CEO & Cofounder, CollegeSpring
Briefly describe the mission of your organization and how your role contributes to it. What does a typical day look like?
I am CEO of CollegeSpring, a nonprofit I cofounded in 2008 as a sophomore at Stanford University. After launching CollegeSpring during the heart of the recession, I have grown it into California’s largest nonprofit provider of SAT and college preparation services for students from low-income backgrounds. CollegeSpring has helped over 5,000 students improve their SAT scores and navigate college admissions with the help of 14 full-time staff and over 200 seasonal employees, including both professional teachers and undergraduate mentors. I am responsible for the overall strategic direction of CollegeSpring and play a singular role in its development and partnership relationship management activities. I also act as the primary representative of CollegeSpring to the external community, including funders, partners, and peer organizations.
What made you go into this profession? Why are you doing what you are doing?
I understand firsthand the power of the SAT to change trajectories: In 2006, I was accepted to Stanford University after increasing my own SAT scores by nearly 400 points to achieve a perfect 2400. I used my experience to run a lucrative tutoring business, but realized that the students who could afford my services were not the students that could benefit the most. What I learned was frustrating: Across the board, students from low-income backgrounds score an average of 189 points lower on the SAT than all other students, and they score 359 points lower than their highest-income peers.
Low SAT scores, coupled with less assistance in the college admissions process, create a significant barrier to college access for low-income students. My cofounder and I learned that even though many nonprofits and schools were dedicated to college access, SAT scores remained a fundamental barrier without systematic solutions. We created the first business plan for CollegeSpring in a social entrepreneurship course at Stanford, attracted philanthropic support, and launched three pilot programs in the summer of 2008. Those programs were a success.
Since 2008, CollegeSpring has helped more than 5,000 students in the Bay Area and Los Angeles improve SAT scores an average of 180 points and prepare for college. CollegeSpring’s programs, which now take place during either the summer or the academic year, offer a combination of professional instruction, near-peer mentoring, and diagnostic testing to help students build the skills they need to succeed on the SAT and in college admissions. For our students, the SAT is no longer an obstacle; it is an opportunity.
What recommendations do you have for current Stanford students interested in pursuing a career in a similar capacity? What skills or knowledge should they focus on at Stanford? What tips do you have regarding the job search?
For me, fundraising and networking were the two most important skills I developed at Stanford. I already had experience fundraising in high school: my little sister is adopted, and I raised $15,000 to support her orphanage in China. I expanded my fundraising experience at Stanford by cochairing the Stanford Dance Marathon, where I was responsible for raising $165,000. This fundraising experience served me well in recruiting our first major donors.
I also focused on expanding my network and finding mentors. Our early success was possible because I cold-called potential supporters from the Stanford Alumni Network. Taking the initiative to reach out to people who I knew I could learn from helped me build the mentoring relationships that have made me effective as a leader, and helped me build the interest in our work that has allowed CollegeSpring to succeed financially. Networking is also incredibly important in job searching, and I would recommend that everyone take advantage of the Stanford Alumni Network to learn about your field of interest and start making contacts while still in school.
your life vision
How do you make this unconventional career path work in your life?
Starting a business or nonprofit is hard work, and there are no shortcuts to success. That said, my work is incredibly rewarding; I can see the results of my efforts in every student who attends college and every school that sees better outcomes as a result of our program. This career path works in my life because seeing the impact I make doesn’t inspire me to “quit while I’m ahead;” instead, it motivates me to keep creating new and innovative solutions to reach more students with even better services.
I am also able to do what I do because I have a fantastic team; CollegeSpring is dedicated to hiring smart, hardworking, collaborative people who have the skills and expertise to implement our vision and keep our vision and efforts moving forward. Hiring and retaining great people is what makes my work sustainable. Surrounding yourself with a strong network of mentors and advisors is also important; I focus on leveraging my connections so that I am always learning and growing as a leader.
While many entrepreneurs focus on starting businesses instead of nonprofits for financial reasons, I’d also like to point out that it is definitely possible to support yourself financially at a nonprofit — if you are passionate about making an impact in the social sector, finances should not feel like a barrier to doing the work that you care about.