SV - October/November 2015
Finding Your Path Now
Amalia McGibbon 2015-09-29 02:45:41
Entrepreneur and CEO Aaron Michel discusses taking stock of one’s career. When I ask Silicon Valley entrepreneur Aaron Michel if he was business-minded as a child, he says “No.” I’m surprised. I’ve put this question to many a startup founder and it usually nets me a solid anecdote about lemonade stand profit margins or disruption of the Pokémon market. But Michel grew up with his sights set on being a lawyer. It was all he wanted to do, and he had the whole road mapped out. On the eve of matriculating to law school, Michel decided that perhaps he should try a corporate law internship before committing all that time and money to the cause, and within a week, he knew that the legal world wasn’t for him. He quickly changed tracks—attending Harvard Business School instead—and the now-happy CEO still marvels at how close he got to spending life in the wrong field. This course-correction, this lucky pivot, is the inspiration behind Michel’s Bay Area startup PathSource, a web and mobile career navigation technology. PathSource’s mission is to empower young adults to make smarter decisions about their future. The platform has a deep bench of useful tools: there’s a career recommendation engine; an inventory of different college admission requirements, specialties, and financial aid opportunities; a video library with almost 3,000 informational interviews with professionals; an active job listings board; even a survey to determine how much income one needs to earn to support themselves. “We try to connect the dots between education, career, lifestyle, and budget,” says Michel. “We want young people to understand the pipeline between the decisions they make today and their lives 10 years from now.” A spiffy interface and smart user flow connects all these moving parts for an intuitive end-to-end experience that takes users from “I don’t have a clue what I want to do” to “I have a job that I love.” The hope is to optimize job satisfaction and minimize waste. If Michel had had a tool like this in high school, he says, it would have taken him hours rather than years to see that law wasn’t a good fit. As far as life regrets go, this one turned out pretty well. PathSource was recently featured as one of the 20 “Best New Apps” in the Apple App Store, and it ranks as the #1 most popular career and professional app in the education category. It has experienced 650% growth in daily downloads since its launch in January, and an initial round of fundraising raised $1.4 million from investors like Ironfire Capital and Wasabi Ventures. Education partners include the San Francisco Unified School District and Chicago Public Schools, and more than 20 universities like MIT, Northeastern, and Boston University. The dream of every consumer brand is to build a product that users don’t just like, but love. PathSource’s 1,000-plus five-star reviews indicate it has achieved that rare status. “This is how to actually plan a life,” says one user. “I wish I had this app at 18,” says another. But Michel is a man of refreshing candor— particularly in an industry known for rewarding swagger—and takes pains to point out that despite PathSource’s current momentum, “this was hardly an overnight success.” There was the usual buffet of #startupproblems—domain wars, disappearing profit streams, and misguided sales pitches to people with no decision-making power. PathSource had originally been conceived as a tool for K-12, with schools and career counselors as the gatekeepers, but after months of halting progress, Michel and the PathSource team hunkered down with market research and made the decision to become a B2C (Business-to-Consumer) player focusing on 18 to 29 year olds. PathSource’s timing couldn’t be better. The United States is in the middle of a serious national conversation about the country’s educational system. Is college for everyone? Are there alternate pathways to the middle class? Should the government subsidize student debt? How can we better prepare young adults for the 21st-century job market? These are the questions we ask in response to alarming figures that show education is not making good on its promise. More than half of college graduates seeking jobs did not have an offer by graduation, and 48% of college graduates are employed in jobs that don’t require a college degree. Dig a bit deeper and you’ll find a trail of similarly frustrating stats: in high schools across the country, there is an average of 859 students per college counselor, and college career centers are chronically underfunded, with a medium operating budget of less than $34,000. With student debt at a record high of $1.1 trillion and almost 20% of student borrowers in default, education is at risk of becoming an institution as likely to enslave as it is to serve. PathSource steps into this so-called crisis, then, eager to strengthen the connection between education and jobs, returns, as it may, power to the people. It is in this spirit that Michel and the PathSource team have taken on another ambitious challenge: curating a list of best-in-class online education providers. “Online education is a bit of a technological Wild West,” says Michel, “bursting with both risk and reward. The options are plentiful—from online universities to 12-week boot camps—but it’s hard to filter for quality in a Google search,” he says, adding, “Do you evaluate a provider based on its job placement rate? Or the salary of graduates? Or its user rating?” There is no existing litmus test, so the PathSource team is creating one. “When you hear the phrase ‘education led generation,’ you think ‘run away,’ but it doesn’t have to be that way.” Michel’s work is characterized by a gung-ho optimism unique to Silicon Valley, and a desire to use tech to build the world he believes we deserve. A technical undertaking this size requires considerable manpower, and Michel is the first to tell you that. Indeed, it has taken a village to build this app. He talks with incredible respect and fondness for his “rock star of a COO” Alex Li, and about the wider PathSource team whom he calls family. I ask him about his work-life balance, and he replies with a laugh and a shake of the head. In other words, let’s not sugarcoat this. The journey has been long, and it’s not over yet. But you get the sense that’s not really a problem for Michel. He’s unwaveringly cheery, buoyant—a believer in happy endings. To listen to him talk about tech and education and job satisfaction is to trust there’s a better tomorrow just around the bend. Critics accuse technology of making us lazy. They argue that we don’t debate, we don’t navigate, we don’t problem-solve or daydream. And sometimes they’re right. But sometimes, at its best, technology empowers, encouraging action where once there was none. Too many young adults resemble Michel in his lawyerly days—well-meaning but caught in the rushing river that carries one from high school to college to career without proper research or consideration. “It doesn’t have to be that way,” he says. Most apps operate on a rather incremental scale—they promise a better commute, a better way to take notes, a better way to book a flight. They have the power to change an hour of your time, maybe a day now and then. PathSource might just have the power to change lives.
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