On Professional Persistence and How Professionals Persist

Originally, I playfully wanted to post this article under the headline, "An Interview With The Most Annoying Startup Founder in St. Louis", but I can't do it anymore... because I've come to respect the sheer tenacity of Bryon Pierson's journey into entrepreneurship. Especially as the message of EDUrain is now breaking through and he no longer needs to keep educating the market.

Jonathan Allen: To succeed in entrepreneurship, there’s this idea of “professional persistence”. You have to persist and persist and persist, and you have to constantly overcome people’s naysaying; you’ve kind of got to maintain all of your relationships and not get too affected by people and stick to what you’re doing.

And you’ve got to keep believing in yourself. One of the things about being ‘professionally persistent’ or “annoying” is: if you had given up, you wouldn’t be annoying.

[00:32] Bryon, you’ve done so many things in the opposite way that someone else might do them or what the conventional way of doing it is. But actually the way you’ve won me over is on the professional persistence.

There’s a point where you cease to believe that this person isn’t relevant because they are saying things and they keep saying it until you’re getting it. And, you know, personally, I’m someone who’s had to move through not understanding where you’re coming from to understanding that it’s a subject that’s really dear to your heart.

And you’ve actually got an idea that works and is viable. Also I’ve watched you go through a couple of companies, now. When I first met you, you were going to do the video game around “streetfighter in drag.”

Bryon Pierson: [01:31] Drag Them was a video game that connects drag performers and local LGBT bars together to make money. And it supports drag queens who struggled to make their profession a livable profession. And it was going to help raise funds for kids, for scholarships for kids to go to college.

JA: [01:55] And then after that you pitched me “The Serenity Network.” 

BP: [01:59] So, the Serenity Strategy Network was a continuation of the “Serenity Plan”, which was my senior assignment in college.

JA: [02:07] Right. And the idea was that you were researching… 

BP: [02:10] How to enroll and retain LGBT students in higher education. 

JA: [02:14] …and you’d come up with metrics and you were scoring colleges against those metrics and you were creating a ranking out of it. 

BP: [02:23] Yes, because it was going to do two things. One, the metrics was made by students for students to actually succeed in school, not administration, but the enrollment piece was what we agreed with administration.

Don’t invest money unless students are there to use it. Students are  going to use it if they’re going to be there. 

JA: [02:43] That was an interesting idea, too. It wasn’t a bad idea.

It was complicated and it looked fairly heavy to pull off but it certainly it had legs. So, anyway, now you’re on your third concept and this is the one that everyone’s getting excited about.

BP: [03:00] So, in college, I was like one of the worst GPA, political science students. But by the end of the final project, I was in the running for first place for our senior assignment, the culmination project of our education. And I was in the top three for my class. 

I spent all my time in college creating organizations. My first organization I created was a student fan club section at my college because I saw there was a gap between student athletes going to games and having fun afterwards.

And that organization is still going at the college. Even though I left Lincoln college, six years ago, that organization, after I left rebranded from “Purple Rain”, it rebranded as the “LINC Connection” and they have like a full band and now they’re like a full fledged sports college now. 

When I went to SIUE, I was always trying to rebrand organizations and start organizations. I built them the way I wanted to build ’em.

The leader is the least important person. The reason why you there is for student enrollment and retention and that how you do it is based off the population you’re working with.

JA: [04:06] Right. That’s the thing you’ve actually been trying a lot of stuff for a long time. Why didn’t you stop? 

BP: [04:14] I don’t really do well when I’m not in charge. That’s one thing, one thing, when I’m in charge is I don’t feel like I need to be the most important person in the room.

That’s great for leadership. The second thing is I’m doing things from a perspective that nobody else has in my space. 

Or in college. They’re usually like so far that they want to burn down the whole framework of education or they only make money, and they’re like, “Look, I don’t really know how to make money besides what we’re already doing.” 

So they don’t really listen to change or they work there and they’re not trying to be a part of any kind of change because their bosses shoot down all change. They don’t want to look like they’re shying away from administration. 

JA: [04:58] That’s where I’m zoning in on this idea of “annoying as a virtue”. A lot of these industries and organizations, they have a incumbent way of doing things.

They do things in a certain way, and that’s how they’ve always done them and so nothing should change. And, in a way, that’s where your “professional persistence” come then, because your essentially someone who seems to know their way around the system, 

BP: [05:27] I disagree with knowing my way around the system. I will uncover every rock to figure out and will happen to land upon the right answers because I asked everybody.

I mean, you don’t know until you don’t know. I would rather find out that somebody ain’t gonna tell me something than just think they, ain’t going to tell me something 

JA: [05:42] Exactly, man, and that’s brilliant. And that’s an admirable quality.

BP: [05:47] You know, “Give me 10 minutes to talk about EDUrain and let’s see what we think.” And I’ve seen that across the spectrum of people, people trying to work with me. 

JA: [05:56] And that’s the thing, right? The political campaigns that have the most “doorknockers” in the end, that’s what swayed the vote.

And I think that in the case of startups, and forming new companies, there’s a lot of pointless meetings you need to have to establish that actually, that meeting’s not going to go anywhere. 

And I think that the transformation, at least I’ve seen in you over the years, is like going from high expectations and disappointment in the early days to now incorporating all of this into your process and just recognizing not every lead leads to something, but you have to pursue every lead. 

BP: [06:40] I was talking to a FinTech accelerator. “Well, what is EDUrain?” This was when I was trying to figure out how to get the loan thing together and how to get the housing and FAFSA.

And they was like, “Well, it’s only EdTech. It doesn’t seem like it works with the bank and, you know, it doesn’t sell to a bank.” And I’m like, ‘oh, really?’ So it’s not FinTech.

Then I went to the EdTech people and they were like, “this sounds like FinTech.” And then I went back to the FinTech people and they’re like, no, this sounds like EdTech.

But the funny thing is those were like five minute conversations that they’re like, “Oh, these are just one off; these don’t even matter.” But no, I was recording that and building that and then hitting those people back with five minute conversations that they thought were going nowhere.

And then I went to other people who had no idea and presented the whole case. And then I realized we’re FinTech and we’re building a new category, “Ed-FinTech”; FinTech, that targets education.

JA: [07:31] I think that that’s the big change. A lot of conversations really seem like three years of ‘professional persistence’ are coming together in EDUrain now. So, talk me through what the startup does.

BP: [07:45] EDUrain is a higher education, financial support platform. That gives students unprecedented access to governmental aid and scholarships and off-canvas housing, all in one platform. And we help you build credit while you’re in college. 

And the reason why is because the financial aid system in America is ridiculously complex and is not set up for minority, low income, first generation, and middle-class families to navigate the system without acclimating huge amounts of debt.

And we don’t teach people how to build credit. And the financial aid system is set up that you can actually use it if you know what you’re doing to actually make monumental change in a lot of these kids’ lives 

JA: [08:38] And you identified that there’s a statistic that fear around financial burden is stopping people from making decisions to pursue higher education.

BP: [08:49] Yes. 30% of students don’t even go to college at all. I’m talking about anything after high school.

And then you start looking at it and a lot of it is due to financial reasons. Right? We’ve got people that just like, “I don’t have the money. I don’t have the know how.”

You know, they’re just trying to hold down a job to make do for their family. There’s so many factors that go into it as I do more and more research on EDUrain.

First off, I’ve done 2,600 interviews. And I’m finding people that immigrated over here, they went through high school and then they just go to work somewhere in the community.

And they don’t even think about college because they’re just doing what they can for their family. But then they come back at 25, 26 trying to figure out college again. And they have no help. 

There’s $24 billion dollars in free financial aid that goes unclaimed every year and people don’t have financial planning. None of this makes sense for a lot of people.

And, you know, honestly, I did it and it didn’t make sense to me. I just filled out a bunch of stuff and here I am, $50,000 of student loan debt and I still struggle!

JA: [09:49] Why would you still say going through college is worth it?

BP: [09:53] Because you have a 90% chance of escaping poverty if you go into higher education. 

JA: [10:00] Wow.

BP: [10:01] People talk about teen homelessness. People talk about not being able to be a part of people’s tribe and stuff like that.

You know, what’s really good at solving homelessness, solving food issues and finding a way to get young people to understand who they are? College. 

You know why? They already have the infrastructure set up for it.

People talk about free college and all this stuff. I’m like, no, give every kid a coach and they will succeed.

Just because you make college free. Doesn’t mean they’re going to have the support, that’s the access to information, and then use the information to turn it into a successful life.

Make enough resources available for kids to go to school, have them write a bunch of essays, help them do a bunch of interviews, help them set up and plan on a degree, do those things for these kids to be able to, to make themselves.

And I promise you, it’s not going to be about how much school costs. We’re looking at the impact of school.

They want to solve the problem at the front end, not the long-term problem. At EDUrain we look at solving the long-term problem and partnering with people throughout the process so that we can help students.

We understand we’re the financial aid piece. We understand that’s our lane, that’s our unique lane, FAFSA, scholarships, and off campus housing.

Scholarships that help you pay for school. They don’t have to be paid back; they’re gifts given to the for free to help the student pay off college. 

JA: [11:28] What kind of scholarships are available?

BP: [11:30] There’s some for being a musician; there’s some for being an actor; there’s some for if you’re a daughter of the revolution. There’s a lot for Native Americans. There’s a lot for low income african-American students, Hispanic students, first-generation college students, first generation American students, immigrants.

The reason why EDUrain exists is because you got to fill up that FAFSA form with all your information. Then you’ve got to do the scholarship thing all over the place.

Why don’t we put those two in the same place and use one profile to solve all that? And then we help you find housing as well. So all your financial aid is accessed in one place.

It is a database of scholarships and a โ€œa user interface for the FAFSA” and then it’s a Zillow type platform for off-campus housing. 

JA: [12:18] Yeah. And so essentially, I mean, the way I think about it, when you, when we’ve talked before, it is kind of like a financial aid search engine. 

BP: [12:28] Right.  It’s your financial aid guide. Look, there’s a bunch of aid out there, fill out this profile and we’ll match you to the ones that specifically are for you. 

JA: [12:37] Bryon, you’ve been getting excited particularly around the housing aspects of EDUrain and off-campus housing. Talk to me a little about that and why it’s important. 

BP: [12:47] Because every student is going to need a place to live. And the reason real reason I’m excited is because I’ll be able to connect students to homes and to give them stability. The off-campus financial aid program โ€œthat helps them make the transitionโ€œ it gives us six months of stability. 

You know, as a foster care kid that moved around a lot, that six months of stability of like, this is your room that you paid for. You got a kitchen, you know, there’s a yard outside sometimes, or this is your apartment. That’s big for a lot of kids! 

There’s two kinds of off-campus housing. There’s student purposeful housing: apartment complex, specifically for students, but isn’t owned by a university.

And then there’s off campus housing that is just like apartments, landlords, and lease agencies just have for anybody. So we’re really focused on the leasing agencies and landlords that aren’t student purposeful housing, but we will work with student personal housing as well.

JA: [13:42] And what’s the FinTech side of the company that people are getting excited about?

BP: [13:48] So the FinTech part that people are getting excited about is that we’d be able to partner with the bank to upfront kids financial aid on money they’re already promised, but the school can’t disperse it until the fall. We give them an upfront financial aid in the spring, so they could pay for first month’s rent and deposit and the rent leading up to their fall financial aid coming in. 

And we help them build credit, doing that as well. So these are populations that the bank traditionally could not work with on car loans and mortgages, and we’ll be helping them build credit by the time they get out of college and they have that degree, they have that job, they can be able to afford a lifestyle that America promised them. 

The money is vested for the landlord or leasing agency. Right? So the student can’t do anything with it.

We’re just paying for your rent. The student can’t access the money.

When they apply, they have to submit the previous fall semester grades, then their upcoming class schedule, and they have to submit either a approved application for housing, or they’re asking us to co-sign for housing. So the bank has given out a loan that’s backed by the school’s financial aid, that the kid’s going to get this money.

We’re paying the bank with the kids financial aid that they just got. We’re giving a minimum payment of $50 to the bank each month from the student’s financial aid account. And then it’s completely paid out when the financial aid comes in the fall.

JA: [15:11] So, it’s actually just a short term loan that then builds the credit. So once that financial aid comes in, what happens after that? 

BP: [15:21] Yeah. So at that point, the kid just has a bank account with the banks. They can either keep the account or close it.

And the student has a trusted lender in the financial industry. They can come back to us for scholarships, but we’re really helping out in that first year and a half, two years of college. 

JA: [15:39] Back to professional persistence, what’s happened in the last year that when you look back at it, you couldn’t imagine that that would be possible? 

BP: [15:49] Um, that I was going to go to a tech training program and they was going to pay for me to work at a national college access organization and get me to work in their data department as a program evaluator on the national level.

JA: [16:02] Wow. Okay. How did that all happen? 

BP: [16:04] You know, I’m went through all those programs. Eventually somebody is going to get introduced to somebody.

So Boys Hope Girls Hope pulled my resume and they called me for an interview and I didn’t even know college access organization existed. And they was like, “oh, you’d be perfect for our data role”, cleaning up some records and stuff like that on a national level for all 16 affiliates around North America and Central America;  cleaning the data of the organization around student retention and student enrollment college matriculation. 

I was like, ” well, fantastic!” It validated me as an industry expert. And I was like, yes, thank you for that validation. 

JA: [16:45] You’ve always been creating organizations, pursuing ideas, but it sounds like this opportunity actually arose when you went into an organization and found a intrepreneurship opportunity from there?

BP: [17:01] Yes. I remember being on a phone and people was like, “oh my God, this is great.”

JA: [17:06] That persistence is also around keeping your mind open too. Opportunity is prevalent and exists everywhere and not giving up on your idea.

You know, I think that’s the thing. When I think about your journey, it makes me reflect on my own.

The amount of loose ends I had to pursue before something worked, but then when it worked, it really, really works. And I think, wow, what if I’d just given up?

And I see the same in you. You’ve just not given up on this idea. Sometimes what you’re seeking is in the last place you look. 

BP: [17:45] You know, I was always talking about my personal story and then my research, but now I’m able to have another conversation of like, “Bruh, this is how the industry works.”

These are what people are doing. This is how deals are being done. These are people raising money. These are the milestones that they’re looking at. These are how our boards work. These are how our NGOs work. It’s proof in the pudding. 

JA: [18:07] So what would you say to other founders who are just out of college and thinking about setting up a company? 

BP: [18:14] If you want to start a career in entrepreneurship, you need to have grounded research in industry. For example, even to this day, my senior assignment.

I go back and look at that because not only was looking at LGBT students, but we also looked at the budgets of 12 states in secondary education and enrollment and retention of students at colleges in those 12 states. And that was 330 colleges. I did not realize that I set up the basis for doing anything and create a campus environment. 

JA: [18:47] What’s your advice to just people who’ve already got an idea and they’re already pursuing it right now. What’s your advice to them? 

BP: [18:55] I do suggest people get degrees because higher education gives you a network, that’s unbelievable. I mean, I think everybody has their own journey of how they do things.

If you’re trying to figure out how to make an idea work, I would say just rapidly ask people questions and then do research on who’s solving those questions, trying to figure out where they lose sight of the problem. I would say, even call those companies and figure it out and really get into the heart of what’s going on. 

JA: [19:22] Exactly. A lot of people are kind of nervous about doing that. What would you tell them to overcome that? 

BP: [19:28] Do you want to be successful or not? Ask yourself that question. You know, six years ago, I walked into a senator’s office. I had the Pell grant from Illinois.

My school sent me there as a representative to talk to my Senator on increasing the Pell grant budget for students from low income families to go to college. 

And that’s why our loan program is the way it is, he was like, “Brian, I want to help students. How do we make sure that we don’t just give students four years of education for Ds and Fs?”

And I’m like, that’s a good question. One piece of that is colleges need better retention programs. And then we also looked at ways to catch students, that are on probation and at risk of suspension.

And I think that conversation was so important to how EDUrain is built even though that happened six years ago, I can go back to a Republican’s office in Illinois. And I can say it wasn’t about politics. It was about helping kids.

And that one conversation has got me thinking on how do I help students get a loan, build credit without losing them in the financial process to where the bank’s scared, the school scared, and the leasing agency was scared. And from that conversation, I was able to build our off-campus housing software.

People tell me, like in building EDUrain, building anything that I was doing ever, you’re not smart enough.

You’re not from Harvard. You’re not going to Stanford. What makes you think you’d be able to do this? What gives you the goal? And I’m like, you know, the fact that I show up every day and I get to hear you say that. 

JA: [21:06] That’s wicked. I love that.

BP: [21:10] People will tell you a lot about how they feel, “but this didn’t come from me. These industries are so old, so set in their ways…”

That they’re just like, there’s no way you’re gonna be able to overcome how this works. “I commend what you’re doing. I just don’t think you can do it.” I’ve heard that so many times throughout the year. 

JA: [21:26] Totally I think that also goes back to some of the stuff I was saying about “being annoying” in “inverted commasโ€œ is like you are taking on a momentous challenge. And I think you were right, when you were still showing up and people are kind of expressing that. That’s kind of the validation that tells you something. 

BP: [21:46] You know, when I see people now, I’m like, “Hey, how’s it going? I still, you know, people that haven’t emailed me back for four years and I send an email, Hey man, it’s been four years. You know, we’re still going. 

JA: [21:56] And why do you do that? 

BP: [21:58] Because eventually they’re going to say yes. 

JA: [22:01] Exactly!

BP: [22:04] Because EDUrain is going to redefine how higher education works. And by the time that happens, they’re going to say, “Well, I know Bryon when… and that’s why we work with EDUrain now.”

And I’m not going to talk about how they didn’t talk to me before, I’m only going to talk about how they’re working with. 

JA: [22:22] It reminds me of the Steve Jobs quote or the one attributed to him, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

BP: [22:30] Yeah. And I can tell you I’ve been, um, I’ve been called a little wild!
JA: [22:37] As I say, you’ve come so far in the last three years. Bryon Pierson, EDUrain, thanks a lot for talking to EQ.