By Jason Kornwitz
News at Northeastern
BOSTON–Three members of the Northeastern community—two students and one recent alumnus—are working to revolutionize the way in which high school students finance their college education.
Last week they launched ScholarJet, a web platform enabling ninth-, tenth-, eleventh-, and twelfth-graders to participate in company-sponsored challenges aimed at funding their schooling. Instead of writing essays to win scholarships, they will have the opportunity to combine their skills and creativity to create 3-D models, run marathons, develop apps, or engage in other enriching activities.
“We believe in empowering hardworking students from underserved communities to create a better future,” said co-founder and CEO Tuan Ho, E’18, a first-generation college student from Vietnam. “These students need access to education, but scholarships today focus on essays, which are not reflective of a student’s full potential.”
ScholarJet was one of 128 early-stage startups accepted into the 2017 MassChallenge Boston accelerator program, which gives a select group of up-and-coming companies unrivaled access to top corporate partners and expert mentors. Now the young entrepreneurs behind the disruptive startup—including co-founder Joseph Alim, E’17, MS’17, and chief technology officer Francisco Calderon, CIS’18—are looking to make it to the next round of the competition. On Tuesday, Ho and Alim will present ScholarJet to a panel of MassChallenge judges, hoping to become one of 26 finalists while remaining in the running to win up to $100,000 in equity-free cash to grow their business.
ScholarJet is currently offering Boston high school students the opportunity to compete in three company-sponsored challenges, which Ho and his business partners will be paid to market and facilitate. One sponsor is the Gaisce Group, a healthcare recruiting firm, which will award $1,500 to the senior who wins its competition to create an educational video about a recent healthcare study of their choosing. Another sponsor is T. LE Enterprise, a local real estate company, which will award $1,000 to the student who wins its competition to write a poem depicting Vietnamese culture in American society. A dozen other companies—including Akamai Technologies, of the Fortune 1000—are waiting in the wings to offer unique challenges of their own.
According to Ho, ScholarJet is equally beneficial to high school students and companies alike. While students “get a chance to showcase their skills,” he said, companies “get to build their talent pipeline and improve brand awareness within the community.” But the startup’s work is far from done. Ho, Alim, and Calderon are currently aiming to generate more interest in ScholarJet among local high school students and administrators, to whom they have reached out via the internet and in-person meetings. They’ve pitched ScholarJet in classrooms across the city; developed a strong social media presence; promoted the startup in interviews with Greenhorn Connect and NECN; and partnered with education-based organizations like City Year and Bottom Line, both of which have given them access to student demographics.
Since founding the startup in 2015, the burgeoning entrepreneurs have raised a total of $40,000 from a variety of sources, including VietChallenge, the world’s first global entrepreneurship competition for Vietnamese people, and IDEA, Northeastern’s student-run venture accelerator. In fact, IDEA has played a major role in ScholarJet’s initial success. In addition to awarding the trio $10,000 in gap funding, IDEA connected them to mentors like Ben Bungert, DMSB’16, the program manger at the LearnLaunch Accelerator, and Irene Hammer-McLaughlin, MA’94, the senior director of development for the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.
Hammer-McLaughlin’s advice—which focused on how to ask potential investors to make large contributions to their startup—will soon come in handy: Ho, Alim, and Calderon are looking to raise $500,000 in seed funding to expand ScholarJet beyond Boston and finance Alim’s full-time commitment to the startup. Bungert imparted an equally important nugget of wisdom. “Just launch as soon as possible,” he advised. “You’ll learn more than if you wait and try to make everything perfect first.” It was crucial advice: Shortly after Ho launched ScholarJet last week, the platform broke, requiring 24 hours to fix. “We were able to fail small,” Ho said. “If we hadn’t launched now, we wouldn’t have been able to identify the mistake before we expanded the site.”
Another component of Northeastern’s entrepreneurial ecosystem—The Michael J. and Ann Sherman Center for Engineering Entrepreneurship Education—played an equally important role in helping to get ScholarJet off the ground. From July to December 2016, Ho worked on his startup while on co-op at the Sherman Center, which offered him the space, resources, and alumni mentors he needed to take ScholarJet to the next level. “The Sherman Center co-op has undoubtedly been one of the best things that has ever happened to me and ScholarJet,” he explained, noting that Scout, the university’s student-led design studio, is currently working to create a new logo for the startup. “It gave me a chance to fully experience what it feels like to be a full time entrepreneur.”