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Jeremy Au – Social Impact Investor; Building to Last

Interview with Rovik Robert on The Good Technologist

· Blog,Podcast,Press

Jeremy joined The Good Technologist on 11 Dec 2021 to chat with Rovik Robert about:

  • His past projects
  • His views on bringing his two worlds of investing and social impact together
  • Discuss how TechforGood projects should think differently about sustainability and financing

Check out the podcast here and the transcript below.

Transcript:

 

Rovik:

[00:00:07] Welcome to The Good Technologist, a podcast of how innovators are using technology to make our society a better place, in Asia and across the world. This podcast is brought to you by better.sg, a movement to drive tech for good based in Singapore. We believe that collaborations across disciplines and diverse people can help technology drive better social outcomes.

My name is Rovik, and I'm your host today. Today's guest is Jeremy, a multi-hyphenate, but someone who squarely believes in investing in people and great ideas. Besides being an angel investor in multiple businesses, Jeremy also spearheads Monk Hill Ventures' key initiatives from venture scouts to thought leadership.

Jeremy has a number of social enterprises and initiatives under his belt, but one, he co-founded CozyKin, an early education marketplace, and led a startup as CEO from zero, to Series A, and even a sale. He also co-founded and bootstrapped Conjunct Consulting, an impact consulting platform that we've actually talked about in our previous episodes.

You should definitely check it out. In this interview we hear about Jeremy's past projects, talk about his views on bringing his two worlds of investing and social impact together and discuss how a good project should think differently about sustainability and finance. Jeremy, welcome to the podcast.

Jeremy:

[00:01:20] I'm really excited to be here. I am a big fan of the show. I am a big fan of you, Rovik.

 

Rovik:

[00:01:26] Big, big fan of you too, man. It's exactly why I'm looking forward to talking to you. And in this case, we're really focusing on tech because we've talked about so many things now, in previous conversations, maybe let's just start for our listeners to hear a bit about your early social enterprise adventures.

Can you tell us a bit more about it? Really, what were you trying to address or problems you were trying to solve with both CozyKin, as well as Conjunct Consulting.

 

Jeremy:

[00:01:50] For Conjunct Consulting, Jia Chuan and I came back and we very much wanted to help the social sector and really give back in a very professional and skilled way and to partner with social enterprises and non-profits in a consulting approach.

And there was no way to do it. Obviously, we talked to agencies, you talk to the various platforms and there's a lot of words, but not a lot of action. There's no real way for us to really engage on that level. And there's a lot of buzzwords there, right? Skills-based volunteerism is the way we defined it so we just said, Hey, let's build something where we can actually deploy, that high-skill consulting. Actually, get a problem done and partner with the social impact leaders on the ground. And also mentor and train the next generation of impact leaders at the same time as well. And I think we had a tremendous amount of support and a very pleasant surprise to actually be able to not only build it out and get that initial support but also find out how difficult it actually was to build it. Also actually realized that we had to define a success, not just be, oh, be a place where we could... Yeah. But that is where dozens or hundreds of people could be yet, but how to make it financially sustainable operationally sustainable and keep it going where you could also scale and grow across multiple universities, organizations, to hundreds of clients and be able to outlive us in that sense in our 10 years.

And I think there was a really interesting dynamic, so different problems when we first started out with and a core mission, still is the same, but the problems that you stage continue to change. And I think for CozyKin, we saw a problem was... there's a huge frustration actually, and a huge stress that new mothers were facing from a fundamental basis about going back to work and their ability to be a mother in the United States.

And so from that perspective, we had to make a decision about whether to help them as some of our advisors. So suggested being more of a therapeutic dimension, which means, they recommended, Hey, maybe give the meditation, accept the fact that there's no childcare. Accept the fact that they can't go back to work because there's no good childcare towards a more direct problem-solving approach where we actually provided the education and the care at home.

For their children, where they felt comfortable being able to go back to work. And so we were able to do that. And as a result, we were able to, by actually solving the problem, actually scale that out tremendously, again, to millions of dollars of revenue. From that perspective, we will recognize your financial success on one hand as result, with venture capital and funding and all those different things.

I look at it more from a personal basis, more thousands of parents trust and... Yeah. Most valuable difficult decision, right? We're just a child, right? The most precious duty, responsibility to us. Which is a big problem to have, especially in the context of being here and having to raise a kid in such a problematic environment, like the United States of America and in terms of work environment -- no labor policies, the social-economic issues that are there, the safety issues, so different problems that different dynamics, but both times around, I think the core of it was really like what is not being solved right now.

Not just that, too radical a policy level, which were big words, but... What does it mean for the individual at the end of the day?

 

Rovik:

[00:05:06] Both of those problem statements are very intriguing, very relevant. I think especially now, once again, at Conjunct Consulting, they have definitely made a huge dent and the environments that do play the, and actually the main thing I'm impressed by is really that ability to scale, right?

So there is an abundance of social impact projects out there. There's an abundance of social enterprises. But actually being able to build something that lasts beyond your loss, a couple of generations, and can make a sustainable impact, I think is the real, I would say trophy or the real goal. You talked a bit and you alluded to challenges.

I am curious if you could maybe distill some of the key challenges you faced in scaling both CozyKin and Conjunct Consulting. How do you describe that?

 

Jeremy:

[00:05:51] In the early days, is making sure that impact statement or what you're trying to solve is really human and really centered. When we set out for CozyKin, we started out actually as a mental health startup? So we want to do something mental health. We were looking at postpartum depression. And so these moms were just really sad and depressed about the lack of childcare and the inability to return to work and the inability to resume their careers and their self-identity. And it was a big trigger for depression or stress. And so we decided that actually, we could solve the root of the problem by solving the childcare issue because of the lack of childcare in the ovens populations in Boston and New York and Brooklyn and Manhattan later, we scaled that to California, Georgia, Texas, et cetera. That being said, if you think about it, because, as our medical advisor said, as a doctor, we can't do childcare or it's not my place to do childcare. Why don't we just teach her meditation, the set, the fact, and it's not a bad thing. Cause it's funny if you think about it, like you imagined teaching meditation.

To parents to accept the fact that they can resume their careers. That's bonkers, right? That's like a, really a band-aid on a problem. A lot of people haven't necessarily done the self-work necessary to say, this is something I'm willing to put in, not just one year of right. Two years of work, but this is a deep and lasting problem that I'm willing to put five years or 10 years, because only with that time horizon going in, can you actually really solve the problem from that deeper dynamic. And that's the crux of it going in is you have to walk through the problem and say, I'm willing to solve it at the individual level for whom I'm solving for.

I'm also willing to bring myself as an individual. I will spend the time. Not me as a policymaker, I'm going to work on this problem for the next five years. Most social enterprises, most impact ventures, or more startups. Why we want to call them has never taken off because they never had that concentration of will and firepower and time in that early time to actually get that off the ground.

Because there's high octane. Firepower or fuel that you need to get off the ground. There is a natural life cycle to every project or every organization. And the tricky part is this is being able to say okay, yeah, this high octane fuel. But because you brought your individual self to it, the truth is.

Organizations are fundamentally more sustainable than the individual. So even looking at the Scouts, right? The Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, the organizations are much larger than the individuals who found it.

Exactly. So people have contributed to institutions for years and years and obviously, they're going through challenges today. But the institution is who goes, and I'm sure that over time they'll revitalize themselves and they will eventually renew themselves and figure out what they need to do to continue what they need to be because there's that tradition and that heritage.

And so the truth is I think. There's this inflection point for every leader, for every organization, for every startup, for social enterprise, where they brought themselves for five years. And it goes back to the self-work that we talked about in the early days. Did you do the self-work in the early days to know that this is an issue I can bring five years of my life to, and therefore I can commit fully in parallel?

Can you on towards the tail end of five years, say. I did the self-work and I say, I'm okay with letting go, that I'm okay with building the institution in a way that when my five years is wrapping up, that someone else's five years is going to kick in and they want to take it forward. And it's tough because I remember helping Conjunct Consulting, setting the low for the next leader, and sort of five.

And I remember feeling. Obviously, there's the intellectual awareness and belief that we needed to look for new leaders so far, but I was an emotional dynamic where I didn't want to let go. So I had heard from other folks of organizations that had failed to reach full potential because had never successfully transitioned to the second generation or third generation of leadership.

And I have seen for myself, I think the stagnation of those organizations, and yet I felt still that emotional reluctance when a new person came in, she was better than me, I coached her. The truth is she was better than me for the next stage of the company. She made a decision that I couldn't make. Her success has meant that Conjunct Consulting continues to this day. And I share credit to be honest for her pushing on the organization to the next stage, right? Because you're talking to me about Conjunct Consulting, but her work continues to push our organization forward.

 

Rovik:

[00:10:21] When you are sharing this story. We resonate there because my personal journey with The Hidden Good has also sort of similar, right?

Because with The Hidden Good, we also needed that. Mostly because I was going to college and we did have someone to take over, but you're absolutely right. I think when we look for our next executive director, the question that we had to ask was not really who can do what I was doing, but who can do what's necessary for the next stage of The Hidden Good. And I think that level of multi generational thinking. I think it's super important. I'm going to focus on the social impacts. I think this is definitely something I'm going to come back to and I want to dig out is to understand why you went into the investment, right? So you decided to pivot into venture capital and angel investing really going on the capital side of the equation?

What drove that decision?

 

Jeremy:

[00:11:11] For me, it's a function of two aspects, right? The first aspect is what I discovered by myself. And the second is what's out there right in Southeast Asia. What I discovered by myself is that across these two organizations, what I really loved was really hanging out with. Passionate people mission oriented folks, right?

That's what I loved all the reasons, university days, when I was a student, I loved being part of the Berkeley group, which was an organization of, mission driven consultants, working with organizations. Again, it was that sense of purpose sense of mission. I think the second thing that I cared about is what you mentioned earlier, which is about the desire to scale impact.

So a scale impact, not necessarily just in terms of quantity also in terms of the quality and also in terms of the time, scale of impact is very important to me as well. I enjoy coaching, helping and working people, obviously I enjoy problem solving combined with the fact that resolve is Asia. I think there's tremendous opportunities. There's a huge amount of catch-up growth. We see that obviously people are still very much a middle income across the whole Southeast Asia, and there's a huge amount of middle-class to be grown. The truth is technology is going to be a big part of their life is a really big part of their life.

And so I think technology is the answer across Southeast Asia. That's the reason why when I came back two years ago, the first thing I did was, actually end up, and the reason why we connected was because I set up a podcast, podcasts was very much about Southeast Asia technology because I was as passionate about hearing the stories across Southeast Asia of people, making that difference being passionate about Southeast Asia and technology and making a difference and thinking about how they were being authentic and reflective about it. Having been able to interview, over 150 folks, I think you can go to www.jeremyau.com.

 

Rovik:

[00:13:04] I really enjoyed listening to a whole bunch of that. You do a really good job, you and your team doing a good job of not just bringing together really inspiring leaders and personalities, but actually extracting some of those lessons. I think sharing a journey is one thing but really getting into the heart, the issue of the learning some of those critical decisions that were made in our process, we had, I think it's worked.

Yeah, absolutely. For those listening, please go check out BRAVE by Jeremy Au.

I think It's definitely a good podcast to add to your collection, but I wanted to pick up on something that you were talking about, right? We were talking about how it's really aligned with a lot of the things that you will ask them about.

One thing that you mentioned, and actually one of our earliest subjects is that you mentioned that you also believed that fundamentally venture capital or the work in venture capital is also contributing to social impact. And so I'm curious on this, what that means, right?

Because I think while a lot of people see the tech phone from good space, As maybe more nonprofit, and maybe more charity, and then they see the venture capitalists basis, very profit-driven, very capitalist, but you don't see that dichotomy.

 

Jeremy:

[00:14:17] I think the first question you were asking about is what is venture capital?

The second is what is venture capital funding, which is technology and business. And if that is what is the impact of technology and business, versus the social sector, right? Those are the three levels that we have to understand that. And I think the way I often wanted quickly articulated is would we want to live in a world without electricity?

You and I are doing a podcast today. Through the internet, which was funded by DAPA and venture capitalists, the multiple VCs that funded all of this, et cetera. And now we can do this amazing thing called communicate across this country and record this and distribute this across Southeast Asia and even in the world, not only across space but across time, right? Because someone could listen to this and learn from this conversation, right? So we have a time capsule going on. So I think there's this dynamic where technology has allowed us to do this amazing thing that we have here and I can tell you that I like the life where we can do this more than life, where we could not.

Venture capital, like capital, is only a form of funding, a form of inputs. It is a form of way to fund, but the real thing, it funds the real iceberg below the water is really technology. People are looking at venture capital is that, oh, venture capital is good or bad, but it's not, what is it? Funding. It's like, what it's funding is technology.

The real thing we're asking is are we comfortable with technology, more technology, more acceleration? The change is changing society, electricity-wise. It is. And that's really, I think the discomfort is happening. But what it does not answer. And I think where I have a personal point of view is that.

The deepest, the beyond that is the responsibility that we all have. As technologists. That's what I'm saying it as venture capitalists, as operators, as policymakers, whoever we are, what is our responsibility to society in the midst of this change?

 

Rovik:

[00:16:19] It's a bigger philosophy. The role of technology, right? I remember doing a master's course wherein how we have to see technology and the influence in our communities as a socio-technical system. So it's not just technology determinism, where technology solves all things but really thinking about it and how human beings engage and interact.

And so the point to take away from what you just shared is that venture capital and capital, in general, is not. What pulls us away from social impact. In fact, in a lot of ways, it is a key and they block all social impact. When we start off projects, we tend to be primarily impactful. It's we primarily focus on what is the social goal that we're trying to address.

As you mentioned, people that we're trying to benefit or bring on the journey with us. And then financial sustainability is normally an afterthought. What would you say to all these project leaders who are developing projects that can have a huge impact? And how would you encourage them to think of sustainability? They are going to need funding.

They're going to need the balance in all that they do with these projects, but at the same time, they don't want to let them, as you mentioned, some of the externalities and some of the issues around people wanting to just explore technology for less palatable ends.

 

Jeremy:

[00:17:35] There are two dimensions being the first is the projects.

And the second one is the example. And the modeling has been set for the team from day one. Do what we talked about, which is focus on being very focused on what the problem is, on an individual level and only what kind of problem that you actually care about as an individual and as a team. In other words, if someone on your team doesn't care about a problem, don't try to convince them to stay, just let them go.

If you don't care about a problem, just leave and work on a problem you care about. That's okay because don't waste one year of people's time. Work on a problem you actually care about. You need a high octane meaning, everybody pulling in the same direction to actually get it off the ground.

And you can't have a sustainable project if everybody on a team doesn't care about the project. So on day one... It's about if you care about the project so deeply that you understand the problem so intuitively. The second aspect is really important, which is that assuming they get started on this project now to get in early in this project, which is the most people.

You really should seek to not destroy the teams, faith, and conviction and desire for good, which is that the people in a team, if they care about a problem in, et cetera, they should not walk away from this project. And it should not walk away with a bitter taste in the mouth. They should not walk away saying tech for good projects.

Oh, social impact projects can never scale. They should never walk away with a perspective that, oh, this was a bad project or there's no economics involved. If you're a leader, is that you're not only building the projects in the short term and maximizing the sustainability impact, which is key because everybody's there for that.

Also making sure that. You have built the project that. Activates and maintains the fire for the people around you, because that's a true gift to society. They don't have to be profit-driven to be sustainable. They have to be sustainable. And sustainability means they have to be at least breakeven on a monetary basis, but they also have to be breakeven from a people basis.

How does an impact project be truly impactful and then define it, define the impact in your way. And the other way I define impact is in terms of quantity, in terms of quality, in terms of time, period or generational and then work backward from there. And I think if you do it that way, that. Mission accomplished if your project is three months and it wasn't profitable and you spend $10,000 of your own money to do it, but you achieved the goal of delivering masks to the needy in the middle of a pandemic who couldn't get a mask. And yeah, it's financial aid. It's your own money. It was not profitable. But you did something good and it made you happy and it saved the lives of people who will never know your name.

Yeah. You achieved this goal of impact, that does not need to be profitable. And it was not even sustainable by the definitions of this earlier podcast, but it was impactful. So I think define impact by your personal standard is really key. And if it just happens that if you define impact by the standards of sustainability, then thinking about it from people sustainability and financial sustainability is key.

And if it happens that you define impact by the ability to scale rapidly and be able to access venture capital and profitability would be, have metric that you are to care about, as a result, don't let the tail wag the dog. I always like to say.

 

Rovik:

[00:20:58] I think this is a great conversation on sustainability.

I think, especially for the projects who are maybe in a more mature stage. Or who are starting to think about really that long tail of the impact that they wanted. I think some organizations like needs to be some sort of a sustainability model. Maybe part of it is driven by profit, but at an overall, impact is the key driver.

And I think these are interesting areas to continue exploring. Jeremy, we'll definitely be chatting more about this either, maybe even in our own, our catchups later on, but I wanted to wrap up the podcast by asking some of the cooler or fun question. We asked our guests. This is really for to get to know you we'll start with the first one, which is what do you do to practice balance and intentionality in your day-to-day life?

 

Jeremy:

[00:21:56] The way I try to center myself is really going for long walks with trusted friends and having deep conversations about life and career being thoughtful about why am I doing something, and then why am I feeling that way? And not necessarily just thinking about how I am trying to optimize for the best thing to do.

What's the right thing to do, or what's the bigger, best or larger or right thing to do.

Rovik:

[00:22:29] Here's the last question. So we asked this question to everyone. In one word, what is the future of tech?

 

Jeremy:

[00:22:35] Dreams. Dreams come true.

Rovik:

[00:22:37] That's a great note to wrap this podcast up on because this whole episode has been about sustainable thinking.

I think that's really something too. The whole front and center as well, along with Jeremy. Thank you once again, for coming on the show, for spending time with us to share your experiences. And I hope that whoever's listening. If you feel so inspired, please take that challenge up and build that sustainable project.

Can we make an impact?

 

Jeremy:

[00:23:10] Yeah. Thank you so much. And if you are interested, feel free to go to www.jeremyau.com too. I guess, hear the podcast and actually hear Rovik's episode in the past as well.
 

Rovik:

[00:23:22] Thanks for joining us on this episode of The Good Technologist. If you like what we are doing, you can always find out more on our website, better.sg and subscribe to the podcast.

We're on your typical channels such as Spotify, Apple Podcast, or whatever app you prefer. This podcast is produced and edited by myself, Rovik Robert, and our email address is goodtech@better.sg, please let us know what you think.

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