StudentMentor Matches Mentors and Protégés Online

3/16/11Follow @xconomy

[Editor's note: due to an editing oversight, this story was originally published under the byline Wade Roush. It was actually written by freelance contributor Elise Craig. Sorry Elise!!]

When StudentMentor.org co-founders Ashkon Jafari and Stephanie Bravo were in college, they felt lost. Bravo, a first-generation college student, had her sights set on medical school, but wasn’t sure what classes and extracurriculars she needed to get there. Jafari had switched his major twice, and didn’t know what career path to take. Both were saved by the guidance of mentors—in Bravo’s case, a med student she was paired with through a local program, and in Jafari’s, a higher-up at his internship. “We looked around and saw a lot of our classmates and friends didn’t have this guidance,” Jafari says. “There was no sort of program. We saw this huge need.”

Last April, Jafari and Bravo founded StudentMentor.org, a free networking site based in San Francisco that links college students with older mentors. To get involved, students can go onto the site and create profiles detailing where they are in school and what kind of advice they need. They can also choose how much time they want to dedicate to the program, from a week to three months, with most selecting a two-month mentorship. Mentors fill in the jobs they’ve held, what industry they have expertise in, and how many years they’ve been working in specific jobs. For Bravo, who serves as president of the nonprofit, this feature helps fill in the gaps left by many existing mentorship programs. “Students can reach out to mentors in professional fields that schools may not have any connections to,” she says.

Once the profiles are filled out, StudentMentor’s Web platform provides a list of matches so that both students and mentors can check out potential profiles and choose the best fit. Once a request is put in, both parties have to accept it. “We want to make sure it’s a good match for both people,” says executive director Jafari. If for some reason the pair doesn’t click, either party can end the relationship, and look for a new match.

When both parties have accepted, students and mentors can start chatting through the site’s online messaging platform, which Jafari says is structured much like Facebook. Users receive email alerts when they get new messages on the system. According to Jafari, 90 percent of the pairs use it, though they may also choose to chat on the phone or meet in person. However, StudentMentor does not give out contact information beyond the messaging platform, so users can decide for themselves if they want to take the mentorship offline.

Like online dating sites, StudentMentor is setting up two strangers to start a relationship—-albeit a platonic one—so Bravo and Jafari had to make sure to put safety measures in place. All users must be over 18, and StudentMentor uses cookies to make sure that a user who has been denied access because of age can’t go back and re-register with another birth date. They recommend that all meetings between mentors and their protégés take place in public places. The terms of use prohibit felons and sex offenders, and by accepting them, all users give the organization the right to conduct a background check. And, Bravo says, both students and mentors can contact the organization and report abuses. Since the site went live at the end of September, Bravo and Jafari have gotten no reports of abuse, and have not had to conduct any background checks

So far, the site has already attracted approximately 950 mentors and 450 students, and 94 percent of them have been matched. “We believed it’s harder to get mentors,” Jafari says, “so we did a lot of outreach.” Now the cofounders are focusing on getting more students signed up on the site, though coverage in college newspapers, setting up tables at student-oriented events, posting videos of mentees’ experiences on YouTube, and working on search optimization strategies.

As states across the country face massive budget shortfalls, the two co-founders believe that StudentMentor can help fill in where cuts to education programs have left students wanting for advice. “Despite all the setbacks, nonprofits like us are stepping up to provide a solution to the furloughs for career support services and academic support services,” Jafari says. “We’re very happy with the successes, and even more so, we’re happy with the impact that it’s had,” Bravo says.

That success has come with a pretty cheap price tag. Bravo, who is now a first-year medical student at UC Riverside, and Jafari, who quit his job with Nvidia to start the venture raised a “very small” amount of money from friends and family. So far, they’ve only spent between $900-$1000. So how did they manage to start the network on such a shoestring budget? “We’ve been so frugal because we’ve been able to get so many things pro bono,” Jafari says. Though he got a “lot of no’s” when he started asking for help, three law firms, a design firm, a printing company and two online marketing firms have stepped up to help StudentMentor with both legal and organizational challenges.

Jafari developed the architecture and layout of the site, while a team of five volunteer web developers, including a Google employee, built it. The organization currently has about 25 volunteers, some full and half time, while others work just a few hours a week. Jafari and Bravo recruited most of them by approaching professional organizations and using the site volunteermatch.com. “A lot of them are really enthused and want to either volunteer more or give more time,” Jafari says.

Eventually, he and Bravo want the site to sustain itself with corporate sponsorships and other grants. The long-term plan is to raise enough cash to employ staff members, and Jafari will continue his full-time role. They’re still waiting to hear back about a dozen grants they applied for in January. But for now, Jafari and Bravo believe that reaching out to college students is their biggest challenge, and they are focusing on increasing the number of mentorships. That’s what it’s been about from the beginning—giving students a tool they wish they’d had when they were in school.

“We just had to be resourceful and find other opportunities,” Bravo says. “If we did have it when we were in school, we could have opened up our eyes a lot more.”

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