Lea Sefer and Sarah Puello are founders of DOers&Co., a platform that offers work-like opportunities for students in early-stage projects, organisations and start-ups lead by students and alumni of the University of Oxford. Doers&Co. aims to bring together students from different backgrounds whose mission is to find solutions to problems they are passionate about, and allow them to select innovative ventures to work on or recruit team members with the aim to create smart and significant impact in the world.
Q: What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
L: I am a Biochemist by training and I am currently finishing DPhil in Structural Biology. In addition to my studies, I got involved with a couple of societies and start-ups as a way to get experience and gains skills and realised there was a gap. What motivated me to start DOers&Co. is wishing it existed when I started University.
S: I am an alumna of the University of Oxford where I did a DPhil in Modern Languages, at the intersection of Poetry and Urban Mobility. During my degree, I became increasingly interested in the practical outcomes of my studies, which led me eventually to become involved with social impact activities and entrepreneurship events at Saïd Business School. It is here that I also completed the Leading for Impact Programme in 2014, a stepping-stone in my decision to look at my interests and academic experience as a whole in order to shape my own professional future. I had always known that I wanted to dedicate my life to helping others but I had also always felt divided by multiple interests. I don’t know if I am an entrepreneur, but entrepreneurship has been a good vehicle to make all the puzzle pieces fit with one another!
Q: What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
L: Identifying gaps, connecting seemingly unrelated ideas and coming up with solutions.
S: Entrepreneurship is the practice of undertaking an idea in an novel way with a great amount of drive, ambition, passion and dedication, whether or not this results in a successful business.
Q: How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
L: I remember discussing the idea with mentors at SBS VIEW programme that started their ventures in Oxford as well and their reactions to DOers&Co. was almost always wishing it existed when they were starting out. I found that very encouraging especially in the beginning when there was a lot of uncertainty.
S: Lea and I knew from very early on that this was a good idea because all the students friends we spoke to said this was a service they wished they had. This was confirmed by our market research at Oxford where the overwhelming majority of students said they would get involved in a project of this nature if the offer was available.
Q: So what would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
L: Resilience, perseverance and being a doer.
S: Successful entrepreneurs have great networking skills and presence; they are highly adaptable and able to learn new skills quickly; and they can see a few steps ahead. This is because the large proportion of time in the life of an entrepreneur is spent convincing others that the idea is good, adapting to the ever changing dynamics of the company (particularly if it’s a startup) and envisioning the future.
Q: What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
L: Having the ability to identify gaps and areas that can be improved, and the freedom to obsessively and creatively think about improving them. Also, constantly learning new skills.
S: My favourite part of working in this space is feeling like you are constantly on the edge of success. Not in terms of fame or wealth, but actually in terms of milestones for the business and impact for the wider audience. I also love the dynamism and intrinsic need to maximise the skills of other people.
Q: What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
L: IDEO and AirBnB. I love IDEO because of their unique design-thinking and human centered approaches to product innovation and design and I love AirBnB because they managed to design a product that turned something unthinkable, like staying in a strangers house, safe and second nature for most of us. They created trust with their product and that is impressive.
S: I would say there isn’t one individual, company or organisation that inspires me above all others. Instead, in recent months, I have come to admire specific skills and values shown by individuals within their organisations. The ability to remain open to opportunities, having a positive attitude and respecting the work and skills of your team members are definitely at the top of my list.
Q: If you could have 5 minutes with the above indiv/company/org, what would you want to ask or discuss?
L: I would ask about the technical and social challenges they faced and how they overcame them.
S: I would probably ask her about her habits and how she maintains such a tenacious attitude
Q: What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
L: Being able to help others make progress and help them work on problems and ventures they are passionate about, receiving interest in Doers&Co. from someone other than friends, creating the platform and anticipating the launch.
S: All milestones feel like successes at the moment, but perhaps most notably, winning ‘best pitch’ at the Venture Ideas Exploration Workshop organised by the Centre for Entrepreneurship and launching our brand new website!
Q: What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
L: We made a lot of mistakes on the way. I think the main one was not being focused enough on developing the idea and attempting to do too many things at the same time. The lesson that I learnt was to stay focused and to trust my own judgment.
S: Early on, we were sidetracked by conflicting views given by other people, instead of remaining focused on our objectives. We have learned to look inwardly first, distill our ideas and then seek advice/approval from others.
Q: How have you funded your ideas? Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
L: We are currently seeking funding and have applied for University sources like IT innovation challenge and Oxford Seed Fund, as well as grants from Nesta and Unltd.
S: We are currently pre-revenue, so have not yet received financial support, but we are applying!
Q: What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
L: The great things about Oxford are people, the skillset and knowledge they bring as well as great resources and networks that exist around the University. The bad thing is not enough early stage funding for ideating, testing and piloting projects.
S: The best thing about starting a business in Oxford, and particular within the University of Oxford, is the sheer amount of support available. Through the Launchpad and the Business school we have a wealth of opportunities for mentorship, programmes and events that we can get involved with to help us further our idea.
Q: If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them? (Anything Oxfordshire especially!)
L: Enterprising Oxford, LaunchPad and View Programme at the Entrepreneurship Centre.
S: Enterprising Oxford!
Q: Any last words of advice?
L: If you have ever though about pursuing an idea, do it! You have nothing to lose.
S: Get Involved! Whether you have an idea for a business or not, if you are interested in making the world a better place, join an already existing startup, group, project and meet like-minded people who will help you get to your goal!