£300 million social impact business for students

April 13, 2023

In this episode, Joe shares his mission to achieve a billion-pound social impact through expanding educational opportunities for underprivileged students. Drawing from his own experiences of breaking barriers to attend a top university, Joe and his mission-driven business are levelling the playing field and opening doors for talented students from underprivileged backgrounds. Dive into this podcast to learn from Joe's insights and the success of Zero Gravity's platform, which has already accomplished a £300 million social impact.

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Charles Brecque: Welcome to the legislate podcast, a place to learn about the latest insights and trends in business, technology and contract drafting.

Today, I'm excited to welcome Joe Sedon on the show.

Joe is the founder and CEO of Zero Gravity, a mission driven business that is revolutionizing access to the UK's top universities and careers.

Joe, thank you for taking the time.

Please, can you share a bit of background about yourself and Zero Gravity.

Joe Seddon: Sure, thanks for having me on Charles.

So I launched zero gravity in many ways to solve my own problem, which is back in the day, 25 years ago, I was born in Leeds in West Yorkshire.

And then I grew up in a small town called Morley, which is the sort of place that most people won't be able to find on a map of the UK.

And political analysis nowadays describe it as a sort of post-industrial town or a red wall seat.

But to me it was home.

And My mum was a speech therapist in the NHS, I was from a single parent background.

I really had to sort of fight against a number of barriers and defy the odds to come through the UK state school system and break into a top university, I studied PPE at Oxford.

And I saw first-hand on that journey just how difficult it is for students like me to succeed.

In many ways, the odds are completely stacked against you.

And when I graduated from university, I saw that almost every single sector of society was talking about this issue of how do you ensure that the talented people from all backgrounds can succeed.

The government was talking about leveling up and building back better.

The corporates were talking about diversity and the ESG agenda.

Universities were also talking about the widening participation and accessibility.

They were getting regulated on it in the UK.

So every part of society wanted to solve this issue and yet no one had really changed the operating model in the sector in terms of how do you identify talent whilst it's still at school and then propel it into elite institutions.

And at the same time I saw how technology had transformed every other aspect of my life.

When I graduated from university you could use Deliveroo to order sushi to your desk in 20 minutes or you could tap a button on your phone on Uber and have a car appear outside your front door in a couple of minutes and I thought why is is no one use technology to try and solve this problem of how you identify the top talent from all backgrounds and break it into elite institutions.

I just started doing that for my student bedroom and we've scaled from there.

Charles Brecque: Congrats and I guess you've got thousands of users.

What impact can you share about Zero Gravity and where are you on your journey.

Joe Seddon: Sure.

So we're a mission driven business that ultimately we want to create a world where that opportunity matches talent.

Currently we live in a world where talent is spread evenly, but opportunity is not.

I don't think things have to be that way.

If you look at the expanse of human history, societies have changed radically in terms of their ability to spread opportunity throughout the population.

Even if you look back 100 years ago, someone like me would never have gone to Oxford University.

I think 100 years ago, only around 10% of students at Oxford were from state schools.

Nowadays it's more like 67%, and someone like me a hundred years ago probably would have worked down the mine in South Yorkshire or in like a cotton mill in Wakefield.

So things have changed but they haven't changed anywhere near fast enough and if you look at the sort of elite institutions in our country, you know top universities, top employers, there's still a lot of pockets of exclusivity there.

They tend to be dominated by people from the same kind of schools, from the same parts of the country and ultimately these institutions are missing out on talent.

So We're a business because we want to solve that issue, we want to do it at scale.

Ultimately, I believe in a business solution to this problem.

I think this issue is not just one of social justice.

How do you create a fair and equal society.

I think it's one of productivity.

How do you ensure that the very best people are matched with the very best institutions and job opportunities.

If in the UK, for instance, we just got social mobility to the same level as our Western European counterparts, we could increase GDP by £39 billion a year.

There's a massive opportunity there and that's why ultimately we're a business rather than the charity.

In terms of the impact we've had, we have this mantra in-house that we want to be a social impact unicorn.

I think a lot of tech companies are focused on becoming unicorns and they're getting to a huge acquisition or a stock market flotation at a billion pound valuation.

And ultimately that's been great in terms of creating all these breakout tech companies, I think sometimes the morals of the tech sector have gone a little bit awry.

Now you see some of these fast growth tech companies that have had the huge kind of social ripple effects and not always in a positive way, but I think technology can ultimately be a force for good in the world.

And we want to create 1 billion pounds of social impact by 2025.

According to our internal impact model, we've created over 300 million pounds to date, and the way we've done that is by boosting the lifetime earnings of our students that every single time you get a low-income student into an Oxford University or an Imperial or a Durham that you boost their lifetime earnings and ultimately break that sort of cycle of disadvantage or poverty in that person's family.

So we've created a lot of impact to date but we want to keep scaling that up and ultimately come an impact unicorn and I find that incredibly motivating because that's not just about creating a great business but one that ultimately benefits society as well.

Charles Brecque: Yeah it's really fascinating and especially about lifetime earnings.

I guess my follow-on question is these prestigious universities only have so many spots, so does that mean that your impact is capped by the number of spots.

Joe Seddon: Yeah, ultimately there's a scarcity around university places, like this is a competitive admission system, so there's always going to be winners and losers, but ultimately what zero gravity is doing is about unlocking the individual potential of people from low-income backgrounds, people who should be breaking into these top institutions at the moment but aren't because they're falling through the cracks at some point in the process.

And ultimately, if our product works, it does mean that demographics of these institutions are going to change.

You're going to see more people from areas of the country that traditionally haven't occupied these institutions.

You're going to see more people from state schools, for instance, more people from the north of the UK.

And that does mean that some people from affluent backgrounds who historically would have entered of these institutions are going to lose out.

I think you will need to see the bigger picture here, which is like when talent wins, everyone wins.

Like ultimately no matter what background you're from, whether you're affluent or poor or North or South or state or privately educated, everyone should wanna live in a society which is fair and dynamic.

Nowhere the people with a talent rise to the top.

If we don't live in one of those societies, it doesn't just mean that we lose out on incredible inventions, great businesses, academic break forwards.

but also creates a society which is polarized and not at ease of itself, and ultimately that's not good for anyone.

So even though there is gonna be a shift in demographics in elite universities and elite employers, if our products know scales and continues to scale and work, I don't think anyone from an affluent background does anything to worry about, because ultimately the kind of society it's gonna create is gonna be better for everyone.

Charles Brecque: Yeah, that's great. And I guess since building Zero Gravity and reaching this impact of 300 million pounds. What's been your favorite moment so far?

Joe Seddon: I think the favourite moment is just seeing some of the stories.

Like some of the people that are coming through our platform breaking into top universities are just kind of jaw-dropping.

That we've had some really good media coverage of some of the stories on our platform.

Like for instance, we had one of our members, Millie Eyre covered in The Times and Channel 4 and BBC Radio last year.

She was from a traveling showman background just outside London in a town called Adelston.

So her family used to create fairs across the UK and she used to work on the fairgrounds and they're collecting their cash from people coming into the fairgrounds.

And she went to school, but she sort of dropped out at the age of 13 and studied at home.

And she just took a GCSE at home and she didn't get an incredible set of grades on paper.

she definitely overperformed given her sort of her background.

On paper people might look at her grading and think that this is not somebody who is destined to study at a leading institution, but our platform identified her using our algorithms as someone with massive potential, someone who defied the odds and was a massive outperformer.

And we connected her with a mentor on our platform, Millie wanted to study classics, and she worked with one of our mentors to sort of to self-learn Latin and she got an offer to study plastics at Oxford University, becoming one of the only travelling showmen in history to study there and that's one of those sort of jaw-dropping stories of someone who kind of dropped out of school and got an offer to study Oxford University in a subject that you would never associate with someone from that background and ultimately what's exciting about it is it changes perceptions.

It's not just about the success of that person but also the story that it tells to that community about what they can do to succeed.

So Millie's younger sister also used the Zero Gravity platform and also got an offer to study at a top university for our platform as well.

So that just shows you the kind of domino effect of one person's success, that opening up access to institutions that people from their background wouldn't think was a place like them beforehand.

Charles Brecque: That is quite a story and congrats on helping unlock that potential.

What do you wish you had known before starting Zero Gravity?

Joe Seddon: So I'm a sort of founder from a, what you might call like a low opportunity background myself.

Like I grew up in a small town and even though I went to Oxford University, I didn't have an expansive network.

I didn't have access to capital.

Like I literally started this business for the last 200 quid of my student line.

And what I kind of realized now, but I didn't really appreciate back at the start, is that the odds really stacked, are stacked against you as a founder, if you don't come from an affluent background.

like even some of the terminology in the sector is quite indicative.

The people talk about doing friends and family funding rounds, for instance, to sort of get your start off to the pre-seed stage.

And that's all well and good if you've got friends and family who can sort of give you 10, 20, 30,000 pounds.

But if I did a whip round of my friends and family, I probably wouldn't have got more than 100 quid, but maybe a pack of skips as well.

So it's really, really difficult to get started as a founder from a social mobile backgrounds, like it's not a level playing field.

But there are things you can do.

You do have to be more creative about how you use resources.

There are a lot of incubators and accelerators that are now popping up, which are designed for diverse founders, which improves the playing field a little bit.

But the main thing you can really utilize is your story.

If you're someone who's defied the odds and you're not the kind of standard type of founder and you're underrepresented, whether because of your gender or ethnicity or where in the country you're from, you can really utilize that to create a tailwind behind your business because ultimately, everyone wants to back somebody who is an underdog, or is trying to defy the odds.

If you really utilize that story, you can get access to people who other people won't be able to get access to.

The people will respond to your LinkedIn messages.

Now, newspapers will want to cover what you're doing.

So I would say to any kind of social mobile founder, really curate and leverage your story because that can be the thing that allows you to overcome the odds where you don't have friends and family capital to get you going.

Charles Brecque: Well, yeah, congrats. I guess my question is, you know, if you didn't have friends and family and no, I agree. I think it getting those first angels is often what helps sort of get the business off the ground and I was I was fortunate to work in a startup environment So I guess I just tapped into the angels of those startups But had I not been there I wouldn't have known of them or met them etc.

But I guess how did how did you do it?

Joe Seddon: So I kind of leveraged my story and the stories of members on the platform and that got us a lot of media coverage across the UK press and that sort of enabled me to build a network because I had no really cool people just reach out to me having sort of heard my story and said no I want to meet you, I want to find out more about the business and then from that I got the kind of virtuous circle effect which is as I met more people they introduced me to more people and then they introduced me to more people.

So I kind of got the fly wheel.

So I think if you don't have a network, you have to get creative about at the beginning about how you sort of create that flywheel effects.

So how do you really leverage your story to create those four or five really powerful contacts.

And I think as well, like a lot of people want to back mission driven businesses like when I was starting in 2018, wasn't really a good understanding of no mission driven businesses or social enterprises.

Like people got their wires crossed very easily.

It's like, is this a business or is it a charity with no businesses are profitable, but no morally bad or agnostic whilst charities are no unprofitable, but they're no morally virtuous.

And I always made the point that no, you can have a business which is a force for goods.

It can be mission driven.

And there's lots of charities out there that also they are inefficient and they waste donors money.

And I think people now get that.

And I think people, this sector around social impact investment is growing really, really quickly.

But I think there's a real scarcity of high quality businesses in the kind of social impact space.

There's loads of fantastic environmental businesses, but with the S and the ESG, the sort of social businesses, there's still a real dearth in quality businesses.

So I think if you're trying to found a mission driven business, that sort of tackles a social problem, which is outside the environmental sector, you're really set up to succeed 'cause there's loads of people who wanna invest in those sectors at the moment.

Charles Brecque: Great, well, that's a great piece of insight to create the story and then spread the story, I guess.

So obviously you've got your goal of hitting the one billion pounds of social impact.

What's the vision for the company for the next five, 10 years.

Joe Seddon: Sure, so we're at our seed stage at the moment.

We raised our seed round, which was 3.

5 million pounds back in December of 2021.

And what we're currently doing is scaling the amount of members on our platform that we're breaking into top universities.

We've also extended our platform to now break people into top careers as well.

They're working with some really big graduate employers, the HSBC, KPMG, Fidelity International, to really allow those firms to get access to a different pool of talent that they haven't historically accessed.

and to be able to hire it in a cost efficient way.

So we really want to scale up those products, but ultimately once we've got this kind of scale in the UK, I don't see any reason why we can't then take it to more countries and every single, but out to column A has an issue around social mobility, whether it's near the US, European countries, or even the countries in the East, know the Middle Eastern countries, China, everyone's grappling with this problem.

And ultimately I think Zero Gravity can become the global platform for identifying top talent from low income backgrounds and breaking into elite institutions.

I find that prospect really exciting because ultimately we can change with technology the way one of the most fundamental questions of life is answered.

That everyone at the moment assumes that your background holds you down or dictates your level of success.

Things that have to be that way and in the same way that people now take for granted that information is accessible at your fingertips with Google or Wikipedia, why can't we create a similar situation in 10, 20 years time when it comes to unlocking the potential of talented people.

So this is very much a global vision, not just the UK one, but the first step for us on the next step is to conquer the UK and make sure we get as many talented students from low income backgrounds as possible, pushed into those top universities and careers.

Charles Brecque: Well, best of luck with your global expansion.

So as a busy founder, CEO, I imagine you must come across quite a few contracts.

What are the key contracts and legal documents that you come across and what can you share about them.

Joe Seddon: Sure.

So I still leave philosophy of politics and economics at university.

So I had a no proper sort of legal knowledge or training.

I did do a sort of one month internship, a legal firm before I started university.

So that's about as much knowledge I have about legal sector and when you become a founder and you start hiring people and going through investment rounds, you do come across a lot of legal documents and to someone who's not legally trained, it can be really difficult to navigate.

They're just the terminology and the kind of prerequisite understanding that you need.

I think the main thing that is really important is clarity.

Clarity not over just the key parts of the documents that you really need to focus in but also have a interlink.

Like when you get presented with sort of like a 50 page shareholders agreement, for instance, there's gonna be around 45 pages of it that are very standard and it's almost irrelevant.

If you've got the good lawyers or a good platform, you don't need to sort of line by line and lie to everything that's in there.

There are gonna be around five pages worth of clauses, which are absolutely key.

They're absolutely fundamental to the way you want to grow and run your company on really substantive stuff that could have a long-term impact.

And kind of be able to know what that stuff is, is super, super important.

And I was lucky that some of my first ever investors and members of my board were from legal backgrounds.

They helped sort of momentum me and coach me and navigate me through that process.

But I think it's really difficult to do if you don't have that legal support.

And of course, many early stage companies cannot afford to spend tens of thousands of pounds on lawyers or they may not have an investor who's from a legal background.

So anything that technology can do to really level that playing field for early stage companies and really get founders to focus in on the legal text that really matters rather than the standard stuff I think is really, really important.

Charles Brecque: And you mentioned obviously that you're fortunate to have mentors help you.

What were maybe some of the common issues that you encountered with the contracts.

Joe Seddon: I think one issue is just like not knowing what the baseline looks like.

When you're doing an investment round and you're agreeing things like drag along and tag along clauses and stuff like that, if you're a first-time founder and you're not from a legal background, you don't know what normal looks like in terms of the percentage of shareholders who should have to agree something before it's done.

Having a sense of what is market and normal I think is super important and thankfully I was able to get that from some of my legal mentors.

If you don't have access to that you can make really bad decisions.

You can take a deal which in your eyes is fine but most people would say wow that's really uncompetitive or off market.

So I do think there's a huge role for technology that kind of informs founders and companies about what's normal and what's not when it comes to agreements.

Yeah that's something at legislation we're obviously allowing businesses to create standardized documents but we are obviously aggregating the data to present what standard looks like back to our users and especially if you are creating an NDA for the first time it can help know well what should the confidentiality term be or what should the purpose be and I yeah it ultimately market is is what you should be aiming for but if you don't have the experience it's difficult to know what it is.

Charles Brecque: So Joe, I'm conscious I've already taken a lot of your time so I'm going to ask you the closing question we ask all our guests.

If you're being sent a contract to sign today, what would impress you.

Joe Seddon: I think the thing that impresses me is, A) before you even look at the legal document, has the person got ahead of the document and kind of told you in the email what you should and shouldn't be looking at.

I mean I really appreciate whether it's your own lawyers or the counterparty, if they tell you the things to zero in on, that just makes the discussion far easier.

So I think a really good cover note is almost just as important as the contract itself.

When looking at the contract, the thing that really impresses me is just really clear language.

I think that lawyers have sort of created this very siloed sector where they all speak in the same legalese to each other, but to anyone who's outside the the legal sector, the tone of voice and the words using legal contracts can be incredibly baffling.

It's like, "Why are you using a Latin phrase to describe something that's actually a very simple concept.

" I think contracts which are wrote in a really clear way really help both parties because they enable people to focus on the substance rather than the style of what's going on.

If I see a contract which is written in a really obtuse, overdone way that always immediately fills me with suspicion because I even think the person doesn't know what they're doing while they're trying to hide something.

So clarity is always the best policy in my eyes.

Charles Brecque: Yeah a great great answer.

I think we we definitely try to address the clarity and we don't offer cover letters yet in legislate but but we do allow contracts to be presented as a set of questions and answers and helps help zero in on what are the key terms But yeah, you're right.

If you're using obscure language, you either don't know what you're talking about or you're hiding something.


Well, thank you, Joe, for taking the time to be on our show.

Best of luck conquering the UK and the world.

Joe Seddon: Thanks for having me, Charles.

Charles Brecque: Thank you.



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