How I Got Here: Zoe Cohen on her path from international development to biz partnerships at Azavea - Technical.ly Philly

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How I Got Here: Zoe Cohen on her path from international development to biz partnerships at Azavea

Azavea's social impact work drew Cohen to the software company. Here's why she picked Philly, and why she thinks tech has a role in reversing climate change.

Zoe Cohen, Azavea's VP of business development.

(Courtesy photo)

When Zoe Cohen was finishing up her master’s degree in international development and economics from Johns Hopkins University nearly a decade ago, she likely wouldn’t have predicted she’d now be running the partnerships and business development arm of a Philly-based tech company.

For the last year, Cohen has been working remotely for Azavea, a geospatial technology and social good company founded in 2001. She came to the company via a year-long stint at Philly-founded fintech startup RenoFi. It was her first job back in the U.S. after years-long periods abroad — first in Peru and then Kenya — working for nonprofits and social enterprises, which were the focus of her degrees.

Cohen hadn’t really considered the startup world until she arrived in the East African country, she told Technical.ly.

“There was so much going on in Kenya and specifically, Nairobi, in terms of social enterprise and impact businesses and the tech startup scene,” she said. “So I just started to meet people, both Kenyans and foreigners, who were working in this tech startup social enterprise sector and I got more and more interested.”

After falling in love with living there, Cohen networked her way to a small startup called Echo Mobile. It’s a mobile tech SaaS service for organizations, educational services or companies to communicate with folks who didn’t have internet access. She was one of three or so “pretty junior” people figuring out how to build the platform, and took on the role of CEO.

“My interest in the tech world really started there, in that very specific environment,” Cohen said.

In her early 30s, after about six years in Kenya, Cohen said she began to consider moving back to the states. Her family is from the Philly area, but she was drawn to the scene and the outdoor environment in Seattle. It ultimately came down to the people and networking in Philadelphia, she said — a large contrast from what she experienced in Seattle.

When picking a destination, it ultimately came down to the people and networking in Philadelphia — a large contrast from what she experienced in Seattle.

“I was overwhelmed with the amount of support and engagement I got from folks in the Philly tech scene, the Philly startup scene,” she said.

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Early on, she connected with Guru’s Rick Nucci, who in turn made the intro to Azavea CEO Robert Cheetham. But she first worked worked as head of partnerships at RenoFi, where she said she learned a lot in her first experience with a venture-backed company.

With Azavea, the initial connection with Cheetham and the company’s focus on international work, its B Corp status, and its civic, social and environmental impact drew Cohen in to the company. It was a tech company with a deep social impact mission. She and the CEO began talking about the company’s partnerships role, and she joined Callowhill-based team right after the pandemic began last year.

The company itself builds tech to work on climate change-related matters, like watershed issues in Philadelphia. Cohen said she believes technology can play a huge part in having an environmental impact. There is an incredible amount of data and orgs that can visualize it that will drive people to create change, she said.

Cohen stressed that each of her career moves and changes came with a lot of patience. Envisioning how she could fit into the tech space came with the realization that tech is integral across many industries. It’s more than deep technical skills, but also the soft skills and the phycological understanding of how people operate.

She attributes finding clarity in her career path with testing out a lot at the beginning of her career, and taking on roles and responsibilities that showed what she did and did not want to do.

“A lot of my work was around coming up with the narrative of what I had done, and looking inside and thinking through the narrative of what do I want to do in the future,” she said.

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