The Networking Platform Bigger Than LinkedIn for College Students
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you shouldn’t have to have an Ivy League degree to land your dream job.
By Molly Fosco
It’s late at night, and Garrett Lord is speeding down a dark highway in middle America. For weeks, the college senior and his two friends, Ben Christensen and Scott Ringwelski, have been clocking the miles in a blue Ford Focus, and coding in McDonald’s parking lots. The three undergrads are meeting with dozens of universities in a bid to get their young company off the ground.
Lucky for Lord, those sleepless road trips have paid off. Today, he is the CEO of Handshake, a college career network that aims to democratize job opportunities for students from every background. The company has grown exponentially in the intervening four years: More than 700 universities and 300,000 companies use Handshake, which has surpassed LinkedIn as the largest network for job-seeking college students in the U.S. That success enabled Lord, 29, who dropped out of college to build Handshake, and his co-founders, to move from a rental house in Houghton, Michigan, to slick offices in San Francisco. But Lord hasn’t lost sight of their mission: With 43 percent of new college graduates underemployed, according to a May report from Burning Glass Technologies, he created Handshake as a way to directly connect students with hundreds of thousands of employers, giving them access to opportunities they may never have had otherwise.
Lord’s upbringing in Birmingham, Michigan, was pretty typical for an upper-middle-class Midwestern kid. He spent winters skiing and playing ice hockey. As a high school freshman, he ran a lawn-mowing business — until the budding tech whiz became the neighborhood’s go-to IT professional, fixing computers for cash.
That passion led Lord to Michigan Tech for computer science, though he says the university also appealed because of the surrounding wilderness and easy access to skiing. The summer after freshman year, Lord interned at Los Alamos National Labs in New Mexico, home to one of the fastest supercomputers in the world, and met tons of other science geeks. “A lot of those kids went to fancy schools and had interned at companies like Google and Facebook,” he recalls of the Harvard and Stanford students he worked alongside.
For Lord, the mission — to help every student get any job they want, regardless of who their parents are or how much debt they’ve got — is personal.
But Lord wasn’t intimidated — instead, he knew that those Silicon Valley jobs were within his reach too. He started making industry connections on LinkedIn and landed an internship at Palantir Technologies in the Washington, D.C., area. His time at Palantir was eye-opening, he says, in part because of how often he was asked to refer other qualified engineers. “I thought, what if we could build a software to fix this?”
That was the seed from which Handshake grew. Recognizing that the majority of tech companies, especially on the West Coast, were hiring from the “fancy schools,” and kids like him from smaller, rural colleges didn’t stand a chance, Lord zeroed in on the most logical place to start: college career centers. “We wanted to help career counselors connect students with more companies,” Lord says. “By turning the job search into a network, we could increase opportunity.”
And that’s exactly what they did. After Lord, Christensen and Ringwelski coded the initial platform in their spare time, they began their cross-country journey — seeking to better understand the challenges students face when applying for jobs and to encourage universities to sign up for Handshake. The platform was and will remain free for students, while universities and premium employer partners pay an annual fee.
By August 2014, the startup had signed its first university partners, including Valparaiso University and Hillsdale College, and the platform now functions like a social network for careers. A personalized feed shows students’ recommendations based on their profile, with job type, location and salary preference, as well as content from employers they follow. Employers can search the platform for job candidates and sort by particular skills, academic major or coursework completed. Both students and employers can message each other. Students like it because they don’t feel like they’re sending their resume into a black hole. “All the internships I applied for on Handshake called me for an interview or gave notice they went with other candidates,” says Rebecca Leffler, a student at the Milwaukee School of Engineering.
Lord notes that huge employers like the European Union and Chase have reached out to Handshake users from smaller schools. Chris Dubois, a computer engineering major from Manhattan College, remembers receiving a message alert from Handshake as he was leaving class. “When I first realized it was Chase, it was super surprising,” he says. Dubois applied, got an interview and was offered a summer internship as a tech analyst at J.P. Morgan Chase in New York. Handshake also allows employers to diversify their talent pool. Software company Rubrik uses it to recruit from schools not traditionally known for engineering. “We’ve been able to introduce talented students from all over the country to opportunities at Rubrik,” says Wahab Owolabi, the company’s recruiting manager.
In 2015, Handshake secured seed funding from True Ventures and relocated to the Bay Area, and in October they secured their Series C funding, led by EQT Ventures. Today, they have 14-million-plus students and young alumni on the platform. Their university participants grew from 400 to 700 in the last year, and the number of employers using Handshake grew by more than 100,000 in the same period. Ask Megan Quinn, a general partner at Spark Capital and a board member at Handshake, to explain that success and she points to Lord’s drive and curiosity. “Garrett is a sponge,” she says, “and he’s constantly seeking out info and guidance from others.”
Handshake’s growth has been explosive, but the fact that they have three primary audiences — students, universities and employers — can create unique challenges. As they grow, they’ll need to develop different features for each, which can get “complicated and difficult to effectively manage and keep in sync,” says Terri Meade, a Bay Area angel investor and IT consultant.
For Lord, the mission — to help every student get any job they want, regardless of who their parents are or how much debt they have — is personal. “I’m a bit of an underdog with a chip on my shoulder,” he says. OK, but even if he lacks an Ivy League degree, Lord’s path isn’t all that different than Silicon Valley’s hoard of young, White male founders. Notably, when he started Handshake, his dad gave him a $100,000 check to pay off his student loans.
But Lord and his company are opening doors for undisputed underdogs. The startup currently partners with students and alumni from more than 150 Minority Serving Institutions across the country — including Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Serving Institutions, American and Pacific Islander Serving Institutions and Tribal Colleges and Universities. The platform also publishes reviews and Q&As to help narrow the knowledge gap for first-generation college students and to provide women with information about entering male-dominated fields like business, finance and tech.
Can Handshake level the playing field for job-seeking students, regardless of where they go to school or who they know? It’s a compelling question for anyone who’s gotten precisely nowhere on LinkedIn.
Correction: Handshake usage numbers have increased since the initial research for this feature. OZY has updated with the new data.