Jackson Boyar speaks incredibly fluent Chinese; he holds up a conversation as easily as if he was speaking English, having the confidence with the language and culture that one only gets from years of living in the nation. And he did live there for a collective three years starting from high school, an experience that kick-started his journey to start Mentor Collective. Before his fateful trip to China though, Jackson’s entrepreneurial tendencies were already being stoked.
The story starts with his childhood. He went to a Waldorf School where the arts and creative thinking were integrated into the curriculum, and his dad ran a law firm in New York City that exclusively worked with entrepreneurs. Boyar attested, my dad “really encouraged me to think about ways to be my own boss someday.”
When eleventh grade came, Jackson decided that he wanted to spend the year studying abroad in China. Beforehand, he had never studied Mandarin and never lived away from home. Arriving in China, he was greeted with quite the culture shock. On his second day, he remembers,
My host parents didn’t speak any English, so when I first met them we couldn’t even communicate beyond leafing through a dictionary and kind of finding random words and trying to communicate… so one thing that was very powerful to me was when I first met my host dad, he said, in English, “we one family”. He looked that up in the dictionary and he taught himself how to say that, and it was very powerful to me.
The whole experience was transformative. He saw and appreciated the different culture around him, and when he came back to the United States, he felt completely changed. This epoch in his life showed him how much one could learn if they were supported and guided through a transition to a new life and culture. He would end up going back to China every summer thereafter for five years, but that’s a story that Jackson can tell you about.
Two years later, when Jackson went to college, he made friends with many international students and first-generation college attendees, but he didn’t see his wonderful experience abroad reflected in them. For example, his international friends didn’t understand many of the American cultural cues or values; language, humor, and pastimes all differed. For his low-income and first-generation friends, they lacked the support network around them because many times, they were the first in their family to go to college. It didn’t help that sometimes, they might not have had the money to go out with their friends. For these students, they felt like outsiders.
This problem sat with Jackson after he graduated, and so he and his co-founder James Morrissey quit their full-time jobs at a management consulting firm to fix this issue and make these students feel like they were a part of the school community by using mentorship. Now there are obvious benefits to having a mentor. For instance, Mentor Collective conducted a study that found that students with mentors were 150% less likely to go on academic probation than those in a control group. Furthermore, when the company matches mentors with mentees, the focus is on creating a strong, long-term relationship that can help students develop their sense of belonging.
When they started, there weren’t many competitors in the college mentorship space. As a matter of a fact, the biggest competitors were the schools themselves. Seeing this, Jackson and his co-founder took note of a couple of problems that these schools were facing while trying to implement mentorship. He first observed that these schools were having a hard time operating at scale because they didn’t have enough staff for all the students and they couldn’t keep track of whether mentees were still meeting up with their mentors. That’s not even considering the fact that the school mentorship programs couldn’t serve every demographic in a personalized way, thus not solving the problem of isolation.
With these problems in mind, Jackson Boyar and James Morrissey set out with the goal of helping these students and decreasing the national dropout rate. Problematically, after quitting their jobs in 2014, they hit their first wall. Because schools held such long decision-making cycles, the company went over a year without any income. Jackson explained “I went roughly 18 months without a paycheck. I spent all my savings and downgraded my lifestyle. There were a lot of bleak moments for both my co-founder and I.”
Renting a car, Jackson and James drove to every school that was willing to talk about the prospect of using their service. Many of those schools said no, and as the weeks went by, Jackson began to doubt himself. None of the other people in his social network were in startups, and he didn’t have any feedback on whether or not he was running his company correctly.
Patience saved Mentor Collective. After a year and a half, both co-founders were a couple of months away from giving up, and the only thing keeping them going was the belief in their mission to help underserved and international students. Finally, on a stark February day, Jackson Boyar received his first contract for $10,000. And no, this wouldn’t be his biggest contract, but it felt like a validation of both him and his cofounder’s hard work.
Receiving that first check was just the beginning. Boyar quickly learned how important it was to focus on one thing and to do it well. He acknowledged that when they first started, they lacked a cohesive plan to move forward. At first, they were helping Chinese parents with their children’s college applications. At the same time, they were also talking to different high schools in New England and California, as well as colleges. Jackson pointed out, “we didn’t really know what to say no to in the beginning. It’s very easy as an eager entrepreneur when somebody is willing to pay you money for service to just go chase that opportunity.” And that lack of focus put a bad taste in their mouths.
In the beginning, they partnered with a Chinese educational consulting company that helped families apply to American universities. The consulting business ended up taking Mentor Collective’s mentors and turning them into marketing collateral for themselves. Jackson said that it was so far removed from what they had originally envisioned that they had to terminate the contract and reevaluate their goals.
Taking a step back to look at what truly mattered helped Jackson Boyar learn to say no and focus on what he cared about. He rationalized, “The reason why we started the company was because we had friends and personal experiences of being different and not fitting in in college…And when we really understood that to be the thing we wanted to solve, we began working more closely with universities because they saw this problem first hand in a way that parents did not”.
Shifting their business’s focus on putting mentors in universities, they had to figure out how to sell to them. As mentioned before, colleges had incredibly long decision-making cycles, making it hard to close a sale. But Jackson figured out a couple of strategies to help onboard these schools.
First, he observed that universities tended to be much more collaborative than corporations were. For example, if one were to sell to Coca-cola and Pepsi, the two companies would probably never talk to each other about their decisions. On the other hand, the higher education market cooperated more. Many schools would share best practices or what they are doing because they all have one goal: helping students be successful. With that in mind, Jackson put his energy into finding ways to give his customers a voice so they can share what Mentor Collective is doing.
For instance, Jackson attends many conferences, visits campus frequently, and utilizes webinars as a way to spread the word. With webinars, he finds schools who want to talk about what they are doing, especially in concerns to mentoring, and give them a platform to share their practices with their peers. In that case, Mentor Collective would find schools that are similar to the one that is giving the webinar because they would be the most receptive.
What’s so special about their marketing strategy is that it is focused on creating a chain effect. When one university jumps on to their platform and starts talking to their peers, those other universities are more incentivized to use the service as well.
And through all of this, Jackson admits that “starting a company really humbles you because there are so many challenges that you face every day, and it requires you to reflect quite a bit on what you’re good and bad at.” From marketing and sales to operations, Jackson has learned his biggest lesson. Running a startup has revealed where his strengths lie, and what he lacks. And for what he lacks, he explains that he found it important to surround himself with people who complement his skills and fill in the gaps.
Knowing this and all the other lessons he has learned through the process of starting a company, Jackson feels confident that his mission will eventually broaden to not just helping certain subgroups of students, but all students be more successful. Ultimately, he envisions Mentor Collective as becoming an important part in an epoch of someone’s life, maximizing their success in school, helping to prepare them for future careers, and giving them a lasting relationship with a mentor.
From a serendipitous year in China, Jackson Boyar has come a long way.
“Invest in yourself, and invest in a growth mindset. Understand that it’s very normal to fail a hundred times before you succeed in many cases. And if there’s one thing that I wish I thought of every morning when I woke up, it would be to enjoy the journey. Starting a company is one of the most energizing and demoralizing experiences that you might have in your life. And if you can find a way to enjoy the most challenging and painful moments of that experience like getting in a fight with your co-founder or losing a big customer, you can see them as learning opportunities and find ways to see the growth and potential in those setbacks. I think that there is just something very magical about starting something from nothing, and many people get discouraged along the way because they fail multiple times. I think it’s the people who know that failure is an opportunity to grow and learn that are truly successful.”