Thursday, April 21, 2011

a glimpse of purpose amongst the chaos

(semi-warning: this is a long, life defining post)

If you look hard enough, you can begin to glimpse the divine order of things. Upon reviewing your past, you can identify the turning points, ever so slight, upon which your present condition has hinged, and can see how intentional everything really was.

In my mind, one of the first events that kicked off the series of events that has led me here was my college application process. I have always been universally good at standardized tests – something about the finite, unambiguous nature of what’s required appealed to my abilities, which meant that my test scores were out of this world. But alas, my in-school efforts were lackluster – I have always, in school, been unable to do much more than the bare necessity required. Thus I received a first important lesson – that one short term burst of hard work and success (test scores) cannot overcome a much longer term of complacency – I was rejected from every school I applied to except for NYU and UCONN.

NYU was the only business program I applied to, and it is of course the most urban school in the world. What I’m trying to say that it was through no intention of mine that I went to a business school and had what turned out to be the most unbelievable, self-forming experiences of my life. I cannot now imagine myself getting a non-business degree, or attending a non-urban university. It was perfect, and accidental.

The story of my love affair with education is similar. Solely to earn some spending money, I taught for Kaplan (see the link here to awesome test scores?) in sophomore year – a terrifying and inexorably life changing experience. (sidenote - everyone should spend a semester trying to teach – then let them try to talk trash to today’s teachers). Then I stumbled upon the first company I tried to start – ScholarScout – a platform that would help connect high school students with the colleges that fit them best (see Zinch & Cappex as examples of what we would have done). Assembling that business idea was my first taste of what education means to this world. It was so easy to be passionate about. I have always wanted to have a large impact on the world, and had always had a question of which field best served that purpose – medicine, politics, etc. The work I did for ScholarScout affirmed in my mind that education is the single greatest way to improve our world. And, that I wanted to start an education business.
It was also at this time that I discovered the professional side of my mother that I had always been too young to understand. She had always been just ‘Mum’, but I realized what an incredible executive she is – and, to no one’s surprise, it turns out she had been working her entire life for a company that sells computer software to colleges. Suddenly, every time I saw her, I had a whole new set of things to talk about.

My internship experiences in finance and marketing (all of which again were again the result of luck than any intention on my part) taught me that neither was the right field for me, and that drew a rather clear line to consulting. I started working for Capgemini, and lo! The first project I was put on was for The Princeton Review! (see how important my brief experience with Kaplan was?) At the Princeton Review, not only did I get to learn the ins and outs of an education company, but I also filled in a huge piece of the puzzle that I was missing – how to think about and build technology (the reason ScholarScout never took off). Quite literally, I learned exactly what I learned in order to go build something myself. Web marketing, product development, usability testing, even slide design and effective meeting management – how remarkable that the exact skills I knew I lacked were the ones placed at my doorstep. All this combined with an incredible set of people and personalities to work with and learn from, and the knowledge of what it means to really work for something.

I had always known that I would quit Capgemini to start my own company, and now I had the skill set to go do it. All I needed was the idea. Again now, see the order in it – while working to make it easier to purchase test-prep classes on the Princeton Review’s website, I realized that it would all be a waste. Why? Because someone would go put all the test prep classes in one place online, to make them easy to find and compare, and that’s where the real buying would happen. And then I realized that no one was doing it, and I called up Katie, who was already killing it at a startup (always two steps ahead of me) and 10 minutes later, we had the vision for what became CourseHorse.

From my test scores, to NYU, to Kaplan, to the Princeton Review, to the idea - what I’m trying to say is that my entire life has been preparing me for this moment. I’ve tried to speak to the bigger moments here, but there are so many smaller ones that I can effortlessly name, as building blocks and puzzle pieces that came together, as if orchestrated, to bring me here.
The beauty of this is that it means nothing about the future. As I’ve already seen, as with my college application process, “failure” is one necessary step in a longer series. Perhaps CourseHorse is meant to fail to make room for something grander. It certainly doesn’t feel like it, but any speculation on the matter is pointless. All I know for sure is that it that it is totally intentional that I’m meant to have be here, building this company, in this moment.

I’m proud to announce that CourseHorse has launched. It has been someone’s 24 year project in the works. I cannot say that I know what will happen next. But I have been granted the certainty that it will be absolutely right.