key future opportunities for Centres also focused on research: the development of clusters of deep specialist expertise to support the evolution of practice; and the cementing of social impact as a recognised academic field, attracting legitimacy and funding to our efforts in this area.

Academics and social entrepreneurs are not always easy bedfellows. The stereotype is that academics are meticulous, long-term, big-picture thinkers, answering questions driven by curiosity. Entrepreneurs by contrast are risk-takers, impulsive, and focused on specific, immediate needs. There are many exceptions to these rules, but it is also true that academic incentives and the time taken to do in-depth research work make joint working between researchers and practitioners more difficult. And then there is the language of academia, which can be all but indecipherable to non-experts.

It is worthwhile, then, pausing for a moment to consider what there is to be gained by overcoming some of these barriers. We think that the potential is huge for research to further accelerate the impact of social entrepreneurship.

Here are six reasons why we should be doing more to bring these worlds closer together:

  1. Understanding the problem landscape: Research can allow us to gain a deep understanding of the landscape of the challenges we are trying to address – whether the challenge is homelessness in Oxford, or global climate change. Engaging with researchers gives social entrepreneurs the knowledge they need to formulate effective interventions and to think through systemic or unintended impacts.
  2. Understanding the solutions landscape: This is about knowing what has already been tried in tackling the challenges we are addressing: what has worked and what hasn’t. But it is also about the political economy and power dynamics of institutions in the solutions space. Very few ideas are really ‘new’ – building on successes and avoiding past and present failures can be a key to impact.
  3. Ideation and innovation in the impact gap: Researchers are in a brilliant position to be innovators. They can see the landscape of problems and solutions from above and creatively iterate new ideas in the ‘impact gap’. This is not only about innovative products and services, but innovations too in the wider ecosystem of governance, regulation, finance and knowledge.
  4. Assessing the impact of initiatives: Robust and defensible methods are at the core of academic research, allowing the production of credible evaluations of social impact. Such independent assessments are critical for leaders to make evidence-based decisions and can also be a powerful tool in policy advocacy and attracting funding and investment.
  5. Connecting the dots across silos: Researchers are able to spot commonalities and spread ideas across boundaries that might not otherwise be bridged. Through their networks and their public-facing activities, researchers can transport and translate knowledge of successful models across geographies and sectors, or across otherwise poorly connected organisations in the same sector.
  6. A critical birds-eye view: Academics are in a privileged position of being able to see glimpses of the ‘big picture’ that most of us are too buried in our day-to-day tasks to spot. They can help us to reflect on the social entrepreneurship model within the wider global picture, to understand trends, and to ask the hard questions about how well we are really serving the beneficiaries we are working for.

Academic researchers working in many of these important roles gathered for breakfast at the Skoll Centre during Skoll World Forum Week 2017 to discuss how we can do more to bring together research and practice. They were joined by social impact practitioners from a wide range of organisations with clear knowledge needs, keen to find new ways of collaborating. We think that university social impact centres can help to realise the benefits of doing so by connecting partners, catalysing new research, and communicating actionable insights. We invite your participation as we explore further in this area – please get in touch with your ideas and comments.

Sign up to the Skoll Centre’s thought leadership newsletter, which highlights the best social/environmental impact research coming out of the University of Oxford.

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Uniting theory and practice in the social entrepreneurship ecosystem

Author: Andrea Warriner

My Oxford is the Oxford of Saïd Business School, and within that, it is the busy hub of social entrepreneurship that is the Skoll Centre. Our programme delivery team and the entrepreneurial individuals we champion and work with are heavily biased towards execution and have a tendency to hurtle towards action. A full hour planning meeting for a new programme would be a long one for us. A day spent conducting research before moving into designing a new initiative is rare.

Thankfully, our Centre exists in the heart of a different Oxford – an Oxford which stretches between our Park End Street, down to Magdalen Bridge, and up to Summertown, and is home to those who prize evidence above all else. This Oxford is made up of people who might find the idea of launching headfirst into implementing a new solution without understanding the problem as well as they possibly can quite ludicrous.

So, last week, the week of the Skoll World Forum, when a good proportion of the global social entrepreneurship ecosystem poured into our ancient city, we conducted an experiment. Early on a Thursday morning, we deliberately gathered 30 ‘practitioners’ and 30 researchers interested in social impact, to consider how we bridge the gap between research and action to create better social and environmental outcomes, and to hear from those who are doing this already.

Our own Julian Cottee provoked us by outlining why the Skoll Centre thinks these unlikely bedfellows need to cosy up. He put forward that researchers can help us to better understand social and environmental problems, as well as the efficacy of existing solutions. He noted that research can support the innovation that needs to happen in the gap between the problem and existing solutions, and can assess the impact of social innovation, aiding better decision-making and allocation of resources going forward. Researchers also may have the perspective to guide which initiatives should be replicated across geographies and disciplines. Finally, they can consider the structural frameworks and power dynamics which underpin this social entrepreneurship ecosystem, and make the criticisms that those of us who are too close to the action are ill-positioned to make.

Over breakfast, we heard rapid fire pitches from those who are already in long-term research/practice relationships – like Muhammad Meki, an Oxford development economist who is designing a randomised control trial to assess the effectiveness of microfinance for micro-entrepreneurs in Nairobi, Kenya. The project is part of Mars Inc’s Mutuality in Business project, based here at Oxford Saïd.

What’s next?

The energy in the room was tangible, and the Skoll Centre will follow up to understand if the group found this first experiment useful, and what connections formed. We are also available to entrepreneurs/practitioners who want to tap into the Oxford research community in order to accelerate the impact of their work.  We’ll have a thought leadership series on the role of academic research in the social entrepreneurship ecosystem coming out later this year, and look forward to receiving contributions to that from those who helped shape this early conversation.

Finally, we are excited to live out our belief in the importance of research as an informant and shaper of social innovation, with the expansion of The Global Challenge to institutions across the world in 2017. The Challenge is a Skoll Centre founded competition that requires students to display a deep understanding of a chosen problem and its existing solutions, rather than jumping to developing a business plan. We’ve been amazed at the ‘ecosystem maps’ that are resulting from this Challenge, and invite the public to join us to see the outputs at The Global Challenge final, here in Oxford on 1 May.

As Daniela Papi-Thornton, founder of The Global Challenge and author of Tackling Heropreneurship, has succinctly put it – action without knowledge is foolishness, and knowledge without action is selfishness. It is the aim of our Research for Action initiative to help develop a cadre of wise and selfless partnerships in the pursuit of powerful impact.

Sign up to the Skoll Centre’s thought leadership newsletter, which highlights the best social/environmental impact research coming out of the University of Oxford.

If you’re interested in being added to a Google Group mailing list for individuals who want to forge partnerships between practice and research, drop us an email.

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Mapping and Measurement: Expanding Systems Entrepreneurship

Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.

Alex Fischer, DPhil Candidate at the University of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment and member of the Water Programme at the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment Water Programm.e He gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum session “Systems Entrepreneurship: A How-To Guide for a New Action Paradigm”.

What does it mean to take a systems approach to problem solving and entrepreneurship? This question emerged in multiple sessions at the Skoll World Forum where delegates and speakers traded ideas framing several perspectives and components of systems thinking and complexity.  A delegate-led lunch discussion focused on how to take innovations to system-wide scales, and specifically overcome barriers set by development funding structures and organisational capacity. A second delegate lunch discussion explored how to use system analysis and mapping tools to find leverage points in complex, dynamic systems, such as peacebuilding or the nexus of climate and food systems. The third session argued for a new action paradigm of system entrepreneurs or the coordinated collaboration of actors and funders to drive large-scale system changes such as malaria eradication or education reform.

Further arguing the need for a new approach of system entrepreneurs, Jeff Walker, the Chairman of New Profit, presented five elements for a practical guide to this new action paradigm.  The argument, summarised in an article published the same day in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, opens with the provocation to set up problem-orientated coalitions:

The message is clear: our focus should be more on solving problems through creative collaboration, and less on the establishment and perpetuation of new institutions. In addition, we need to develop and employ system entrepreneurs who are skilled in coordinating systematic approaches to addressing the complex, large-scale problems of our time.”

To achieve this Walker shared five elements in his approach to drive large-scale change:

  1. Identify the issues and think in systems and start by asking “what is the problem”.

“Having a great idea for solving a social problem is just the beginning. You also need to identify the collaborators who can help you translate your innovation into real solutions for the real world.”

  1. Invest in research and analysis to define the context and map the other actors.

Engage in research and analysis to hone your strategy. Figure out what’s really needed—and what works.”

  1. Continuous communication and awareness to convene partners

“The systems change model demands a high level of interaction and transparency between previously unaffiliated individuals and groups. If these links break down, or are never quite formed in the first place, it is unlikely that an effort will succeed.”

  1. Engage with policy to change policy

“If you seek to change a complex system, you will often need to change the laws, administrative rules, and official practices governing that system.”

  1. Measurement and continuous evaluation

“The most successful systems change campaigns create consistent and ongoing data assessments, and rely upon those findings to guide strategy and ensure accountability.”

One common agreement across the different sessions, reinforced by my own research on the role of disruptive information systems within water management institutions, was that success of this approach is contingent on robust data that describes entire systems, not only measuring sub-components, actors or specific interventions.

Dr. Raj Panjabi, CEO of Last Mile Health, posed the question how to set collective Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and related metrics that measure sector-wide successes, and how to incorporate that into the actor-specific evaluation structures. This left a wider challenge for participants to define what outcomes they would measure to provide at a system-level to incentivise collective action while still providing a platform for individual actors, and their funders.

Follow Alex: @alexmfischer

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Emerging Leaders shaping the future at the Skoll World Forum

Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.

Irina Fedorenko, DPhil Candidate at the University of Oxord’s School of Geography and the Environment, gives her perspective on the  Skoll World Forum session “Fault Lines Story Studio: Emerging Leaders Initiative”.

Increasing impact by amplifying stories of entrepreneurs

The Skoll World Forum Emerging Leaders

The Skoll World Forum Emerging Leaders

The Emerging Leaders The MasterCard Foundation initiative that identifies and sends 10 young, passionate leaders to the Skoll World Forum every year. Today I had the honour of attending the lunch session where 6 leaders were presenting. I have never had a lunch break that inspiring.

Each leader delivered a short speech about how they found their missions and what their organisations are currently working on. I cannot even start to convey the impact of storytelling and the energy in the room, but at least I can give you some highlights:

Dorcas Amoh-Mensah is a MasterCard Scholar at the University of Edinburgh from Ghana. Her story started with an internship in London, and that received acts of kindness form distant relatives and some cash to help her by new clothes. This has transformed her and she decided to dedicate her life to kindness and sharing with other people. In Edinburgh she works alongside many other volunteers are sharing and sacrificing their time to teach underprivileged children. “Our mindsets create labels, that strip people off the ladder of humanity – this always happen. “Rats” during the Holocaust, or “cockroaches” in Rwandan genocide…We need to stop that!”, she said.  “Do not be afraid to share your privilege with other people, and do not be scared to empower people to become better than you are”, was the message from Dorcas.

Michelle Chimuka, runs the Sani Foundation in Zambia. She is concerned that in her country they don’t even have statistics on intellectual disability. Promoting inclusion for people with intellectual disability is her personal mission, as grew up with a brother who has a down syndrome. She founded the Sani Foundation to help people like him to have a life, to provide the support to young adults and help them finding jobs. “These people should be considered as active and participating citizens. They have better attendance and retention than average workers”, Michelle says. Her biggest challenge is that many people don’t even know about intellectual disability in Zambia. “Educate your self, make a friend!”, is Michelle’s message.

Olivia Muiru, works for B Lab East Africa. She wanted to work in finance, but then realised when executives are making decisions, they look only at the bottom line, and not on how it impacts on all the stakeholders. She then started a quest for finding an organisation that would consider all the stakeholders and she found her answers in micro-finance initiatives. These would provided loans for very poor people, who would be considered un-bankable. After getting these loans, Olivia’s research concluded, most of these people felt included, they felt that they had a voice were proud of being able to contribute to the economy. B Lab uses the power for businesses that do good for the world. “Please join our tribe!”, Olivia invited the audience. She noted though, that the concept of social entrepreneurship is still very Western for Africa, and it is a challenge that the awareness is very low. But we could be sure that Olivia will change this perception very soon!

Andrew Ozanian, works for the International Bridges to Justice. He said that torture is forbidden in most countries, yet it is the most used form of police investigation in the world today. He believes that the rule of law is a foundation, the bedrock of a stable society. His organisation supports local lawyers to defend the rights of people in their local communities. And they have  the lawyers in 40 countries! The Justice Hope project that Andrew runs system scaling is more important than organisation scale. For the first time, Human Rights defenders can be a part of a living breathing network, that brings them closer to the 4th industrial revolution – the big data revolution. And this excitement keeps Andrew going!

Zeeshan Sumrani, is a leader from India and he runs Educate Girls organisation. His life changed forever when he was 16 after he spent a day volunteering in a girls’ orphanage. He saw that the school was focused on getting the girls educated and then married off as soon as they could. He then found out that his own mom got married just after high school, and have him birth when she was 18, and never came back to school. Zeeshan then applied to an MBA course together with my mom in 2008, and she graduated a year earlier then him. “I didn’t want to work for adding shareholder values, but I wanted to work on increasing happiness. Give education and life skills to girls who can negotiate with their family to tell that they want to continue their education.”, he said. His organisation now has over eight thousands volunteers who work on even empowerment.

Fhazhil Wamalwa, works in Kenya for Disa Energy Management, Ltd. “The energy inequality is a big issues, in some countries in Sub-Saharan Africa only 2% of people have access to energy”, he says. Lack of access to energy impacts on education, health and quality of life. Fhazhil was born and raised in a remote village in Kenya, that still has no energy. Had to run to school 7 km one way, and was not being able to complete his school assignments. He then won a scholarship to attend a university, which came with a leadership programme, and that led him on the path of energy leadership. “We cannot wait for the government to create a central electricity for people. We can distribute solar lamps to every person now”, said Fhazhil.

After such an inspiring session, it was clear that those people are not emerging leaders, they have already emerged and going to lead us to the better world.

Irina is a DPhil Cadidate at the University of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment. She is also the Co-Founder of a social enterprise, BubblenutWash, which makes evironmentally friendly soap detergent using soapnuts. Follow them at @bubblenutwash

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A Work Landscape in Flux for Young People

Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017 MBA candidate 2017, Ahmed Abu Bakr gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum session ‘A Work Landscape in Flux for Young People’

We all know that the world is changing at an unprecedented rate, but I regularly feel that we forget, often far too easily, that these changes aren’t entirely new. Marina Gorbis, executive director at the Institute for the future, reminds us that the technological disruptions we are witnessing today, aren’t really as rapid as we make them out to be.

The internet, the proliferation of mobile technology and sensors, and the big data revolution are a result of over thirty years of consistent investment and prioritisation in the space of communication technologies. She refers to the outcome of these technologies as greater “digital coordination”; and through this, she provides a broader definition for technology. If the internet and big data allow for coordination, then institutions and organised systems (for business, government, and otherwise) are also technologies in their own right- technologies for the coordination and allocation of resources.

'A Work Landscape in Flux for Young People' panel.

‘A Work Landscape in Flux for Young People’ panel.

And it is important to keep in mind that organised systems that are being disrupted today- financial markets, healthcare systems, the transportation sector, etc.- were actually major innovations in their own time that disrupted the status quo back in their day.

There is no doubt that the nature of work is being radically transformed by what Marina calls “digital coordination” technologies. But is it really a source of disruption for the nature of work?

The remaining panellists attested that young people in Egypt and Africa were choosing to delve into entrepreneurship and the growing start up culture because of two primary reasons. Firstly, there is an undoubted frustration within the youth populations where they are dissatisfied with the available economic opportunities. Fhazhil Wamalwa, managing director at Disa Energy Management, recalled how he was led to believe that a good education would result in a decent job, and how his inability to get on after his master’s degrees was a painful but necessary disillusionment.

The second factor is a deliberate and concerted effort by many to promote entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial activities as a response to the failure of the existing systems. Dina El Mofty (Injaz Egypt), and Marwa Moaz (Bamyan Media) both talked about their sustained efforts within Egypt to inspire and develop an entrepreneurial mind set.

With this context, it becomes evident that the changing nature of work, the rise of gig jobs, and the proliferation of self-employment and entrepreneurship is a response to the failure of the existing econo-political system where digital technology is less of a cause and more of an enabler.

One thing remains uncontested- the old institutions have to be reformed, and in some cases completely revised. For me personally, the key question is around the evolution of these new systems. The topic of the day seems to be around growing wealth inequality. But wealth inequality is a result of inequalities in the distribution of power- social and politcal. What’s even more troubling is the feedback effect on power from the accumulation of wealth. The 21st century has seen tremendous concentration of wealth because of a tremendous concentration in power. What can we learn from history to design new social and political institutions that distribute power rather than concentrate it?

Ahmed Abu Bakr is an MBA 2016-17, Skoll Scholar at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, and Co-founder of Jeeon