Each month as part of StartHub Startups to Watch Program we connect with the winning company to learn more about them. Our May Startup to Watch is ScholarJet, a web platform for college students to earn action-based scholarships. Recently we had the pleasure of interviewing Tuan Ho, CEO and Co-founder of ScholarJet. Here’s what we learned:
Tell us about your company. What is ScholarJet?
Let’s provide the industry landscape first. By 2020, the American labor force growth rate will fall by 50% (Source). On top of that, 45% of students are dropping out of college (Source). Companies are fighting left and right for qualified talent, but their pipeline of students is shrinking. Spending an average of $500,000 on recruiting students from the top elite schools, there just isn’t enough of in-demand talent to get work done (Source).
At the same time, top performing students from underserved communities aren’t able to get into the elite schools because they simply cannot afford it. These students come from diverse backgrounds and are willing to work hard, but are often overlooked. Imagine what business productivity might look like if companies had more access to diverse talent pools earlier.
ScholarJet helps students pay for college and helps companies build a diverse pipeline of college talent through action-based scholarships. These are company-branded competitions enabling students to showcase their skills, passion, and talent to earn money for their education. Students paint, make videos, 3D model, code and more while getting exposure to potential employers and building their career portfolios.
What is your background? How did you come up with the idea for ScholarJet?
I came to the U.S when I was 10 years old from Vietnam. My mom worked tirelessly to provide for me and my older brother...all based on the unwavering belief that, with an education, we could do anything. She was only making about $20,000/year when I was accepted into Northeastern University, which cost about $40,000/year in 2013. So with English being my second language, I wrote over 120 essays to apply for 40 scholarships, earning enough money for my education to Northeastern.
This whole process was incredibly unfair because I could have done so many other things to showcase my strengths, but the only way to earn scholarships was to write essays. I thought that if instead, students were rewarded for doing what they love and what they really care about, then their full potential could be exposed. Therefore the concept of the "action-based scholarship" was born.
My passion has always been in civic engagement and working with people. Ever since I was able to work, I’ve been a teacher, advocate, and community leader supporting underserved communities in Boston. At the age of 15, I was awarded the Young Leader in Recognition award from the Harvard Institution of Politics. I am a Boston Public High School Scholar, Yawkey Foundation Scholar, National Association of Asian American Professional Scholar, Greater Boston Real Estate Board Scholar and Boston Latin Academy Scholar.
Recently, on April 27th, I was named a Priscilla Chan Stride Fellow from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to continue working on ScholarJet.
I feel very fortunate to be the first generation in my family to graduate from college, and with a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering.
Who is your target customer?
We help undergraduate students with financial needs in Massachusetts. ScholarJet partners with companies in Massachusetts who are looking to nurture, invest in and build a diverse talent pipeline.
How do you think ScholarJet is going to disrupt the market? What are the main differentiators between you and your competitors?
We think that our competitors are other platforms that employers leverage to recruit diverse candidates. Job boards and campus career fairs allow companies to connect directly with students. And scholarship management services like Scholarship America, WizeHive, ISTS and scholarship listing services offer essay-based scholarships which companies can use to identify promising candidates. However, because diversity and inclusion are starting to become more prevalence. Companies are starting to form strategies, but some are just not as effective as they claim to be. The nature of our work target students from low-income backgrounds. Therefore, the applicants are socioeconomically diverse as well as ethnically diverse.
Our advantage is (1) that we help students to showcase their talents, which helps companies better judge potential, and (2) that our scholarships are delivered to students with financial need - a demographic with a high concentration of talented, minority students. ScholarJet helps companies address diversity while providing them with qualified talents they might otherwise not have been exposed to.
As we create more action-based scholarships, we’ll also have more data to identify, for example, the skill sets that best correlate to success in the workplace, which will, in turn, optimize the matching process between students and companies.
We are disrupting the market by bridging the gap between company growth capital and human capital from underserved populations.
Who are your main investors?
We are raising a $250k round of convertible notes. Currently, there are 2 investors looking to lead the round, 7 looking to participate, 2 soft-circled for $20,000 thus far. ScholarJet successfully pitched to Boston Harbor Angels (In Due Diligence), Beacon Angels (In Due Diligence), and Walnut Ventures (In Due Diligence). Also, receiving interest from TiE Angels. Previously we have bootstrapped by winning over $50,000 in pitch competitions and recently received $30,000 grant from Priscilla Chan Stride Service Program (Chan Zuckerberg Initiative).
Why did you decide to start your business in Boston? How long has your company been around?
Boston is the hub of education with limitless resources to support the growth of edtech companies. There are over 100 colleges and universities right at our door and it is a community that I think is truly committed to investing in diversity in the workplace and career development.
The company has been around for over 2.5 years starting when the founding team was in college during their 3rd year.
What resources in the startup community have contributed to the success of ScholarJet?
- • Venture Accelerators: MassChallenge Finalist 2017, IDEA Venture Accelerator, Smarter In The City.
- • Pitch Competitions: LISC City Wide Pitch Contest ($10K), VietChallenge Global Competition ($20K), IDEA Gap Funding ($20K), USPAACC ($8K).
- • Organizations: Roxbury Innovation Center, Startup Coalition, Pledge 1% Boston, Cambridge Innovation Center, WeWork, Northeastern Sherman Center, SheStarts.
How do you use StartHub professionally?
StartHub is a collection and list of all relevant organizations and resources for entrepreneurs! Finally, someone is doing this. We needed it years ago.
What are the next steps for ScholarJet?
We plan to finish this round of funding by the end of June, hire a few key roles (marketing, software dev, and sales) and then grow across Massachusetts.
After this June, we will have successfully given away $22,500 in scholarships and impacted over 150 students.
What is the most important thing our readers should know about ScholarJet?
The ScholarJet team is a group of dynamic, life-long learners who are open-minded to new possibilities and frankly, a bit naive when it comes to the potential we see with where our company will take us.
Our goal is to bring innovative companies, hard-working, passionate students, and agile communities closer together and we are handcuffed to our mission to help create a better future by helping those who will be directly responsible for it.