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Make The Colleges Pay: How This Entrepreneur Helps Companies Offer Education Benefits That Employees Will Actually Use

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Most edtech startups are idealistic outfits with little revenue and low valuations, but Rachel Romer Carlson’s Guild Education is worth $1 billion and is on track to book $100 million in sales. Her secret? Connecting workers who have tuition benefits to colleges that will gladly pay to meet them.

It’s 9AM two days before Thanksgiving in Arkansas, and Walmart executives are dragging their suitcases around a windowless office building in search of a large conference room. They settle on an interior lunchroom with dull gray carpet, claiming one side of a long table in the corner and gesturing for their guests to sit opposite them. Ellie Bertani, Walmart’s director of workforce strategy, says she’s struggling to find qualified people to staff the company’s expanding network of 5,000 pharmacies and 3,400 vision centers. Her fellow Walmart execs are silent, but Rachel Romer Carlson, 31, cofounder and CEO of Guild Education, sees her opening. Without hesitation she says her team can work with Walmart and find a solution fast. “You guys and us,” she says, “let’s do it!”

Carlson flew to Bentonville from Guild’s Denver headquarters the day before. Dressed in a sensible navy blazer and black slacks, she hasn’t bothered with makeup. Since 7:30 that morning she’s been huddling with teams of Walmart brass, going over options to train workers for those new jobs. They range from a one-year pharmacy technician certificate program offered by a for-profit online outfit called Penn Foster to an online bachelor’s degree in healthcare administration at nonprofit Southern New Hampshire University.

Carlson’s groundbreaking idea when she launched Guild four years ago: help companies offer education benefits that employees will actually use. Many big employers will pay for their workers to go to school (it’s a tax break), but hardly any workers take advantage of the opportunity. Applying and signing up for courses can be cumbersome, and in most instances employees have to front the tuition and wait to be reimbursed. Meanwhile, many colleges are desperate for students because they have small—or nonexistent—endowments and are financially dependent on tuition. Many nonselective online programs spend more than $3,000 to attract each new student. Carlson charges schools a finder’s fee (she won’t say how much) for the students she delivers from her corporate partners.

So far Guild has signed up more than 20 companies, including Disney and Taco Bell. Guild gets paid only if students complete their coursework, so a full 150 of the company’s 415 staffers serve as coaches who help employees apply to degree programs and plan how to balance their studies with work and family. When a company like Walmart requests a customized training course, Guild solicits proposals from as many as 100 education providers (nearly all of them online) and recommends the programs it deems best. It also negotiates tuition discounts and facilitates direct payments between employers and schools, a big plus for workers who would otherwise have to wait months to be reimbursed.

Carlson, an alumna of the 2017 Forbes 30 Under 30 list and a judge on the 2020 list, says she has already channeled $100 million in tuition benefits to workers. She expects 2019 revenue to top $50 million, and Guild investor Byron Deeter of Bessemer Venture Partners predicts 2020 revenue of more than $100 million. In mid-November Carlson closed her fifth round of financing, led by General Catalyst, bringing her total money raised to $228 million at a $1 billion valuation. In the sleepy, well-intentioned world of edtech, Guild is one of only a few startups whose values have soared, says Daniel Pianko, a New York-based edtech investor with no stake in the company. “I can see a path for Guild to be a $100 billion company,” says Paul Freedman, CEO of San Francisco venture firm Entangled Group, who has known Carlson since she was in business school and was one of Guild’s earliest investors.

When asked to detail Guild’s inner workings, like its strategy for soliciting custom courses, Carlson eschews specifics and delivers what sounds like a political stump speech: “The economy’s moving so fast,” she says. “We can’t let higher education dictate the skills and competencies that we need five to ten years from now.”

 There’s a reason she talks this way. Her grandfather Roy Romer was a three-term (1987–1999) Democratic governor of Colorado before spending six years as superintendent of Los Angeles’ public schools. Carlson started riding along on his campaign bus when she was 6 years old; occasionally she would even speak at his rallies. When her father, Chris Romer, a former Colorado state senator, ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Denver in 2011, she served as his finance director. (“The loss was devastating,” she says.)

Along with politics, the Romers were committed to increasing access to education, especially for working adults. Roy Romer helped start Salt Lake City-based Western Governors University, a pioneer in online adult education. In the wake of Chris Romer’s mayoral bid, in 2011, he cofounded American Honors, a for profit company that offered honors courses at community colleges (the company struggled, and the brand is now owned by Wellspring International, a student recruitment firm).

After graduating from Stanford undergrad and working briefly in the Obama White House, Carlson launched her first venture, Student Blueprint, while getting her M.B.A. (also at Stanford) in 2014. Student Blueprint sought to use technology to match community college students with jobs. It was a noble idea, but she decided to finish school and sold the software she had developed to Paul Freedman’s Entangled Group in 2014 for a negligible sum. In 2015, after she wrapped up her M.B.A., she pitched the idea for Guild to one of her professors, Michael Dearing, and to seed investor Aileen Lee, of Cowboy Ventures, raising $2 million.

After relocating to her home turf in Denver, she landed her first major corporate partner the summer of 2016 when she sent a LinkedIn message to a Chipotle benefits manager that played up the fast-food chain’s “strong Denver roots and social mission.” With help from Guild, Chipotle’s $12-an-hour burrito rollers are now pursuing bachelor’s degrees from Bellevue University in Nebraska or taking computer security courses at Wilmington University in Delaware. In October 2019, Carlson persuaded Chipotle to lift its cap on tuition benefits above the $5,250 the IRS allows companies to write off.

Guild’s biggest competitor is a division of Watertown, Massachusetts-based publicly traded daycare provider Bright Horizons, which has offered tuition benefit services since 2009. It works with 210 companies including Home Depot and Goldman Sachs. Under Bright Horizons’ system, the companies—not the colleges—pay. Much of the genius of Guild’s business model is that it correctly aligns incentives: The colleges are the most financially motivated party, so they foot the bill. Another competitor, Los Angeles-based In Stride, launched in 2019 with funding from Arizona State University, and like Bright Horizons it charges the corporations.

“I see our competition as the status quo,” Carlson says. “Classically, employers have offered tuition-reimbursement programs, but no one is using those programs.”

The nonprofit Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation has done five case studies showing returns on investment as high as 140% for companies that offer tuition reimbursement programs. “We saw powerful impacts on retention,” says Lumina’s strategy director, Haley Glover.

 “Walmart and Amazon are in a death struggle,” proclaims Joseph Fuller, a professor at Harvard Business School. “If a Walmart worker can say, ‘I got an education that allowed me to get promoted,’ they’re going to be someone who speaks generously about Walmart and they are more likely be a Walmart shopper.”

Like a good politician, Carlson is working to please everyone. “We found a win-win,” she says, “where we can help companies align their objectives with helping their employees achieve their goals.”

 Alexandra Wilson and Susan Adams

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31% Of Small Businesses Have Stopped Operating Amid Coronavirus: Sheryl Sandberg Shares How Facebook’s Latest Product Aims To Help

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The coronavirus pandemic has continued to take a catastrophic toll on America’s small businesses. According to Facebook’s State of Small Business report, 31% of small businesses and 52% of personal businesses have stopped operating as a result of the crisis. 

“What we know today is pretty sobering,” says Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. “We’re in a really hard economic situation that is hitting all businesses, but particularly, small businesses really hard. We also know how critical small businesses are for jobs—long before coronavirus,” she says. “Two thirds of new jobs in this country happen because of small businesses and so that means what’s happening with small businesses has always been important, but it’s more important than ever.”

Especially concerning is that only 45% of business owners and managers plan to rehire the same number of workers when their businesses reopen. That number is just 32% for personal businesses. 

“If these businesses are letting people go, it’s not that they don’t want to rehire them,” Sandberg says. “It’s because they don’t think they’re going to be able to. That’s a pretty serious thing for us to be facing.”

Businesses that have been able to maintain operations still face significant hurdles, namely access to capital and customers. Some 28% of businesses surveyed say their biggest challenge over the next few months will be cash flow, while 20% say it will be lack of demand. 

The report, conducted in partnership with the Small Business Roundtable, was based on a survey of 86,000 owners, managers and workers at U.S. companies with fewer than 500 employees. It is also a part of the company’s broader data collection initiative with the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on the Future of Business.

“We were already in the process of developing this report before the coronavirus pandemic hit,” Sandberg says. “We expected it to be a pretty rosy tale back then of low unemployment, flourishing entrepreneurship, and jobs growing all over the world. Fast forward to today and we’re in a very different position.”

An example of Facebook’s new Shops feature, which creates digital “storefronts” for businesses.
 
FACEBOOK

Now, the company is launching Facebook Shops, an ecommerce product that allows businesses to set up online “storefronts” on Facebook and Instagram. Businesses can customize their digital shops, using cover images to showcase their brands and catalogs to highlight their products. And just as customers can ask for help when shopping in physical stores, they can message business owners directly via WhatsApp, Messenger or Instagram Direct to ask questions, track deliveries and more. “Our goal is to make shopping seamless and empower anyone from a small business owner to a global brand to use our apps to connect with customers,” wrote Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a post announcing the new product. As was the case with the survey, the rollout was planned prior to the pandemic, but was accelerated as businesses have turned to online tools to adapt in the face of the ongoing crisis. According to the survey, 51% of small business owners have  increased their online interactions with customers, and 36% of operational businesses are now conducting all sales online. 

“One of the things I find so amazing is how much of the activity has migrated online and that we’re doing things we never thought were possible,” says Sandberg. “If I had asked you or you had asked me, could I work entirely from home? Can my whole company go home? I would have said ‘No way.’ But we did it. Small businesses have even more entrepreneurial spirit.”

There are more than 30 million small businesses in the U.S., many of which are struggling to stay afloat amid forced closures and are still hoping to receive financial relief from the government. According to a recent survey by Goldman Sachs, 71% of Paycheck Protection Program applicants are still waiting for loans and 64% don’t have enough cash to survive the next three months. As of April 19, more than 175,000 businesses have shut down—temporarily or permanently—with closure rates rising 200% or more in hard-hit metropolitan cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, according to Yelp’s Q1 Economic Average report.

Employees of these businesses are disproportionately affected, with 74% and 70% reporting not having access to paid sick leave and paid time off, according to Facebook’s survey. For hotel, cafe and restaurant employees, those figures are over 90%.

Facebook, which relies heavily on small businesses for advertising revenue, was among the first major tech companies to provide much-needed aid. On March 17, the company announced $100 million in grants for small businesses, the majority of which will be distributed in cash, with some ad credits for business services. Of those funds, $40 million will be distributed across 34 American cities, with 50% being reserved for women, minority and veteran-owned businesses. The other $60 million will be distributed to small business owners throughout the world. In addition to financial assistance, the company also rolled out various product offerings including digital gift cardsfundraisers and easier ways for businesses to communicate service changes to their customers. 

Small businesses are resilient, even during times of crisis. According to the report, 57% of businesses are optimistic or extremely optimistic about the future, with only 11% of operating businesses expecting to fail in the next three months, should current conditions persist. 

“The report raises awareness about the struggles small businesses face from the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Rhett Buttle, founder of Public Private Strategies and co-executive director of the Small Business Roundtable. “But small businesses have brought us out of previous economic downturns and they will do so again.”

Maneet Ahuja, Forbes Staff, Entrepreneurs

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Birds Of A Feather: The Stepchickens Cult On TikTok Is The Next Evolution Of The Influencer Business

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Like any self-respecting cult, the Stepchickens follow a strict code of conduct as dictated by their absolute leader, Mother Hen, a comedian named Melissa who posts on TikTok as @chunkysdead. Mother Hen has widely preached a message of peace, telling her 1.7 million TikTok followers: “We do not rule by being cruel, we shine by being kind.” Further, she has asked all Stepchickens to make themselves easily identifiable and make her photo their TikTok profile picture.

Mother Hen has created TikTok’s first “cult.” (Her word.) Boiled down, she is a social media influencer, and the Stepchickens are her fans, just as more famous TikTok influencers—Charli D’Amelio, Addison Rae and the like—all have their fanbases. But Mother Hen’s presence and style is quite singular, particularly in the way she communicates with her followers, what she asks them to do and how the Stepchickens respond to her. After all, not every member of the Charli hive use her image as their profile pictures.

“These influencers are looking for a way to build community and figure out how to monetize their community. That’s the No. 1 most important thing for a creator or an influencer,” says Tiffany Zhong, cofounder of ZebraIQ, a community and trends platform. “It’s become a positive for Gen Z, where you’re proud to be part of this cult—part of this community. They are dying to be part of a community. So it’s easy to get sucked in.”

Mother Hen, who didn’t return a request to comment for this story, already had a popular comedy vlog-style TikTok account on May 6 when she asked her followers to send suggestions for what they could name their cult. From the ideas offered up, she chose Stepchickens, and in the 19 days since, her following has more than doubled. (It was around 700,000 back at the beginning of this month.) She has posted videos about taking ediblesher celebrity lookalikes and her relationship status (“all this cult power, still no boyfriend”). And perhaps in violation of her first-do-no-harm credo, Mother Hen has implored her followers to embark on “battles” and “raids,” where Stepchickens comment bomb other influencers’ videos, posting messages en masse. She has become the mother of millions: TikTok videos with #stepchickens have generated 102 million views on the app, and her own videos have received 54.6 million likes.

Mother Hen is now concentrating on feathering her nest. She has launched a large range of merch: smartphone cases ($24), hoodies ($44), t-shirts ($28) and beanies ($28). Corporate sponsorships seem within reach, too. TikTok accounts for the Houston Rockets, Tampa Bay Rays and one for the Chicago Bulls mascot, Benny, all changed their profile picture to the image distributed by Mother Hen. The Rays sent her a box of swag, addressing the package to “Mother Hen,” of course. She dressed up in the gear (two hats, a fanny pack, a tank top) and recorded herself wearing it in a TikTok, a common move by influencers to express gratitude and signal that they’re open to business sponsorship opportunities. Mother Hen has launched a YouTube channel, too, where she’ll earn ad revenue based on the views that her 43,000 subscribers generate by watching her content.

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Then there is the Stepchickens app available on Apple devices. This digital roost is a thriving message feed—it resembles a Slack channel or a Discord server—where Stepchickens congregate, chat and coordinate their raids. They can also use it to create videos, ones “to glorify mother hen,” the app’s instructions read.

The app launched last Monday and has already attracted more than 100,000 users, a benchmark that most apps do not ever see and the best reach within months of starting. Since its debut, it has ranked as high as the ninth most popular social media app in the world on the download charts and in the Top 75 most downloaded across all types of apps. The Stepchickens have traded 135,000 messages, and the app’s most devoted users are spending as long as 10 hours a day on it, says Sam Mueller, the cofounder and CEO of Blink Labs who built the Stepchickens app.

“There’s this emergence of a more active—a more dedicated—fan base and following. A lot of the influencers on TikTok are kind of dancing around, doing some very broadcast-y type content. Their followers might not mobilize nearly as much as” the Stepchickens, says Mueller. Mother Hen’s flock, by contrast, “feel like they’re part of something, feel like they’re connected. They can have fun and be together for something bigger than what they’re doing right now, which is kind of being at home bored and lonely. There’s untapped value here.”

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Op-Ed: How Nigerians Can Unlock Their Potential In The Digital Age

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By Uzoma Dozie, Chief Sparkler

Nigerians are some of the world’s most creative, energetic, and entrepreneurial people. We are rich with talent, enthusiasm, and passion.

Nigerians are a global force bursting with potential and an enviable track-record of success. But in a more complex and fast-paced world than ever before, many of us struggle to find the time or have the ability to fulfil their potential.

Ultimately, this comes down to the lack of effective solutions in the market to support the lifestyle and finances of Nigerians and our businesses. For too long, we have been underserved by the traditional physical retail environment, which is limited by bricks and mortar infrastructure and legacy technology – the weaknesses of which have been laid bare by the Covid-19 global pandemic.

Unlocking Nigeria’s digital economy

While Nigerians are being underserved by current circumstances, there is also an exciting opportunity to start filling a gap in the market.

Nigeria’s digital economy is thriving, but it remains informal. Nigeria has a population of 198 million people – 172 million have a mobile phone and 112 million have internet access.

Many of us access social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram through our phones and use them as valuable sales tools, especially female entrepreneurs. Data and digital applications have the potential to revolutionize the daily lives of millions of Nigerians.

Therefore, new digital-only solutions are required. These should not just focus on finances though – they have to be intrinsically linked with everyday lifestyles, rather than thinking about linear processes and transactional outcomes.

Let us take one example. Chatbots powered by artificial intelligence have long been used to provide financial advice. But these chatbots could do so much more and evolve to provide support for more sophisticated usage, such as a personal adviser or lifestyle concierge.

Furthermore, these solutions should not just support Nigerians at home, but the ever-growing diaspora across the world.

Introducing Sparkle

The opportunity to play an integral role in transforming Nigeria’s digital economy and lead the charge in growing the digital economy across Africa inspired the creation of Sparkle.

Sparkle was founded with five core values – freedom, trust, simplicity, inclusivity, and personalization. We are adopting these values and embedding them in everything we do.

We will be leveraging technology and data to create and apply new digital-only solutions which bring more Nigerians into the formal economy thereby benefitting Government, businesses, and individuals.

Starting with the launch of a current account, we will co-create with our customers and collaborate with our partners to improve our services and increase our user base. We embrace collaboration and we are

working with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Google, Microsoft, Visa, and PwC Nigeria, to achieve our vision.

In addition, we want to create a more inclusive economy and break down barriers by accelerating the role and influence of female entrepreneurs, many of whom already operate in the informal economy with the help of Instagram and other social media apps.

At present, we are facing a global crisis in the shape of the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 has shown us that we need a strong digital infrastructure to ensure the economy continues to function. It will likely completely change the way we operate and conduct business in the future.

COVID-19 has only reinforced our belief that new digital solutions like Sparkle are required now more than ever before to serve Nigerians, boost the formal economy, and unlock potential in the digital age.

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