NJ DISCOVER EXCLUSIVE: PeduL: A New Company Changing the Way College Is Funded. A Brave New Young World. By Calvin Schwartz August 8, 2016
Sitting in my office, early August, my thoughts racing to a Big Ten (Rutgers) college football field with its concurrent September dreams, I just ceremoniously slapped myself to “snap out of it” (Cher did that to Nicholas Cage in the movie ‘Moonstruck’). It worked. I’m concentrating now on PeduL, the incredible young minds that conceived this college funding game changer; the giant telecommunications company, IDT, which is nurturing them in Newark, New Jersey, my birthplace.
I’ve envisioned a series of articles, interviews and other media events to bring PeduL to journalistic light. They’ll need all of us come launch time. And funny thing, all of us, past, present and future have college kids in our lives. So don’t go away. One more point at the outset. Here is the PeduL link. Check it out. http://www.pedul.com
If you’ve checked it out and saw their TEAM, then you saw Chisa Egbelu, as their Business Operator. Chisa was my illuminating connection to the company. Chisa and I have an interesting history which now becomes relevant. Cut to three years ago, the Garden State Film Festival in Atlantic City. Chisa interned on a film that I needed to see. After the Q and A, he saw my Rutgers cap, magnetically approached, mentioned he was a sophomore at Rutgers, asked my connection and the rest is a precious history of alma mater and commonality.
As we discussed PeduL, their vision, energy and dedication, I knew my course of involvement. For decades, I’ve been watching ‘the news.’ So much of our extant world, the condition thereof, is a function of education. It’s so simple but not. What always blows me away, is the fact that a considerable number of eye-blinks ago, I went to Rutgers. My tuition was $500 per year and I managed to get a partial scholarship (They must’ve been plentiful as I resided in the middle of my class). End result, I personally (not my parents. I had two younger sisters to worry about) paid for my entire Rutgers education. No lifelong loans to pay back. No chains on hands or feet. I was debt-free when I left Rutgers with two degrees. I even managed to save my summer jobs money.
When I visited PeduL last week with my wife, a former three-decade educator, and Yolande Edme, a recent Rutgers graduate, Big Ten and NJ Discover broadcast intern, my first words of exclamation were how much the country and world needed what PeduL was doing. Then I asked Chisa what happened over the years that witnessed tuition going from $500 a year to $15,000. Chisa’s response was rapid fire, “The government doesn’t do what they used to anymore.”
Next I brought up how relevant and timely PeduL is. Their mission is front page global headlines. Bernie Sanders campaign in part focused on paying for all public colleges. LeBron James, a few weeks ago, gave $41 million so that 1100 kids could go to college. PeduL is right at the epicenter. Chisa totally agreed and was well aware.
I’d spend nearly three hours talking with Chisa and Murtala Aliyu, Developer and math genius in the vibrant atmosphere of IDT. Kayla Jackson, Project Manager and source of vast amounts of energy was out of the office that day. As journalistically sharing the thrill and vision of PeduL’s development will be an ongoing project; it’s that important for all of us; my purpose in this first installment is to summarize the inception and birth of PeduL and to begin to enlist readers and believers.
Chisa spoke about IDT, a global telecommunications company and their visionary executive. “He seemed like a one on one individual. A cool person to talk to. Like your friend’s grandfather.” IDT provides PeduL with space, legal team and great support, advice and consent in development. “They are international phone calling, entertainment companies, animation for ‘The Simpsons,’ and even look for oil. What I really respect about IDT is that they don’t stay in their own lane. Howard Jonas is Chairman, his son Samuel, CEO. His son has been great to me, really kind. The thing I respect most about Howard; he figures out what he wants to do and just does it.” I smiled remembering I worked for the same type of man, Leonardo Del Vecchio, for 25 years at Luxottica Group who operated the same way. IDT has branched out. It’s also why they have this venture aspect to the company which is PeduL.
I like to be a balanced interviewer; some heavy, some light approaches. “Chisa, where are you living?” I sensed he was all over the place just like he was at Rutgers; from playing Quidditch (Harry Potter), Rutgers radio and TV, excelling academically and being tapped for Rutgers’ highest honor, Cap and Skull, Senior Honor Society. “It depends. Tonight I’m in New Brunswick. Murtala and I have a meeting tomorrow in NYC. Sometimes I’m in Harlem or Morris Plains.”
I asked about a general overview how this all came about commenting, “It’s unusual for an undergrad to become a CEO?” “It is unusual but more commonplace than you think.” He spoke about his roommate and best friend, Jarrett, a computer science genius (top 2% of class) but more passionate about music so he left Rutgers and enrolled at Berklee College of Music, his dream come true. The following summer, Jarrett came to visit and asked to move back. He couldn’t afford to stay at Berklee. “At this point, we were deep into Reddit culture, Kickstarter and cool things on the internet. Then the statement, “I wish there was Kickstarter for school.” But why isn’t there? From there, the roots started taking shape.”
Murtala had just walked in to our cubicle meeting. Chisa continued, “So before we got here, we had a great Business to Consumer aspect, and now Business to Business. That is our biggest leverage point on top of competitors.” I interjected, “What about Jarrett?” “He moved in back then; our double became a triple. It was quite the year. He works at Lockheed-Martin now. He’s so good at computer science and realized music was a pipe dream if he can’t afford it.”
It was difficult to develop PeduL and find the right team. “It’s a lot especially doing it between classes, activities, internships, part-time jobs, events, parties. It was a lot of work. It’s also the reason no one has done this before. It’s overwhelming. There are so many different aspects, so much red tape to cut dealing with the bureaucratic system, education at one end matching with tech culture. Two different worlds. But that’s our culture now, embracing difficulty.” I love that phrase.
Chisa next dealt with media and how the business side leads the way. “When I was interning at NBC, the business side led the way. If they said it won’t work, that was it. I thought of trying to recruit the smartest kids in business school. I said we have this idea, are you interested. It seems a lot of them thought we could just throw it up and people would use it. My naiveté. But it moved me to go forward. We were 4, 5, 6 maybe 7 business partners at the beginning. They dropped it; too much work.” Moving forward, Chisa took off a whole semester, interning and focused on looking for a team. “That’s how I found Murtala. Commitment and loyalty trumps everything else. We needed individuals passionate about the project which led us to Kayla in business school. She is a superstar.”
“What’s the practical side of how this works?” Chisa looked skyward for a moment; a sign of serious intention. “We are for profit. We made that decision. It was a difficult trade-off, weighing pros and cons. We were looking to creating a non-profit aspect within the company. Why we went profit? We decided to rely on what our features can bring. We are dealing with angel investors, putting in money, taking a certain percentage. It gets complicated with government involvement and transparency. We’ll move faster and smoother because non-profit is cumbersome and full of regulations.”
I thought it was all about giving back and caring about the future of America and helping kids to get educated and not worrying about tax deductions which is really nickel dime stuff. Chisa liked my thinking. “We are not cutting out attempts to get big donors and doors are open for millions of people to give something. Grassroots marketing is where we’re going. It’s who we are as a company.” He explained what is best for them is a million people giving a few dollars.
There are two aspects to donations. One is to donate to an individual campaign. Secondly, you can donate to an institution page, a university, youth organization or high school. I like to think of myself as a student of human nature so I asked, “What have you learned so far?” “The number one thing we learned is that in business there are no true favors. It’s all business.
They go to New York three to four times a week for meetings. They have learned how to dictate and move faster. They know there are no such things as favors. They are giving their supporters an opportunity because they are growing. IDT funds their lawyers. Hugely important is how much money out of $1000 gets to the students. “We only take 4.9% off and are fans of transparency.”
“Can students come to you. Who decides?” “We’re starting off with students in need and academically deserving. They can make a campaign when coming to our website. We will also have University pages. Individuals can donate to that page (school) and allocate that to students. Money is sent off as a scholarship to those students.” They are actually building a calculator now to find who is in need. Then you’re in and start soliciting money. They have the help on the business side and now need help on the education side. My mind was firing away on all the people I know in education. I was thrilled my wife became part of the discussion.
I also realized that their education journey required learning how to get to the decision maker; something I learned for 25 years at Luxottica. The other positive outcome, is the more they create awareness, the more it spreads around; the social media aspect as well.
Next we talked about the infinite amount of small businesses so perfectly suited to be involved. PeduL gives every small business owner, every company in existence an opportunity to give back to their communities. On local levels, they’ll involve Chamber of Commerce. “Ideally, we’d love every kid on our platform to be sponsored by a company. For example, the bakery down the street sponsors a student. The student is given tasks to do; for instance, getting people to like the bakery on Facebook, sharing bakery posts, watching their video, doing social media marketing for them. Out of the business marketing budget, they would pay $4 to 5 each time it takes place.” I realized it’s really not charity for the business; they are getting marketing. Regional companies have capital and need exposure. PeduL is a perfect win-win situation.
I told Chisa, Murtala and Yolande that my head was spinning and that is a good thing. It doesn’t spin often these days. I marvel at PeduL. There is such a need for their product, for educating our youth and insuring America’s future. I marvel at these kids from Rutgers and IDT. I believe I just enlisted and maybe got to some of you out there. Best to say now, to be continued. This article has not been personal but strictly business.