While education becomes more and more important for securing a comfortable job in the United States, affordable education seems to be moving farther and farther out of reach for the average American. To understand what some companies are doing to address this problem, we spoke with Kestrel Linder, co-founder and CEO of GiveCampus.
ABERMAN: Tell me a bit about GiveCampus.
LINDER: GiveCampus is a tech company based here in Washington, and we are trying to help schools advance the quality, affordability, and the accessibility of education in our country, by helping them raise more money from private individuals, in the form of philanthropic gifts.
ABERMAN: So if I’m at a university and I’m trying to try to enhance the ability for students to go, how do I interact with you?
LINDER: We provide a variety of Web based software platforms, SAS platforms. Our core product is what we call the Social Fundraising Platform, and it’s a platform akin to Kickstarter or GoFundMe, but designed from the ground up specifically for non-profit educational institutions, colleges, universities, and K12 schools.
ABERMAN: Many entrepreneurs here in town start businesses about things they care about. I think we all acknowledge that student debt is a problem, but why should people who don’t have student debt care about this?
LINDER: The unfortunate reality is that the economics of education in our country have been worsening for many years now, and regardless of whether or not you yourself have student debt, and regardless of how much debt you may or may not have, we are starting to become a society where our educational system is reinforcing existing socioeconomic conditions, rather than serving as a system that helps ensure everyone has a fair shot.
Education is supposed to be the great equalizer. But because of the cost of education, and challenges that many people, especially on the lower end of the income spectrum, face because of those challenges, we’re ending up becoming a society where many people are not as able as others to get access to high quality education that they can’t afford.
ABERMAN: It kind of undermines democracy, and in a big way, if you don’t have citizens that are educated. How did you come to do this? Was this something that you had to deal with in your own university career, or did you watch other friends struggle? What made this your mission?
LINDER: I actually am a complete fish out of water. I went to Johns Hopkins, just up the road in Baltimore. I moved to D.C. for graduate school at Georgetown, and I spent almost a decade working here in the defense contracting industry, most recently for Booz Allen Hamilton. But about five years into my tenure at Booz Allen, I started to get what has been described to me as the entrepreneur’s itch, wanting to start something, wanting to start something from the ground up, wanting to create something your own. Thankfully, I had a friend who was a software engineer at Facebook, who was getting that itch at the same time, and we began to inquire to ourselves and each other about what might be a company that we can start.
And amongst a series of ideas that we had, one day, my co-founder Mike said to me, I wish it was easier to give back to our alma mater. It should be easier to give back to our alma mater. He also went to Johns Hopkins, and I agreed with him. We were both individuals who had the capacity to make philanthropic gifts. We both had the inclination to give back. We both love our alma mater, and believe very strongly in the power of education, the transformative power of education. But at that time, neither of us was giving back, and that was not something that settled with us very well.
So, we decided to do some research, and through that process, we learned about the declining and worsening economics of education in the country. We became convinced that something needed to be done about that, and we became convinced that if we could help schools raise money in a smarter fashion, and a more effective and efficient fashion, especially with younger people, and if we could help schools create a greater culture of philanthropy for education, we could help move the needle. Hopefully in a meaningful way, at a societal level, around the issue of educational access and affordability.
ABERMAN: And you are, and your company is a profitable business. It’s a real business, and I like that, and it’s important to remember that, ultimately, you have to have a sustainable business to change anything. You know, something you’ve done here, which is I think atypical, is you went down and completed YCombinator, which is the gold standard for technology accelerators in the world. But you didn’t stay in Silicon Valley, you came back here. How come?
LINDER: You know, that was a big question. We had started the business here in Washington, and we moved to Northern California for about four months when YCombinator funded us, and we went through their bootcamp program over the course of ten or twelve weeks. And when we completed it, we asked ourselves whether we should stay in the belly of the beast in Silicon Valley, in the San Francisco Bay area, or if we should return to Washington. We ultimately made the decision to move back to Washington for a few reasons, one of which, truth be told, was inertia.
We were from here before. This is where we had started the business. We also made it for some operational reasons. A large majority of educational institutions in the United States are on the East Coast. So, being in the same time zone, and being able to go see them very easily has its advantages, but also, and as importantly, we wanted to be able to focus on the business. And for all of the great things and amazing benefits that the San Francisco Bay area provides, we also recognize that it can be a little distracting to be in the belly of the beast, and to be surrounded by all of the activity in and around San Francisco.
In Washington, we’re able to really put our heads down and focus. But to ensure that we don’t lose out on those great benefits of San Francisco, we have made it a habit to regularly go back to the Bay Area, and what we try to do is, we try to condense all of the interactions that we would have if we were in San Francisco full time, into three or four days a trip. We meet with lots of people, talk to peers who are running growing businesses, exchange battle stories with them, and hopefully get tips and tricks from them, and share some insights of our own that are valuable to them. And then we get back on a plane to D.C., and get back to work.
ABERMAN: Well I’m going to get on a plane and come back here, and I’m glad you’re taking advantage of things out there. Kestrel Linder, you’re doing really great things at GiveCampus. Thanks for joining us today.