We talked to Perry Kalmus, Co-Founder and CEO of AKALA about how they are disrupting the college admissions space to level the playing field in access to guidance and here is what he said about it .
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Perry Kalmus: We are surviving! It has been a challenging year, but our company is on a mission to save the world, and we can’t (and won’t) let a pandemic get in the way.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded AKALA.
Perry Kalmus: I originally moved to Los Angeles to work in Hollywood and worked at one of the big three Hollywood talent agencies. It was very cool to meet many of my childhood icons, and Hollywood is fun, but ultimately the job wasn’t for me. So I broke off and started a tech startup called DrinkCity, in the Bar & Nightlife space. It was an innovative concept, and we won two massive competitions up in Silicon Valley. But we chose the wrong investor (always do the due diligence on your investors!), and a $7.5 million series a round fell through in the 11th hour; that hurt. And we were out of money. So we sadly had to shut that one down. I ran my mom’s College Admissions consulting company throughout this entire journey and expanded it to the West Coast. She started the company back in 1995 in Princeton, NJ. Traditionally, it served an affluent crowd that could afford the expensive hourly fees, but when I shut down DrinkCity and was looking for what I wanted to do next, I reached out to my mom and told her that I felt like we always had our hearts in the world of helping underserved students and that maybe we create an app that can scale our level of college admissions expertise. At the same time, I had a great friend from boarding school named Debon Lewis. He had been in the charter school world, founding several charter schools in the KIPP and Achievement First networks, and I approached him about joining the mission. It immediately resonated with his core purpose, and together we founded AKALA to level the playing field in access to guidance.
How does AKALA innovate?
Perry Kalmus: We found a way to scale counsellors expertise. Utilizing AI and a fantastic platform, we can scale our domain knowledge of the field. The key is that we are a blended model. Tech-Only solutions DO NOT WORK! So we found a way to blend human interaction with an innovative platform. And everything on the platform is customized to the kid, the kid’s school, and the town in which the kid lives. For example, students take a super easy picture survey, just 24 photos, and they tell us the categories that interest them. Then, when they hit submit, up comes all the clubs, AT THEIR SCHOOL, within the categories that interest them. For example, if you selected history as an interest category, you might be presented with clubs like Model Congress, Junior Statesmen of America, or the Black Student Union. It makes the User Experience really simple for the kids!
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Perry Kalmus: Well, one of our big channels is through Youth Engagement Organizations (YEO’s) like Boys & Girls Clubs, Police Athletic Leagues, after-school programs, etc., and they all shut down. Luckily, we were remote long before the pandemic, so we were able to keep many of the kids active on our platform. But since we couldn’t sign up for new clubs, we pivoted to expand our international and subscription offerings, and that has been great so far.
Further, my co-founder Barbara and I were prominently featured as experts on the explosive Netflix documentary OPERATION VARSITY BLUES: The College Admissions Scandal, which was released in March. That has been amazing exposure for the business, and we are hopeful that the Documentary’s success shines a spotlight on the real problem, which is that most affluent people can access people like us ethically, and 85% of America just can’t afford the exorbitant fees. We have to find a way to get this critical guidance to all students.
What specific tools, software and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Perry Kalmus: Shout out to Monday.com!!!
That software really helped us stay organized amidst the million things we have to get done every day. Other than that, zoom, skype, facetime, teams were all key.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Perry Kalmus: Most of our competitors are tech-only solutions that focus on college search-match-and-selection geared towards juniors and seniors. Our contention is that if you pick up one of those solutions (College Board, ACT, Naviance, etc.), you’re too late, and you’ve missed massive opportunities to be a better college applicant. And none of those platforms let you speak to an expert. We know that tech-only DOES. NOT. WORK. Period. It just doesn’t.
Your final thoughts?
Perry Kalmus: There is upwards of an 80% drop off from high school in underserved areas. And of the 20% who do make it to college, 84% drop out. What that means is that for every 100 students in underserved areas, THREE will graduate college. This is unacceptable from a humanitarian perspective, and it’s untenable from a societal one. Quite literally, and I say this with zero hyperbole, we will not survive this mess under-education of our society.
Further, there are 17,000 high schools in America that DO NOT have a dedicated college counsellor. For context, that’s 2/3 of our entire public school system. And yet think of the ONE thing for which the rich will pay extreme top dollar: it’s access to people like us. They pay the big money because it has been shown historically to work. And that gives them a massive advantage over their less-wealthy peers. Geoffrey Canada, the Harlem Children’s Zone founder, loves to say, “When you don’t know what to do, just do what the rich people do.” And that is exactly what we are doing at AKALA. We are getting our level of expertise to ALL STUDENTS.
Amidst all the doom-and-gloom numbers mentioned above, there was one glimmer of hope. It’s that 94% of middle school kids, regardless of demographics, will tell you that they have the dream of going to college. So at AKALA, we decided that we have to get to them then. When they still have that dream of going to college. And we have to keep talking to them about college every week until they get there. That’s how we plan to change the world.
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