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Renaissance of the Johnian Entrepreneurs’ Club

Posted on Jun 16

4 min read

College Events & News

The John Entrepreneur’s Club (JEC) ended the academic year 2019/20 renewed, ready to establish itself as a leading force in Cambridge entrepreneurship and eager to support budding founders. Read on for a summary of the year by Mary Letey, co-President of the JEC.

The JEC has not been reinvented but it has been revitalised. Founded in 2016 by Liisa Van Vliet and Nawar Al-Zebari, and placed on hiatus in 2018, the JEC was regenerated at the beginning of the year by myself, Attila Kaplan (co-President) and a talented group of Johnians. While the organisation now thrives under a new committee, the values on which it was founded remain central to our work: inspiring Johnians to act on their brilliant ideas and providing the resources and opportunities in the field of entrepreneurship necessary for their success.

Cambridge students are presented on a termly basis with an array of highly attractive prospective careers. The quantity of pens and notebooks proffered by banks, law firms and consultancy outfits is intended to leave no fresher in any doubt of this. But there’s something exciting about the offerings of entrepreneurship: an opportunity for young, ambitious women and men to pursue their interests and their passions, and to turn these into early stage prototypes and even business opportunities. Regardless of whether or not students pursue their entrepreneurial ambitions long-term, the skills they develop and the networks they build in the meantime are doubtless an important part of their personal and professional growth. I am thrilled to be leading the JEC in its endeavour to provide students with the means to begin their entrepreneurial journeys.

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Committee members at the Innovation and Development Workshop

In the week preceding the start of Michaelmas 2019, the JEC’S new committee met at the Innovation and Development Workshop, a week-long pilot programme designed to teach the practical skills of entrepreneurship. The Innovation and Development Workshop received approval early in 2019 from St John’s College’s Annual Fund, and it was expertly facilitated by Johnians Mark Wells (1981) and Liisa Van Vliet (2002).

Designed to hone students’ capacity to explore, work collaboratively, communicate and innovate, the programme began with personal reflections and interpersonal exercises. Teams tackled the main project of the week, which was to design a social enterprise that could contribute to the realisation of sustainable development goals. Teams continued to bond over coffees at Bould Brothers and ‘pizza & games’ evenings. The culmination of the week’s excitements was the opportunity to pitch our final business plans to a panel of industry-seasoned alumni: Damian Sutcliffe (1988), Colin Burrows (1978) and David Good (Cambridge Global Challenges).

The Innovation and Development Workshop was an overwhelming success, and members of the JEC emerged from the experience confident in their newly-forged capabilities and friendships. The committee of the JEC would like to express its immense gratitude to the executors of the Annual Fund for their support of this inspirational and beneficial programme.

In addition to the Innovation and Development Workshop, and thanks to the tireless support of the Development Office, in 2019/20 the JEC hosted four exciting events to discuss everything from entrepreneurship in the arts to how to construct a ‘pitch deck’ (a brief presentation to provide an audience of investors with a quick overview of your business plan). Johnians and wider Cambridge students alike especially valued the fruitful panel discussion around entrepreneurship for creatives with Colin Burrows of Special Treats and Carolyn Dailey, founder of Creative Entrepreneurs. Building off of this event, we collaborated with Cambridge Global Challenges to host Shorn Molokwane from BITRI for a stimulating lecture on Design Thinking and how to apply this methodology to the developing world.

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Logo for Embryo Ventures, of which Dr Arash Moavenian (2008) is the Director

The highlight of the year for the Club was our 2020 Annual Business Competition. After providing theoretical expositions and group discussion through our term events, the business competition allows students to challenge themselves in pitching their venture — and in doing so they receive valuable feedback. Due to COVID-19, we were unable to host the competition on College grounds as expected. However, through the generous support of Johnian and Director of Embryo Ventures, Dr Arash Moavenian (2008), the JEC were able to host the competition virtually. In addition to Dr Moavenian, we were excited to have Johnian Peter Le Voir (1973) as a valued member of the competition judging panel.

We’re proud to announce the winner as AceSym. Lameness, or leg pain, is the most prolific disease of the equine world, affecting a third of the one million horses in the UK on an annual basis; yet early diagnosis remains difficult, since existing detection systems are expensive and of limited availability. AceSym is a vet-tech start-up that aims to combat this issue. The team is formed of Honoria Brown (fifth year Veterinary Medicine), Yoav Nir (second year Engineer) and Rebecca Richmond-Smith (2015, Biological Natural Sciences Graduate and a founding member of JEC). Together they have designed a device that allows a precise and quantifiable detection of lameness, allowing it to be recognised at an earlier stage than possible by eye. We’re delighted to have also supported James Maskill (tackling high operation costs for retail business), Tad Adamek (helping students learn by efficiently recording information), and Vidmantas Markevicius, Vilda Markeviciute and Kalkidan Legesse (pioneering a resale application that allows sustainably-minded shoppers to buy and sell second-hand clothing from sustainably minded fashion brands).

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The renaissance of the Johnian Entrepreneurs’ Club, and the success of the events it has organised this year, are wonderful testaments to St John’s College and its commitment to supporting the endeavours of its students. In consistently and wholeheartedly doing so, the College continues to enhance the sense of community and life-long connection that thrives inside and outside its walls.

Facing interminable lockdowns, intense periods of revision, and the difficulties of Zoom supervisions (‘zoopos’), it can be hard not to become despondent and lose motivation. But St John’s is home to many unique individuals who provide support to one another in ordinary times and even more so in the extraordinary ones we now face. I have been, in these last months, constantly reminded of the sustaining friendships and continuous encouragement that the College has provided me. While I am undoubtedly proud to be a member of the JEC, I am even prouder to be a Johnian!

Keep an eye out for Liisa Van Vliet’s article in The Eagle 2020 about how the College is supporting entrepreneurship and innovation more generally. The St John’s alumni community has a strong entrepreneurial contingent, and you can read articles by several Johnian entrepreneurs on this blog.