This is the first post in a weekly series covering each of Fast Forward’s nine tech nonprofits.
LinkedIn gives us connections, resources, community and advice. All are at our fingertips. Those are essential parts of the career development process for anyone entering the workforce. But entrepreneur Jared Chung saw a gap in the career development pipeline: mentorship for teens in communities without access to many resources, where there are 500 students for every high school counselor.
Inspired by his own experience with mentorship, Jared created a marketplace for career advice for underserved teens. Integrated with LinkedIn, his nonprofit tech company CareerVillage.org connects professionals to teens looking for career advice. The platform allows teens to ask any question they’d like, indexing answers so they’re searchable by all users. And it turns out teens are curious: over 500,000 learners use CareerVillage content on over 8,000 career topics.
We sat down with Jared to talk about building his product, reaching Millennial volunteers, bringing career advice to young Americans, and why an ex-McKinseyite picked a nonprofit business model.
The inspiration for CareerVillage was my own experience. From a very young age I was focused on turning my education into a career, in part because my family was struggling at times for money and had financial problems that made me really nervous. I’m indebted to the mentors who helped me turn my education into a career.
How has CareerVillage managed to get so many Millennial volunteers?
We’ve reduced the commitment level to zero. Young professionals are the most valuable resource for students because they’ve just recently made career decisions relevant to high schoolers. But they are often short on time and don’t always have deep pockets. We don’t make anyone promise to do anything. Questions come to you and you can choose to answer them.
Plus, because we have a crowd model, no one mentor feels like they’re on the hook. I think reducing commitment levels has ironically gotten us much more active participants.
So why a nonprofit model?
Being a nonprofit isn’t the goal, it’s the best business decision. And I come from a business background – I have no problem with profit. I wanted to create a specific change in the world. It just happened that the best business model was a nonprofit one.
Two things happen when you become a nonprofit:
- Trust goes through the roof: We have instant credibility with our users. Students, teachers, schools and volunteers instantaneously understand our motivations
- You give away equity to society at large: this can be challenging to explain when you’re fundraising. But I tell funders to think in terms of scale. We’ve adopted a business model that is directly linked to growth
There are lots of mentorship programs out there, why did CareerVillage decide on a tech product?
Well this won’t come a surprise to anyone, but technology is phenomenal at scaling. And that’s what we wanted: to reach the millions of students who have no access to career advice.
In-person mentoring is extremely valuable but is also expensive and logistically challenging to scale. So, like almost any tech founder I saw a need and a gap in the market. I wanted to build something to bridge that gap, connecting large numbers of people faster and more effectively.
We operate as a tech firm. Our business model doesn’t impact that. We staff with developers, monitor user behavior, deal with customer acquisition, measure engagement levels, use tools like gamification as learning mechanisms, leverage existing platforms (LinkedIn) and have to iterate regularly.
While it might not be true for all tech nonprofits, we’ve found that the tech sector has really embraced us. I think this is because what we’re building is a tech product through and through. So there’s a common understanding. And we wouldn’t be where we are without the generous time and financial support of developers who’ve helped us build, VCs who have backed us and CEOs who have integrated our platform into their employee offerings.
Tell me a bit about how you came to the current product design.
We experimented quite a bit—soft skill development games, visual representations of your future self and even 1:1 online mentoring. We found that the Q&A format got the highest engagement levels.
When we talked to the students we found out it was because questions are open-ended. For most kids this is the first time they’ve had a conversation about careers with someone other than a parent or teacher. They don’t know where to start. The freedom to ask an open-ended question is powerful.
We also find that students explore laterally. They search for a question first, then ask their own. Which is why the index feature is key. It also has the side benefit of allowing kids to see their peers actively thinking about their futures. That’s huge.
What is the most surprising user learning?
Identity. Students need a level of anonymity. We show an avatar, a city and a first name. The mentors, however, have real photos, names and job titles pulled from LinkedIn. Initially volunteers had avatars and screen names. But when we made LinkedIn authentication mandatory we got higher levels of engagement on both sides. On the student side it created a culture of trust. On the volunteer side we removed a barrier by reducing the steps needed to complete signup.