What do you do when everyone says they love your idea but people are slow to sign up? That was the issue facing Dana Stephenson, co-founder of Victoria-based Riipen, in early 2014. Riipen's mission is to reduce graduate unemployment. To do this, the company provides a digital platform for employers to post challenges, or projects, for students to work on. In turn, it gives students the opportunity to showcase the portfolio of real-world projects they have completed while in school.
Though employers and students were keen to participate from the beginning, an important group of people – professors at colleges and universities – were slow to connect their class assignments to companies that were hiring graduates. What could Mr. Stephenson do to encourage them to adopt Riipen in their courses?
Riipen was born in 2012 when Mr. Stephenson and his classmate Dave Savory were in their last year of an undergraduate commerce program. Concerned about their job prospects, they talked with friends who had recently graduated and were shocked by how many of them didn't have jobs or were bartending to pay down their student debt.
"I thought there must be a better way to facilitate entry into the job market," Mr. Stephenson recalls. "We had worked on lots of projects in my courses, but most of them were about make-believe companies or case studies of old situations. I wondered if there was a way to bring more real-world opportunities into the classroom so that students could gain current experience before they graduated."
In an entrepreneurship course, he developed a business plan for what Riipen might look like. After graduation, he continued developing the business while working full-time elsewhere. Richard Tuck, the teaching assistant of the course, continued to be a mentor and sounding board and, subsequently, was invited to become the company's CEO.
By December of 2013, they had 300 students and 30 companies signed up and were ready to launch. However, they were disappointed that colleges and universities were not jumping on board. Mr. Stephenson states that although professors saw the value of bringing experiential learning into the classroom and even said "yes, we're going to do this," nothing much would happen. Participating in Riipen just wasn't considered a priority. What could they do to change this?
Mr. Stephenson knew that Riipen had to develop a track record of success in order to become a priority for colleges and universities. Accordingly, he bypassed the professors altogether and targeted student clubs on campuses.
"We provided the clubs with challenges that their student members could work on outside the classroom – for example, we would give marketing challenges to the marketing club. These challenges typically took two to four hours to complete and were provided by companies that wanted to hire student talent."
By working through the student clubs, the Riipen team refined the platform to provide benefits for students and employers. Students receive feedback on their submissions: private comments on their work, as well as a public rating and recommendation they can post on a portfolio which can be viewed by prospective employers. They can also win a prize associated with the challenge, which could be cash or even a dinner with the founder of the company that set the challenge.
Employers gain by having job applicants who have researched their company and whose work they have assessed. Some employers will let students resubmit to a challenge after they receive feedback. Mr. Stephenson says that in a recent challenge, the company was blown away by the high quality of the resubmissions and brought all the students in to meet with the company's top management team:
"The students' work on the resubmissions showed their drive and how coachable they are, which are qualities highly valued by employers."
Working with the student clubs gave Riipen rich success stories that garnered the attention of career centres at colleges and universities who see the value of helping their students gain real-world experience. Riipen, which now has seven employees, will help professors adapt course assignments to real companies. This is beneficial for students because they can work on the challenges as part of their school work rather than as an extra activity they have to fit in between school, clubs and jobs.
Mr. Stephenson reports that the company has completed three trials of "Riipen-ing" class assignments, by matching professors' class assignments with real industry partners, and this fall they will launch private branded portals with four colleges and universities in Ontario, with 16 more starting in January.
A private branded portal lets professors post class assignments matched to an industry partner. Partner companies provide public feedback which students can add to their portfolio. Advisers at university and college career centres can access the students' portfolio of ratings and recommendations and use this information to better market their students to prospective employers.
Further, Riipen's track record with employers and students attracted the attention of Impact8, which selected Riipen to participate in an investment-readiness program for social-purpose businesses that supports Riipen's efforts to increase the scale at which they can reduce graduate unemployment.
Becky Reuber is a professor of strategic management in the Rotman School of Management of the University of Toronto.