Many entrepreneurs begin their journey in pursuit of profit. But for some, starting a business is about so much more than money. For these socially-conscious entrepreneurs, it’s about leaving the world a better place than they found it.
And in the case of three founders participating in the LaunchPad Summer Startup Fellowship, their vision of a better world includes education that’s more accessible to all.
Manny Smith (Founder of EdVisor), Sam Hollander (Founder of FSCL), and Gabe Bensimon & Tim Brophy (Co-Founders of OneDegree) are all building startups that take a unique approach to solving the problems that have traditionally made higher education an unequal opportunity, especially for minority, immigrant, and low-income students. This summer, these three founders are scaling their businesses as part of the Fellowship, a program created by the Blackstone Launchpad powered by Techstars network – in partnership with Future Founders – that was born out of the unprecedented challenges facing college students and recent graduates due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Future Founders had the opportunity to sit down with these three founders to learn more about their vision for a better future, and the steps they are taking to make education more accessible to all. Read on for excerpts from these enlightening conversations.
What is EdVisor?
EdVisor helps community college students better plan their academic and financial journey through community college. Our mission is to democratize access to education and eliminate equity gaps. We do this through an inclusive platform that helps students illuminate the various educational paths that make the most sense for them. Our individualized software solutions aim to increase student success by focusing on individual goals, timelines, and needs. Through our automated platform, we ensure student success by eliminating the risks of pivoting and ambiguity.
What has driven your passion for solving problems in the education space?
As an MBA student with an undergraduate degree from the Air Force, education has been pivotal in my development and capacity to navigate the world. I grew up in the South as an African American with two parents who did not have college educations. This gave me a first-hand look at the differences in opportunity available to those who are educated, and has created a soft spot in my heart for those who traditionally do not have access to higher education opportunities due to equity gaps.
Why the focus specifically on community colleges?
After starting my MBA program, I was introduced to a company that has conducted extensive research on a selection of community colleges in California. After scouring this data, I was shocked to see that these schools had a massive 70% attrition rate. Not only that, but as institutions that are often touted as a springboard to four-year universities, I noticed that over a four-year period, there was but a single African American student that had transferred successfully to a four-year university after starting their education at a local community college.
74% of community college students in California are ethnic minorities, and an overwhelming majority of these are first generation college students. To have 70% of these students leave school before obtaining any sort of degree is tragic, and a clear indication that something is wrong with the model. EdVisor is working to correct these inefficiencies.
How has Blackstone Launchpad powered by Techstars helped your growth as an entrepreneur?
The Blackstone Launchpad network is unique in that it extends beyond just Berkeley. The first thing I realized when I came to Berkeley is that their network is amazing. But I also recognized that I needed more outside of what the school and its network can provide. Launchpad has allowed me to get access to incredible mentors and resources. We’re learning directly from real CEOs who have built companies from the ground up, and navigated the nebulous world of business. These entrepreneurs have created successful frameworks for themselves, and as members of the Blackstone Launchpad, we’re able to learn from these frameworks as well.
What is FSCL?
FSCL stands for Financial Services for College Lending. Our mission is to provide simple, affordable, and flexible solutions for financing college through alternative finance vehicles, namely income sharing agreements.
What was the catalyst behind launching FSCL?
I came across an article one day on income share agreements, and how they are the next “up and coming” thing in financing higher education. I immediately fell in love with the concept, and decided that I wanted to take one out for myself. But after some initial research, I quickly learned that current income share agreements are available to less than 1% of the student population here in the U.S.
Why do you believe there needs to be a new financing vehicle for higher education?
Many of my peers can leave college with $250k in debt, yet might only be expected to make $30k/year with their first job. This is a huge mismatch between the price people pay for education and the value they take. We’re trying to better align the price and value, because not everyone can afford to take on such massive debt. We see today that students, many of who don’t have established credit, have a very hard time securing student loans, which can make it hard or impossible to afford the full cost of attendance. We’re building a platform that takes a holistic-review approach to lending decisions, allowing for students to get funding based on factors other than just credit history.
There needs to be a second option for students, and it’s one we’re trying to create.
I wouldn’t be close to where I am without Launchpad. Our Campus Director at Syracuse University Linda Hartsock has provided us with an incredible platform to learn from other people’s successes and failures. Launchpad had created a community on our campus – one that is run by like minded individuals, and that has allowed me to learn and grow tremendously.
What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs that are just starting out?
During one of our Fellowship fireside chats, Tim Brown (Co-Founder of Allbirds) shared his two keys to soliciting feedback: 1. Seek advice from as many people as possible. And 2. If you take all of it, you’re an idiot.
I think this is the core of my advice to young entrepreneurs. It’s vital that you talk to everybody. When I began researching FSCL, I was very siloed in my knowledge. So I went out and talked to financial aid officers, investment bankers, and teams at credit reporting agencies like Experian. Everyone had their own unique opinions and viewpoints, each of which propelled me further, and ultimately helped validate the idea.
What is OneDegree?
OneDegree helps high school and community college students easily explore, select, and secure career opportunities in the trades. Our solution enables students to connect directly with trade professionals to better understand the available paths for a quick transition into a financially rewarding career path without six figures of student loan debt.
Why do you believe this product needs to exist?
Our mission is to help 9-14th grade students find, discover, and secure a career path that doesn’t necessarily require them to attend four-year university. We believe there are so many opportunities that fall into that “middle skill” market, and most students aren’t aware of earning potential and lifestyle that comes with these careers. We are inspired to surface these opportunities in hopes of rebuilding the middle class.
We’re not anti-university. But we do believe university is not a one size fits all solution.
How did you come up with the idea?
I (Tim) have 6 years of experience in the construction industry, and currently work full-time with HVAC companies. I’ve seen first-hand how these technicians are able to secure their position in life with little investment in education, and know plenty of individuals with a two-year trade degree making more money than our friends with four-year engineering degrees from major universities.
The world is changing. You don’t have to have a college education to start a successful trade business. You no longer need a four-year programming degree to get a job at Google. But many young people do not know this. They believe their only path to success involves taking on lots of debt to obtain a four-year degree. OneDegree aims to show students everywhere that there is a different path they can take.
What do you think is one of the biggest problems with the education industry?
We believe the method of selecting an educational journey is backwards. We’re expected to go to college and figure out what we want to do with the rest of our lives by selecting a major (sometimes even selecting one before we arrive on campus as a Freshman). If and when we complete our program, we have a degree that only gives us so many career options. So we find a job in that career and give it a try. But for many people, it’s only at this moment that they realize “You know what, this isn’t for me…it’s not what I expected.”
Every single day people that have spent several years of their life and hundreds of thousands of dollars on a degree are realizing that their chosen path is not right for them. OneDegree believes we need to do a much better job exposing young people to different career options before they make this type of investment.
Blackstone Launchpad has provided us with a structure to effectively look at companies and ideas. To understand the components that make successful businesses. Our Campus Director at USC James Bottom helped us take a lean startup approach to building and product iteration, and taught us how to vet our idea by asking the right questions. Is this a big enough problem? And is this solution the best solution to the problem? Additionally, James pushed us into a new venture competition very early in our lifecycle, which really forced us to build structure around the idea.
What does a successful future look like for OneDegree?
If we can help one student figure out what they want to do with their life, and it turns out to be a fulfilling career path and they find happiness and financial security to have the lifestyle they want, we’ll consider our business a success.
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