April 07, 2021

Chisa Egbelu and Kayla Michèle — Founders of PeduL, an EdTech Startup Crowdfunding Platform

Dana Safa

1Huddle Podcast Episode #33

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Chisa Egbelu and Kayla Michèle, the co-Founders of Pedu‪L,  a marketplace where corporations can diversify their workforce with scholarships. PeduL, which is based here in Newark, is the one-stop shop for scholarships. PeduL’s mission is to ensure that all students have equal access to academic and professional opportunities. It was founded on the belief that investing resources into society — especially our youth — will create a more sustainable and prosperous world.  Chisa and Kayla joined forces while they were classmates at Rutgers, and soon they became a power team. 

PeduL started out as a crowdfunding platform in 2018, but Chisa and Kayla realized that crowdfunding is actually pretty elitist, since it always assumes that students have access to a network with money. Kayla and Chisa went back to the drawing board and came up with their universal application for scholarships where students can apply to thousands of local and national scholarships at one time through one application; and that’s what PeduL does. 

On this episode of Bring It In season two, Chisa, Kayla, and 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci talked about everything from what’s preventing companies from being as equitable as they could be, to how we can create lasting progress in our workforce and in our society.


Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 

TOP 5 HIGHLIGHTS

Below are some of the insights Chisa and Kayla shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “There comes a time where our efforts cannot make progress alone. Progress often requires real introspection.”
  • “Racism is expensive, sexism is expensive, ableism is expensive…Gen Z is going to force us to care.”
  • “The more you learn, the more you understand how little you know.”
  • “People care about caring. That’s a part of business we’re going to have to embrace, and it’s going to make us all more money.”
  • “The people that really care about the impact that they’re looking to make, those are going to be the winners 10-15 years from now.”

FULL TRANSCRIPTION

Sam: I’m just going to toss it out there. You both have to fight over this one. Why don’t you tell us all a little bit about PeduL?

Chisa: PeduL is a marketplace that allows corporations to diversify their workforce with scholarships and so what that means straight up is that some of our clients like Viacom, CBS, or Panasonic or Adidas — they obviously can’t put up a job listing for Black women engineers or Latino data scientists or just women in finance. But what they can do is put up a scholarship on our platform for the exact same thing, specify the age range of interest, meaning a junior in undergrad, a master’s student, a doctoral candidate, and that allows us to take that scholarship and use it as a vessel and a vehicle to source and recruit students who meet those exact criteria from across the country. We deliver pipelines of talent directly to corporations based on whatever they’re looking for. 

Sam: What gave you the idea? 

Chisa: A lot of trial and error is the most honest way of putting it. If I have to say it delicately, I think our backgrounds played into it. Personally, I’m from Baton Rouge, Louisiana; very proudly, those that can’t see this video — I’m wearing purple right now. When I was in Baton Rouge, I started off as a logistics coordinator for a college readiness company in high school. When you do a job like that, you see the pros and cons of the university structure and you see how quickly finances can be a hindrance and how almost the entire educational process can be for nothing if the connections aren’t made to the real world. From there I went over to the mayor’s office, as an advisor on youth employment and college readiness. Then fast forward to college and past college, now I’m at places like NBC Universal and Google. I didn’t feel like my HR managers were bad people, but bI was definitely the only Black guy in the room nine times out of 10, but these aren’t evil individuals. As I look down into it a little deeper, I definitely recognize that there were some hindrances that kept them from truly being able to be good at their jobs, from being able to create an ecosystem and environment that was truly going to foster innovation, even grow markets, just create the place that you want to be: a place that looks like real American high school. 

Kayla: Back in high school, I was super frustrated with the negative media representations of women of color, and this was at the time where my dad was training me to be Tiger Woods; he had put clubs in my hand at 18 months old. I was training in Arizona, in South Carolina — golf was my career essentially in high school. I was at this crossroads where I was deciding: do I want to go down this path of how my dad lives vicariously through me, or do I want to go down this other path? At the time I was really passionate about writing but had that frustration with negative representations of young women in the media. So I decided to kind of use my blog called Navy and Beauty as an outlet. Fast forward a year later, and we had 500,000 monthly subscribers. We had friends, family, and all types of young women of color who were writing in articles for the magazine, and it just took off completely. When I finally sold my magazine and got into college and realized that I didn’t want to go down the path of living vicariously through my dad and doing golf, I decided I’m going to go to college on my own academic merit and got into NYU. Then I got the financial aid package, and  I was going to be about $40,000 in debt. So I ended up going to Rutgers on an academic full ride, and I realized how gut-wrenching that is. To come from a family where I’m not first-generation by any means, I feel like I had access to certain resources that other kids didn’t, and I’m kind of this minority among the minority. I felt like “why am I being stripped of these opportunities when my parents set me up to be the most successful person?” I think the pinnacle of why I joined PeduL; it was realizing again that it wasn’t up to my parents. It wasn’t up to just me to create those spaces and to be included in the conversation. It was because of my coaches like Hank Haney, who looked nothing like me, who created a space for me to grow in that career. It was because of people in my academic life who passed my resume over to NBC and other companies to say, “hey, you’re taking this internship whether you want to or not, because I’m creating this opportunity for you.” It was people who didn’t look like me, who took it among themselves to say: I have to play a role in this when it comes to representation. It can’t just be you trying to fight your way into these spaces. It’s also my responsibility, because it’s people like me who made it very clear that you weren’t always welcomed here. I think that’s why it resonates so much with what we’re doing at PeduL. I’m so passionate about what we’re accomplishing, 

Sam: How much should college cost?

Chisa: I think that college should cost enough for people to value it and be low enough for people to actually be able to afford it. It’s not like every business product answer: you gotta sell the product. College is a business in this country, and my dad’s a professor himself. So I’ve seen both sides of it where the research is built off of the revenue that can be brought in, which of course influences things like our ability to fight COVID-19 or other illnesses and technological progress. College should be cheap enough for people to afford it and enough for people to actually value it. I think right now it’s absurd. 

Sam: What could they do to get to be in a position where we see college as racing us forward versus maybe just keeping us caught up? 

Kayla: I don’t know if it is up to the higher education institution to do this or if this is just looking at education from a broader lens. Academia from a broader lens, if we even think about the grading system, these archaic systems that we’ve always applied to academia, they all came from the industrial revolution. They all came from training people to be worker bees and to be productive on a factory line. How do we adapt for the success of tomorrow? How do we adapt to the way people learn today? We have 1,000,001 different distractions that happen throughout the day and we’ve become really efficient at splitting our energy, splitting our time, and juggling different things. How do we nurture that quality in people? How do we nurture some basic things? The kid who is practicing, what some people may categorize as an unhealthy lifestyle, they’re in the streets. But everything that they’re doing in the streets could be applied to corporate America — from supply chain management to customer relationship management, to inventory. How do we apply very practical, basic skills to academia, so that it’s not outside of these parameters of the core curriculum? There is no reason that somebody should graduate or be close to graduating with an associate’s degree or even a year after college and not know about predatory loans. These are the basic things I think need to become a part of the conversation of how we reform education as a whole just to make people have a lot more agency than they do. 

Sam: There’s a lot of conversation right now obviously around equity and inclusivity, and HR and talent leaders are spending a lot of money, a lot of time, a lot of brain power around the topic. What do you think they’re doing right, and what do you think they could be doing better? 

Chisa: The ones that really care about the impact that they’re looking to make — those are the ones that are going to be the winners 10-20 years from now. That’s why you see the more successful the company, the more they’re actually investing and making this a fabric of their organization. We’re going to see who the winners and losers are in this, because the thing is, America is the melting pot of the world and it’s only going to become more so. We work with Gen Z and Millennials all day, every day and we see the inclusive world that they’re creating. We also see the exclusionary factors that they’re bringing to people that they feel don’t progress the culture. They’re not going to let these people win anymore, and that’s good and it can be bad. If I had to say who’s doing it right, it’s the ones that are making sure that belonging and DEI is a true cornerstone. I say that ‘true’ word because I want everyone hearing it to actually look deep inside themselves and their organizations; because you know if it’s true or not. You’re well aware. The ones that aren’t doing it right are the ones that are trying to capture a moment, not prioritizing the people within their organization. You realize very quickly that those people often don’t care about DEI, and they don’t typically care much about anyone in their organization. This was part of even our qualifying questions when we got on a call because we gotta make sure we’re not sending our talented pipelines inside of burning fire. Kayla, what would you say? 

Kayla: The companies that are doing it right absolutely 100%, at least in our experience with PeduL, are the ones who have leadership buy-in. If you don’t have somebody at the top saying that this is a priority for our company you can pretty much forget trying to partner with PeduL or trying to partner with any other organizations that are trying to help with this issue of representation, equity, and inclusivity. When you talk about what can be better, I think it revolves around what I talked about before: It’s humility. Am I willing to do the work? Wanting and willing are two different things. You may not want to read a book every day. Are you willing to, if you want to become a reader? That is the same question that you need to approach yourself with when you’re trying to figure out how you become an ally, regardless of what you look like, or what color you are. If you’re going to be an ally and increase representation and make sure that your workforce reflects the modern face of the U.S. — the changing face of the global majority — it’s about asking yourself a very real question about whether or not you are an ally if you want to be, and if you’re willing to do that. 

Chisa: The individuals who see the entire subject matter of belonging as a business imperative and not charity — that’s going to be the differentiator of who’s going to be here in 10 years and who won’t. If you make a place where people can feel like they can be themselves, and also that can reflect that United States, and you realize that that’s what’s going to get you more money,  I think that’s a huge differentiator in regards to what lasts and what won’t. 

Kayla: I also think about questioning your own bias too. If we’re having a real conversation, don’t ask the kid who you gave an opportunity to: what is their pedigree? Where’d you go to school? What was your GPA? All of these stupid things. If you really think about it, DEI has to do with exposure. DEI is about exposure. If I’m the first generation student to go to college and the only university that I’ve ever heard of is Mississippi Valley State, don’t pedigree match me up against the kid who is a trust fund baby who went to MIT, right? He was born into that family — and there’s nothing wrong with the fact that he went to MIT — but I only know about Mississippi Valley State. That makes the feat of going to college and acquiring a degree that much more crazy amazing for that individual. Imagine what they can do if they’re just given the same opportunity as half of the kids on the coast. It’s about having that ability and checking your own biases and asking yourself: do I look at a resume and question the quality of this kind of candidate because of where I assume they’re from, what their background is like, or what university they attended? These are the basic things that do not in any way reflect someone’s competence or capabilities. 

Sam: Kayla, that stuff is hard for people to be real with themselves about. 

Kayla: Yeah it is, 100%. Are you willing to be a decent person and ask yourself these questions? Everything around growth requires introspection, and it requires you asking those challenging questions, but it’s not a sense of condemnation. For example, I used to say that I was so crappy compared to Chisa, because he’s so good at staying in contact with all of his friends and he’s always on top of communication. But I’m just so shitty, because I don’t know how to do that. It’s hard for me to hit up a family member once a month just to make sure that I’m staying on top of my relationships. But recognizing that quality in Chisa and valuing it means that I have some type of receptor site in my heart for that quality; meaning that I probably portray that quality in some areas of my life. But it’s so easy for me to beat myself down rather than recognize that I own this quality and I shouldn’t condemn myself from not living up to it. It’s a part of my standards of integrity. 

Chisa: I was going to say just on top of that man, running a good organization, making true profits, it’s hard. It’s all hard. That’s why not every single person is going to be able to be successful at it. If it was easy, we wouldn’t be having the conversation. 

Sam: What’s the entrepreneur journey been like for both of you together? I mean, two rockstars, obviously I’m biased because we’ve worked in close proximity to each other. What has that journey been like to this point?

Chisa: It’s been a zoo. We always joke that we went to business school on the streets. We probably got our MBA at Newark city, 07102 area code. I would say it’s a balance of being truly underestimated all the time while also learning when to be humble and when to turn on that: hey, don’t talk to me like that. Most of the places we go — we’ve definitely been the youngest people there, or we’ve been the only faces of color there, and Kayla very often is the only woman in the room. It’s definitely been a journey of deciding when to truly be as humble as we can be and be students of the game, and also figuring out when to understand that we gotta help these people because we want the same thing and we’re trying to make our hundred mill, like you try to make your hundred mill.

Kayla: I think my greatest takeaway from this entire experience was that my competence personally does not equal my capabilities and my capabilities does not equal my worth. It took me years to realize that, but that’s probably the greatest takeaway from this entrepreneurship experience: that my identity is not this company. I am so much more. But what we’ve been willing to do right in the name of this company I think very much shines a light on our capabilities, our competence, and even our worth as human beings. 

Chisa: I think that’s also been trying to figure out how to be the guiding principle of: hey, we’re the guiding light, and here’s where you should go. Here’s what you can learn. And sharing everything we’ve learned with all of our peers, but also understanding just how far we are from where we want to be. Every single day we think about the impact that we have made, that we can make, and that we are planning to make. You steadily look at that target ahead of you and see that space. It’s frustrating and it’s angering, then it’s motivating and it’s encouraging and it’s humbling. It’s really being able to figure out how to run as fast as I can without leaving the people that I was just with behind me. Try to bring them with you. 

Sam: Anything that you’ve seen or you’ve learned that if you were going to give a talent leader out there, a piece of advice that would be valuable? 

Chisa: The hard work is worth it. A lot of times we look for the fastest route to evaluate resumes. Kayla and I, we see thousands of resumes a week. I’ve learned that the hard route is usually worth it. The one where you see a bad resume and you see that the redeeming quality and you look a little deeper and you realize that this person is more than this piece of paper here. I’ve learned that that’s absolutely worth it. In regards to the next generation coming out, what I’ve realized very quickly is that these people care about caring. I think that’s a part of business that we’re really going to have to start to embrace and it’s going to make us all more money.

Racism is expensive. Sexism is expensive. Ableism is expensive. Gen Z is going to force us to care, and it’s going to make us so much more money, and I’m really happy to be part of it. We’re seeing this double bottom line become a mainstream factor. People aren’t going to want to work for companies that they feel are just doing nothing for the earth. It’s just not where you want to be anymore. I think that social media culture has induced everyone into believing that they should be making some sort of impact or have some sort of purpose. You can argue whether or not that’s good or bad, but what I will tell you is that’s going to make individuals want to be part of things that actually matter. If you can’t prove that your company matters, it’s going to be really hard to sustain talent for a long period of time. It’s going to be very hard to get them to truly be engaged. As the ecosystem and the narrative shift, it’s going to be hard to get yourself to engage. You’re not going to want to be part of it, because the people you have around you are going to be a lot less fun and a lot less endearing. I think it’s going to be a really interesting thing to see how we’re going to progress during this decade. 

Sam: What type of message would you have for my daughter or for young people as to what they can do to make the world better? I just think about our children and young people who are coming up. What type of advice would you have for them? 

Kayla: I have less business advice as I do human advice. I would tell a young girl coming up or even a young boy coming up to be brutally honest with your growth. And that can be very difficult. It is very hard to look yourself in the mirror and list out the things that you don’t like. But to my point earlier, that is not a place of a welcoming condemnation. It’s a recognition that you hold great qualities and it’s a lot easier for your monkey brain to tell you all of the things that you’re doing wrong, all of the things that you could be doing better, than to recognize, encode, and internalize all of the great qualities that you have. I think looking at yourself, being a little bit more introspective, asking hard questions, and being very intentional about your self-growth is so important. When people talk about Valentine’s Day, I always say we should have an international day of self-love on the 13th because you have to love yourself before you can love somebody else. If you could do that before getting into business, before thinking about how you want to create an impact on the world, you have to learn how to love yourself. A lot of cyber bullying is going on and it creates a different kind of human being who reacts to the world, rather than being a proactive member of society who is looking to make change in the most positive way. We all have to look in the mirror and ask ourselves those hard questions and do it a lot earlier on. Some people get to 50 and don’t even realize that they need to be checking their ego at the door. Whatever work you can do on yourself, do that. Cherish that and lean into that earlier in your lifetime, because it will open up a world of opportunities for you when you have the power to actually make a change.

Chisa: Kayla, you said a great word there. My whole thing is understanding how the more you learn, the more you understand how little you know. It’s balancing the extremes within you of being open-minded, but stubborn. How do you consistently be open-minded to see everything that’s taking place, but stubborn to the point where you can protect ideals when you receive them? So much of the world is about wavering and this goes into business too. Those that waiver that kind of just hop on the trends, that’s not where you’re going to win. Whenever you are able to accomplish your personal values and graduate them to the point where they can be the example and not the lagging indicator, that’s the place where you’re going to actually persevere. And I credit 1Huddle with that a lot. I feel like 1Huddle is a company that’s very open-minded and very stubborn. The very first time I ever saw 1Huddle shoot in our utmost infancy of PeduL, I had gone to the Prudential Center and Sam was pitching on stage, and that was the infancy for us. We were just figuring things out back then, but when you talk to Sam and you talk to other individuals on the 1Huddle team, you see that they see themselves as an example of what things should be, where they should go. It’s something we always respected a lot as a company from PeduL; seeing how these individuals are setting a tone, and it’s a tone that everyone else is going to hop on. I’ll tell you, setting the tone, when it’s the right tone, you make a lot more money.

Topics discussed: Entrepreneurship, leadership, DEI, inclusivity, self growth, young leaders

Dana Safa, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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