Training the new generation
A social entrepreneur with a background in Public Health & Economics, Jean Guo is passionate about advancing migrants’ access to economic opportunities, facilitating social & professional integration and improving overall quality of life for disadvantaged persons.
Can you tell us a bit more about you and Konexio?
My life experience immigrating to the United States at a young age and the struggles of my family to integrate and thrive inspired me to found Konexio, which supports refugees, migrants, and other disadvantaged groups by teaching digital skills and supporting social and professional integration. Growing up in a low-income, single-parent household in Los Angeles, we struggled to make ends meet, but my childhood laid the foundations for my independent and proactive nature today, traits that have supported Konexio’s formation and growth.
After graduating from Stanford with degrees in economics and biology, I worked as a strategy consultant at Analysis Group in Silicon Valley, California, which has given me an instinct for innovation and market-oriented solutions. I was also a Rubenstein scholar at the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and in 2015, I came to France on a Fulbright research fellowship at the Paris School of Economics to study the economic and health challenges faced by local refugees and migrants. My theoretical expertise on jobs and migration compliments my personal experience as an immigrant and motivated me to launch Konexio as a practical solution for solving unemployment for the refugees and migrants I worked with daily in Paris.
Starting Konexio - in a foreign country I had recently settled in, in my third language - was an unexpected endeavor. However, I had grown impatient to see change outside of my role as a migrant researcher, where I was finding that professional development and self-sufficiency are central challenges affecting well-being and social integration. Leveraging my work experience in Silicon Valley and capitalizing on the rising tech community in Paris, I proposed the idea of workshops teaching digital and coding skills in migrant communities and received an overwhelmingly positive local response.
These workshops grew into what is today Konexio, which runs digital skills courses resulting in EU-recognized certification, and web development courses that prepare students for careers in the tech industry. Konexio also partners with leading companies such as Salesforce and SAP to place students in apprenticeships and mentoring programs, all of which increase diversity in tech and combat digital exclusion.
Konexio is fully deployed in France, a country where marginalized groups such as refugees, asylum-seekers and disadvantaged youth face severe social and professional integration barriers, and has recently launched a pilot in the Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi, which has a population of over 40,000 refugees, half of whom live on less than $1 a day. The French model focuses on employment as a means to integration and provides a model for scale in Western countries, while the Malawi pilot focuses on poverty intervention and aims to reach the 16 million displaced people living in refugee camps globally.
Why did you decide to start a career in the tech sector?
My inspiration to start Konexio stems from my personal experiences as a migrant in the US. As the daughter of an immigrant family, I witnessed first-hand the hardships we encountered as we settled in a new country, including social, cultural, linguistic and professional integration barriers. Because of these experiences, I can understand the immense burden of socio-economic exclusion, especially when one does not have the required skills to secure a job. For me, digital technologies have enabled my access to the opportunities which have had a decisive impact on my life, and I seek to make those same opportunities available to others through Konexio’s work.
Having had the chance to interact with migrants and refugees during my research, I found that most existing organizations focused on refugees’ and migrants’ basic needs (food, clothing, housing), but not enough was done to foster their economic and social inclusion, which are social factors that promote long-term autonomy. I realized the huge potential of using tech to level the playing field of economic opportunity, while simultaneously meeting a growing digital skills gap in Europe through a pool of new and diverse talent. Currently, 90% of the current jobs in Europe require a basic level of digital literacy, but European Commission figures show that over one-third of European workers lack these basic skills. Reliance on digital skills is growing at a pace that society has not yet caught up with. Konexio trains refugees, migrants and other vulnerable populations to equip them with marketable digital skills and prepare them for the jobs of the future. In this way, Konexio is matching society’s growing need for digital talent with refugees’ needs for sustainable employment opportunities- addressing both the exponential growth in the digital sector and increased calls for inclusion and diversity in the tech industry. Through my initial experience with Konexio, I quickly recognized how digital skills training could powerfully support both refugee and host communities, changing the narrative around refugee integration and combating the rising Islamophobia and racial tensions that have escalated in recent years.
Have you encountered any barriers as a woman entrepreneur in the tech sector?
The tech sector is one where gender disparity and underrepresentation of minority communities is glaringly obvious. As a young woman in the entrepreneurship space, I have had numerous occasions where conversations were not directed to me but to a male colleague. There have been times when my opinions or suggestions have been overlooked on account of being the only minority female in the room. The biases towards women in the sector is still pervasive despite conscious efforts being made to course-correct.
What practical advice would you give to women willing to work in the tech sector?
My childhood with my mother taught me to value myself and turn challenges into opportunities. I learned that it is extremely important to assert your own space and believe in yourself, rather than wait for external validations. I think as a woman in the tech sector, I bring about a different perspective and experience which is unique to me. Therefore, it is crucial to understand that your contribution and perspective is just as valuable as anyone else’s, and that your differences are strengths rather than weaknesses.
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