Jared Chung of CareerVillage Cult/Tech Podcast Transcript

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Lee: It’s the Cult/Tech broadcast, I’m Lee Schneider. Joining me today on the show is Jared Chung, founder of careervillage.org. On Career Village, students post request for career advice. The platform matches those requests with an online pool of working professionals, who answer. For educators and others, Career Village represents a new resource to help students succeed. Hey, Jared, welcome to the podcast.

Jared: Thanks for having me.

Lee: So you are crowdsourcing career and school guidance for youth. How did you get the idea to do that?

Jared: So that’s a pretty good description, I mean, crowdsourcing is the core. And the idea came from my own experiences as a young person, trying to get career advice and then as an adult, in my spare time, giving career advice to youth. I guess a little backstory is that, I grew up in New York. And when I was a young person, I was very career-oriented because for me, thinking about what I was gonna do after education meant thinking about how I was going to make money, and make ends meet, and become financially secure. And so I really was driven to think about career. And I know I wasn’t the only one, although, not every young person is thinking about career at a young age. So for me, it was really important to acknowledge the people who were mentors to me and helped me. So when I started my career, I was consulting at McKinsey & Company. And I was volunteering and helping young people think about careers, in my spare time, and I really hit a scale bottleneck. I could only help so many people by giving them one-to-one personal advice.

For a few years of that, I decided to leave my consulting career and see if I could do something that was really transformatively more scalable. And crowdsourcing is a very, very high scale way to provide knowledge for a lot of people. That’s the model that I gravitated toward.

Lee: Why did you see the need for it beyond your own personal experience?

Jared: I don’t think I could have seen the need for it beyond my own personal experience, but it wasn’t only my personal experience as a kid that clued me in. It was especially my personal experience, as a young professional in New York City, volunteering my time to go visit entrepreneurship organizations, youth development nonprofit organizations, individual classrooms, to spend time with students talking to them about careers, when I really became so convinced that it was a problem worthy of solving at a large scale.

Lee: And what convinced you specifically that it was a problem worth solving at a large scale?

Jared: There’s an intellectual answer to that question, and then there’s kind of the emotional answer. I mean, the intellectual answer is that I read the newspaper, and like I think anybody [inaudible 00:02:58] were sort of know that youth employability is a big problem. You can keep reading stat after stat about how bad, how low youth employment is, about how employers say that young people are graduating unready for work. The intellectual gears were all turning and centered on the unreadiness of young people for employment.

The emotional side was actually a lot simpler. It was basically that I felt that when I was talking, as a young professional talking to a high school student, that it was very hard to connect on current events, it was very hard to connect on random things that I’m interested in, it was hit or miss. But if we were talking about their future, it was personal to them, it was a passion of mine, and I could really connect with students. I could talk with a young person who didn’t know what they wanted to do with their future at all, and we could have a productive conversation coming up with ideas, or somebody who had vague notions, they wanted to work in business, and I could help them. Well, I know about business, I’m happy to help you figure out what part of business, or even somebody who was very, very specific. I wanna be a level three neonatal nurse. I could still engage with them in conversation about what it takes to be ready, what do they think they need to do next, and that ability to kind of get through to people that I, otherwise, I wouldn’t always be able to connect with, it sort of felt like this sort of secret access panel to real human interaction, that was untapped. So I think that’s what kind of drew me to it.

Lee: That’s interesting, access panel to real human interaction. I think a lot of times, that idea of the human element gets forgotten. We’re looking at putting round pegs in the round holes, and square pegs in the square holes, you know, we’re fitting people to positions. But there’s a lot of passion that goes into work and choosing work. And there’s a lot…let’s face it, mistakes to be made. And sometimes, really good mistakes to be made, you know, you embark down one career path, and it’s the right or the wrong one. So I could see this in a way that’s a bit hard to explain in a sentence or two, but I could see that this is a really high-valued thing, especially to have a rather free-ranging conversation, right? Some of them may be super-directed, like, how do I ace this interview, or where should I apply for this job? But others may be these more, hard to get your arms around, ideas that you, as an experienced career person, or me, could really impart a lot of value to a person first getting into this.

Jared: Absolutely. I think for students, what we need to remember about your average American high school freshman is that, if you’re talking to them about careers, you’re probably having the first conversation that they’ve ever had about careers, right? So we need to be in an exploratory space, and we need to be in a place where it’s okay to say, “I wanna be an astronaut,” and explore that and go deep into it. And if they change their mind, decide actually what they really wanna do is something else, then that’s great. That was not in any way a bad thing. That was exactly the type of exploration that needed to happen.

Career Village, we need to be that space. And sidebar on this, I think it’s actually important to note that that’s actually why Career Village exists as a standalone organization. It’s why we are not just putting kids on Quora and having them post questions, or just putting them into other existing communities because we need to honor and focus on, and create a special place for the type of experience that a young person needs to have where they’re thinking about career. This is not your average quest for knowledge. You will not find the thing you need on Wikipedia. You need a place where people know why you’re there and they know what you need, and they’re willing to meet you, as a young person, the way you need to be spoken to.

Lee: Fascinating stuff. Now, how precise does the matchup really have to be? It can’t be really crude, like business professional with person interested in business, but does it have to be really precise, like McKinsey person interested in McKinsey or whatever, right? What’s the spec there?

Jared: This is a tricky one. We’re two-sided marketplace, right? We have to clear the market. Maybe it’s helpful context here, it is…when you’re a two-sided marketplace, what do you consider to be supply and what do you consider to be demand? In this case we think of demand as the demand for career advice, so a student’s question. We think of supply as the supply of advice available, and we have to watch to make sure that demand is satisfied. So there are a couple things that we have learned about the right way to do the matching. So one thing that’s really important to your question, how crude can it be? I think we’ve been surprised at how crude it can be. It can be quite crude. We can do things like, this is a question about business and you work in the general sphere of business and we have decent quality under a reasonable time frame. It’s obviously much, much better if we, at least, get to the level of what subsector of business. So if we have a student asking a question about accounting, almost any accounting professional can probably answer that question. You wouldn’t really want someone who primarily worked in marketing to be answering questions about accounting unless they had a specific reason why they knew the information and advice that they’re offering.

But honestly, that’s not that deep, right? I think you as a young person, interested in accounting, don’t need to usually be asking about one specific individual company and expect that only people from that company can provide useful Intel, right, or useful advice. So the bounds are pretty broad and the reason that broad bounds work and that relatively, I would say crude matching works, is that most young people are at the very beginning stages of thinking about careers. And so the questions are not highly, extremely detail-oriented questions, they’re usually exploratory questions, they’re usually definitional questions. “What is the difference between marketing and advertising?” is the kind of thing that anybody that works in marketing or advertising could answer.

A couple of side notes about matching that are really important is that we’ve learned that it’s very important to make sure that we don’t overtax our volunteers. We had to invest quite a lot, actually last year, to create a much more sophisticated round robin style matching algorithm, so we will send out a student’s question in rounds to volunteers who match for it, and just to make sure we don’t send one question to 300 people, and then the first person answers it, and the next 299 show up and it’s already kind of been answered.

Lee: Now, how different is that from the way Quora works, which, you know, I say I’m interested in cats, and dogs, and coffee, and then people see that, and they ask me questions about those things. It’s pretty basic. And I get a lot of dumb questions, I have to say, they don’t relate to things I’m doing any longer, or my answers don’t even have to be that specific. I assume you’ve ratcheted that up quite a bit and you’re a bit better than that.

Jared: Yeah. Well, we had to ratchet quite a lot on the advice side. Here’s what I’ll say, I’ll say that we care very, very much about the quality of advice on Career Village. It has to be fantastic career advice, and it has to be from the heart, and it has to have the right tone. It’s really, really important. We care about question quality, but we don’t care about question quality in the way that I think some people care about content, you know, to say, you know, if it’s not good enough, we’re gonna delete it. We’re not going to delete it, right, because a high school freshmen just asked that question, and it’s honest and it’s real. And if they ask a question that a seasoned professional might consider ill-formed, that’s why we exist, right?

So I think there’s something about being true to the students and meeting them where they are, that means that we actually need to go do overtime to guide our volunteers to be comfortable with questions that maybe there’s grammatical errors, maybe the student fundamentality misunderstands some key word and technical term, and is actually misusing it, or is asking a question about a certain topic and may be mistagging it with some other topic. We need, as a community, to support them in whatever way that is, whether that’s making grammar suggestions, or trying to clear up the mistakes behind the misused terms, or even going in and retagging the question to make sure its properly tagged. That’s something that we invite all of our volunteers to do to kind of close the gap to where the students are.

Lee: It’s a community. And as you mentioned a moment ago, it’s a two-sided market. In order for you to succeed, you need students to ask questions, and you need to attract companies and professionals who will answer. First, how have you attracted the mentor side?

Jared: I’d say that there are three really, really important channels. So one channel, which is the most important one because are finding us on their own. And they’re finding us when they’re usually searching for online volunteer opportunities because there’s actually not that much out there you can do to volunteer on the internet. We’re a very good option, and so they’re finding us on their own. And this is, for obvious reasons, my favorite channel.

The second channel is really, really important for us as well, is that we will go to big companies and employers and we’ll say, “We know you have a volunteer program at the company, we know you’re trying to get employees to volunteer, can you please engage them in volunteering on Career Village and giving career advice to the students?” You know, we’ll create a special landing page, we’ll try to do as much as we can to help our corporate partners to engage their employees.

And the third channel, which is kind of a new one is that we will post. So when a question is on the site and unanswered for more than a few days, we will actually post and add on LinkedIn, trying to find somebody who can answer that question if we don’t already have a person. And this is really helpful for when we’re trying to get a question answered that may be for a profession we don’t have in the community. Maybe somebody wants to be a…Let’s say, they wanna be a marine biologist and we don’t have one, well we would try to kind of go out there and recruit a marine biologist, specifically to answer that question. We have a marine biologist, but I’m just trying to come up with certain edge case example. Those are the three channels, kind of organic, through partnership with companies and then traditional digital marketing.

Lee: And when you say traditional marketing, do you mean Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn ads, or do you mean content, or how are you using it?

Jared: So LinkedIn has been the best without a doubt. I think part of the reason has been the best is that it’s place where people go to do professional things, live their professional persona, right, and be their professional person, and so it’s contextually, really relevant. And the other thing is that we are able to target, on LinkedIn, people by profession, which is perfect. If you want to find a marine biologist, you need to go make sure you can identify a marine biologist, and can do that on LinkedIn. And their support, also I should say, their support for nonprofits has been amazing. They do a lot to give back to nonprofits. They’ve been very generous with us as well and giving us everything from advice to support on the ads and all that stuff. So LinkedIn has been by far the biggest channel. We do other forms of ads, almost all of them are…you know, we try to get discounts or free advertising as a nonprofit to try to drum up those volunteers we need.

Lee: And turning to the student side, how have you marketed the platform to students, and what have been your most effective channels there?

Jared: On the student side, I would say that, again, there are a lot of channels, but two of them stand out the most, by far. These two channels are way bigger than any other channel we have. The first one is search engine optimization. Basically, we have career advice. Career advice is great. That career advice to show up first on Google, on Bing, on whatever your browser choice is, right, when you, as a young person, are looking for career advice. And that is a really cost-effective, very, very cheap way for us to reach young people. And I think something that I didn’t realize when I started Career Village, but I now know, is that young people search for career advice, every month, way more than I ever expected before.

We did some market research and found that 80% of the students that we were polling in low-income communities were looking for college and career advice every month. And that’s really powerful. So before we understood that, we hadn’t really thought about search engine optimization, but now that we know that, it’s been a huge channel for us. And the second really big channel is through educators, guidance counselors, English teachers, any type of front-line educator, these days, in a high school, is really facing an uphill battle. They’re under-resourced, they don’t have a lot that they can use to talk to the students about careers. Well, we’re a free option for them, we’re a cheap option that they can roll out with very little class time needed. So we provide them with all these free resources they can use to bring Career Village into their classrooms, and that really gives them a very useful way to help their students think about careers.

Lee: Why a nonprofit rather than a for-profit company?

Jared: This is a super-interesting question. And at the very beginning, we actually had a debate, organizational debate. And we were talking about whether we should be for or nonprofit. And we started off talking about what our individual purposes were, why we wanted to be in this? Why we wanted to work on it? Nobody’s motive was profit. Everybody’s motive was to help underserved youth. So I think that legacy of purpose landed itself really well toward being a nonprofit. What was the other sort of harder part of the conversation was when you talked about how we would get funding, and how we would make revenue long-term.

And we saw the nonprofit route as being an option where there is extremely little startup capital available, it’s essentially no startup capital available. You have to boot strap everything and you have to beg. You can’t borrow and you can’t steal, so you’ve gotta beg for everything else. But if you made it, if you could get a community to support you, then long term, you could probably figure out a way to make ends meet through philanthropy or through some sort of earned income.

On the for-profit side, we felt, okay, there’s a ton of startup capital out there. We felt like we had something good enough we could probably get money, but it’s also startup capital that’s ultimately looking for unicorn return. And we would have to be working very hard to find a billion dollar exit for our investors. We did not want to take that route. We ended up deciding that we would rather bite the bullet and bootstrap our way to success and beg were needed to fill in the gaps in order to avoid having to build $1 billion revenue engine that we thought might put our real purpose at risk.

And we made the right gamble, I mean, I’ll say that I believe very strongly, we would be where we are right now two years earlier, if we had startup capital and when we started. However, we’re now financially sustainable, and we’re not trying to create $1 billion business right now, we’re trying to serve every high school student. And I think that the difference is really, really, really powerful for our team, and I feel very good about our existence in the very, very long term as a nonprofit. We could basically exist as long as students need us, we’ll be here.

Lee: That’s great. That’s the alignment of mission and funding that I think a lot of startup founders miss. It looks like the VC money, or even the angel money is “free.” But no money is free, every money comes with something attached. So there’s considerable value in bootstrapping, or self-starting or doing whatever you can do, as long as it’s consistent with your mission.

Jared: I think it’s sort of…We can say the grass is greener on the other side, or we can say that either side has great benefits. If I allow myself for a moment to put a pessimistic hat on, I would say that we had to really swallow these big lumps, right? I mean, this is pretty rough, literally being behind two years versus where I think we would be if we had startup capital. That’s hard for me. That’s like a painful acknowledgement for me to make.

Those two years, we “lost” were two really years of my life where I’ve worked extremely hard against a lot of apathy, right, that’s very difficult to do. But I think to put a really fine point on what I was buying with that time, even if you were Mark Zuckerberg and made the Facebook, and control it, and determine its mission, there will come a time when Mark Zuckerberg is no longer in control of Facebook, one way or the other, and will not be able to control what it becomes. But at Career Village, the board and I decided what the mission was. And a new board could come along and try to change the mission someday, but it’s not that easy to grammatically transform the mission of a nonprofit organization. This, I think, we can create this institution that is as closest to set in stone as I can do. That’s what we bought. So I don’t know that we made necessarily like the right call for…I don’t wanna…you know, just me, physically. I know we made the right call for us. I don’t know that everyone else should make the same decision, but that’s how the tradeoff, I believe, the tradeoff ended up working out.

Lee: If you’re speaking to other EdTech founders, or people working at least in the education space who are building an audience for their platform, what advice would you have for them?

Jared: I’d say, look at the incentives in the marketplace, and see if you can find the lined incentives between stakeholders in the marketplace that are secure, that they’re stable. If those incentives exist and they’re stable, and you believe you can extract enough value from supporting those incentives that you can make ends meet as a for-profit organization, then go for a profit. I think if you cannot guarantee that the incentives will always remain aligned the way they are now, or you cannot find the lined incentives that create the future you want to create, then securing your mission is, and your purpose for being, is really important because otherwise, you’re gonna get mission creep, mission shift, you’re gonna get a lot of shift as a for-profit organization. If you go in as an EdTech for-profit startup, thinking that you’re just focused on literacy outcomes, and you find someday that actually all the incentives in the marketplace were oriented towards curriculum procurement and the lowest common denominator, textbooks, you’re gonna be disappointed. So that’s the way I think I would encourage folks to approach it.

Lee: That’s really smart. The mission is driving the process and not getting confused about that.

Jared: We sort of discovered this by hitting up against the hard things, right? But I think that…I think that is…if I could go back, that’s the way I would have thought about it from day zero. I think it really would’ve helped us out a lot.

Lee: Right. Well, the best missions are always forged in fire. They don’t just come to you in the shower one morning, they have to be worked.

Jared: Oh, yeah.

Lee: The name of the site is careervillage.org. Jared, thank you so much for joining me today on the podcast.

Jared: Thank you so much for having me.

Lee: I’m Lee Schneider, Communications Director at Red Cup, and this has been the Cult/Tech podcast.