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Founder’s Five: Ruben Harris, Career Karma

Founder’s Five is a continuing series from Tyton Partners that invites education company founders to shed light on their own success and illuminate the landscape for other education entrepreneurs and investors by answering five basic questions.

Ruben Harris, along with co-founders Artur and Timur Meyster, founded Career Karma in 2018 as a tool to help learners find career training programs best suited to their price point and career goals, and to provide coaching and peer mentorship that supports successful outcomes.

Career Karma maintains a directory of more than 9,000 bootcamps, trade schools, colleges, and universities. Its mobile app allows learners to connect with a network of over 150,000 current students and alumni to find the ideal program and get prepared for admission.

More recently, Career Karma has expanded its business model to embrace partnerships with employers to offer career support as a benefit. Today, the company helps more than one million workers navigate their careers every month through advice and coaching.

To date, the company has raised more than $50 million.

What is your company’s origin story?

Career Karma was a product that we wish that we had, when we were breaking into tech. I personally did not have the credential you would imagine is necessary to get into a high paying career. And my co-founders and I were all able to take advantage of either online courses, or alternative non-degree pathways like boot camps that helped us get a job. My brother went to a boot camp, my co-founders went to boot camps, they all became software engineers. And once we discovered that it’s possible to get a job that pays six figures in three to six months, we wondered what would happen if millions of people knew that these things existed, and that you can do it with having little to no debt. And that’s what led us to this journey.

One of the boot camps that one of our buddies went to, had a guy named Jack Altman, and he’s now the CEO of Lattice. His brother was Sam Altman, who was the president of Y Combinator at the time, and that’s how we discovered Y Combinator. And that’s when we quit our jobs in finance to move to Silicon Valley, not necessarily to start a company, but just to work in tech to see how tech companies are run, and then eventually came up with this idea.

How will the market be changed by your company’s success?

There are two things that we believe. We believe that in the future, tech is going to be core to every industry. So even if you’re in healthcare, or manufacturing, or travel, there’s going to be some kind of tech component to it. And so, we’re focused on making sure that everyday people are able to get the tech skills that are necessary to thrive in a future economy. That’s number one.

Number two, we believe that the whole post-secondary education ecosystem is evolving. So, it doesn’t matter whether you’re in a college or a non-degree program, we will see shorter, faster, cheaper models that mimic the bootcamp, with success measured by outcomes versus graduation rates. 

Ruben Harris headshot

So, it doesn’t matter whether you’re in a college or a non-degree program, we will see shorter, faster, cheaper models that mimic the bootcamp, with success measured by outcomes versus graduation rates.”

ruben harris

And the outcome is, “Did you get a job or promotion or raise — period.” That’s how you measure quality. Career Karma is going to change the way that the world operates by making sure that any human being that’s looking to start a career or make a career change, is matched to education that they can trust and positions them for roles that are oriented for the future.

What do you know now that you wish you had known when you began?

Even though we’re a highly driven company, at the end of the day, we’re creating software that connects humans to humans. And whenever you’re dealing with human interaction, it’s really about being good communicators, and really helping people stay motivated. How do you communicate to people in a way that inspires them to keep moving forward? Because even if you give people the perfect guidance for a career path, and you match them to the right training, and you make it free, if they’re not being encouraged through good communication, they’re not going to make it through.

Even when you think about the employer side, creating an academic marketplace for employers to offer training as a benefit does not guarantee awesome utilization rates; you have to actually make sure people know it exists. And even if they know that exists, they have to understand how that training maps to a job or promotion or a raise. They have to see other people that are like them, that are doing the same thing. So, there’s a lot of communication elements that I think I could have done a lot more about earlier; but it is one of my superpowers, so I got it. So, I would say, don’t underestimate the communication side of things; figure out how to do that better.

What non-intuitive insight have you gained through this work?

The surprising thing to me has been that so many intelligent, qualified people [concerned with workforce education] have the same objective, but they’re arguing about the wrong things. It’s not this type of education versus that type of education. It’s not even about how much it costs. That’s part of it. But people are different. So how much it costs is going to be relevant to certain types of people, the type of format is going to matter to others. And I think that what I’m trying to do is figure out how to make sure that everybody that is passionate about helping people get jobs in a way that’s debt free, and in a way that is scalable and relevant for the future, is collaborating and focused on solving the right problem. And that’s the reason I say it’s not intuitive. I want to be the greatest company of all time in workforce development, but I also want to work with the other players that are in my space, in a way that better helps learners; because at the end of the day, that’s what matters.

In my opinion, I think that the public sector does more for workforce development than the private sector ever will, whether it’s government, nonprofits, or foundations. And historically, the technology industry has had issues with the government. So rather than fighting each other, let’s work with each other, to better help people. Government regulations can slow technology development, and tech people can present themselves as the enemy because they want to disrupt everything. But they’re both trying to do the same thing; they’re just not communicating with each other very well. Part of the reason I’m In Miami is because I have a very good relationship with the government and the mayor here and the workforce development centers and nonprofits. So I can work with the nonprofits in the area, like the Knight Foundation, but I can also work with the private sector and the employers that want to train local Miamians and come up with a real collaborative public private partnership. Working with the government is not my main priority; following Series B, I am more focused on the employer side of things. But yeah, a non-intuitive insight is not to sleep on the public sector.

What other education company besides your own do you wish you had started?

Duolingo is amazing. Duolingo is probably my favorite app. My first language is Spanish. My dad’s black and my mom is Cuban. But my dad speaks Spanish, Portuguese, French and Chinese. My mom got a 500-day streak on Duolingo learning Portuguese. My sister’s teaching herself Korean and my brother’s teaching himself Japanese. My girlfriend’s from Brazil, so she’s teaching herself Spanish. So, we can all be trilingual. Duolingo has created a really fun, social-friendly way to learn a hard skill that is scalable and has a really nice trajectory in the public markets. And they’ve created a strong community and community is our secret sauce at Career Karma so that’s very inspiring to me. Their social media game is amazing. They’re hustlers and they’re based in Pittsburgh, so it’s not a Silicon Valley company and that’s really cool.

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