“I learnt in UN Youth that if you say yes to everything, then good things quickly follow.”

By · 23 March, 2021 · Alumni

Alumni Series #2: Jethro Cohen

Meet Jethro Cohen, currently working at :Different in operations and customer strategy, and former executive member of the NSW Division and convenor of both domesitc and international activities!

What do you currently do?

I work in a VC-backed Australian prop-tech startup called :Different, where I lead the Central Operations and Customer Strategy team. Before this, I worked in much larger organisations; out of uni, I worked at PwC, before moving to Uber to help launch Uber Eats in Australia and New Zealand. The world of early-stage startups is very different. There are far fewer people, and you’re given a lot more responsibility very quickly. 

What was your involvement in UN Youth?

After my first experience with alcohol In year 11, I fell badly, smashed my head open, and ended up in the hospital for a week or so. I felt so bad about it because I was an otherwise very well-behaved kid. To apologise to my parents, I signed up for State Conference in Tasmania, thinking it would act as a mea culpa of sorts. I absolutely loved it. 

From there, I went to the National Conference, then The Hague international Model UN. During that time, I won State Evatt and competed in National Evatt with my friend Andrew (who I’m still very close with to this day). I started facilitating while I was in year 12, then joined the executive of the NSW Division where I was the director of membership for a few years. In that time I helped convene the NSW State Conference and ran the first Voice Competition in NSW. My final experience with UN Youth was convening the first Middle East Experience Tour. 

How did you get your current role?

I kind of stumbled into my first job out of uni. I got an offer to join the consulting practice at PwC through a mutual contact. At the time, my plan was to work for a couple of years after finishing my arts degree, and then go back and finish my undergraduate law degree (which never ended up happening…). Instead, I found myself really enjoying the work. After spending a couple of years moving through the consulting practices at PwC, I started looking elsewhere. Professional services and consulting businesses teach you a lot, but I found I wasn’t having a huge amount of impact in my work, and that started to frustrate me. So I joined a few friends at Uber, just as Uber Eats launched in Sydney and Melbourne. Initially, my role focussed on customer experience, before I moved on to pricing and product strategy.

Uber was a really fun place to work, but after a few years, I felt I’d missed the exciting hyper-growth phase. I started looking around, and quite fortuitously got introduced to the founders of :Different, and accepted a role there quickly after. 

How much overlap was there from University into the workforce?

At both PwC and Uber, a lot of people ragged on arts degrees. These businesses primarily hired STEM and Commerce students, and I was the guy with half a law degree and an Arts major in Government and Gender Studies. The work I was doing was much more technically analytical than you’d probably expect from an art student. But I think arts and law degrees are useful for students entering data-driven businesses for a few reasons:

  1. Arts and law both force you to think logically about problems. The process of essay writing is a process of formulating an argument, and thinking through how you’re going to end up proving it. That is useful in heaps of work projects. They provide you with a structured approach to addressing issues.
  2. Those degrees force you to write well and communicate clearly in a written format.
  3. Those degrees encourage extracurricular activities that other degrees seem to encourage less of, like public speaking and debating. The kind of confidence you develop speaking publicly pays dividends in the first few years of your career.

I always tell graduates that I’ve forgotten the knowledge I picked up at University a long time ago. What I do rely on to this day is soft skills, like structured problem solving, clear communication, and the ability to negotiate with peers in a group context. That is the stuff that is useful for people entering the workforce. 

What was the most challenging of part of your time at UNYA?

It was probably convening the Voice Competition in NSW. It was the first major project I’d ever owned from start to finish.  We had around 300 students participating in over a dozen preliminary rounds across all corners of NSW. I’d never done project management before, and trying to find time for it as a volunteer, where I also worked 30 hours a week and studied a full-time load, was really hard. I think I learned on the fly, but it was a stressful experience. 

Do you think your involvement with UN Youth has influenced your career choices?

My strategy when I joined UN Youth was to put my hand up for everything – school trips, Conferences, International Activities. The works. I think that’s what I tried to take into my career more than necessarily any specific skill. I learnt in UN Youth that if you say yes to everything, then good things quickly follow. I did this at PwC, and again Uber, where it worked well for me. I was exposed to really interesting work quickly.

Is there a particular skill that you think is important for young people to learn to have a meaningful career that allows progression and growth?

I do a lot of work with universities in Sydney, trying to set students up to succeed when they first join the workforce. In hosting these sessions, I often come back to three things:

  1. Put your hand up for everything. Always say yes, even if it’s something outside of your wheelhouse or you haven’t done it before. The more you put your hand up to take on additional work, the more likely you are to progress quickly.
  2. Do what you say you’ll do by the time you say you’ll do it. Doing this consistently builds a reputation for excellence, and that reputation unlocks additional exciting work down the line. 
  3. Concentrate on developing clear communication, both written and oral. If you’re someone who communicates concisely – who really takes the time to think about the message that you’re trying to convey, and is able to convey it simply and logically – then you are set apart from the rest.

Is there a time in your life so far we have regretted saying yes to an opportunity?

When I began looking to move on from Uber, I started applying to a bunch of Sydney startups. I got in touch with one organisation that was small and new – which ticked my boxes – but the product itself wasn’t something I felt I could add a lot of value to. They offered me a generous package, and the team was nice, but at no point was I really excited about the role. A week or so after signing the contract, I had this feeling in my stomach that I’d made a mistake. I’d said yes because there wasn’t a good reason to say no. Just after I’d signed, I’d been approached by another company whose product and founders I loved, and I eventually ended up accepting a role with them. On reflection, I realise that for the big decisions, the absence of a reason to say no just isn’t good enough, and doesn’t mean you’re really excited to say yes. You need to be excited about big changes.

Is there any particular advice that you’d give to current UNYA members on how they can make the most out of their experience?

There are two things that come to mind: 

  1. Double down on the friendships. As someone who is now five or so years out of my time with UN Youth, the most valuable part of the experience for me were the friendships I made along the way
  2. I’d encourage people involved to reflect more deeply about what skills they’re actually building and try to apply them to the first few years of their career. At UN Youth, you pick up important skills like project management, event coordination, stakeholder management, and conflict resolution, which I don’t think I would have had exposure to otherwise.
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