“Why Diversity Breeds Success”
Interview with ReUp Education Co-Founder & Chief Impact Officer Sarah Horn.
One of the most overlooked problems with education in the United States is the low college graduation rate among those who enroll. However, ReUp Education is a tech startup that is seeking to correct that problem, helping to re-enroll students in college so that they can finish what they started and get their degree. With a combination of technology and a dedicated team, ReUp is getting learners back to school and eventually to the graduation stage, one student at a time.
ReUp co-founder and Chief Impact Officer Sarah Horn joined startup coach Roland Siebelink on the latest episode of the Midstage Startup Momentum Podcast. They talked about the surprisingly low college graduation rate and everything ReUp is doing to help that rate go up while trying to survive as a mission-driven startup.
- How finding mission-driven team members has been key to ReUp’s success.
- How ReUp’s mission-driven model has become a profitable and sustainable venture.
- The approach ReUp has taken to combat a long sales cycle in the education industry.
- ReUp’s methods of finding and aligning with the right partners.
- Why creating a diverse team has been important for ReUp and key to its success.
- The big vision ReUp has for the future and how the company plans to get there.
Roland Siebelink: Hello and welcome to the Midstage Startup Momentum Podcast. My name is Roland Siebelink and I’m facilitator and coach for fast-growing startups all around the world, one of which is with us in the studio today. And it is Sarah Horn, the Chief Impact Officer, as well as co-founder of ReUp Education. Hello, Sarah.
Sarah Horn: Hi, Roland. Nice to see you.
Roland Siebelink: Oh, yes. So nice to see you and to have you in this podcast. We’ve been waiting for a long time to get you on, so this is amazing. Tell us more about ReUp. What do you do? What impact do you make in the world? And how do you ultimately make the world a better place?
Sarah Horn: ReUp Education was founded about six years ago with the sole purpose of trying to improve the college completion crisis that we have in this country by finding, engaging, and re-enrolling, and ultimately graduating learners that have some college and no degree. We support those learners for years until they accomplish their goal of graduating. And hopefully, especially these days, I’d like to think that we’re making the world a better place by having more adult learners across the country earn a credential that will ultimately enable them to have higher career satisfaction rates. They’re very excited to be a better example and a motivator for their families. And their economic earning potential over their lifetime increases quite a bit with that milestone.
Roland Siebelink: That’s amazing. How did you get to this idea? What made you folks start this company? What’s the story behind it?
Sarah Horn: I’ve spent almost two decades of my life, my professional career, focused on trying to improve the college student experience, mostly through the lens of helping to retain more learners. Making sure that fewer stop out or drop out. I don’t think everyone in the country realizes that the college graduation rate across the country is about 50%. Many adults, if they went to a fairly competitive college institution, you don’t realize that that’s what’s happening across the country.
My eyes were opened to that statistic shortly after graduating from college myself. And it just felt like a very important problem to solve because when you’re paying down debt on a degree that you don’t have, that was intended to improve your social and economic mobility, that’s about the worst-case scenario. ReUp was founded after years and years and years of seeing that when students leave college after their first or second year, there’s not a lot of support and wrap-around care to ensure that those learners find their way back to ultimately completing their degree.
And while many institutions across the country have the best of intentions to ultimately educate those learners and bring them back, it just becomes very hard once you become an adult and you have responsibilities like bills and jobs and children and partners. The priority order is different depending on who you’re talking to. But let’s just say it’s high stakes responsibilities that I have, that you have, and putting school back on the top of the priority list isn’t that easy to do. I knew that there was a huge opportunity to help not just learners but institutions really support what we call forgotten students back to college.
Six years later, we’ve enrolled 19,000 learners. We’ve graduated close to 4,000 of those students, and that order is climbing. And we’ve helped, from a compensation perspective, we’ve helped drive back north of $55 million in newfound tuition revenue to our institutional partners.
Roland Siebelink: Wow. Very impressive, Sarah. That’s amazing numbers. Can you tell me a little bit about the team behind ReUp? Other than yourself, who else is core to that team?
Sarah Horn: I would say we have 63 employees now, six years later, and every single one of them has had an enormous impact on our growth and success. Doing this from the very beginning, team is what it’s all about. I think finding really great passionate, and in our case, mission-driven people.
Roland Siebelink: Awesome. Very cool. When you talk about the 63 employees, how would you divide them roughly between different departments in the company? What are the different teams focused on?
Sarah Horn: The departments at ReUp are mostly - we have our leadership executive team, which is still fairly small. Then we have our product and development and data team. We have our marketing team. We have our business development team, otherwise known as sales. The biggest team in the organization is our coaching team. They really are the folks who do a lot of the heavy lifting with our learners. Our solution is a combination of technology and people who do automated outreach at scale in a personalized way to find and engage our learners. And most people in life don’t typically make very high-bet decisions without talking to someone first. And that’s where our coaches come in and really add value in terms of our learner decision-making and success experience once they choose to re-enroll and all the way through to graduation.
Roland Siebelink: Okay, very good. Can you talk a little bit more about the technical aspects other than reaching out at scale? To what degree is this platform really facilitating the re-entry of these stop outs into the university or the college in question?
Sarah Horn: Technology is a big driver of what we’ve done at scale. It’s a combination of data and technology. Our hypothesis going into building ReUp was that being able to engage and find learners would require more than just their prior academic and financial information, which is often what we get when we start partnering with institutions. But that doesn’t tell the whole story of what happened when a learner stopped. And certainly doesn’t tell the whole story of what’s happening in their life now, typically, years later.
What we have captured since day one are our learners’ motivations, barriers, needs. And we’re actually using our technology to essentially record and segment in a personalized way the health of learners’ relationships with not just people in their life but also with themselves and with the institution, with their finances. And we call that a student’s persona. What that helps us to do is to understand the health of a learner. Where students are healthy or where they might need help and where our interventions - whether done by a coach or through automation - can help and get them more healthy. And it’s enhanced students’ ability to re-enroll and ultimately retain. It’s enabling student success.
The backend algorithm that is being used to create the persona - I won’t go into detail here - it’s actually now patented. We recently got our patent approval and are very excited about that. Expect for that to have significant implications for ReUp in the future and how we’re able to bring personalized student support to scale. And certainly curious if what we’ve created here might have broader implications for higher education, maybe even other industries in this future.
Roland Siebelink: Okay. Perfect. Can you talk a little bit about the business model? ReUp is clearly founded on an idealistic model. Mission-oriented mission-driven. The impact you can bring to the world is very clear from the outset. But how do you actually then turn this into a-self-sustained and potentially even profitable venture over time?
Sarah Horn: The important crux of our business model is that we align incentives with the institutions who are our partners. The foundational model for ReUp is that we partner with institutions of higher education. It could be two-year or four-year institutions, public and private alike. And when those institutions can improve their graduation rates, that’s a huge benefit to them. And as students re-enroll, they get new found tuition revenue that they otherwise weren’t seeing.
What ReUp does - our business model - is we actually don’t require the institutions to find any money in their budget to pay us. We actually only get paid when we demonstrate success. It’s a revenue-share model, which totally aligns incentives. And then we get revenue share as the students progress all the way through to graduation. We are on the hook to not just re-enroll them but retain them, which is the most important piece of the puzzle, which just keeps all incentives between us, the student, and the institutions who are our partners completely aligned.
Roland Siebelink: Can you talk a little bit about the ideal college or university that works with you. Is it just any institute of higher learning or do you have a specific persona in mind there as well?
Sarah Horn: The most important thing is that it’s an institution that is passionate about solving this problem, where they have learners who maybe have not crossed the finish line in four to six years and where there is motivation and a focus on improving those outcomes. And where there’s an acknowledgement that help with a partner could move results further faster. We’re not a great candidate for very elite institutions. They don’t have a retention problem. An example of where some of our partners fit in the higher education sphere are state public institutions that do a lot of great work for learners, but they’re large. Students move. Students leave for very life-related decisions. And ReUp can be a great partner because we build capacity at no cost and budget, and demonstrate results right away.
Roland Siebelink: How have you built up your go-to market to persuade those institutes of higher learning? Has it been a hard slog? Do you face long sales cycles? How do you go about signing up more institutes for your platform?
Sarah Horn: We’ve seen significant growth in the last five years, nearly doubling the number of students that we’re serving year over year. A lot of that has happened through a combination of things. Word of mouth and being a great partner with great results at the institutions that we serve. Being able to know the market and know which institutions might be open to a solution like this and building relationships over time. We’ve received some wonderful recognition in the industry, which has certainly helped our sales enablement. And anyone in higher education who has sold into higher education knows it is a very long sales cycle. It’s not a quick process. It’s a combination of all the typical things to grow a business that has gone into our growth trajectory.
Roland Siebelink: Have you then hired people that have the Rolodex already that can access your salespeople, as your business developers?
Sarah Horn: We have a sales team, a new business development team. It’s a combination of folks that have some relationships in a Rolodex. And we also have, in the last two years, built out more of our sales process, sales enablement strategy that includes social media, outbound marketing. We certainly do - like a lot of industries and especially in higher ed - conferences and speaking and that stuff.
Roland Siebelink: Okay. Very cool. What would you say has been the results you’ve been most proud of so far?
Sarah Horn: Well, 19,000 students re-enrolled and the nearly 4,000 graduates, I’m so proud of that. On top of that, we have 51 institutional partners. That’s an amazing portfolio. And these are partners who are just truly wonderful, really passionate about improving student outcomes. And they heed and absorb feedback about how to get better, which is just really outstanding. I’m also really proud of the team that we’ve built. It’s been wonderful to build a passionate and mission-oriented crew that just loves supporting students and has so many tremendous impact stories.
Roland Siebelink: Okay, very good. When you talk about the people in that passionate, mission-oriented crew, what does the perfect ReUp employee look like?
Sarah Horn: Well, top of the list is certainly passionate about the mission, mission-oriented, impact-oriented. Our values are on our website. We have a bunch of team players, folks who are hardworking, results-oriented, and bring a lot of joy to their work. While we have room to get better at this, we have also worked very hard to try to continue to build a very diverse team. And I believe that having had diverse voices and folks from all walks of life at the table, helping us build what we’ve built has also been part of our success.
Roland Siebelink: Okay, so you talk about diversity, Sarah. How has diversity helped you make better decisions? Was there a specific example or is this more of an ongoing thing? How have you experienced the benefit of diversity in your team of passionate and mission-oriented people?
Sarah Horn: What comes to mind as it relates to diversity, this is about the fabric of our day-to-day conversation and the voices and life experiences that inform every single team member, current, future, past. We talk about accountability a lot in our organization. I don’t think we’re unique in that way. When we’re talking about results and we’re approaching organizations, we do hold ourselves to account related to goals and where we want to be in a week, a month, a quarter, a year. This is the area of theReUp organization where I truly feel like the team has held me and leadership to account in a way that has helped to make me better in how I think about hiring and recruiting and training and talking.
Admittedly, I still have a lot to learn and a ways to go. But I’m grateful that we’ve put a spotlight on this because I do think that it’s empowered the whole organization to make sure that we’re building an organization that will serve our learners in a way that is important with a team that reflects the diversity of the students.
Roland Siebelink: What have been some - if you want to share, Sarah - what have been some areas where life has been much harder than expected, where ReUp wasn’t doing as well, where you’ve been a little bit disappointed at some of the results or areas that have not been as easy as you thought.
Sarah Horn: Yeah. I don’t think anything has been easy. For me, as a first time co-founder, I’ve done a lot of building things from the ground up, but not as the top one or two executives. This is the first time for me. And I had - I think I still have - a big learning curve just around the fundraising piece. That part felt hard where it didn’t necessarily come naturally. I quite enjoyed meeting various investors. I have been lucky at ReUp, met a lot of impact investors who are just very interested in our business model and lovely, lovely people. I probably had it easier than some given that I lived in the impact world.
But that part was a very steep learning curve for me, and definitely, that part felt hard. Also, a lot of that isn’t visible to the whole company. That’s where it’s a very founder-specific process and journey that I needed to go on. That, in my personal reflection, is at the top of the list.
Roland Siebelink: Let’s go back to the future. Let’s go back to the positive. How big could this become, Sarah?
Sarah Horn: Hopefully, very big. We want to continue to at least double year over year. We’re going to expand our reach from what’s historically been just stopped out learners, which is a huge pool - there’s about 36 million Americans with some college and no degree. We believe we can apply our model to all adult learners and enable them not only to re-enroll at the institutions that they left within a short radius, but we also want to enable a marketplace model so that adult learners can transfer. Go from their earning their AA to their BA to their Masters, all within ReUp’s marketplace, where the learners receive personalized support that aligns with the academic and career goals that students have.
Roland Siebelink: That’s awesome. That sounds like a big vision. Ten years down the road, how many learners, how many graduates, how many partners?
Sarah Horn: Millions of learners, hundreds of partners. I’d like to think that ReUp has had an impact on moving the needle on college completion rates in the country. We’ve seen the completion rate hovering around 50% for the last two decades, and a lot of focus and money spent on trying to move that needle with not much luck. What I would love is if ReUp could really play a role in seeing our national completion rates improve.
Roland Siebelink: Okay, that’s awesome. To get there, what are your key priorities for the next three years?
Sarah Horn: One is grow, continue growing. We want to serve more students and learners. We can do that directly. Students can find us if they actually want to go back to school and complete. They can go to our website and get in touch with a coach right away. We want to do that by working with more university partners across the country. Ideally, more state systems, and continuing to scale up that way. We would love to also bring in more non-institutional partners.
We would love to expand our partnerships, so that we can continue to serve adult learners without those learners always coming from institutional partners in the first place. As long as there are adults who want to continue and earn their degree, then ReUp wants to be and would be proud to be the partner to serve those students.
Roland Siebelink: That’s a great vision, Sarah. And I love how you can put it concisely together as your key goals for the coming years. That’s an awesome example to many of the other founders listening to this podcast.
You already mentioned it, but if people want to learn more about ReUp, where should they go and what should they download to know as much as possible about the company?
Sarah Horn: Does anyone not answer this way? Go to our website. There’s a lot of different things you can do pretty simply on our website. There is information. We have resources with white papers that have been written and researched. And many downloads if you want to learn more about the completion crisis and the role that ReUp is playing in improving that.
If you want to introduce us to a partner who might be interested in bringing ReUp’s expertise and support in service of learners, there’s a “get in touch” button. It doesn’t require a lot of information for you to enter. But we will promptly get in touch with you. And if you, any listeners, are a student or a learner who wants to go back to college or complete college, or you know someone in your life who wants that and could use some support, there is a student sign up button also on our website. And you can enter your information and get put in touch with a coach right away.
Roland Siebelink: Okay. And just to ask, what is the cost to the student?
Sarah Horn: No costs. This is totally free for students.
Roland Siebelink: That’s excellent. Let’s just make sure that everyone understands that part as well. This is awesome, Sarah. I love the interview and thank you for coming on the Midstage Startup Momentum Podcast. This has been amazing.
Sarah Horn: Thank you for having me. This has been a real treat.
Roland Siebelink: Absolutely. Thank you so much. And to the audience, next week, we’ll have the next founder that’ll join us again on the Midstage Startup Momentum Podcast. Thank you very much for listening.
Roland Siebelink talks all things tech startup and bring you interviews with tech cofounders across the world.