Alexandra Bernadotte knows a lot about getting over obstacles. As founder of the Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit Beyond 12, Bernadotte has devoted the past decade of her life to providing historically under-represented students the academic, social and emotional support they need to succeed in college. She’s a social entrepreneur in a world littered with barriers for women of color—women of color—yet has become one of the few to bring in almost $28 million in funding and earned income to her nonprofit.
And now, Bernadotte is showing that even the coronavirus is not even a speed bump—but instead a launching ramp.
This week, Beyond 12 said it has acquired GradGuru, a mobile platform designed to give students “nudges,” or text-based reminders about tasks that will help them succeed in college. At a time when many organizations are slowing their 2020 plans and reassessing their costs and revenues, Bernadotte is doubling down. In 2018, Bernadotte said that Beyond 12 aimed to serve 1 million students annually by 2025. Adding the GradGuru platform will accelerate those plans, she asserts.
No financial terms were announced. In addition to the platform, GradGuru founder and CEO, Catalina Ruiz-Healy, is joining Beyond 12 as vice president of partnerships, higher education. GradGuru’s chief technology officer, Kioma Valenzuela Aldecoa, and a team of five engineers based in the Philippines will also continue to work with Beyond 12.
The deal closed on March 17, just as “shelter in place” became reality in California. If anything, the crisis provoked by the coronavirus has made the combination even more compelling, Bernadotte says. “The COVID-19 pandemic has isolated students from essential guidance and support and put their years of hard work in jeopardy,” she says.
Since Bernadotte started Beyond 12 in 2010, she has been “married to the problem” of how to help students from low-income or disadvantaged backgrounds succeed in college. In its early days, Beyond 12 developed a peer-mentoring network where students supported each other. Although students identified with their peer-coaches, the service placed a big burden on the coaches. “We learned from first-generation students that asking them to take on the load of being the coach was onerous” on top of everything else they were doing, she recalls.
Beyond 12 evolved to relying on “near peers”—recent graduates—who took on coaching as a full-time occupation. It currently employs about 20 full-time coaches, each of whom serves about 125 students. Overall Beyond 12 works with 47,000 students, about 30 percent of whom are in community colleges.
GradGuru was tackling the same problem from a different vantage. Ruiz-Healy, who had previously worked at a family foundation, knew that many deadlines and opportunities slipped past first-gen students because they typically juggle many competing priorities—or don’t realize that help exists.
“The idea that they could wait in line to see a counselor just wasn’t a reality,” she says. “So we thought: ‘Why not use the power of mobile devices to push the right information to them at the right time?’”
Ruiz-Healy started GradGuru in 2012 as a nonprofit. These days, some 50,000 students in 19 community colleges receive between one and three “nudges,” or reminders, a day from GradGuru. Especially since the pandemic triggered campuses to shut down, GradGuru has been proving itself an effective way for colleges to communicate with their students, Ruiz-Healy says.
Combining the personal coaching approach of Beyond 12 with GradGuru’s technology nudges feels like a sweet fit to both founders. “They started with coaches, we started with tech. Now we’re meeting in the middle,” Ruiz-Healy says.
Over the past two years, Beyond 12 began to experiment with using more technology. Tests carried out at the Community College of New York (CUNY), for instance, demonstrated that there’s a segment of students who don’t necessarily need a coach—nudges are enough.
“The most important lesson I’ve learned over the years is that a solution that’s imposed is never as effective as one co-designed with our students,” Bernadotte says.
That attention to students led Beyond 12 to launch several initiatives in response to COVID-19: a student resource guide, and a Student Relief Fund that gives micro-grants (on average about $400 each) to students working with Beyond 12 coaches to cover a range of emergency expenses such as flights home, temporary housing and portable wi-fi hotspots. The organization also raised funding for additional coaches to support another 20,000 students.
But it’s the combination of Beyond 12 and GradGuru—both the technology and the people—that Bernadotte believes will ignite her organization’s ability to serve students in need.
Beyond 12 will now be part of an elite club, an edtech organization led by two women of color. “The stories we hear from our students every day solidified our decision,” Bernadotte says. “We couldn’t have asked for a better outcome,” adds Ruiz-Healy.