We interview Sussex PhD student, Jessica van Thiel, about her global development consulting business, PATHFINDER

Business name


Founder’s name(s) and role(s)

Jessica van Thiel, Founding and Managing Partner

What are you studying?

PhD Science and Technology Policy Studies at SPRU

Business location

Canada and France

Website and social media handles


What type of business have you started and when did you set up?

For-profit social enterprise, founded in 2016. We are a B Corporation (since 2018).

How did you get your idea for your business?

While in Mauritius working for the United Nations Development Programme, I came across gaps in the international development sector and wanted to make a change! While I was there, I met my current business partner, Shivani. We quickly became friends, sharing not only chemistry but also similar passions and goals. A few years later, through our shared passion and commitment to building a just and more equitable world, we came together to start PATHFINDER.

What is the problem you are trying to solve?

We recognise the global development industry requires innovation to respond to ongoing global issues, which we seek to address through our trilateral model.

What is the solution?

We have recognised from the beginning that systemic change would be crucial to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). So, we built a trilateral model to partner with key industry actors to deliver lasting impact. PATHFINDER’s key objective is to affect policy at the highest level; and to achieve this social entrepreneurs, academia, and policymakers must work together.

How is your business unique?

We come from different backgrounds and experiences. Shivani and Jessica have both lived in several countries. Shivani worked in investment banking technology, whereas Jessica’s focus has been on global development. This has provided us with a unique skill set and position within development consulting.

Who are your customers?

Academic institutions, social entrepreneurs and multinational organisations, policymakers, and other experts in global development.

How do you market your business and attract customers?

A lot of it is word of mouth and through face-to-face engagements. This is of course tricky during a global pandemic! We continue to participate, present, and network online.

What are your revenue streams?

All of our revenue comes from our consulting services.

How did you raise capital to start your business and what are your top financial tips for a startup?

We never wanted to take out a loan or seek external funding. In the beginning, we invested a very small amount of our personal savings to start the business (for administrative purposes, i.e., website, professional email accounts, etc). We were lucky to sign our first client in year one which helped sustain us throughout the startup stage.

Every business is different and so is every funding model. It is important to take risks you are comfortable with. In general, I was always keen to invest in us. So, if it was good for business development and could be justified, it was money well spent. You need to find the balance that works for you.

Have you had to adapt your idea along the way? If so, how?

Yes, all the time! I think it’s important to stick to your core mission, but your business model needs to be agile and you need to adapt along the way. Our incredible advisory team helped us to stay objective in the beginning and continues to provide industry insights to keep us relevant and up to date.

How have you carried out market research and how has this informed decisions?

Yes, and we continue to do so. It is tricky because we are global in reach yet quite niche in our services. We work with student groups and universities on market research every year. Sometimes it reaffirms we are targeting the right actors and sometimes it opens new opportunities (which we always pursue).

How do you unwind and manage work/life/study balance?

I love to bake with my 3 and 5 year olds, play soccer (football), and go on bike rides with my family. I also recently started learning how to play the piano. It is wonderful because it requires an enormous amount of focus, it’s like learning a new language! It is a nice moment for myself, where I’m completely immersed in something creative.

Have you ever failed at anything? If so, how did you handle it and what did you learn?

Yes! So many times! With every failure, I try to reflect on what I could have done better and in some cases I understand that it was not a right fit, that there was nothing more I could have done, that the circumstances weren’t right and that’s OK. Sometimes there really isn’t more you can do. However, when there is, I generally know what my shortcomings are and try to work on them for the next opportunity.

What has been your biggest business challenge and how have you overcome it?

I would have to say believing in myself. It is hard at first because you have the impression that you don’t know enough, you’re not good enough, that your idea will fail. You kind of feel like an imposture in the beginning. I think this is where you need to have confidence in yourself and your capabilities. Know that everyone started from somewhere and that you learn along the way. Having a good support system and working hard is what helped get us through in the early years.

What one piece of advice would you offer to someone starting up?

Go for it! If you have the idea and the skills, then do not wait until everything is perfect to start. That time will never come, so hit the ground running and learn as you grow!

Is there a book or podcast you would recommend?

I can’t start my day without the BBC Global News Podcast and the FT News Briefing. And BBC Inside Science is lovely!

What three skills are the most important for an entrepreneur to develop?

Hard work, tenacity, and the ability to constantly be learning!

Who influences you?

We are part of several impact driven groups. I would not say they influence us as we learn from them and share with them. They motivate and drive us to do better, to be better.