Alumna and entrepreneur Julie Lerner is changing how commodities are traded
Friday, February 24, 2017
Posted by: Heather Blahnik
Julie Lerner and the PanXchange team opening the London Stock Exchange.
Many AIESECers become entreprenuers, and Julie Lerner is no exception. She began her career as a trader thanks to an AIESEC exchange credit, starting out as the youngest and the only female on the trading team at Cargill in Geneva. After trading in different commodity markets for many years, she decided to launch PanXchange to help solve the inefficiencies in the market. Julie, who hails from AIESEC BU and served as the Northeast Regional Marketing Manager and on the IC Boston '88 committee, shares some of her experience and insights with us below.
1. You are the founder of PanXchange, a patented trading platform that provides instant market access and price discovery for all players along the commodity supply chain. Tell us more about PanXchange and how the business idea came about.
This is a real AIESEC success story. I was in Geneva for a traineeship just after Boston University. I got that credit from work I did for the LC. The year was passing quickly. I still couldn't speak French and the ski season was lousy, so I wanted to stay longer. I heard that Cargill was the only company that'd hire expats, so I started calling. And calling. And calling. I called a few times a week for five months. They finally gave me an interview. Then said they'd love to hire me, but couldn't get me the work permit. As I had been an NC Rep and worked on IC' 88, I had another credit due to me. They'd never seen someone get that done and hired me the day after I had confirmation from AIESEC US that I had the credit.
Anyway, I fell in love with commodity trading. I was the youngest and, for a while, the only female trader on the entire GVA team. When the work permit expired, I transferred back to the US and became their lead Latin American sugar trader. Flash forward a few jobs and a switch to US energy markets and I realized how inefficient it is to trade any natural resource. It was all done by phone back then-- geez, in Geneva we even used the Telex machine with the Egyptian government when they held buying tenders. Today, all these markets - whether grains or metals or energy products like fuel oils - trade by phone, text or IM. It's fragmented, opaque and hugely inefficient. That's what led me to design PanXchange. Traders needed a site that aggregated the brokerage market, allowed them to negotiate multiple variables (quality, delivery terms, payments, etc.) anonymously, in real time and without costly clearing services. Hence, PanXchange was born.
2. What were some of the challenges you faced in setting up the company? In growing it? What are your plans for the future?
A) Investors don't understand anything about these markets. It's like asking a professional road biker to choose the best mountain bike... They don't know how to assess the opportunity.
B) Similar to above, commodity traders know they like PanXchange, but they're wary of changing habits. PanXchange is the only platform in production that's built by a trader for the trade and that is both geographically and commodity agnostic. Many, many others have failed due to poor functionality and an inability to scale. As such, as an advisor explains, "we have to climb over the trash heap of failures."
We're looking at several opportunities in US energy products and international metals for later this year.
3. What advice would you give to alumni who are thinking of setting up their own company? What do you think an entrepreneur needs to be successful?
Deciding you want to be an entrepreneur is the proverbial cart before the horse. You have to have deep market knowledge about something to identify and understand a problem, then use your unique perspective in order to provide a solution. Without that, I don't know how an entrepreneur can have the conviction it takes to sell the vision and stick with it through the tough times. And however tough you think it can get... expect it to be exponentially more difficult, both personally and professionally.
4. Before PanXchange, you were Managing Director of Golden Seeds, an angel investment group focused on women-owned and operated businesses, as well as Managing Director of European-American Business Organization, which focused on helping small and medium sized companies to grow. What insights did you gain about what makes a successful small and medium-sized company successful?
Do one thing really well before you try to expand. Using PanXchange as an example, we didn't launch the second market in US feed grains until the African market had traction. We're launching a second US grains market next month, and still, we're staying focused on our core software, tuning out distractions like blockchain technology or other diversified services.
If you would like to get in touch with Julie, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.