Audrey Wisch: Raised Millions for Her College Mentorship Business- EP. 162

About This Episode:

Audrey Wisch is a powerhouse, a juggernaut, a wunderkind… Or maybe she’s just a cool person with a great idea.

Audrey is the Stanford “stop-out” co-founder of Curious Cardinals, a company that’s redefining mentorship for K-12 students.

They’ve raised millions in funding, and they did an astonishing $750k of sales in their first year in business, essentially linking passionate college mentors with younger mentees, in a time when children are in dire need of better education and human connection.

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3:34 – [During Covid] “I needed to make money and I had more time on my hands so I decided to start tutoring. I reached out to a bunch of families, sent my resume around and found some students to tutor and started working with a seventh grader and a ninth grader. Working with them, observed how disengaged and uninspired they were with what they were learning in school and how they were absorbing and regurgitating what they were reading in a textbook but they didn’t know why they were learning what they were learning. So that inspired me to apply what they were learning in school to my own passions, in hopes of igniting the imagination for what they could pursue and why, and got them really jazzed up about learning.”

4:10 – “The mom was like, ‘I couldn’t get her off of TikTok and now she wants to meet with you more.’ And they started telling their friends. One of them asked for math help. I was not as passionate about math, so I texted the guy who became my eventual co-founder. Alec was an aerospace engineer at Stanford, and he loved math. He started applying what they were learning in math to how airplanes fly. They started telling all their friends, and I’m like a super connector by heart, but I’ve never done it in a business context. It’s always been like, ‘You need to meet this friend. I want to connect you.’ And I started doing that with the families that were coming to us and my most passionate and accomplished peers at Stanford. And then before I knew it, we had something going on here and we realized, wow, there’s a real opportunity here.”

4:50 – “We were also thinking about the macro climate of, we’re seeing this first-hand, but our education system is broken. It’s not working for anyone. Kids are not getting the skills they need to thrive in society. They’re disengaged. They’re unhappy. They’re getting stimulation through their devices and they have access to learn whatever they want to create things, to amass followings. And we’re not nurturing that. And there’s just terrible inequity in our country as well. It’s not working. And so we were like, ‘let’s do this as a side hustle. This is super fun.’ It was June of 2020, we launched our first Wix website and never in a million years would I have thought I would be here almost three years later.”

8:59 – “People were really craving community and connection. And when we started Curious Cardinals, we, with the mentors, I was like, ‘These college students are incredible.’ I would host Curious Cocktails and Curious Cahoots, and we’d connect everyone. And I was like, ‘How amazing does it feel to be connected to all these incredibly accomplished and ambitious college students who love what they’re doing and want to give it back?’ Don’t we all want to connect with each other as well? So I think the other thing was community. I think community is so much about feeling like you’re connected to something greater than yourself.”

10:02 – (Ross) “I’ve always thought that we don’t really talk enough about how awful it is that people were robbed of their senior year of high school. These pivotal moments that we can all say, ‘Oh, so many things happened during my senior year or my freshman year of college.’ These moments that shape your foundation and your social circle, to have that pulled away from you, it’s just awful. And I don’t often hear people talking about how awful that experience must have been at that age where you’re still forming yourself and you’re not able to say, ‘Oh, well, I’m just going to work from home for a couple of years.’”

12:49 – “What inspired us was we have a lot of families to this day who are like, ‘You guys were the light of hope during the pandemic. School was not fun. This was not exciting. They couldn’t see their friends, but they had this mentor who was like 4 to 6 years ahead in age of them that they were doing things that most middle and high school kids are not tasked with doing and someone who believed in them. And they got to build this relationship and do extraordinary things. And like that was, you guys were, the source of inspiration during the pandemic.’”

13:40 – “Everyone wants people they can look up to and wants to feel like looking up to them is not unattainable. So much of what’s sad about social media is kids are looking at edited bodies or super heightened and hyperbolic versions of success and fun, and that doesn’t feel attainable. So it makes them feel helpless. And the mentors are close in age, so the whole thing is about the relatability and attainability of, maybe I feel aspirational, but you can be me. You are so much further ahead of where I was when I was your age, imagine where you’re going to be when you’re my age.”

22:24 – “As soon as we were like, ‘Okay, let’s bring full time people on board who have more experience than having gone to college,’ we needed to raise money because they couldn’t take the risk of joining a company that, we were fortunate to be able to pay them for the first four months before we had capital in the bank, but they weren’t going to come on board without funding. And they saw these young Stanford scrappy kids, and that was kind of the level of security they needed when they were already taking a risk with such young founders, with being the first hires at a startup as well.”

23:10 – “How did we go about raising that money? We were reaching out to our happy parents and we’re saying, ‘Is anyone interested? Does anyone know anyone?’ There was a family that was very involved and loved Curious Cardinals that had, a family that they made some investments themselves so we thought, ‘Wow, we can just get a few people in. They’re going to introduce us to some of their friends.’ And then we had one of our first parents say, hey, this family who’s been with you guys, he runs a fund and he would love to speak with you…There’s this man who took his fourth grader out of a private school in LA to do Curious Cardinals full time. And when he first called me, I was like, ‘I’m not sure if you want to do that with us.’ And he was like, ‘No, your mentors are amazing. I would love to.’ His son did design thinking, philosophy, physics, creative writing, environmental science, architecture, computer science, one on one with our mentors. As a fourth grader. And he got on the phone with us…he was like, ‘My son’s learning didn’t just 2x, it 10x, it has soared… [He said] ‘Curious Cardinals don’t just raise 750K, raise 5 million. I’ll do the whole thing.’”

27:41 – “I never had a ‘I’m not going back to Stanford anytime soon’ moment. I kept being like, ‘I’ll go back in spring, I’ll go back in fall.’ And then I just stopped saying that. I think I stopped saying that because I was like, I am learning so much and I am making an impact and I wake up every day feeling so much conviction in what I’m doing and I don’t need to say when I’m going back because I’m loving what I’m doing and I’m so fulfilled and rewarded and making an impact by it.”

30:02 – “The first class I taught at Curious Cardinals was on mass incarceration. Honestly, a lot of the inspiration for Curious Cardinals in the beginning was my student on the West Coast and my student on the East Coast, in the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murder were like, ‘What’s happening?’ And they don’t teach this stuff in school. And so I created a resource guide and then made that resource guide a syllabus and was like, ‘Why don’t I teach a class on this?’ And there were so many issues that we, Gen Z, cares about with all the inequities that we face and feel responsible for solving that we’re like, this was never taught to us.”

32:28 – “I thought it was tainted to go into the private sector. I’ve changed a lot. I still deal with the college student idealism and it’s hard to confront reality sometimes, but so many of my peers who grew up with Trump in office wanted to go in politics and wanted to make social change. And now they still want to make social change, but they don’t want to do so in politics. They don’t want to do so in the public sector. They want to do it in a non-linear, in their own way, where they feel like they have agency or they feel like they have their own voice and where they feel like they have the autonomy to enact change going forward.”

34:09 – (Ross) “Even in the sphere of public discourse, putting opinions on YouTube and in a community of online trolls, and misinformation and disinformation campaigns, and bots, and all of that, certain avenues are just frustrating and challenging and very difficult for getting change done. And others are positive and uplifting and enlightening. And that’s why I’m interested in social entrepreneurship as a field for exactly the reasons that you described, having myself gotten a degree in English literature and film. So also that’s how I’ve found this area, because I think it’s interesting and I think it’s a potential way to do the things that you described in a positive way without just wanting to kill yourself all the time.”

37:02 – “What we do at Curious Cardinals is try to connect the dots where your kid loves video games, why don’t they learn how to code a video game? Your kid loves TikTok, why don’t we teach them video production? And we show these things that they think are ‘bad,’ ‘don’t spend time on,’ ‘unproductive,’ ‘inefficient,’ and really we show them the positive spin – learning social media marketing, learning digital marketing, learning storytelling through marketing, those are such useful skills that I wish they taught in school and they can do so much on their own if they’re just taught it. So excited for what’s to come.”

37:43 – (Ross) “We’re all victims of this phenomenon and the toxicity or the virus of, call it TikTok, social media, whatever, infects all of us. And I think proof of that is that Elon Musk cares about putting memes on Twitter. If you could have hundreds of billions of dollars and you still say, ‘Why don’t people like me on Twitter? Why? Why did only 100,000 people like my last post when the previous one was 200,000? Am I getting less popular?’ If Elon Musk still feels the need to do this basic ego-driven number stuff, then what chance do the rest of us stand? What chance does a kid have? What chance does an adult have?”
(Audrey) “We all like likes.”
(Ross) “We all like likes. We’re all driven by ego. We all want to be the funniest person in the room…But of course there is a distraction element of what is more important. And if you have your eye on the prize, what could you be spending an hour on instead of scrolling here? …What difference could you be making in the real world?”

39:16 – “What are actual changes you can make in the real world using them [social media] as a vehicle. One of my peers that I met through Forbes 30 Under 30 founded Impact, which is an Instagram account with 3 million followers and it’s a lot of Gen Z re-story when there’s some social injustice happening in the world that they want to spread visibility about or they turn to it as a learning resource. She started this when she was at Berkeley and they put these posts together and shed light upon, amplified social issues in a really compelling, powerful way. And that’s awesome. It used that ‘I like the likes, I like the posting, I like the graphics’ for good. And so how can we teach kids that you actually have power and agency? It doesn’t just have to be about the avocado toast you ate for brunch on Saturday.”

43:23 – (Ross) “You talked about things that are just missing from…traditional education. I’ve always felt that way. So many things I was personally unprepared for, basic accounting, for one thing, stuff that would become a huge part of your life. I love this idea that the IRS or whatever your local tax collecting authority may be, is just this giant thing that can just ruin your life at any second. And we know nothing about it. I graduated from college. I knew nothing about what I needed to do for the IRS. And then you get into the real world and they’re like, ‘Of course you didn’t. You needed to fill in form 2043EZ. Oh, you didn’t? Well, that’s a schedule K reference. Well, Schedule K was the addendum issued in 2010, but don’t use the 2018 version because that’s out of date.’ You don’t know any of that stuff and you’ll get heavily, heavily penalized for it on the basis of your ignorance. ‘Well you should have known this.’ Well, when should I have known this? When could I have learned basic finance or how businesses work?”

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