Jessica van Thiel


Jessica van Thiel

Enabling local Social Entrepreneurs

Meet Jessica van Thiel, co-founder with Shivani Singh of PATHFINDER, a social enterprise support agency that creates management solutions to protect and enable the world’s most vulnerable.

Jessica is a human rights advocate, PhD student, mother, and Canadian/French citizen of the world.

Ogunte: What are you doing differently?

Jessica van Thiel: Shivani and I created PATHFINDER two years ago. Shivani left her job on Wall Street and I left a consulting job in Brussels (at 8 months pregnant!). We combined forces to start our own company with the overarching agenda of achieving gender equality, global human rights, and peace and security for all.

Influencing academics, policy and social entrepreneurs

Our model provides creative solutions to enable the world’s most vulnerable through an innovative three-pronged approach: by simultaneously influencing academics, policy, and social entrepreneurship. Our vision is to enable local social entrepreneurs so that they may provide for themselves, their families and their communities.

Pathfinder's trilateral model has been designed with sustainability, scalability and a global mindset to ensure as wide a reach as possible. I am based in France and Shivani is in Canada, while our four partner projects are in Namibia, Nepal, India and Ghana, each covering various social causes and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Ogunte: What is your theory of change?

Jessica van Thiel: Shivani and I share a passion to help the less-fortunate. We develop sustainable strategies that directly benefit minority groups and the impoverished. We have crafted our business model to have the greatest impact possible and improve the lives of those we set out to help.

Our original approach ensures that we:

  • Tackle known industry issues (instead of working with or around them) to facilitate change. From my experience working with the United Nations and European Union institutions, I have seen first-hand how the lack of transparency, bureaucratic processes, and mismanaged funds have hindered progress in international development.
  • Create talented and diverse teams that see projects through (over 1-3 years), ensuring that all players are invested in successful outcomes. Too many respectable efforts die out due to their unsustainable nature. We only deploy viable and scalable projects.
  • Influence policy so that we maximize impact. We see policy as the most influential part of our business model and, in order to ensure maximum impact, we commit ourselves to transparency in order to provide research and results to our peers and other stakeholders in the field.

PATHFINDER's 3 key takeaways

Ogunte: What do you know now that you wished you had known from the beginning?

Jessica van Thiel: After two years of activity Shivani and I have learned countless valuable lessons along the way as we continue to evolve as entrepreneurs (and human beings!). These are some of our key takeaways:

  • Collaboration is key for Social Enterprises: stay open-minded and honest from the beginning and when approaching someone, offer something in return, don’t just take. Partner with them and become strong, unstoppable teams. We can never have enough of those.
  • Stay adaptable but never compromise your integrity: commit yourself to learning, understanding, reviewing and adapting for each outcome. Evolve but stay strong. Do not be deterred by the lack of resources and funding out there for social entrepreneurs.
  • Surround yourself with positive people: I am lucky enough to have an invaluable partner in Shivani, and along the way we have collaborated with other inspiring glass-half-full people. Learn to listen to constructive criticism but ignore the nay-sayers. Remember why you started and keep positive!
Closing the gender gap would answer many of the world’s greatest challenges

Ogunte: How does your world look like in 2030?

Jessica van Thiel: A few years or even months ago I might have answered this question very differently. It’s hard to stay optimistic about our future given the current political climate. Global priorities and concerns such as gender in-equality, climate change, poverty and hunger seem to have no immediate solutions in sight. In fact, while a few years back we were making great strides for these and other global challenges, we seem to now be regressing at an alarmingly quick pace. I worry, as many others do, that we are headed towards a complicated and uncertain time.

I have the confidence in small groups of people, local social entrepreneurs...

That said, I recognize the incredible influence and ability to affect change that people have. I have the confidence in small groups of people, local social entrepreneurs for example, to mobilize communities and bring about impactful change.

I’m also a big advocate of the SDGs, and would love to see them realized by 2030 (their target deadline). In particular, if SDG#5 (achieving gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls) could be realized, I think the world would be a much better place. It sounds cliché, but I believe closing the gender gap would answer many of the world’s greatest challenges. Although we have a long way to go, especially given the current political and global landscape, I believe women and men have made significant, invaluable strides in bridging the gender divide.

My world in 2030 would be one of equality for all, more opportunities for women in positions of power, and access to education for all girls, resulting in a brighter future for women and girls everywhere.

Ogunte: Can you suggest 3 women social entrepreneurs in your network, the world should know about?

Jessica van Thiel: We have collaborated many times with Danielle Carruthers, The Sedge and Solène Pignet, Creators for Good who in a normal market could be competitors but as Social Enterprises have become invaluable collaborators.

We’ve also collaborated with Kari Enge, and love the work she does with her social enterprise focused magazine Rank & File.

Visit PATHFINDER online and on Twitter.

Company info

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