How Hex Founder Jeanette Cheah is Reinventing Higher Education

Jeanette Cheah

Disrupting tertiary education from within has been a winning course for this startup, which aims to supercharge innovation skills.

Need to know

Founders: Jeanette Cheah, 39, Chris Hoffmann, 38, Jaclyn Benstead, 38
First customer: RMIT University, 2017
Number of employees: 16
Investors: Giant Leap, Draper Startup House Ventures, Aussie Angels, Scale Investors and individual angel investors
Headquarters: Remote, with HQ in Melbourne
Market valuation: Raised $1.45 million in seed capital in 2021

What’s the startup?

An edtech company that’s “reinventing higher education so students can get the future skills they need, in less time, at a lower price and with the added adventure that comes with travel as part of education”, says CEO and co-founder Jeanette Cheah. A global top 50 university is slated to become HEX’s formal school of record partner. Before that, “we’ve had 37 universities – including ANU, the University of California San Diego, the University of British Columbia and Monash – approve HEX programs for undergraduate and postgraduate credit”.

Where did the idea come from?

Cheah was part of the innovation team at ANZ. In 2015, while upskilling her economics degree from Monash with a user experience design course, she saw “all this amazing innovation” coming out of Silicon Valley. “I was with these creative, talented people in Australia who weren’t quite catching on to what needed to be done.” She dived into the startup sector, joining meet-ups and entrepreneur programs, and wondered what would happen “if we take Aussies and drop them in Silicon Valley… to see what they can absorb from the networks and mindsets of people who get things done”.

How did it get off the ground?

It took 30 meetings with RMIT – “a lot of hustle” – to launch the first Hacker Exchange (HEX) tour in 2017. “We had seven students, one entrepreneur in residence and credit from RMIT University.” The immersive tours to Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv and Singapore were designed to help students learn how to bring ideas to life commercially and see there’s no such thing as a linear career path. “Because there’s academic credit attached, students can get government support to do our programs, so the business was making revenue from day one.” Co-founders Benstead and Hoffmann joined from Deakin University and the University of Adelaide, respectively. “They started as clients, became employees then co-founders.”

What have you learnt?

“That I’m ready to do things six months before I think I’m ready,” says Cheah. “I’ve got that perfectionist mindset we get trained in at school and in corporate life. That can hold you back in the startup world, which demands boldness, self-belief and vision. I put off our first capital raise for ages then I said, ‘Jeanette, go out and get some cash – you know how!’”

What’s next?

“We see ourselves as innovators in plain sight. Universities recognise the need for fresh, relevant, fast skills, which students can get through us. If they want to go on to a full degree, they’ve got credit for it.” This year brings HEX Ed, “a gap-year program for high-school leavers”, accredited by leading universities, including The University of Sydney, and in partnership with tech giant Atlassian. Exporting the HEX model to the US, the UK and India is also in the works.

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SEE ALSO: Zero Co Founder Mike Smith on How His Daughter Inspires Him to Rid the World of Plastic Waste

Image credit: Lauren Bamford

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