With a mission to create a community-led scholarship programme to help high-achieving students in the UK from disadvantaged backgrounds attend university, Alexander De Kegel (MSc Economics and Strategy for Business 2015) launched Crowd Scholar in December 2017. Here he talks to us about the challenges he has met along the way and the story behind his worthy venture.
What gave you the idea for your business?
I co-founded Crowd Scholar with a childhood friend of mine, David, who worked at one of the most challenging academies in the country as a Teach First participant. There, he taught and interacted with students who, despite challenging conditions, showed great potential. One day David sent me a text that led to a dialogue centred on why high-achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds did not receive more support, recognition and encouragement. From there on it was just a question of what, not if, we would do something. I have long been a believer in crowdfunding and after a bit of research was pleasantly surprised by the amount of money that was being donated to individuals’ educations through crowdfunding platforms. However, a lot of campaigns were organised for years abroad or master’s degrees, and campaigns were either over- or under-funded. In short, the allocation of funds was not efficient and not directed towards those who arguably need it most. Therefore, we decided to mix the ‘power of the crowd’ with a centralised fund, taking the best of both worlds, as well as add on some donor engagement for good measure.
How does the process work?
Currently, we are raising funds for three students, selected from over 100 applicants following an extensive and rigorous application process. All three are exceptional Sixth Formers in genuine need that are hoping to attend university next year, including Charles who hopes to attend Imperial College London to study Computer Science. Anyone can chose to donate to the students and help them reach their educational goals. In line with one of our core values of transparency, donors can view the applicants’ full scholarship applications (essays, teacher recommendations, grades, etc.) and will see their donations (anonymous or otherwise) tracked on the site publicly so that donors can be confident in our pledge to donate 100% of funds received from donors.
How did it feel when your business launched?
Surprised, then excited. Following months of discussions with developers, potential partners, the charity commission (the list goes on)… when you see it all come together my initial thought was, “Wow, that’s actually worked!”
What was the greatest challenge you faced in starting out?
I think the single greatest challenge has been managing all the small challenges! The idea you are working on is the fun part: you get to be creative and dream and hypothesize. However, in actually making the idea a reality there is a whole series of hoops (usually bureaucratic) you have to jump through, and managing them all simultaneously is hard work.
What have been the key lessons learned from the whole process?
Perhaps a rather boring one, but be obsessively organised. Having a clear division of responsibilities and a central location with everything you are working on has been key. A second lesson, which I have heard many times in the past but had to experience to really understand: there will come a stage where you need to commit and fully decide this is what you are going to do. If you believe in the idea, deal with the negative ‘what ifs’ as quickly as possible.
Any advice to budding entrepreneurs?
If you have an idea you are passionate about, find someone who is willing to work with you to make it a reality. Having someone to challenge you, bounce ideas off of and share the ‘pain’ with is invaluable.
How has your connection to the Business School helped you with your business?
We were pleased to be able to team up with the Business School to offer a consultancy project. Last year we worked with an enthusiastic group of MSc Strategic Marketing students who attacked an ambitious scope focussed on helping Crowd Scholar develop a successful and cost-effective 2017-18 marketing campaign.
How did your time at the Business School prepare you for setting up your own business?
My work at Crowd Scholar requires me to think about the big picture and the nitty gritty of execution at the same time. While I am still learning, the variety of subjects I covered and projects I undertook whilst at the Business School prepared me well for this combination. Furthermore, the hands on experience I gained through the programme consulting project at a start-up gave me interesting insights into the potential challenges and the need to be pragmatic in the execution of the idea. Most importantly, the combination of my education and experiences at the Business School gave me the confidence to take Crowd Scholar from an idea to a reality.