Startup Spotlight: CauseEDU
Startup Spotlight: CauseEDU
Meet Shironda A. White, MBA – CEO and Founder of CAUSEEDU, a Crowdfunding platform tailored to support students seeking higher education!
GH: What is CauseEDU?
CauseEDU is a technology company that is working to disrupt the education funding landscape.
GH: What was your Eureka moment: how did CauseEDU get started?
Years ago, a friend was helping students raise money for school, and I decided to tag along. She was using Gofundme at the time, and we were having challenges getting donors to give to some students, while others were getting funded pretty easily. I started noticing patterns and asking donors questions, and I soon realized there really is a “method” to help students raise more money for school, but traditional crowdfunding platforms were too generic and not equipped to help. So I started a platform designed specifically for students, one that allows for recurring donations and payments directly to the school, and that requires enrollment verification – all requests donors made that enabled them to give double or triple what they normally would. Other features donors requested were added to the platform, allowing for easier communications between students and donors and resulting in donors giving more money.
Since I have a background in education philanthropy, I knew of many other gaps in technology that would really help to facilitate the flow of funding and resources between educational institutions and donors, and between students and donors, and I thought a tech company to address these problems just made sense.
GH: How did you build your team?
The friend I fundraised with is now our COO. Her background is in student relations and she’s worked in higher ed for several years now. My background is in donor relations, alumni relations, and (education) philanthropy. My brother is the Marketing and Platform Director, and he has several years of experience in higher ed, mostly in art and graphic design. He also has a gaming background, working for a while at 2K games in quality assurance, so that translated easily to working on our platform. Our final addition to the team was a “tech guy” with a corporate background, since we needed someone with a different perspective to really bring it all together. He used to work as the senior director of technical operations for Comcast and now does private consulting, so he was a perfect fit.
GH: What is your company philosophy driving your company culture?
Our philosophy is that the money and the resources students and educational institutions need are already “there.” We hear so much about the education funding crisis and the policy changes needed to “fix” it. But there are donors ready and willing to fund students if the support is in place for them to do so; there are scholarship deadlines that pass every year with no students applying; there are houses that need tenants and students that need housing; there are major venues throwing out food and students going hungry. There’s so much that can be done with technology to facilitate the transfer of resources between donors, students, and academic institutions, that if we focus on that FIRST, we won’t need to worry so much about education funding policies. We have the resources we need. And once the technology is in place, we can solve our own problems.
GH: Startup life is full of failures and ‘make it work’ moments – can you identify how you bounced back from one of yours?
Our biggest failure was right before our November 2017 launch. The site was ready to go, and we received notifications from the company that we purchased our plug-ins from that there were new updates. We thought it made sense to do the updates before the launch, so we installed them – and they crashed the entire site. Since one of the plug-ins was for the crowdfunding payment section, we couldn’t launch. We tried to work with the plug-in company’s customer service, but their response time was horrible and they couldn’t figure out what the problem was anyway. We tried to work with WordPress, but they couldn’t figure it out, either. In the end, I had to screenshot each section of the site and the back-end code I used to customize each section, then delete the entire site and start over. It took a week to get it back up and running, we were late with our launch, and we missed our Giving Tuesday kick-off. We also lost a few students in the process.
GH: What did you learn from your first customers?
We learned there’s a serious disconnect between students’ perceptions of why they’re not raising money and donors’ reasons for not giving money. Our job was to communicate to students what donors want, since students (generally speaking) are not fundraisers and donors don’t generally give feedback if they don’t give money. So the communication wasn’t happening, and a lot of what we do involves making sure donors’ wishes are being heard.
GH: What has the Boston ecosystem provided you?
Boston University has by far been our biggest resource and support throughout this entire process. Whether it was taking a Starting New Ventures Class at the Questrom School of Business with Professor Ian Mashiter, or participating in the BU Pizza & Pitch Competition, the BU New Venture Competition (we placed 2nd!), the BU Venture Accelerator this past spring and the BU Summer Accelerator that we’re in now, the BU Innovators Networking Night Pitch Competition, the Start-up Bootcamp, the BU Innovation Lab, the BU Law Clinic (which is free for students), and many other resources, there’s no way we could have come this far without them. They’ve also been our biggest funder to date.
Other resources include people like Janis Collins who has really championed our company and made tremendous connections for us, and the many people I’ve met not just in the Boston tech ecosystem but in the philanthropic and higher ed spaces as well. If you have a start-up focused on the intersection of education, technology, and philanthropy, there’s really no other place in the world that makes more sense than Boston to build it.
GH: What is the Boston ecosystem lacking from your perspective?
The Boston ecosystem could be a little more open/welcoming of outsiders (although BU has been a great resource in helping us to navigate the ecosystem).
GH: What’s the best/worst piece of advice you were given along the way?
The worst advice had to do with eating, sleeping, and breathing this business until it becomes successful. That doesn’t work for us. It’s the fastest way for us to get burned out, and there are some times that we’re going to have to take a step back and say “I’m going to sleep now” or “I’m taking a break to have dinner tonight with friends.” There’s always going to be work that needs to be done, and I have found that I function best when I’m rested and able to focus.
GH: What was the best thing that happened to you last year?
Questrom’s Starting New Ventures class. It helped us take an idea, turn it into an MVP, and present it to a panel of VCs who judged us and gave us great feedback. This was the official launch of CauseEDU.
GH: What does the future hold for CauseEdu?
We have so many ideas of how technology can be used to streamline the funding process in higher education – we have started to pull together ideas that address everything from tuition to student housing to facilitating the grant process between educational institutions and donors. CauseEDU’s plan is to become the premier technology company that connects students, donors, and education institutions in the United States.
Learn more about CauseEDU!