An Initiative to Improve Educational Equity Comes Full Circle
Tufts Alumnus Bryan DelloRusso, A08, is launching a new platform that aims to bridge opportunity gaps in higher education. Along the way, several Tufts students are getting involved in its development.
When Bryan DelloRusso, A08, graduated from Tufts University, the Reading, Mass. native traded Medford’s hills for California’s Pacific coast, where he landed a role in private equity. As he remembers, coming up in the world of finance during the Great Recession wasn’t easy.
“Early on in my career, it was a really tough time during the financial crisis. All of a sudden, the people that you might be able to network with, and the internship opportunities, disappear,” recalls Bryan. “I felt kind of alone for a while until I had a mentor from the private equity firm that I worked with to help me think about navigating my career.”
Over a decade later, in 2020, some things are still the same: The Pacific Southwest’s assuring hustle and bustle. Problems that need solving. A recovering economy. And a need to connect people with opportunity and insights – something Bryan credits as being formative in each step of his career journey.
This March, Bryan saw a similar theme he once faced – students were experiencing increased uncertainty. On one hand, networking and experiential learning opportunities became elusive for current university students (though, this time from a pandemic). On the other hand, college prospects were unable to tour institutions, making it tough to find insights on the higher-ed experience.
But this time, Bryan knew he could affect change with a startup he co-founded at the beginning of the pandemic.
A New Startup Meets Opportunity
In his latest venture, Bryan’s aiming to improve education equity, access and readiness for students across the world through GradGab – a platform and mobile app he co-founded that seeks to break down barriers for prospective students when it comes to finding out more information about colleges.
Bryan says GradGab allows prospective students to receive personalized campus tours, mentoring and mock interview preparation from university students – all from the comfort of their mobile devices.
“The reality is that many people don’t have a pre-existing network or means to fly around and visit colleges,” says Bryan. “As a former admissions consultant, I’ve seen how that affects many applicants and how many prospective students are applying relatively blindly. That is something that really inspired GradGab.
With over 3,500 student mentors at 350-plus colleges across the country, GradGab is looking to foster unique mentorships that speak more specifically to an individual. An international student, for example, may want to meet another international student to understand their experience and learn what support resources are available; students of underrepresented backgrounds might want to speak with others who share the same identity.
GradGab’s initiative brings to light recent data that shows the adverse impact incomplete information and lack of access can have on students.
According to the First Generational Foundation, 89 percent of low-income, first-generation college students from institutions across the United States “leave college within six years without a degree,” altering their path and their financial circumstances. Dropping out of college attributes to $1.5 million in lost lifetime earning potential based on financial modeling.
Heightened by the ongoing global pandemic, more students are looking to get an insider’s perspective on their top universities in addition to ones they wouldn’t have a chance to visit otherwise.
“We’re leveraging a university’s best assets, which are the students, to highlight all of the different things that a university can offer because it can be so many different things,” says Bryan of the student-to-student matching service. “We believe that by leveraging a diverse student body, we can really create something that changes the way that students connect with college.”
Research published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management says that two to three hours of support during the summer can increase enrollment by eight to 12 percentage points among low-income students.
Inspired by his experience of applying to MBA programs, Bryan believes that student perspectives can help fill in details during the program evaluation process and offer critically needed insight. “College decisions are major investments that people make,” he says.
According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 37.2 percent of students who entered college in Fall 2008 “transferred to a different institution at least once within six years” between then and 2014.
Right now, GradGab is gearing its service towards undergraduate and MBA programs, but in the future, Bryan says GradGab plans on expanding its services.
Cultivating Entrepreneurial Passion in Tufts Students
While GradGab’s platform addresses a need for prospective students, Bryan saw it as an opportunity to provide hands-on learning for students at Tufts University, too.
“I was fortunate enough to get connected with the Jumbos4Jumbos program,” said Bryan. “This past spring, we had eight to 10 interns who helped us build GradGab and it was incredible because we had a really diverse group of students … we built GradGab with students for students.”
Jumbos4Jumbos is an initiative spearheaded by Tufts Career Center’s Misha Dora D'Andrea, Recruiting Coordinator, and Susan Atkins, Associate Director of Employer Relations, to connect volunteering Tufts Alumni with students for experiential opportunities like internships and jobs. The Tufts Alumni Council proposed the idea of Jumbos4Jumbos this past spring as the COVID-19 pandemic created uncertainty around summer internships.
“I think this is such a mind-blowing opportunity for [Bryan and his team] and I want to make sure everyone finds out about GradGab around the world,” said Dayana Chumburidze, A23, an intern for GradGab this past summer. “This internship and the people I’ve met – it’s just amazing how much they opened my eyes on the industry … they were willing, not only to take ideas from you, but even give you more in return.”
A native of Russia who attended school in London, Dayana drew from her own experiences of applying to universities in the U.S. to help inform customer personas and use cases. She says she could’ve benefited from having someone guide her through application requirements and explain the standardized tests American colleges use.
GradGab has found its way back to its co-founder’s alma mater in more ways than one. Iggy Moliver, A10, Chairman of Tufts Entrepreneurial Network (TEN), is involved in GradGab’s product development through his role as Head of Product and Strategy at Remedy Product Studio.
GradGab’s potential impact goes beyond simply providing opportunity. It’s helping to foster a lasting passion for entrepreneurship.
“I think being involved with GradGab was huge to shaping some of my interests moving forward. I realized during that experience that, not only was I not doing the same kind of work all the time, I was actually having fun doing it,” said Akash Jyothish, A23, an intern for GradGab, who now plans to minor in Entrepreneurship through Tufts Entrepreneurship Center.
That sentiment is shared by Aram Ebrahimi, A22, a junior majoring in Chemistry and minoring in Entrepreneurship.
“Working at GradGab has increasingly sparked my interest in entrepreneurship. I’ve been able to apply knowledge from my entrepreneurship classes at Tufts and put a lot of theory to practice. GradGab has given me start-up experience, and I am forever grateful to be a part of such a talented, hardworking, and supportive community,” said Aram.
The Journey Continues
With planned expansions in functionality and consistent refinement, GradGab will keep Bryan – who’s separately a Strategic Advisory Manager at Google – busy for a while. But he’s not alone. GradGab will continue to evolve with the support of fellow co-founders Carter Prince and Zech Francis. “We have very complementary backgrounds, all the way from the way that we operate to the functional areas that we cover,” said Bryan.
As Bryan reflects on his career, he knows there is more to uncover along his path. But for aspiring entrepreneurs, he urges them to trust the process.
“One thing that somebody told me early on was to always give yourself time to take a step back and reflect. Reflect on what skills you built, what you’ve learned, and where you want to be. Then, figure out what the next thing is that you can learn to build upon that,” said Bryan. “You know, you may be an aspiring entrepreneur and you may not have that billion-dollar idea, or you may not be at the perfect spot right now, but as long as you’re constantly learning and growing, you could eventually get there.”
GradGab is available for download on the App Store for iOS Devices. To learn more about GradGab, visit: gradgab.com