“Our world faces so much difficulty and uncertainty. We can often lose ourselves to fear and forget about hope, but if there is anything I believe in, it’s that we can create a better future together.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Tuan Ho, the CEO & Co-founder of ScholarJet. He launched his startup while still in school studying Mechanical Engineering, at the age of 20. Tuan led ScholarJet to win $30,000 from notable pitch competitions on both the east and west coasts and become a MassChallenge 2017 Finalist. He has been featured on the Microsoft Blog, in the Northeastern News and Boston Innovation Magazine and has been a success story in Northeastern’s Empower Campaign that raised over $1.4 Billion.
Yitzi: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
My mom sacrificed everything we had in Vietnam for three plane tickets so that we could move to Boston in pursuit of a better education. She worked tirelessly to get my brother and me through high school, but when I was accepted into college, she was only making $20,000 a year. Northeastern University now costs upwards of $70,000 per year. So there was no way that my family could afford my college education. The only way, I thought, was to apply for scholarships. With the typical US scholarship format in essay form, being dyslexic with English as my second language makes this process nearly impossible. During my senior year in high school, I spent six months writing over 120 essays, handing in twice the amount of recommendation letters via mail and applied for over 40 scholarships. I was very fortunate to be of the 0.3% in the nation to earn a full ride to college.
I’ve experienced first hand the limitations of today’s U.S scholarship process, and I see the potential for what it can be. If we can facilitate ways for students to express themselves outside of writing essays, but instead through enriching challenges that align with their values and interests, then they’re more driven to apply for scholarships and can gain further access to educational opportunities.This is the essential idea behind and mission of ScholarJet.
ScholarJet enables students to be successful in paying for college through action-based scholarships. We partner with companies to create scholarships in STEM, Arts/Media, Community, Health and Business categories that directly tie into their corporate mission, brand and values while challenging students to accomplish an objective and express themselves in unique ways.
Yitzi: Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company
There are a lot of funny moments and story if you ever meet me in person. But I would love to tell you a very interesting story.
I met Vanessa Kirsch, the CEO & Founder of New Profit at a panel of the Clinton Global Initiative University 2017. She was sitting on a panel full of well-known individuals including Tiffany Pham, a Forbes 30 under 30. Vanessa mentioned on that panel that 1 out of every 5 CEOs is dyslexic. Later that day, she inspired me with her story about immersing herself in underserved communities and ended up working with Former President Barak Obama to build New Profit. When she explained to me the way her mind thinks, it matched how mine operates, to a T. She said that she has a “Web-like” way of thinking and see multiple connectivity at once. From that day forward, I realized that my dyslexia is not a curse but a gift.
Yitzi: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We know how to tap into students’ potential. We understand the needs of the next generation and how to motivate them. We are providing key resources to students to not only help fund their education but enable them to develop in-demand skillsets and broader networks for successful careers. With this, our vision is for students to contribute to a better future. And we are connecting students with companies who can tap into their skillsets at a younger age while supporting their internal mobility initiatives to cultivate relationships with young professionals.
For example, a recent action-based scholarship we facilitated was a creative resume challenge. The winner painted a self-portrait puzzle. On the back of each puzzle piece was a fact about herself…an opportunity we gave for her to express her creativity through art, which may not have been as meaningful with such a dull format as an essay.
Yitzi: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
I could easily shout out 150 different names on our email list right now. The majority of them are associated with MassChallenge, Northeastern IDEA Venture Accelerator, Northeastern University, Smarter In The City Venture Accelerator, The Boston Foundation and many more who have provided relentless support and encouragement, and we wouldn’t be where we are without them.
The person I have my entire life to thank is my mom. She still has no idea what I do for a living but supports me endlessly. I still remember the day that we were in Vietnam and the flood water was up to our bed. She fought and worked hard to get me to where I am now and I am forever grateful to have a mother like her.
Yitzi: How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Our world faces so much difficulty and uncertainty. We can often lose ourselves to fear and forget about hope, but if there is anything I believe in, it’s that we can create a better future together. And in order to do that, we have to continuously believe in the good that resides in each and every single person, over and over again. Last week during the MassChallenge Awards Ceremony keynote, CEO of WeWork, Adam Neumann, reminded us of a term he coined “the WE generation,” described as a group of different generations of people who strive for something greater than themselves. He’s been a catalyst in helping us as a collective to better understand how we can foster meaning and intention in our work and in our communities.” And ScholarJet is a Pledge 1% Boston member which means we have pledged to recycle 1% of our equity back into our community to support philanthropic leadership.
My success is ultimately defined by the number of people I can inspire and help to become successful. The odds are absolutely against me, but because it is so important to create a better future for others, it is worth standing back up and fight for over and over again.
Yitzi: What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I launched my Start-Up” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Read, a lot!
I studied mechanical engineering. By the time I got my first cubicle job, I realized my life was going to waste. When I stumbled upon one of Elon Musk’s many motivational videos and Will Smith’s Keys to Live video, it changed my life. Elon Musk was asked how he created SpaceX without any knowledge of building rockets. He simply said that he read a lot. In the second video, Will Smith emphasizes the importance of reading and that “there is no problem on the planet that has not been solved or talked about by someone who has written a book and become successful because of it.”
I never liked reading and would fall asleep after 20 minutes. But with massive determination, I persisted. For the next 6 months, I read over 150 books which taught me so much about entrepreneurship, marketing, business, finance and psychology. I may have hastily put together how the world works after reading as much as I did, but it gave me the confidence I needed to move forward with ScholarJet.
2. Learn how to make good friends.
Our current generation is being outpaced by technology, just watch this interview with Simon Sinek. When I was a teenager, everyone was telling me about the advantages of networking, but I didn’t really know what it meant until now. Sure, you can apply basic sales and marketing techniques, but for me, it’s about making friends. If you’re able to make a strong connection with your customers, partners and investors, then endless growth opportunities and a more fruitful business are in your future. I think our generation has forgotten both the significance of and how to make genuine connections. I like watching How to never run out of things to say as a quick and easy tip to creating more meaningful relationships.
I used to just lean on my excuse of being an introvert so that I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone at a networking events. I’ve since had to let go of that crutch and overcome a basic tendency to become the person I needed to be, for ScholarJet. Now, I’m more aware of my introvert-ness and can more healthily adapt to my surroundings so that I can grow our company partners, a network of students and supportive mentors and investors to help move us forward.
3. You’re going to lose, you’re going to get no, you’re going to fail.
I can sit here and list all of the people — the pitch competition judges and the organization and customers who said no to us. But I think it’s important to recognize that the people that are going to say yes to you are the people that believe in you. They are the people we want to invest in.
4. Get back up, again and again and again.
There will be times when losses come one after the other, five times consecutively. There will be times when you open the door to your house, eat, take a shower and head to bed with the loneliest of thoughts in your head. There will be times when you think that no one is there for you or cares for you. There will be times where you need to be on 100% with just four hours of sleep for three consecutive days. Just remember to get back up, again, and again. Because the win will come at the sixth time. Maybe you get a text message from someone who thanks you for inspiring them, or a friend attends an event where you’re speaking, or a client says yes after a seemingly bad, misaligned conversation. You have to believe that the good days will always come like the sun will always rise!
5. Find your why.
My why ended up being not about me or how my success was going to make me feel. Instead, My why is to create a better future for the next generation. During every single pitch I’ve ever made, I conveyed why I’m doing what I’m doing. There will be a lot of mentors out there who will try to tell you what your why is, but you have to figure it out yourself. It is “your” why or someone else’s? No one can give you or tell you what “your” why is.
Yitzi: Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
Obama ranked #48 on Forbes most powerful people, and I think he should be ranked higher. I want to grab lunch with him. I have so many questions about life, love, his struggles, how he manages to inspire hope, maintain his motivation and be a great leader even when there are millions of people who do not support him. I can learn so much from Obama, who I think has endured tremendously and found a secret to never lose hope.
Yitzi: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Thank you, it is absolutely my pleasure.
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