You don’t wake up one day and choose to be an entrepreneur. You don’t choose to embark on a journey full of anxiety and stress, with an inkling of hope and unforeseeable returns. It chooses you. For me, it started when my cofounder, Chisa Egbelu, talked to his best friend and roommate who was so passionate about music that he decided to hone his craft by attempting to transfer from Rutgers to the Berkelee College of Music. Little did he know, this choice would become a crippling financial decision that would inspire us to re-think how education is funded. And it all boiled down to a draw-dropping question: “Why isn’t there something like Kickstarter for college?”
That’s how Chisa and I started PeduL, which is a platform that helps students raise money for college. Right now, we accomplish this through crowdfunding. It is the only crowdfunding platform online that protects sponsors by sending all of the money students raise directly to their institution. At first, it seemed too perfect to be true. Chisa was curious why this kind of platform didn’t already exist. Once he determined there was no established competition in the space, he began recruiting teammates to join his journey. Since we both majored in Journalism & Media Studies and had a ton of classes together, he knew I was the queen of the humble brag—and more importantly, already had some experience building and selling a business before graduating high school. But when he pitched me the concept, I wasn’t fully convinced.
We sat for hours and discussed the core reasons he wanted to pursue this idea. I knew why I would. I turned down five Division 1 golf scholarships to attend my dream school only to find out I would be $40,000 in debt per year if I went. I was stripped of an opportunity—not because I didn’t deserve it—but because I couldn’t afford it. But relating to this problem wasn’t enough to pursue a Kickstarter for college. Through countless conversations with students—our potential customers—and our team of five, at the time, we pinpointed the heart of crowdfunding’s greatest downfall: access. Crowdfunding, whether you want to admit it or not, is innately elitist because it almost always requires the fundraiser to have access to a well-endowed network. Not everyone enjoys the luxury of knowing people with money. We can’t control what family we’re born into or the economic bracket we’re in. But what we can do is fight for and create equal access to academic and professional opportunities.
With this realization, we decided to brainstorm ways to provide students with capital beyond their personal networks. We reflected on the large companies and organizations that we’ve received scholarships from, and we decided that we would try to partner with corporations, influencers and foundations that would award scholarships directly to our competitive talent pool of entrepreneurial-minded students running crowdfunding campaigns.
This was in January 2016. We didn’t know where to start or how to begin pitching enterprise clients, so we stuck with what we knew. We put our corporate model on the back burner, and pursued crowdfunding full-force. We started meeting every Sunday in the Red Lion Café on the College Ave campus to research the competition, construct experiments to prove our concept, write our business plan, develop our minimum viable product (MVP), iron out our operational systems and processes, and figure out how to monetize this idea. We eventually decided to match industry standards, but tweak it based on focus group research. We would make the platform free to students, and encourage sponsors to “tip” PeduL between 5% and 20% of their contribution. When we realized we could disseminate scholarships by partnering with corporations, influencers and other scholarship providers, we knew we could pursue a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model as a reliable revenue source. Licensing software on a subscription basis has been on the rise since the beginning of the new millennium, and we believed it was our time to cash in on the trend. By categorizing students on PeduL as “talent,” we could essentially “sell” them as “potential recruits” to these large corporations—in exchange for a finder’s fee, of course. In other words, it’s our job to source qualified students for corporations who have the budget to disseminate scholarships and provide training, internships and professional development opportunities. Statistics show that highly-engaged employees with training opportunities increase productivity and bottom lines. By investing in millennials earlier—who will make up 75% of the global workforce by 2025—corporations can cultivate a workforce of skilled labor who are prepared to hit the ground running from day one. PeduL could help enable corporations to pave the next generation of leaders by funding their education upfront, which could ultimately boost their bottom lines. We believed, early on, that this would be the path to escape velocity and venture scale. We were suddenly a business-to-consumer (B2C) and a business-to-business (B2B) company, which broadened our horizons and maximized our potential, especially as a minority-owned and operated company.
During this time, we were lucky enough to get a feature in an online publication that was known as Startup Panel. The staff writer for that story is a Rutgers-Newark student who was starting a business called Ramenworks, a network of undergraduate students dedicated to connecting student founders with the capital and resources necessary to build and grow their startups. We unknowingly became Ramenworks’s MVP. They were shopping us out to venture capitalists and angel investors in the tri-state area, and one stuck: IDT. An international telecommunications company headquartered in Newark, New Jersey, bought into our vision. Although the check we received was smaller than most venture deals, it provided us with the office space, outsourcing development company, financial and human capital necessary to build and launch our platform.
Our real vision is to become the one-stop shop for education financing through our common application for scholarships. Imagine filling out a single application to apply to thousands of scholarships at one time for both higher education and alternative education programming like coding bootcamps or trade-specific academies. We know what you’re thinking…we wish we had this back when we were in school too. This is the idea that allows us to truly close the gap of access to education while sidestepping legislation and inevitably bureaucratic government engagement. Although our idea has evolved, we know it’s something worth fighting to create.
By the time I graduated college in May 2017, PeduL had become my mission, my livelihood, my greatest source of anxiety and stress, and most importantly, my greatest source of fulfillment and purpose. PeduL finally went live to the public on January 1, 2018. Over 2,500 students have raised a little over $25,000 and we’re growing each day. But this journey comes with challenges, from fundraising to building a team, all of which I look forward to sharing in detail week after week. I intend to use this column as an outlet of expression and transparency. I encourage you to follow our story because we’re in for an unpredictable and eventful ride. Each week, you’ll get a glimpse into every step of this journey. The ups. The downs. And everything in between. I’ll share what’s worked for us and what hasn’t. I’ll call on you for advice and I’ll open up my heart and mind to hearing your first-hand experience. Consider this my diary and open letter to each and everyone one of you with a dream and a will, so that one day we may all look back and say, “together, we did it.”
Every Wednesday at 3PM/EST, I will host a chat to a weekly question on Twitter & Instagram @iamkaylamichele. Tweet & DM me with your answer! – “How did you gain the courage to start you business?”