Co-founded by Scooter Braun’s brother, MissionU doesn’t require students to pay up front; works with companies like Spotify, Uber and Warby Parker
Silicon Valley is coming to the indebted college student’s aid.
By any measure, Adam Braun has had a charmed life. After being raised in New York and put through Brown University debt-free by his parents, he landed a coveted job telling older managers what to do as a consultant at Bain & Co. In his 20s, he co-founded Pencils of Promise, a nonprofit that built schools in the developing world and wrote a New York Times bestseller detailing his experiences. (He also happens to be the brother of Scooter Braun, the celebrity manager of Justin Bieber and potential next California governor.)
It was only much later than Braun, now 33, fully realized the crushing burden that is student debt in America. When he met the woman who is now his wife, he learnt that she had over $100,000 in loans and dropped out of school early to pay them off. While speaking at college campuses about his book, students would frequently ask him to turn his attention to the problems in America. “They’d say ‘what you’re doing internationally is great, but we’re struggling at home,’” Braun tells Moneyish. Over 1 million people defaulted on their student loans last year and the average federal student loanee carries debt of $30,650. The average cost of attendance at a four-year private college is about $33,000 annually, data from the College Board show.
His latest brainchild hopes to be a solution. Launched this March, San Francisco-based MissionU positions itself as a “college alternative.” While coding bootcamps and “pay later” courses exist, MissionU works with Silicon Valley unicorns like Lyft and Uber to offer a relatively long one-year program in data analytics and business intelligence to help students get tech jobs. Would-be students pay nothing up front, but once they graduate into a job with a salary of over $50,000, they return 15% of their salary for three years.
There’s clearly demand: the two dozen students that make up the first class, which began earlier this month, were picked from 4,700 applications. About 40% of them are women and 42% are Blacks or Hispanics—a riposte to the heavily male, white or Asian tech bro crowd. But Braun is already hoping to expand. To that end, MissionU just completed a fundraising round led by FirstMark Capital, which has invested in the likes of Airbnb and Riot Games, that raked in $8.5 million. This tops up $3 million in seed funding MissionU received last year.
MissionU distinguishes itself from traditional colleges in a few ways. First, technology is central to the education. 80% of the learning occurs online, everything is recorded and there are prompts when a student appears to be flagging in a certain area. “In a large lecture hall, you’ll have some students disengaged in the backrow but no way of tracking that,” Braun says. “We use our resources to intervene when the students need support most.”
Braun and his colleagues continue to have conversations with executives and recruiters at the likes of Spotify about keeping their curriculum relevant. “Even if you’re a math major, you’re probably not taught Excel modeling,” says Braun. “But the core tools of an analyst are SQL and Python. There’s tremendous demand for the skills, but they’re not really taught in college.”
About a third of the time is spent gaining a foundation in the skills MissionU considers important, another third specializing in technical skill and a final third interning and working on a project with one of the school’s corporate partners like Lyft and Uber. The companies also get first dibs at recruiting from MissonU’s class—the students’ first meeting this year was held with a data scientist panel at Spotify. “It’s up to them to earn their way to the great job they envision, but we will open every door to them,” says Braun.
While it’s clear that STEM field jobs often pay more—at least initially—than careers in other sectors, is MissionU too vocational? Braun doesn’t think so, noting that a significant part of the curriculum is focused on developing so-called “soft skills.”
For instance, this may include classes on the neuroscience of learning. Lauren Pizer, the student experience and curriculum design lead at MissionU, recalls having a conversation with Google about what the search giant looked for in workers. “They wanted employees that could take ownership of their roles and learning,” the former Stanford University lecturer says. “So we’ve built in learning experiences via independent assignments.”
Additionally, MissionU found that its students—most of whom are between 19 to 29 years old—aren’t necessarily familiar with how to relate well with people professionally. “So we’ve designed classes to discuss how they affect other people and first impressions,” says Pizer. “So much of being in the workforce is collaborative and we’re giving students a deep look into how their presence affects group dynamics.”
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