Jeanette Cheah is the founder and CEO of The Hacker Exchange, a programme preparing university students for the future economy. She tells Hive Life how she’s adding to traditional education to build a well-connected, tech-minded generation of future professionals.
With most things, change is inevitable. Within education systems alone, we’re all seeing a massive switch to tech-based learning, and in business, innovation is being led and applied by boutique firms and young startups. Melbourne-based startup advisor Jeanette Cheah is blending the two to encourage a whole generation to adapt to a new normal. As an award-winning tech and business thought leader who spent 14 years working for some of Australia’s biggest corporate giants like ANZ and AXA, she is a leading expert when it comes to innovative solutions, digital products and marketing strategies, and her latest project sees her apply those skills to the lives of students with HEX (The Hacker Exchange), a programme designed to equip university students for the future economy.
“The Hacker Exchange exists to help bridge the gap between traditional university education and skills and mindsets that are really needed for the future economy. By that, I mean we’re training the innovative, creative technologists of the future to get them to have the mindset and skills that can be found in the startup ecosystem,” Jeanette explains. Already, The Hacker Exchange’s pivoted COVID-19 virtual programmes have been taken up by Monash University, University of British Columbia and UC San Diego. Their online Global Venture Exchange, which ran in May, is a finalist in GoAbroad.com’s ‘Innovation In Online Programming’ category. The Hacker Exchange’s flagship 2-week intensive virtual programme will run in July, offering academic credit from several top Australian universities.
It all began when RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia picked up on a programme Jeanette was running to train people to pitch and network. “We ended up creating a programme that was about cross-cultural engagement, giving people networks and teaching them about fundraising and value. And we ran it. We had RMIT University become our very first partner,” she sets out. Excited by the prospect of providing real opportunities to students and the ripple effect that this would have on how younger generations saw their futures in business, she knew this programme was something that could push for change in the right direction. “What that meant was a young or aspiring founder – or someone who was curious – would be able to spend two weeks in a foreign country and get academic credit towards a degree. Plus, they’d get all the startup training and networking they need. We ended up doing quite well with that programme. It was very small but we had great feedback, which was the beginning of The Hacker Exchange.”
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Today, The Hacker Exchange is run at several universities in Australia, from Monash University to the University of Sydney, sending its participants to Silicon Valley, Singapore, Tel Aviv, Texas, San Francisco and beyond where they receive mentorship and more. “Our flagship product is a Global Innovation Programme. They spend two weeks abroad to learn skills, a mesh of everything from pitching to growth hacking to networking as well as the mindset.”
But Jeanette isn’t just an EdTech leader. She’s also a huge diversity advocate, which is why The Hacker Exchange provides more than the conventional business school education, doing “a lot of leadership coaching and lessons on resilience and empathy comes with it.” For Jeanette, it’s about changing the way businesses operate from their very foundations and transforming the opportunities of her students alongside that. “I still get kind of angry about the fact that something like less than 3 per cent of VC funds go to women. And we’re not going to change that if we don’t change the kinds of founders, leaders and investors we’re training these generations to be.”
Jeanette’s years in the corporate world have allowed her to see what change these structures so desperately need. As she puts it, “Working in the corporate world is like running at full speed, but you’re bumping into trolleys and sharp corners all the time, whereas working in a startup ecosystem is like running really fast through an empty field, but you have no idea if you’re about to fall into a hole.” From her perspective, corporations can stand to learn a lot from how startups work. She’s seen the rigidity of the systems at work within corporate giants and sees room for revolution. For her, working culture should develop, opening itself up to new ideas from within and fresh talent from without. “It’s about creating cultures that are much safer for people to experiment, to get things tested quickly, reducing perfectionism, increasing emotional safety, providing the tools to test things beyond the conventional, and also just appreciating education.”
To learn more about Jeanette’s mission and experiences through the corporate world to startups, tune into The Experience Series on Facebook on 28 April where there will be a live stream of a fireside chat, co-hosted by Hive Life.