Seattle Startup Koru Takes On Tech Training, Hiring for Recent Grads

Think of Koru, a Seattle startup bridging the worlds of education and high-tech recruitment, as akin to a study-abroad program paired with a high-powered internship for recent graduates looking to burst into tech, but facing a dismal employment picture.

The company landed a $4.35 million investment, which we reported in October when it was going by the name Kairos. It’s now releasing the big names backing it, and its plans for taking on a complex challenge at the place where students step out of the confines of college and into the workforce, facing a job market in which 44 percent of their peers take jobs that don’t require their debt-laden bachelor’s degrees.

Maveron, where co-founder and CEO Kristen Hamilton was most recently entrepreneur-in-residence, led the round with participation from Battery Ventures, First Round Capital, a16z seed, and individual investors.

College seniors and recent graduates apply to Koru for placement in a competitive program comprised of an “employer-embedded experience” and an online education component. “Our campus is the campus of our partner employers,” says Hamilton, pictured above with co-founder Josh Jarrett.

For example, an upcoming program will place students at Seattle e-commerce company Zulily for eight days in early January. In subsequent programs, students may rotate through multiple companies. Working in teams, they will be presented with real challenges put forth by the host employers, learning relevant skills in the process of solving them.

Part of the underemployment problem, Hamilton says, is that students are coming out of college without skills that high-tech employers are demanding. This includes competency with modern tools such as Google Analytics, Omniture, or Salesforce.com, as well as less tangible skills like “personal effectiveness,” teamwork in an office environment, and the ability to hit short, sudden deadlines.

“It’s just not what students are learning in college,” she says.

Through Koru, students are encouraged to “fail fast and cheap,” Hamilton says, which is a big change from the classroom, where they spend a lot of effort trying to avoid failure.

“Success in the workplace is doing things for years, imperfectly, and learning from them,” she says. “We try to shorten that learning curve.”

Koru LogoAt the end of the program, the student teams will present their results to company executives, who are eager to hear the perspectives of Millennials on their businesses, Hamilton says.

Koru aims to accomplish lots of things for both the students and the companies. It also has plans for its relationship with colleges and universities, but Hamilton says it’s too early to talk about them.

At a high level, the idea is to create an immersive experience inside a company, similar to a study-abroad program. As chief operating officer of World Learning, Hamilton visited students who were “completely transformed” by even relatively short stints studying in places like Morocco and Ecuador.

Parents who are willing to invest in study-abroad programs for their children, Hamilton’s thinking goes, should have an easy time investing in an experience designed to be equally transformative, and that offers a career boost.

Koru is still working out its pricing model. The Zulily program will cost students $425. Hamilton points for comparison to programs like the Tuck Business Bridge Program at Dartmouth, which runs four weeks during the summer and costs $10,200, including room and board.

It would be easy to dismiss this as merely an internship program, just another way for employers to access cheap labor. And in this case, students actually have to pay to get in the door. But this isn’t an exploitative situation, and it differs from typical internships in several key respects, Hamilton says.

For starters, Koru’s programs are highly structured and focused on giving students relevant skills, on-the-job experience, mentorship, networking, and professional support. Koru’s own staff runs the programs, not host-company employees who may see interns as free labor for their low-value tasks. Koru participants shouldn’t expect to be fetching coffee and making photocopies.

And then there’s the recruitment aspect.

While internships can and routinely do turn into permanent jobs, Koru is taking a more deliberate approach. Its programs are designed to function in part as on-the-job interviews with the host companies, which are typically growing fast and scrambling to hire.

Hamilton says that through Koru, students have the chance to demonstrate over a period of days or weeks how they think and react to on-the-spot questioning, how well they work in teams, and how they present, among other things that are hard for employers to assess from a resume and half-hour interview.

“Employers are getting access to a channel of exceptional candidates,” she says.

Therein lies the other part of Koru’s business model. If an employer hires a Koru participant and retains them for a set period of time, Koru is paid a fee—some percentage of the employee’s salary—much like a recruiting firm is paid.

The focus initially is on fast-growing, innovative employers, which points toward the high tech sector and places where high-tech companies are concentrated. In addition to Zulily, Koru is working with Seattle-area employers including beauty brand Julep, REI, and pet insurance provider Trupanion.

Hamilton aspires to make the employer revenue stream large enough that the student fees could be reduced or eliminated, particularly for capable candidates who otherwise couldn’t afford the program.

Hamilton and her team have significant experience at this intersection of business, education, and technology. At Maveron, her focus included investments in for-profit education. She previously headed education strategy at Microsoft, in addition to her work at international education nonprofit World Learning. She also has a long history of startup experience, co-founding online retailer Onvia in 1997. Co-founder and “chief learning officer” Jarrett’s latest post was at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where he headed higher education innovation.

“Education is the remaining trillion-dollar industry which has not been substantially transformed by technology or innovation,” Hamilton says, adding, “The question is, where do you start? The space between education and employment is a massive opportunity and both side struggle to fill it for a variety of reasons.”

So what’s with the name?

Koru is a Maori word, from the native population of New Zealand, that describes the spiral shape of a fern unfurling, while remaining the same at its core, as Hamilton puts it. She says it represents a principle Koru wants its students to embrace: Be your best self, but still be yourself.

“We’re most effective when we’re really our true selves,” she says.

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