Transforming Education: An Interview with Wes Moore, CEO of BridgeEdU (Part Two)
Armani Madison ’16 speaks with Wes Moore, the CEO of our company partner BridgeEdU, on company culture, success, and what it means to be a leader in part two of this interview.
What have been some of the greatest challenges you have encountered, anticipated or unanticipated, or that the company itself has encountered, in engaging in this work?
The greatest challenge is that you are constantly learning about your clients. That is true for any other business, but here, our clients are our students. The challenges our students face are not simple. For many of them, their challenges are compounded. For many of our students, there is food insecurity, housing insecurity, financing insecurity, academic preparedness, social transition issues. You cannot approach this work simply thinking that we can create one thing that will fix everything for every student. Because you are facing compounding problems, you need to develop a compounded solution set. That has been a constant tension. I do not see this tension ever disappearing, though.
For every solution you develop, a new problem will be identified. From there, it becomes a decision-making process for us, to determine which ones we will zero in on, and which issues we cannot focus on as a business/platform. That is going to always be the push-pull, ensuring the company stays focused on long-term goals and visions. While we can address problems students face, we have to always be persistent and intentional about not getting distracted.
How do you approach building your team and establishing a work culture? What aspects of BridgeEdU’s culture and values are you most proud of?
When I think about the things necessary to building a team, first, you want people who are like-minded about what you all want to accomplish. We make it very clear with everyone we want to bring on board that this is not Twitter. This is not a widget company. These are real lives that we are trying to support, and that we are trying to make inroads for. I want that to be the North Star for everyone participating in what we are building here. I want people to be proud of this, to know that their work genuinely and sincerely matters, not just to the business, but to who we are serving.
When you are trying to foster culture (and this always becomes what you have to consider for a startup) in an environment in which everyone is moving 100 miles per hour, it has to be the responsibility of leadership and management to ensure that we can have times when people can slow down, and take a beat, and appreciate the work we are doing, and to appreciate one another…to really have times, moments, experiences, where everyone can gain a better sense of who everyone is, what they are about, and what they are doing. This sense of community can be built during such activities as team building exercises. For a startup, the culture you are trying to establish is essential for long-term growth. It is something you can lose control of quickly if you do not have a hold on it. How you build that out, is a tension I constantly wrestle with, and it is a thing that I know that is one of my core focuses on improving on.
What are your standards for success? What says and will ultimately say to you, that BridgeEdU is/has been successful?
This might sound completely crazy, but I have the very humble, internal goal of changing higher education in this country. I think there is a larger issue in the psychology of this country in how education is administered, where the influence of higher education increases every year, whether it be trade school, career school, community college, 4-year college, etc…and we have never had a greater disconnect about who the students are in higher education, and why it is so essential that they actually finish. It is amazing that people still believe in the narrative that those who are unable to complete higher education are unable because they did not work hard enough. These narratives proceed without considering the fact that 43% of students in college today are working full-time jobs, and another 32% working part-time. It is not that they are not working hard enough, but that we have to change the structure of higher education.
When I think about what success looks like, I think that BridgeEdU is going to be incredibly financially valuable. And that is wonderful for all of the shareholders and investors. But that is not enough for me. My goal is a societal impact, and that is what we are going to keep pushing for.
What is your role and philosophy as CEO of this company? Secondly, as a figure who has a successful personal brand as well, how do you manage to balance your role as CEO while tending to your personal work?
One thing that I always try to focus on, when I think about the work I do, and continue to consider, both before BridgeEdU and now, is that I made a conscious decision a while ago, that I will never work on anything I am not interested in anymore. It is not worth my time. There were a lot of jobs I had growing up that I did because I felt I was developing a skill-set. I did it because people told me that it was a good thing to do, that this would look good on my resume. Eventually, I became confident enough in my skillset that I felt I no longer had to do that. I became confident enough in my abilities that I finally decided that, for every moment that I spend doing something not of core interest and passion to me, I am wasting time. When I came up with the idea of BridgeEdU, BridgeEdU was more of an extension of the work I was doing; it was a different model, but far from a deviation from the work that I was doing.
It isn’t like I had a career working in education and one day said: “You know what would be interesting? A television company.” That wouldn’t make sense. This was something that, I think about the work we do with All the Difference, and the work we do with other colleges, universities and high schools. BridgeEdU is just an extension of that. And that is what became important in my work philosophy, of staying committed, passionate, and focuses. And from there, I think of BridgeEdU as a natural leveraging point for a lot of the other work that you would be doing in education. If you want to get involved in the things we work on and the ideas we are pushing out, BridgeEdU becomes an important way of doing that.
Speaking of entrepreneurship, what are your hopes and expectations for partnering with Venture For America?
I think VFA is something where you have an extraordinary talent base, but it isn’t just about talent, or about having a pool of people who are just plug-and-plays. This is talent who is also very interested in entrepreneurship. This is important, because, as a small entity, and as a startup, you want your whole organization to be entrepreneurship-focused. I think that VFA really breeds that, among their fellows.
Secondly, and frankly, I am really passionate about the future of this city. We need your talent here in Baltimore, and we need you to stay. This is why VFA plays such an important role, not just for the growth of BridgeEdU, but for the growth of Baltimore.
What advice do you generally have for young social change-oriented professionals and entrepreneurs?
Continue to build out a skillset, because whether you are building a socially-minded business or a traditional brick-and-mortar business, it is still a business. So you have to enter with the mindset of: “I am building a business, something sustainable, scalable, etc.” Even if the business is socially minded, if the business model does not work, people will not back it.
Secondly, you must have not just a clear understanding of the problem you are solving, but a clear understanding of the commitment you have to make to solving this problem. Most entrepreneurs have to enter any business they are starting with the understanding that this will take up the next 10 years of their lifetime working on this issue. At least.
Some business models will account for a 3-5 year plan, but that’s purely for investment purposes. You have to walk into an endeavor like this prepared to spend the next decade solving this issue. That is the mindset you must have. I know some entrepreneurs planning to launch and operate a business for 2 years, and then sell to someone like Google, and that is great. At the same time, you must go into it knowing that, in the competitive landscape that we are facing, starting your own thing is an all-in process. And you must be prepared to do just that: go all in.
This is a final piece of advice: make sure you are leaning on friends, mentors, and supporters. The journey of entrepreneurship can be a very long, a very lonely, and a very aggravating process. With that in mind, you must ensure you are surrounded by people who are constantly keeping you lifted up. Why is that so important? Because there will be days where you will question why you decided to do this. I guarantee it. There will be days when it feels like the whole wall is caving in on you. There may be days when you literally are eating ramen for every meal because you haven’t had a paycheck in a year or because your business is running on fumes. But in those times, remember this: you are not doing the work because it is easy. You are doing the work because it needs to get done. And you must have that commitment to it.