Yale Startup BridgeYear Connects High School Students with Non-Traditional Career Paths

VIctoria Chen (SOM '17), cofounder of BridgeYear.

VIctoria Chen (SOM '17), cofounder of BridgeYear.

BridgeYear cofounders Victoria Chen (SOM '17) and Victoria Doan noticed a problem at Sharpstown High School in Houston, Texas, where they both previously worked. Many of their students were unmotivated by traditional college programs, unclear about future career prospects, and unsuccessful at making economically viable transitions out of high school into education or career pathways.

They founded BridgeYear in the summer of 2016 as an exploration tool for high school students to discover high-demand technical jobs, pathways to local community colleges, and ongoing support throughout the process. "Picture a high school gym set up like a career fair, but instead of brochures you have different career simulations," Chen said. Students can spend up to 20 minutes learning how to be a pharmacy technician at a station which provides not only a hands-on experience, but also detailed information about educational credentials required for the occupation, estimated job salary and other details. Chen and her co-founder Victoria Doan design the simulations themselves and train college students to run them.

The company uses two measures of success: the college enrollment rate of high school students who expressed interest in going, and the rate of students' exposure to new opportunities. Before the introduction of the BridgeYear program, only 30% of around 100 students surveyed at Sharpstown High School in 2015 who said they wanted to attend university ended up going. With BridgeYear's assistance, the rate increased to 66%. A major aim of the cofounders is to introduce new employment opportunities to students, and 91% of attendees said they were exposed to new opportunities they hadn't heard of before, such as health information technology, medical billing or coding.

Importantly, these pathways typically require one- or two-year college degrees, which are more financially accessible to students. "We're shifting the narrative and fighting the myth that a four-year college is the only solution," Chen said. "Not everyone needs or wants a four-year degree, and we're trying to change the existing mindset and the role of educators."

The cofounders both come from education and teaching backgrounds. While Chen is focused on business development, fundraising and strategy, Doan leads curriculum development and research and data collection efforts.

High schools are both the collaborators and customers of the startup, and BridgeYear creates a pipeline for community colleges to receive students who have worked with them. Furthermore, Houston is a city with demand for skilled labor particularly in emerging industries with well-paid jobs even at the entry level. In addition, BridgeYear provides a unique advising program for up to six months after students have graduated from high school. These are staffed by near-peer advisors who are current college students, and focus on timely, non-judgmental nudges and connections to relevant resources.

Chen said her time at Yale School of Management allowed her to reflect on the impact she wanted to make through her career and in her life. Previously a high school biology teacher and college counselor at Sharpstown High School, Chen received many messages from former students seeking career and education advice. "I had all this business expertise from SOM about how to make an organization effective, and I wanted to take that knowledge and apply it to an area that is capable of making a difference," she said.

Chen credits her residential environment during her time at Yale SOM with sparking her entrepreneurial interest. She and her two female roommates were all entrepreneurs by the time they graduated from SOM:  Catherine Wu cofounded Re-Harvest Foods and Vichi Jagannathan co-founded sex education app RealTalk. "Living in that environment made the entrepreneurial hustle feel like the norm," Chen recalled. This support system also helped Chen have more conviction in her endeavor; her roommates pushed her to "accept and embrace" the title of "entrepreneur." "It took me a while to call myself an entrepreneur," she said. "Because I didn't see myself as an entrepreneur, I didn't access the resources I knew Yale had as well as I could have."

BridgeYear won the Thorne Prize for Innovation in Health or Education in 2017, a $25,000 cash prize awarded by Yale to the best student-led venture focused on these areas. As a result, the team was automatically accepted into Tsai CITY's Summer Fellowship, which provided an additional $15,000 stipend. Chen described this as a "moment of validation" for the business, which had previously only been working with students and was thus unsure if it could feasibly be taken to market. "The amazing pro bono resources and mentorship provided us with a new way to be diligent about growing a business and staying accountable," Chen said. She added that she gained a different perspective of the venture when mentors encouraged her to focus on other areas such as marketing and business development.

Chen also praised Yale's inclusive entrepreneurial space — particularly Tsai CITY's nonprofit incubator — which "makes it okay to start a nonprofit." Nonprofits and for-profits have a lot in common, she says. "You still need to market yourself, create a sustainable business and be financially viable, with the added bonus of benefitting the community.”

In September 2017, BridgeYear was one of 12 teams accepted into the national Points of Light Civic Accelerator which is focused on workforce innovation ventures.

BridgeYear is currently working hard to meet the overwhelming demand for career fairs in Houston. "We're getting the traction we need, but we've received so much demand that we've had to turn schools away because we don't have capacity," Chen said. "We know it works and that there's nothing like this on the market, but we have to focus on delivering it." Strategically, Chen continued, BridgeYear is shifting from sales and marketing to focusing on fundraising efforts to build organizational capacity through foundation and corporate sponsorship support. Having already met capacity for career fairs for Spring 2018, the company aims to serve 12,000 students over the next two years.

The next step is to hire a full-time program manager. While Chen maintains that she remains unsure of exactly what future expansion will look like — perhaps a franchise model — she knows that BridgeYear would thrive in areas with high middle-skill employment opportunities and a robust community college system that can support students. "We're in a difficult funding situation in Houston because of Hurricane Harvey," Chen said. "Philanthropic giving is not where it used to be."

In the future, Chen hopes to introduce corporate sponsorships into BridgeYear's strategy. "We hope more employers with high need for a position will work with us and sponsor a career test drive for that role, and implement it as a new way of recruiting talent," she said.

Veena McCoole is the YaleWomen Innovation Fellow at Tsai CITY.

Veena McCoole