The Robin Hood of Online Tutoring: Q&A with Rahsaan King, Founder of Students of Strength
He’s the best-dressed guy in Harvard Square, but don’t let the purple pocket square fool you—Rahsaan King is as serious as a heart attack about the 50 million students that need his help.
King grew up in Northeast Houston, in a neighborhood where crime and gang violence was rampant, a far cry from his collegiate home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When he spoke to Huffington Post in March, he elaborated on his time growing up in Houston.
“I had friends who killed, sold drugs, and went to prison for all types of crimes. My most painful moments include seeing my best friends murdered before we finished middle school.”
As King’s high school years came to a close, he received his acceptance to Harvard, and was thrown into a Facebook group with hundreds of other prospective students. While the express purpose of the page was to inform and connect possible Harvard students, King mentally re-purposed the group; King viewed his future classmates as potential tutors, potential mentors for struggling high school students.
That was four years ago—now, the idea has grown into Students of Strength, an Everett, MA-based education technology company which provides top notch tutoring for students in grades 6–12, employing students from the top 200 universities in the U.S.
A novel idea, sure, but Students of Strength breaks the mold of a tutoring company in more ways than one—its business model is designed so that for every two tutoring sessions which are sold to a student of regular means, a tutoring session is donated to a family who can’t afford it.
In the hour I spent with Rahsaan King, we talked about faith, stand up comedy, the [sic: broken] college system, sky blue suits, volleyball, and red carnations, mostly while hunched over 4 tacos on the patio of Cambridge’s Border Cafe.
Although the previous six topics could make for a fascinating think piece, Students of Strength rightfully earned the most air time.
Q&A with Rahsaan King, Founder of Students of Strength
You launched your app yesterday, September 1st—how has the response been so far, how is the back end of the app holding up?
No technical issues—we did a very thorough beta test for about six months—just making sure that the website and the app were seamless end to end—we’ve had about 17,000 hits in the first day. We’re really excited!
If you had 17,000 hits on the first day, what’s the next milestone—say by the end of the year?
I would like to have 100,000 users by January—there are 55 million students in the U.S. who have less than a B+ average, that means there’s 55 million students who need a tutor. But unfortunately, less than 2 million go through and are able to get tutoring—and I believe that’s because it’s unaffordable and that’s unacceptable. The tutoring market is broken. There’s the demand, and there’s no reason why those 55 millions students shouldn’t be our customers. We can’t serve all of them yet, we aren’t that big yet, but that’s our aim—right now, we can handle 100,000 students by January 1st.
Currently, your program focuses on STEM—primarily math and science education. Have you chosen that because that’s the area of greatest demand, the area that you’ve had the best response in?
When we first started, we built curriculum for every subject, K–12. And we were tutoring test prep and eve some grad school level courses, undergrad—but we found 6–12 grade STEM is where people are really looking for support, where they need the most help and where they have the fewest outlets.
Undergrad communities are usually robust and have sufficient supplementary context and content—but high school kids are drowning. And so our mission is to provide help in math, science, and test prep for 6th through 12th grade.
That’s when tutoring matters most, that’s when kids need it most, and that’s where the supply is the least, and we want to fill that void.
Would you hope to eventually expand back to what you had in Students of Strength’s earliest iteration, when you covered K–12 education and a wider curriculum?
Absolutely. Once we have about 60 percent market share in 6–12 STEM, we want to expand back and help the kindergarten through fifth grade students.
But right now, our plan is just to build a product that no matter what happens in the next six years for the kids in kindergarten, they’ll get to sixth grade, and they’ll have us, and they’ll be alright.
A previous piece called Students of Strength “phone an Ivy Leaguer,” but your tutoring base extends well beyond those schools exclusively—how far does that network extend?
The article referred to us as “phone an Ivy-Leaguer,” but we pull from the top 200 schools in the country—we prefer “a tutor in your pocket” or just “Students of Strength” to “phone an Ivy Leaguer.”
The Ivy League is very much a part of our brand—40 percent of our tutors come from Ivy League schools. But we accept tutors from the top 200 schools, because we aren’t elitists. We believe that anyone with a college degree or [who] is in college is competent and smart, and is more than capable of helping kids in 6th through 12th grade, and they should have every opportunity to.
We don’t want to leave anyone out, but for the time being we are limiting it to the top 200 school just for the sake of logistics—we can’t have ambassadors at every campus across America, but our goal is for any undergraduate, at any school to be able to be part of our company, to help tutor every kid in need in the country.
In the earliest form of Students of Strength, you were handing out flyers in front of Harvard dorms to get tutors on board. Now you’ve expanded way beyond that—what does your tutor recruitment process look like now?
We have an ambassador based on every campus, who’s responsible solely with posting on their Facebook pages, handing out flyers, filtering applicants from their email, and pushing people to the site. The goal of the ambassadors is to send us 20 new tutors each month, for us to consider and hire, and this model has been pretty successful for us.
From that, we can get 4,000 applicants each month, and from that we can select the top five hundred or a thousand of them. This keeps our tutoring pipeline strong and robust, as well as accounts for the attrition that comes around if a student graduates or chooses not to stay on with us—adding new tutors monthly, it helps us stay consistent and grow.
What’s your next big goal in terms of the size of your tutoring force?
By December 2017, we want to have 10,000 tutors. Right now we have 4,000, which is more than any other tutoring company in the country, with a standard deviation less than any tutoring company in the world. So by that December, we’ll be the largest tutoring company in the world. And that’s exciting, man—and it’s tough, and it’s a lot, but there are 55 million students out there that need us, and we aren’t going to let them fail.
Your business provides one session of tutoring for students of families in lower income homes for every two sessions you provide to middle class and above students. How have you structured the company to support this model?
We’re a hybrid—so we are a C corporation that has an affiliated 501(c)(3)—our C-corporation interfaces with middle-income and upper-income families who can afford to pay for the service, and via that vehicle, we pay for free sessions for students who are low income, through our non-profit. It’s like Robin Hood in a way.
Really, we just want everyone to access our service. Poor kids, they can’t afford to pay a fee, they can’t afford to pay a tutor, they are the ones who need it most.
So by redistributing our revenue, we can fulfill a truly philanthropic mission, to charitably help students who can’t pay. And as a business, we have to be profitable and viable to be able to fulfill this mission, and also to benefit our shareholders.
Fast forward, say 2 years. What’s the revenue goal for the company? What’s the investment goal for the company?
We’re going to have about 20 million dollars in revenue in the next 2 years, and to go from that to our next level, we’re going to raise about 10 million dollars from venture capitalists next summer to help us recruit new tutors to help us build new curriculum, and improve our technology. We’re going to get all the feedback we need this year, to figure out the perfect version of what this product is, and use the venture money to create it.
Going past the next two years, if you hit the revenue goals, the investment goals, where is Students of Strength in 5 years?
5 years from now, Students of Strength is tutoring 2 million students in the U.S., about 100,000 students in international markets, has 10-15 thousand tutors, has curriculum which extends beyond STEM, and are starting to re-engage elementary and undergraduate students.
How did where you came from affect how you’ve guided Students of Strength’s vision?
When I grew up, I saw a lot of disparity. I was simultaneously engaged with students who were incredibly disenfranchised, went to horrible schools, had no opportunities, and had very slim chance for upward mobility, as well as students who had superfluous opportunity, and for them, the sky was the limit—their schools were top-notch, they had tutors on payroll.
I felt that it was not just unfair, but it was also a problem which could easily be solved—the only difference between my affluent friends and my poor friends was just that my affluent friends had a good education, and a support system, which to them was their parents.
I figured that the school part could be fixed, if they had access to a better, healthier, more robust education. But even the parental structure could be fixed as well, if these kids had access to mentors or tutors or older peers who really cared about them.
So it was a rare vision that a major world dilemma—inequality, poverty, inequity in education, the achievement gap—could be solved with one very practical intervention—tutoring and mentorship. And I think being able to see the problem, as well as having the space and time to cultivate a solution.
I think that most people don’t get to sit on both sides of the fence, and that, no doubt, has helped us to be successful. Founders of other education technology companies can have research staff to help them realize what it’s like to be in an inner-city, or can even help them recognize what it’s like to be in a very nurturing academic privileged space, but not many people get the chance to experience both sides.
We have people on our team who went to nice private schools, and we have people on our team who went to schools that barely had textbooks—and I think knowing the whole gamut of education has allowed us to really understand students’ needs, and customize our approach to different students across America.
We can help kids who are living in Beverly Hills, and we can help kids in Harlem or the South Side of Chicago.
Some products out there are kind of generic, are one-size-fits-all. We give a service which feels molded to each student, not built for the masses, and so our goal is to serve each of those 55 million students, individually, not as a collective.
We want to give them a pair of shoes that fit them and they can lace up themselves, instead of giving them a sock that everyone can put on.
Sam has covered education, travel, and sports for Off Assignment, CLNS Radio, and Boston.com. Bibliophile, former 2 time JV volleyball captain, onetime water park mascot.