A seasoned social entrepreneur, Ashkon Jafari has been working to make the world a better place for only a few years, but in that short period of time, he’s found great success. His newest venture, StudentMentor, helps to pair mentors with college students and he’s burning to talk about his experience in setting up this nonprofit organization. In this interview with Ashkon, you’ll hear his thoughts on:
- How to avoid bouncing from major to major or job to job by working with a mentor
- How to select the perfect, outstanding mentor in your field
- How long it takes to get a social enterprise off the ground
- How to select people to sit on your board of directors
- How many organizations you need to approach before you find sponsors and funders
- How to develop a pitch for attracting smart people and money to your social enterprise idea
- Whether pay-per-click advertising like AdWords works to attract new members
- Using social medial and other advertising mediums to spread the word
- How to engage students to help with projects in exchange for mentoring guidance
You’ll also get to garner his wisdom on setting up a 501CS in the US, how to attract volunteers, and how to get funders for your project.
Watch the Full Program
About Ashkon Jafari
Ashkon Jafari is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of StudentMentor.org, a nonprofit organization leveraging technology to provide mentorship to college students across the country. Previously, Ashkon was the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Making a Difference for Good USA, a nonprofit working to improve the lives of rural Cambodians through rural development and education. Prior to that role, he worked in finance for NVIDIA and was a key player on their philanthropic team. Ashkon is the creator and host of Social Innovation Live, a talk show where he has interviewed a Nobel Laureate and many leaders from around the world, and sponsored by the Stanford Center for Social Innovation. Ashkon graduated in the top 1% of his class and has a B.S. in Finance from Santa Clara University. He is a StartingBloc Fellow.
Connect with Ashkon on Twitter and Facebook.
- Social Innovation Conversations
- Google AdWords
- Google Grants
- Making a Difference for Good USA
00:01 Lorna Li: This is episode 4 of Entrepreneurs for a Change. If you like this podcast please subscribe to our mailing list at www.entrepreneursforachange.com. Are you ready to be the change? If so, you’ve come to the right place. You’re about to join a movement of entrepreneurs, who are empowering people, saving the planet and turning their cash into profits while creating the lifestyle of their dreams. If you don’t believe us, check at our website at www.entrepreneursforachange.com; a place where you can be inspired, mentored and supported by a tribe of change-making entrepreneurs just like you.
00:39 LL: Hi there, this is Lorna Li. I’m the Editor in Chief of Entrepreneurs for a Change and Green Marketing TV. Today, I’m here with Ashkon Jafari, a young ambitious social entrepreneur who is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of a nonprofit organization called StudentMentor. StudentMentor is the very first student mentoring organization that leverages technology to match students with experienced professionals. Students come from over 200 universities and colleges and the experienced professionals represent a multitude of different professions. Now if you want to understand why this is a ground-breaking organization, well let me tell you about people with mentors are more likely to succeed than people without. In fact certain studies have shown that professionals who’ve had mentorship in their lives have been able to earn over $23,000 more than their counterparts without. So if you want to find out more about StudentMentor check out www.studentmentor.org. Now let’s here from Ashkon Jafari on what it took to start and grow a nonprofit organization that is empowering students all over the world.
01:45 Ashkon Jafari: So, thank you so much for joining us today, Ashkon. I’ve known you in the social enterprise space primarily as the host for social innovation conversations, the Social Enterprise Podcast, and I’m really impressed by how prolific you are. At that time you were also a founder of another nonprofit…
02:07 AJ: Making a Difference for Good USA.
02:09 LL: Making a Difference for Good USA, which is based in Cambodia. Is that correct?
02:13 AJ: Right.
02:14 LL: And so I can barely keep up with you. So what are you up to these days and what are the most exciting projects on your plate?
02:23 AJ: So, I started… I co-founded the organization last year called StudentMentor.org and it’s a nonprofit organization that’s the first of its kind. We’re providing mentorship to any college student from any school or any major, and we’re leveraging technology to match people up based on the best possible matches. And it kind of all started based on life-long experience of having mentors – a mouthful of mentors – that shaped how I got to where I am today. They primarily helped me succeed in college and then now in starting out as a professional. And it was when I was in college I was very lost. I switched schools, universities a couple of times I even switched majors three times. And it wasn’t until my college internship where my boss’s boss – so he was a pretty high-level guy – took me aside every week, super busy guy, but he found time in his day to spend about an hour a week with me and just talking about how he got to where he’s at in his career coming out of school. And he asked me to bring in my course work, the electives I was planning to take in my junior and senior year, and he told me which ones are relevant to the industry and which ones just weren’t, that was just out of date or just not relevant. And that profoundly impacted me. And that was five years ago and fast forward to today, he’s now on the board of directors of his organization and we remain good friends. So, started off as a boss, became a mentor, he still is a mentor, but and he’s now a great friend of mine.
04:00 AJ: And my co-founder went through a very similar experience being in college but being first generation student with dreams of becoming a doctor and not going to a state school where they don’t produce that many graduates going into that field. And luckily through a formal mentorship program, she found this medical student at Stanford University completely changed her life. That was again like also three or four years ago and they remain good friends. And we both noticed that a lot of our friends and classmates got lost in choosing their career and they didn’t have any mentors. They didn’t have any professionals that could help guide them in the skills they were interested in. And we looked around and we saw that there was no other program or organization doing this on a national scale so that was kind of how StudentMentor.org came about last year.
04:45 LL: I’m so amazed that you’re doing this. Because I remember when I was in college, there really wasn’t a very well organized mentorship program. I mean, I don’t actually think it existed at all. And I think… When I was in college they were college guidance counselors, but really I didn’t get very much out of it either. They were just young people who were also just out of the college themselves and so I think it’s so great to be able to connect with someone who’s actually actively in the workplace. Because I think as a student, it’s really hard to know what classes are relevant in industry. Sometimes there’s a huge disparity between what you need to know in the workplace versus what is being taught in school. So to be able to just be a lot more strategic in targeting your classes is a huge time saver.
05:34 AJ: Definitely. And that’s what we noticed. We noticed that there was no opportunity for students to find mentors. And some schools have various small programs where a designated group or students from particular major or background have an opportunity but often times even those programs pair people up with faculty or just people that are not in the industry. And what better way… I mean you’re going to college to get a job, to get a career, and what better way than to actually get a mentor in that career path rather than an adviser who advises 800 students a year on 50 different majors or a faculty person who has spent 30 years on a very myopic view on one particular thing.
06:22 LL: Exactly.
06:23 AJ: So there’s a huge need out there and huge demand that we’ve been seeing in our program as well.
06:29 LL: So did you start this organization while you were still in school?
06:33 AJ: No, I was about two years out of school. I started my career at NVIDIA, a high tech company making visual computing solutions like graphics in your computer, in your phone, they even make super computers. And I was working in finance there, but at the same time I started the Cambodia organization and I was also involved in a couple of other things in the philanthropic space especially on the company’s environmental team and then outside of it as well, on the board of directors for sustainability organization actually which is a great experience just serving on the board and taking these learnings into the organizations that I would eventually start.
07:18 LL: So many of the people in our audience are really passionate about starting organization that will bring some positive impact into the world. Can you help us understand what process you went through in order to get StudentMentor off the ground?
07:35 AJ: Sure. So becoming a 501C3 nonprofit organization, which we are, is difficult. It took us eleven months because I ended up doing a lot… I actually did all the paperwork myself and made a couple of mistakes. And it actually took a mentor to teach me some learnings that sped it up towards the end and got us quickly approved at the end of it. I know people that have gotten it. They’ve worked with an attorney and they got that in sort of six months. So that’s always an obstacle. When I talk… I talk to a lot of people, mentored a lot of people starting organizations and they always have this question and actually the advice I say is don’t think that you need to start 501C3 right away. It’s more important to flash out your idea, get a prototype, get it off the ground rather than go through this arduous process which might amount to nothing if your business idea, your organization wasn’t even feasible, and just didn’t work out.
08:37 LL: So you should start with the business plan first? Something like an executive summary or plan of…
08:43 AJ: Yeah.
08:43 LL: Of your organization, mission values, etcetera?
08:48 AJ: Right. So I didn’t put together… I have a business background, but I didn’t put together the 30 page business report. What I did instead is put slides, just made a PowerPoint presentations, like 20 slides highlighting all those different elements in a business plan, which is at a higher level. And that was just the first thing I did just to get my mind to figure out what I want to do. And then I first passed for a… Get a website because we’re a web-based service. We’re leveraging a lot of technology, matching algorithm, and we’re doing this thing that… It was at all on the web. So the challenge for us was not having any money or a lot of other resources for that matter in getting going. And the way I did that was by reaching out to probably 60 or 70 web design companies in California locally where I was. And just asking them, just framing it in such a way that, “Hey, here’s our idea and we think it’s going to be huge, has huge potential, and we would love to feature you in our supporter, in our sponsor section. And giving you the traffic, put your logo there, and we’d really appreciate your help creating this program, this website.” And out of those like three organizations said yes, we ended up working with one who really helped us. They spent five months putting it together for us.
10:15 LL: Pro bono?
10:16 AJ: That was critical… Yeah, pro bono.
10:18 LL: Wow, that’s really cool. So going back to the whole 501C3 thing, I think a lot of people who want to start organizations, they’re a little confused over how do you start reaching out to people and receiving pro bono services and donations and all that if you don’t have a 501C3? Is it possible to have an organization up and running without that structure?
10:39 AJ: I think it is. It is. So, it depends on who we chat to. A lot of people aren’t even familiar with 501C3. Foundations and corporations, certainly community relations people at corporations certainly are familiar with that and will require that. But if you’re reaching out to a lot of other companies especially a lot of these web design companies are small, as long as you’re showing that it’s a social mission that you’re applying that you’re in a process of applying to get a 501C3 and… I mean, I think they care more about the social mission than anything else, a lot of these smaller companies whether they’re a design company or marketing company.
11:17 LL: So before you have the 501C3, is it possible for those organizations to still write off their pro bono services or donations as a charitable contribution? Or do you need to go through a fiscal sponsor?
11:30 AJ: So fiscal sponsor is one route. When you do a apply for 501C3, it is retroactive. But I’m not sure, I don’t remember when it’s retroactive… The date is retroactive of. But it’s just something you could work out. I mean, I know the web design companies that we talked to, they actually didn’t really care too much about that. So they were just more interested in their logo and for them that meant more than a… And the link in that logo to their site more than the charitable donation.
12:06 LL: Well, that’s great. It’s good to know that you can actually hit the ground running without getting held up by all the bureaucracy and the paperwork of making sure that your organization is set up. So, I think that’s… Just trying to understand ways in which entrepreneurs can bypass the delays and obstacles is really a good thing. So, you guys… So you found this organization, they helped build your website, they help design and build your website, then what happened? Where do you guys go from there?
12:36 AJ: And so after that before we even launch the site, we also got pro bono help and I’ve found since then, we’ve received pro bono from a lot of real long arm international law firms. And I found that law firms in general are really receptive to pro bono work. Although for them, you need to have a 501C3 organization to be prequalified. I’m not sure how they react to fiscal sponsors, but I think that still might work. But we found that that was extremely helpful for us as well. So, we were doing that, we were getting the website up, and then we started getting volunteers and people with marketing experience to help frame the launch of the website. And we probably had, we had about four individuals and those four individuals are still with us today. And we started getting a couple more volunteers and launched back in September 2010. And since then, we’ve grown to almost 30 volunteers and then we have students from more than 200 universities across the country and a full fledged organization with different departments, marketing, and we have web development team. So, it’s been really awesome to see the growth. And a lot of it has been due to getting pro bono help, just being resourceful. So, we also got our printing for free and a resource that people should check out is uprinting.com – it’s the letter U and printing.com. They have a great non-profit program. So, if you are a 501C3, you get a couple of hundred dollars a year worth of free printing. And another looking for more partners. So, that was helpful. We also got PR firm to help us out pro bono and some designers, additional web designers. So, just… You got to just be scrappy. You just got to be very entrepreneurial. You’re going to get 100 no’s for a yes, but we found that it worked extremely well in our case thus far.
14:48 LL: Wow, congratulations on being able to find so many people to volunteer for your organization. Now, I think one of the challenges for a lot of non-profit startups is how to attract pro bono and volunteer help. Because if you are a small organization no one has ever heard of you, then how do you get them to jump on board with your cause? Does an individual need a track record of success before being able to get the PR firms and the law firms and all the different great professional help that you’ve been able to get for free?
15:24 AJ: I don’t think an individual needs a track record for a lot of things especially law firms as long as you reach out, you do your due diligence and you have a social mission, and you are a 501C3. You don’t need to be the season person. Web design firms as well. So, I think you could get really, really far. Some other PR firms or lets say, you want to… In our case, we’re education non profit and you want to partner with the Department of Education of California or of the USA. There you need a track record and even with PR firms just because it’s a lot… It’s really difficult to get pro bono work from PR firms. But that being said, you can get just a lot of things just if you ask. So, it’s going to take a lot of reaching out. And I just primarily did it through email. I’ve done phone as well, but just a lot through email.
16:21 LL: So, Ashkon, did you actually just sit in front of the computer and Google all the services you need and start reaching out by email and phone?
16:29 AJ: Right, that’s basically it. As you eloquently put it, it’s just a lot of hard work and a lot of grunt work and you just got to sit down and do it and eventually someone has to say yes. Someone will say yes.
16:45 LL: [chuckle] That is the entrepreneur mindset. I love it. I love it. So, the board of directors, do you need a board of directors when you start a non-profit and how do you find those people? Is it the same process?
16:55 AJ: Right, so actually one of the reasons our initial application got delayed is because we didn’t have three board of directors then. That was unbeknownst to me at the time. So, that’s… You need to have three to become a non-profit. Initially, I mean, it’s hard because you haven’t been developing, so it’s hard to get a good group of people together. But eventually, it becomes easier. The key thing to look forward that I did was just looking for people that are passionate in your cause. It could be maybe friends that are experienced in what they do, whether it’s business or art or whatever. But you see that they’re asking you, “Hey, how is it going?” and they ask you all these questions and they have always shown their interest in what you’re doing. So, those could be really good candidates for bringing on board when you’re just starting out.
17:44 LL: Okay, so you have the basics of your organization put together. You’ve got your team, your primary team has got a core of volunteers. You’ve got your board, you’ve got the site being built. So, once the infrastructure or the framework is complete. How did you then go and start populating StudentMentor.org with students and mentors? What was that process like?
18:11 AJ: So, it’s an ongoing process. We did a lot of outreach to mentors initially because we figured that they would be the harder group to bring on board. It turns out it’s actually not the case. We have twice as many mentors as students. But that could also be due to all the hard work we did to bring those mentors on. So we partnered with volunteer agencies, corporations, also professional associations to get these mentors that are interested in giving back. And it’s an ongoing process. And with students, we’ve got everything from… We’ve been in a lot of college newspapers. We’ve been invited to campus to give talks, to have… We’ve posted up flyers at Starbucks, and varying set of approaches. We’ve done a lot of search engine marketing and social media has been huge since we are web based.
19:03 LL: So pay-per-click? The pay-per-click side of search engine marketing?
19:06 AJ: Yeah.
19:07 LL: Cool.
19:08 AJ: Yeah, we’ve done a bit of pay-per-click. Looking to do a lot more as we grow.
19:12 LL: You can get an AdWords grant, you know. Do you guys have that?
19:18 AJ: We do. And we actually started out… We’re actually going to try it out again because when we first started it, it just wasn’t working for us. And we even consulted with professionals, professional companies. And they just had a hard time working with it because of the restrictions that the Google Grant has. The one dollar CPC and the fact that you can’t use the content network. So, for us it wasn’t as effective.
19:42 LL: Interesting.
19:44 AJ: It’s an ongoing thing with Google Grant. For some people it works well and for others it doesn’t. In general though, I’ve actually went to the conferences and talked to a lot of people there and the Google Grant program in general people will probably only use 5-10% percent of their allotted budget. So, it’s better than nothing, but when you first get into it, “Wow, $120,000 a year!” And then you realize that you’re only actually using like 5% of that. So just kind of down there.
20:12 LL: I think there’s also a lot of work that organizations don’t realize that you have to put into getting the pay-per-click program working. I mean, sending your traffic to a landing page, and not the homepage, and all that stuff. It’s a bit of a learning curve as well I think for organizations.
20:29 AJ: Yes definitely, I mean I… I even had a background in pay-per-click. So, I have that background. And even I… And even professionals, we consulted multiple professionals, they couldn’t get us out of that. So, we’re looking to start it up again.
20:45 LL: Interesting.
20:47 AJ: Yeah. We’ve been lucky to get interest, just a lot press… So that’s helped with building credibility in getting more mentors and students. And the college newspapers have been great for getting students because students don’t read much but a lot of them do read college newspapers. So, on social media we have a landing page. We’re doing a lot. We’re trying to be cutting edge, Twitter and LinkedIn as well. And then YouTube. One really exciting thing that I’d like to mention is that we have a video series that we started called “Tips for College Students.” And we have three students from all across the country and they share weekly tips with us. It’s on a blog, it’s on YouTube, and now it’s even on our homepage. And it’s just been really fascinating to work with them, just volunteers, social media volunteers, and they are producing awesome, awesome content. So that’s… It’s been really exciting. And then, we’re launching video wherever we can. We have an animation video in the works right now and we have videos of our success stories, about how we first started. And we’re looking to do a lot more videos and just tailoring it to our demographic, which is largely students and professionals.
22:01 LL: So how many colleges have you hit so far?
22:05 AJ: Last I checked, it was about 215 colleges where students are represented. So, they’re coming from all 50 states, our mentors as well. We have over 1100 mentors and they come from almost every background. We have doctors, surgeons, to fighter pilots to Emmy award-winning people, and retired business executives. So, it’s been awesome to kind of see everything come together. And it’s happened a lot quicker than we anticipated. When we first launched, we didn’t think we would have grown this fast. So it’s been really awesome to see that.
22:41 LL: So how exactly does your platform work then? So you’ve got your mentors, you’ve got your students. Does it work like a dating site where there’s an algorithm that matches students with mentors? Or is there a hand-editing process?
22:53 AJ: It’s a bit of both. We have a smart algorithm as well as… We empower both students and mentors to choose. So what happens is when you first sign up, you complete a short form. Then at the next step we instantly provide you a list of matches based on certain things that you filled out on your form and we try to provide you the best matches. Also, with… Whatever… Whichever students or mentors happen to be within 50 miles from you. So you could choose local matches as well. So we present them with a list of matches and then students or mentors get to actually review the list, get to review each person’s profile and learn about where they work, what school they went to, how many years of experience they have, what they majored in, and then get to choose that person. And then you could also choose multiple people. We want to encourage students to have multiple mentors. We know how important it is to have more than just one mentor. So, it’s a free system. We encourage you to have as many people use it and they could get as involved with them as they want to.
24:04 LL: So do you have any really good success stories to share with us today?
24:08 AJ: Yeah, there is a lot that comes to mind. We get success stories almost daily. And one that I heard just last week, last Friday, was that one of her mentors, he’s won 14 Emmys. He is a CEO of an international media company, branding company. He knows everyone in the industry, entertainment industry, the media industry. And he is also like a professor and a lecturer. He lectures in his free time for really good institutions. And I was talking with him and he mentioned that he’s mentee, his student, is based in University of Washington. So he is in LA, she is in Washington. And they’ve been conversing over Skype and something like, he said last week he spent 15 hours that week with her which is way more than we anticipated, but especially for someone…
25:01 LL: That’s huge.
25:01 AJ: Yeah, especially for someone with his stature. It turns out that he helped her start… She’s a student. He helped her start a production company and like while she’s a student. And he has also got her a board of advisors that include an ex-COO of Paramount Pictures, a writer from the Bill Cosby Show, and there’s a couple other like top notch media professionals that just… It’s not like this has been a long mentorship. It’s been, at that time, it was only three weeks into the mentorship, and so much has been accomplished. Then, we have a lot of other success stories of students that are first in the family to go to college and just have been immensely impacted by their mentors who have helped them figure out how to transfer to a four-year university. What their career path looks like, the path that they are interested in and how that looks like, and just kind of being a positive role model more so than anything. Just you know a lot of mentorship is not necessarily the actual like points you receive, it’s also just having someone to talk to and someone that just kind of taps you on the shoulder every so often, and encourages you and just having that sense of support and encouragement is huge.
26:20 LL: So, I signed up for studentmentor.org. So I’m going to… I’m excitedly waiting to see what my matches are. But I think also too, I am a little bit self serving as well because you know I think a lot of busy professionals might have run into this challenge, which is they would love to provide guidance to someone who’s ambitious and hardworking because, “Hey you know… ” I think anyone can look back to time when and see a time went and in your life where that would have really served you. So, I think from a lot of people that have the mentorship mentality come from that place. But then there’s also the whole premium of time factors. So, I think a lot of successful mentorships can come out of internships and I think that a lot of mentors might be attracted to do mentoring if they knew that they were going to be working with someone who would also help them in their business. What do you think about mentorship for internship? Is that something that StudentMentor can facilitate?
27:27 AJ: So, and that brings out this topic of reverse mentoring where you get something back in exchange, and it’s great. I think it has it’s time and place. So we’ve seen whether it’s like a student who really knows how to use technology or social media and is helping that mentor understand how to use Facebook or Twitter. And that mentor in exchange is mentoring them on becoming a lawyer, for example. Or as I mentioned that internship, we’re seeing that in the internship industry and how this is full legal thing going on where it is a legal talk to get unpaid interns and not have it like time out of course credit, not pay that, and not do anything to that degree. But if you do like mentor them and provide them with either a formal program or informal program, I think the list growing is that it’s been, like that’s okay. And we are seeing a lot of companies that can’t afford to pay interns for doing that, just mentoring students and in exchange the students are working 5 or 10 or maybe even 40 hours a week.
28:40 LL: So, how I go about creating a formal program like that? Because I need some help with my social media. Do you think I could find great students to help me out with that and then in return I will teach them how to use social media effectively? How to get web traffic to convert, etc? How would a company go about creating that formal program?
29:02 AJ: Well, I mean, we don’t have a formal program for that on our site, but it could come about just spontaneously if that’s what you are looking for. And that’s a great option. There’s also several other internship sites out there. And I actually know them pretty well, the founders. One is internmash.com and the other one is youtern.com. Now they are geared towards that small business professional or that small non-profit or mid-sized non-profit looking for interns. So, that’s something that I think your audience can explore.
29:44 LL: So is there something that we as a small business or entrepreneur or non-profit need to do in order to make sure that the time that the intern contributes is actually going to be applicable towards credits, towards school credit? Or is that something that the intermediary organization will do?
30:04 AJ: No. So the intermediary organizations, I don’t believe they do that. It’s really… It will just have to be worked out between you and the intern. So there may be a place where… Yeah, and it depends on the classes or the university where they accept that kind of thing, where it would work out. And if it doesn’t work out, then you go with this… Try to do this mentoring approach where maybe there’s an hour set aside every week with goals in place that you talk to the student with about for the 10-week internship. And you build upon that student’s skill set and provide them with a greater sense of like being… Working in a professional setting. And so that’s kind of what we’re seeing in a reverse mentorship situation. But there’s many others ones too like the tech thing, or older lady or gentlemen who doesn’t have know tech. And then there’s 20-something year old that can help them out. So that’s… I think reverse mentoring is an awesome form of mentoring.
31:14 LL: Fantastic! So we’re about reaching the end of our segment so I want to thank you for your time, Ashkon.
31:16 LL: This is Lorna Li, Editor in Chief of Green Marketing TV and Entrepreneurs for a Change. Thanks so much for listening to the Entrepreneurs for a Change podcast. If you like this show, please share the love by going to iTunes where you can rate the show and leave us a great comment. Don’t forget to sign up for our mailing list on www.entrepreneursforachange.com, so we can send you tips and resources to help you grow your change-making business.