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Ethically Entrepreneurial: Interview with Jonathan Mak

Jonathan Mak

“Just do it.” – Jonathan Mak

Jonathan Mak is the co-founder of Percepta, a company that has pioneered ethical AI for unbiased shoplifting detection. Jonathan studied Computer Science at Penn, and while completing his studies, he developed Percepta. In his day-to-day life at Percepta, he completes business development, sales, and recruiting activities. Through this interview, the Penn Innovators in Business network asked Jonathan to share some of his entrepreneurial tips with undergraduates interested in starting their own ventures.

What was your inspiration behind Percepta, and what’s next for Percepta?

“At Percepta, we are combating the issue that is shoplifting. Shoplifting costs retailers a hefty amount annually in terms of merchandise loss in the US. Currently, security personnel who are subject to all kinds of implicit biases detect less than a third of all shoplifting instances. At Percepta, we tackle this issue with our ethical AI algorithm that is age-blind, gender-blind, and race-blind to detect up to three times as many incidents as humans do without the concerns of potential racial profiling and false positives. We are recently in talks with retailers across the country to deploy our technology.” 

Do you have any recommendations for classes or professors Penn undergraduates who are interested in entrepreneurship should pursue?

“I would definitely recommend the Engineering Entrepreneurship classes (EAS 545 & 546). Those are taught by Professor Jeffrey Babin and Thomas Cassel, and they are all great. As for other classes, you should do at least one programming class even if you are entirely non-technical. A lot of classes have some sort of programming component and it is important to have that level of literacy. In addition, I have heard MKTG 101 was helpful for a lot of people. Other opportunities include the SF WIEP trip and SF Tech Trek. These allow students to meet people who are further in their careers and learn a little bit more about their journeys. Finally, take Negotiations. But overall, I would optimize for a broad range of classes.”

Do you have any advice for undergraduates who are interested in entrepreneurship but who may not know how to get involved or how to develop their ideas?

“I think the best way to get involved is to just do it. Your time in school is a great time to work on random side projects and meet cool, smart people. Once you start working on an idea and commit to it, at the very least that gives you a chance to talk to other people who are also in the space of entrepreneurship. Alternatively, join various organizations or start one yourself that is centered around entrepreneurship. Also, talk to alumni and upperclassmen about their experiences and about how they got involved. People want to help students, so make use of your.edu emails because people will always talk to students. It is definitely helpful to have mentor figures because their advice is always invaluable. Don’t waste your time here — definitely have fun and enjoy your time in college, but if you feel like you even have an inkling of something you want to try out, just go for it.”

What is your top tip for people interested in starting their own venture?

“I think if you are working on something very early stage, you need to know how to do a bit of everything. For instance, I mainly have a Computer Science background, but I hardly use it directly in my day to day. Instead, I have learned how to recruit people and how to do HR, payroll, and legal. You are going to be learning a lot, and I would not say there is any one thing apart from starting a company yourself that prepares you for starting a company. It also definitely helps to have partners on board, whether it is a team or mentors and advisors, because it’s very difficult and very lonely otherwise.” 

If readers were to take one thing away from this interview, what would you want it to be?

“I have been hammering on this throughout in one way or another, but just go do it. There is no better time and place than now and here. You might think that you need more experience or that you do not have enough time, but do not kid yourself — there is always going to be a good excuse to not do something. You just have to find an equally good or a better reason to go and do it. Just believe in yourself and don’t be afraid of failing. You have nothing to lose. Just go for it.”

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