The On Deck network now includes more than a thousand Fellows who are Access Initiative recipients thanks to the generosity of our community.
For every person working on an impactful cause in the On Deck ecosystem, there are thousands more who’d like to but don’t have the financial means. We wrote in the On Deck Series A Memo that while technology is a powerful force for good, “the ability to participate in its development and the resulting wealth creation is severely limited.” The Access Initiative is how we unlock opportunity and get many more talented leaders and builders from around the world in business.
Here's just one story that brings to life how much potential the Access Initiative is poised to unlock—not only for recipients, but also for all of us building and growing in the On Deck ecosystem.
Cheryl Francis, based in Malaysia, joined On Deck First 50 in 2021 and received an Access Initiative scholarship. Jeff Schnurr, based in the U.S., is an On Deck Scale Fellow. Though they are across the globe from each other, they met and began to collaborate through On Deck.
Today, Cheryl is the Chief of Staff at Jaza Energy, the company Jeff founded in 2017, that’s working to create a distributed network of charging stations for batteries that power entire homes and communities in off-grid Africa.
The Access Initiative exists to ensure that these opportunities continue to exist.
You can make a donation to the Access Initiative here so we can find and support the next 100, 500, 2,500 Cheryls and Jeffs.
Cheryl, thank you for taking some time to talk. Could you introduce yourself and share a little bit about how you found On Deck?
I’ve always been a big believer in the idea that the doors that you think are closed to you aren’t actually shut all the way.
I finished pre-university studies through public school and couldn’t afford college. One of my friend’s dreams was to become a flight attendant. I decided to apply and used it to fund my way through college. While it’s not very common, I was surprised to find out I absolutely loved the customer experience side of being a flight attendant.
During long haul flights, I was spending flight time reading publications like The Economist and The New York Times. I was absorbing all the cool things people were building—the products, the apps, the businesses, and genuinely innovative solutions to big problems.
In Malaysia, there’s a deeply held belief that you don’t get anywhere unless you go to university. At this juncture, I had two options, either go back to university or take up the challenge of diving into the startup industry which a friend of mine was encouraging me to do.
I started out as one of the first hires in a Y Combinator-backed company in Malaysia, and thereafter was hired by a Japanese venture capital firm looking at emerging tech in regulatory technology for blockchain.
In this role, I worked with early-stage startups across the globe, looking at their go-to-market approach. Eventually, I headed up our venture office in Southeast Asia where I was responsible for reporting to our group directors regarding all project portfolios operating in the group. In my network, I had a lot of exposure to founders building at the intersection of tech and impact and realized that’s exactly where I wanted to be.
I wanted to apply my skills and professional experience and also ensure that my next learning curve was with an organization that was working in areas I was interested in, such as climate tech.
I quit my job right before COVID hit, spent lockdown in Malaysia, and unfortunately realized that I didn’t have access to a network of people or organizations in this sector.
I found On Deck through a World Economic Forum Global Shaper who was part of the ODF program.
Jeff, you started Jaza Energy in 2017. What was the inspiration behind it?
I graduated from high school in rural Canada and instead of attending university, I traveled to 45 countries over the course of 3 years. In order to finance this, I planted trees in Northern Canada. I learned how both repetition and compounding worked during my time in Northern Canada—I went from planting a hundred trees a day to 5,000.
I’d think about my actions and their outcomes in the smallest increments possible and the beauty of systems.
I ended up moving to Tanzania and picked up tree planting again for work. Through that experience, I planted 3.5 million trees in hundreds of communities. This taught me what it means for people to work together to change a landscape; the meaning of incentives and collective action. This was the catalyst for my desire to build what Jaza is today.
Jaza’s mission is to build solar charge stations for home power throughout off-grid Africa. Thus far, we’ve built 100+ solar charging stations and provided power to 50,000 people. Less than 40 percent of Tanzanians have access to electricity, and the number is significantly lower in rural areas. About 60 percent of those who live in off-grid areas rely on kerosene, which is expensive and has a negative impact on health, especially for women and children.
Our solar charging stations are run entirely by local women, building on the power of collective action I saw through tree planting.
When it comes to On Deck, I originally heard about it through Twitter.
I noticed that On Deck was an emergent community of leaders I respected, who were coming together to find and grow within a supportive, forward-thinking environment. Also, we were pushing as hard as possible to reach thousands of homes across the continent and I wanted to learn with other founders who were scaling their companies.
After conferring with peers, I knew that On Deck Scale was the right program for Jaza.
Cheryl, how did you use On Deck to navigate finding your next role?
I joined OD50 to find a role at a startup that was both making an impact and where I could be a part of driving that mission forward. I knew the industry I wanted to break into and the kind of role I wanted, but didn't have access to the people working on those problems. On Deck was that bridge for me. I put the On Deck Talent Hub to work and while a few others reached out, I was blown away by Jaza.
Basic access to resources was a problem area I was already searching for opportunities in and I was amazed at what Jaza had built. I loved that Jaza had created a job economy wherever they went by empowering the communities they were serving through clean, renewable energy.
On a personal level, my values are closely aligned and correlated with both those of Jaza and Jeff. It was crucial for me to work with a founder who was ambitious and mission-driven. Throughout the interview process, I learned a lot about Jaza and about what Jeff was prioritizing for his team.
With the support of OD50, I was able to make the most of the conversations to leverage my skills and professional acumen. I gathered as much information as possible from the conversations and my research to connect the dots, ask the hard questions, and make a case for what my role could be. It was easy to say yes!
And for you, Jeff, how did the On Deck ecosystem help you find an essential hire? What stood out to you about Cheryl?
I had the chance to see the Talent Hub [On Deck’s hiring platform, connecting our Fellows across Fellowships] while it was still in beta.
Beyond cross-functional and CEO support, our operating environment can be tough and requires a certain tolerance for uncertainty.
Cheryl’s profile quickly stood out to me. I loved that she had such a wide range of experiences. It was clear she was looking for a role that challenged her to drive change with the potential for high impact and growth. Her interview process was part onboarding - she spoke to multiple members of the team and the questions she asked proved she was willing to push for clarity and understanding. In my experience, the questions people ask are more important than what they state.
She also agreed to get on a plane and fly to Lagos, Nigeria for her first day. Cheryl was all in from day one.
Thank you both for your time! Before you go, can you share a little about what’s next?
Cheryl: I want to give back as much as I can since I got so much out of OD50. That’s how the cycle continues.
On top of that, I’ve always been deeply invested in learning and understanding how I can push myself to excel wherever I am. On Deck actually does what it says it will. I’m excited to dive into the Chief of Staff Fellowship to immediately immerse myself with peers who have decades of combined experience. I also have struck up mentor relationships with a few OD50 Fellows and also lean heavily on my Masterminds group (a confidential and curated peer to peer learning group).
I think back to my decision not to immediately go to university -- which at the time was pretty controversial. What I've realized is that it is as much about the people I'm learning with as it is about anything else. I'm facing many new challenges in this role, but I'm not worried that I can't figure it out -- I just need to find my people. And, now, I know exactly where to look.
Jaza has been baptism by fire, but very exciting. I've had a chance to play an active role from Day 1, as we're currently in Nigeria to run some pilots as we explore the new market.
I have a chance to observe and work closely with Jeff as he plans out the deliverables for the new market from legal to recruitment and operations. I’ve been given both agency from the beginning to run with what's entrusted to me and also to absorb as much as possible from Jeff in the time we have together. This is exactly why I wanted to go into a CoS role because of the breadth and depth it provides, allowing me to flex as required.
Jeff: Right now, I’m focused on shifting my orientation from decision velocity to decision quality. Now that Jaza Energy is at 200 employees, it’s a gear shift from the constant dopamine hit of making decisions. It used to be that I knew 80 percent of what we were doing on any given day was going to fail anyway. That’s the grind of zero to one. Now, I know that 80 percent of my decisions have to be correct for the long-term health and performance of the business.
When it comes to the business, we've proven the model and have pioneered a viable solution to power the 600,000,000 people living without electricity in Africa. Our next milestone is to push to 1,000 retail locations, powering 200,000 homes.
I’ve leaned on my On Deck Masterminds group through all of this and have never questioned the caliber of people in the Fellowship. Experiential learning is hard for a founder, as it costs both time and money, and ODS was a way for me to learn these lessons in plurality: How could I get multiple perspectives and get them fast?
I split my time between New York, Tanzania, and Nigeria, so it was hard to find and sustain as a member of a founder community. With ODS, I’ve checked that box in a big way.