Jessi Baker is CEO of Provenance, a platform that allows users to understand the ethical sourcing of their clothes and food. She talks to us about entrepreneurship, inspiring women and why people should care about where their products come from.
“My background as an undergraduate was in manufacturing engineering, and I used to visit supply chains and factories. I saw the realities of how products are produced. Then I started working for a digital ad agency and thinking about how disconnected the reality of products and brands is from the stories we read about in marketing campaigns.
“The age of putting a big billboard up and assuming no one looks beyond it has got to end: you assume you’re buying into something positive but there’s a myriad of bad things going on behind the shiny brand. On the other side, there are businesses trying to make a positive impact and there’s a need for those businesses to be seen.
“I left digital marketing and went and did a PhD at UCL in Computer Science. At the time, blockchain tech was early and experimental, and while I was there I started to develop the concept for Provenance. It started very much as a side project, an evening and weekend thing, because I worried it would be risky and tricky to go full time. Then in mid-2015, after looking at how the technology could work, the potential in the market, I decided to go for it with a couple of friends, initially funded by an Innovate UK grant. Last year, we raised a seed round of investment to grow the business.
“Provenance is on a mission to enable every great product to be transparent, to enable a future where we understand about businesses and products via true stories and true impact, rather than fantasy marketing campaigns. Provenance works with businesses (food and drinks brands) that use our software service, which gives them a platform that allows for more transparency (like health and nutrition data and impact data on environment and society). Provenance provides a place for those brands to open up that data and to power experiences for the shopper using that platform.
“Our future is building brand trust. We were one of the first to adopt blockchain technology, which we’re using in order to help create a dependable, immutable record to enable transparency to exist, without being centralised.
“We’ve worked hard establishing Provenance as the B2B software platform, and now we’re moving to establish Provenance as the leader in the transparency movement. In the next six months, we’re changing our focus to move to shoppers and those looking to discover more about products and their impact, shifting to a consumer focus and an opportunity for everyone to engage in the data.
“We have a transparency framework (all the things we look at to help a business be more transparent), which covers everything from governance of the company to people working in the supply chain, which is really about making who those people are in the supply chain transparent. We’re trying to connect in the supply chain and bring that to the consumer and we want to expose that women have an impact early on and make people aware of that. We’ve done a large project with Unilever, working with many female tea farmers in Malawi, where the vast majority of tea pickers are women. A lot of the work we’re doing there is about how we can get more money to female farmers.
“I’m passionate about more equality in the workplace, and believe that more exposure of who is really behind the brands you’re buying into helps ensure more equality. We encourage initiatives that support both men and women, and many of the smaller businesses want to compete on the fact they’re a women-owned business. I’m interested, personally, if I buy a cup of coffee, in supporting a business that’s majority-owned by women.
“We’ve worked with several female-owned businesses like Akua, which makes carbon-neutral products out of seaweed, started by Courtney Boyd Myers, a fantastic female entrepreneur. Some other female-led and owned businesses we’ve partnered with are sustainable food brand Rubies in the Rubble and designer Marina Spetlova (who also works with a social enterprise in Turkey employing and upskilling Syrian refugee women), among others.
“Provenance has been very lucky to have a pretty fantastic set of women leaders - two of our board members, Alexsis de Raadt-St James and Chemain Sanan, who started and exited their own funds, are investors in Provenance and are super-inspiring in their own right. It makes me feel happy to boast a majority-female board.
“Another woman who’s been a fantastic mentor and coach is Alicia Navarro from Skimlinks, who built that company from zero to a $50 million turnover. The startup journey has a million unknowns and unknown unknowns, and to have her help guiding me through the process of launching my own company has been amazing.
“From early on, I’ve also been inspired by the CEO of Parity Technologies, Dr. Jutta Steiner, who was part of the original Ethereum team, the largest blockchain platform. She helped to inspire a lot of our direction and has done some phenomenal stuff in blockchain technology.
“I’m really inspired by people who are bloody-minded and paint the future that needs to happen. Anyone that has challenged something that they believe is wrong, like Emmeline Pankhurst - although she sounds like she was a lot of trouble - standing up for that right to vote so viciously, is really inspiring.
“A lot of what we’re doing at Provenance is relying on a belief that people should care about their products - a lot of people believe that people won’t care. We need to have this bloody belief that it will change and that the government will listen.
“In the early stages of starting Provenance, I read a lot of author and thought leader Rachel Botsman’s work. She really creates and challenges, picking up new ideas and going for them. Also, I really like the female founders of food waste app Olio: it’s an area of sustainability that I’m really passionate about and it’s really inspiring and amazing to see the community they’ve created.
“In terms of starting out in tech, my best tips for others are the best tips that people have given me.
“No matter what your background, marketing or tech, it’s understanding the business model and how you’re going to make money from day one. People start technology startups thinking, ‘this will probably be the business model’. I would avoid the building and spend as much time validating the business model with customers as possible before anything else - it’s a low-fidelity thing to do for not that much money. Highly validating your concept and ensuring there is a robust business model there is the most important thing to do.
“Focus is also crucial: you really can’t do everything, and actually, to do something well you just need to focus on one thing. Just get to the crux of that and make it really simple by having a radical focus on one product or thing. Simplifying that as much as possible is really important.
“Finally, not being afraid to try. In society we do make an enemy out of failure but it doesn’t really matter.
“There are always lots of failures along the way and the whole thing could fail. It’s the best life MBA you’re going to get.”