How empathy and education built a company

I was in the middle of a presentation to a class of juniors when a student I had been working closely with, opened my classroom door. She was holding up her phone facing me as tears of disbelief started to build up in her eyes. There was only one reason she would ever interrupt my class, and that was if she was just admitted into her dream school. That afternoon, 30 juniors had to endure my loss of professionalism as I stopped mid sentence to shriek with joy and run across the room to embrace her. At this moment, all of the hard work of supporting her family both financially and emotionally while trying to balance high school was finally feeling just.

Unfortunately, like too many other students, reality came spiraling down a few short weeks later as we went over financial aid options.

As a College Counselor at a high school and a volunteer in low income schools, I found myself helplessly watching countless students sift through unattainable or scam scholarships. As a new counselor at the time, I had no idea what scholarships I could refer them to.

In retrospect, I’m still not sure if it was caused by guilt or just an overwhelming amount of empathy, but it was then I reached a breaking point. I couldn’t watch my students struggle anymore with a system that needed redesigning.

Something needed to be done

And so I started Scholars.Shop, where we believe that every person should have equal access to education. Our method to accomplish this is through better connecting students, schools, communities and scholarship providers.

Scholars.Shop provides a place for every student to raise money for their education through scholarships and crowdfunding. In our marketplace, scholarship providers can list and create online applications, allowing students to discover, apply and raise money for their education.

A year ago, I only had a concept, but this idea required building technology, all while I had zero coding skills, and a $0 budget. Prior to starting Scholars.Shop, I had never seen a line of code. It sounds silly wanting to start a tech company with no tech experience, but with an abundance of drive and passion, I wasn’t going to let that deter me.

I knew I needed a computer engineer to help. I approached one of my friends who works at a large internet company, and while trying to convince her to build Scholars.Shop, she stopped me mid-sentence.

“Sam, if you’re going to be successful, then one day you’re going to manage many people, including computer engineers like me. The only way to successfully do that is to understand what we do. I taught myself how to code and you can do it too.”

I went home that day and created an account on CodeAcademy. Now, I wouldn’t say I’m an expert, but I understand programming. I’ve been able to keep Scholars.Shop agile, make better hiring decisions and think more creatively when solving technical problems.

Reflecting on the last year

There is a lot to feel good about. One of the students we helped last school year had received the maximum amount of government aid, but was still left with a $16,000 a year fee for a state school. When she received this news, she thought she wasn’t going to be able to attend college even though she was graduating at the top of her class. By the end of the year we were able to connect her to over 10 different scholarships, ensuring that she would be able to attend and afford the next four years of college.

Although, we wouldn’t be where we are now without Stripe. Prior to finding Stripe Connect, I had contacted multiple vendors — with disappointing results — hoping to find a payment solution that fit everything I imagined Scholars.Shop to do. When I found Stripe, I was ecstatic to see that they offered a marketplace payment solution that didn’t have any human barriers. At that point, I was intrigued to see what else Stripe offered. That’s when I stumbled upon Stripe Atlas. I knew right then that Stripe was going to be a large part of our business model, but I didn’t know the full extent.

Since then, Atlas has helped us easily incorporate Scholars.Shop, provided discounts and connections to legal resources, lowered technology startup costs and most importantly, provided a community that has made me and Scholars.Shop stronger.

As a solo female tech founder in the education industry, building a network of like-minded individuals was a difficult challenge before I found this community. Now I connect monthly with other female founders as well as others in the education industry. I am constantly learning from the professionals we have access to on a weekly basis, and from the community that the Stripe Atlas team has fostered among us.

There are many ups and downs and wins and losses that come with being an entrepreneur. I could go on and name many other challenges we have faced, and will face, but I believe our story carries three main elements that has let us overcome challenges. Adapt, focus on positive outcomes and surround yourself with encouraging, yet realistic people.

The Future of Success, and of Education

Looking forward, we see many exciting things both in the near future and in the horizon. But not just for us, for the world!

Within the next five years, our goal is to increase education donations to students by 1 billion. We hope to see this in the form of new community scholarships, increases in current scholarship funds as well as through crowdfunding by students, schools and community based organizations.

Longterm, we are working towards revolutionizing and building a sustainable education system that will allow any individual to access education, regardless of their current level or location. This system will be built through blockchain technology, which provides the benefits of significantly reducing education costs while increasing access to learning and skill building. Additionally, it will provide a secure method for students to easily showcase credentials and accomplishments of any kind to employers. We believe that only through a system such as this can we truly accomplish our mission of challenging systematic discrimination in education.

Although our goal is large, we know that with education and empathy, anything is possible. 🤓