Founder Spotlight: Meet Jackson & James, the Co-Founders of Mentor Collective

by Sally Sorte

The Mentor Collective founding team, in 2015. Jackson and James are front right.

“Mentor Collective is grounded in… helping students who feel like they don’t belong in a place, belong in a place,” says Co-Founder and CEO, Jackson Boyar.

To achieve this sense of belonging, Mentor Collective seeks to make life-changing relationships a feature of every student’s college experience.

“Helping people feel at home in the world and be their best selves.”

While this human need transcends time, the last 14 months of Covid-19 ‘social distancing’ have underscored the value of human connection. And the gaping hole we feel when that need is not fulfilled.

Jackson Boyar and James Lu Morrissey co-founded Mentor Collective in 2014. Originally designed to help international students navigate culture shock and acclimate to American boarding schools, they pivoted in 2016 to focus on the higher education market.

Boyar notes that despite being some of “the most interconnected networks of social capital on the planet — at a university you have faculty, staff, alumni, employers, all of these different individuals that could help any one student — organizations are very bad at deploying that capital into the relationships that matter most at the right points in time.”

“I see Mentor Collective as a platform that allows any organization to harness its social capital, upskill its social capital, train [people] how to be an effective support figure or mentor, then deploying those relationships at the right time,” says Boyar.

“So whether you are a transfer student trying to figure out how to get through college in two years, if you are an adult learner balancing work and school, if you are a diverse employee entering a predominantly white employer, surrounding that individual with the humans who are committed and interested in helping them succeed — those people exist but those relationships are not always formed if you leave it up to chance.”

“We think we are a systematic way to make the experience a level playing field for anyone entering a university and perhaps, in the future, entering an employer.”

How it all began

“Mentor Collective is very personal to me,” relays Boyar, “This idea of helping others feel comfortable in the world, feel supported in the world.“

Boyar attributes the team’s early sales success to their deep commitment to this vision.

Boyar’s inspiration for Mentor Collective came from a formative experience leaving his home in New Jersey to live in China for a year when he was 16.

“It was that experience that made me increasingly interested in education. Largely because I was juxtaposing my own upbringing and education in the United States with an entirely different Chinese education system. I had a host brother at the time who was going through a very different [reality].”

This led Boyar to make friends with several Chinese International students in college.

“I became very interested in the idea of culture shock and how someone can feel like they belong in a community that does not represent their background; that does not represent their lived experience,” explains Boyar.

In helping his friends navigate the American education system and culture, he came to understand this experience from a new perspective.

“[My co-founder, James] had experienced culture shock and reverse culture shock, going back and forth, so we both resonated with the experience of being a stranger in a strange land,” says Boyar.

Morrissey’s background starts in Queens, NY.

“I am the child of a first generation immigrant from Taiwan, my mother. My father is American. I grew up in a very diverse neighborhood, situated between Little Manila and Little Bombay in Queens. I went to elementary school in Taiwan in Kindergarten and 1st grade. It was a really multicultural upbringing. That really stuck with me.”

In college, Morrissey studied abroad and lived in China as well.

Morrissey describes meeting Boyar at a consulting firm they both worked at after college.

“We really bonded over our mutual interest in overseas education, in mentorship. We started the Chinese language table at the consulting firm and we were the only 2 consistent participants every week. Later, we became roommates and worked together on creating mentoring programs on the nights and weekends.”

Both Morrissey and Boyer emphasize how seminal their consulting roles were to their career trajectories.

“We’re definitely peanut butter and jelly. I’d say [Jackson] is more of the jelly, I’m more of the peanut butter. I’m more of the bad cop. He’s more focused on the vision, the where we’re going, why is that important,” describes Morrissey.

“I’m more focused on how can we get there in as smooth, streamlined way as possible. We really appreciate and have learned to fully leverage each other’s strengths which is really valuable.”

Meanwhile, according to Boyar: “Meeting James was great — he had that activation energy that initially I didn’t have — he wanted to make moves and take risks. It wasn’t something that came to me naturally.”

“In the early days, James was the momentum creator in our friendship. I would have lots of ideas, but he would help me put those ideas into practice,” says Boyar.

Put them into practice they did. First, the duo attempted to help businesses in Chinatown. They did not gain traction, but enjoyed the experience and learned valuable lessons. Next, Boyar and Morrissey set out to address the pain point of helping international students acclimate to boarding schools in the Northeast.

“We started pro bono consulting high schools on how to build pre-arrival mentoring programs to help students have a more seamless transition,” recalls Morrissey.

Ultimately, while their K-12 mentorship work began generating revenue, the market was limited and the end users were not the only ones who Boyar and Morrissey felt called to serve.

“Fast forward 5 years later, and we’ve expanded to be focused on universities, making sure every student has a mentor, because we think that is the missing link in helping students graduate on time and [increasing] career readiness and career outcomes,” says Morrissey.

Morrissey continues, “Today, [we have] 60 employees, 110 partner institutions, and we just passed 100,000 mentorships and our goal is 200,000 this year.”

That is a lot of life changing relationships — especially at this critical juncture in higher education.

Mentor Collective’s team via Zoom.

Generating returns on all levels

“What I love about our business model is we only generate revenue when we create mentorships. So it’s one and the same, our financial impact and our social impact, they go up and to the right at the same pace,” says Morrissey.

Morrissey uses this correlation to distill the quantifiable impact of each department.

“Say you are a business development representative and your KPI, your goal is creating meetings. We know what % of meetings equal a new partnership and the average new mentorships per partnership… so if you set up 10 meetings this week, you can lead to ~300 mentorships 4–6 months from now.”

“That helps turn every single action that we do into understanding the long-term impact.”

Yet, Morrissey points out that even so, “ a number is just a number,” so they bring this impact to life by lifting up the individual stories of mentors and mentees. “Every few weeks, we highlight a mentoring relationship in our All Hands meetings.”

The team gets the chance to hear their stories, ask questions, and give/receive feedback.

“That way we have the qualitative and the quantitative. So when we hit 100,000 mentorships, which we hit [in March], we know what that means because we have heard from and seen some of those mentorships. And that gives those 100,000 mentorships meaning and substance.”

Hear about the impacts of mentorship from this Mentor Collective pair at UC Davis.

Mentor Collective’s Partnership with EduLab Capital

“The parallel trajectory of social impact and revenue generation is what makes me excited to get up each morning,” says Liam Pisano, Managing Partner of EduLab Capital Partners. “There are some days it feels like a job, but most days it feels like I’m doing exactly what I want to do.”

EduLab Capital is a seed stage and follow-on investor in Mentor Collective.

Boyar reflects on Mentor Collective’s partnership with EduLab, “Liam is a friend at this point, we have known him longer than most investors that we work with, and that connection has been really valuable.”

Morrissey echoes this sentiment, “[Liam] was always a very invested member of the EdTech community here in Boston, so he would help facilitate introductions, invite us to events… He was supportive in advising, helping us brainstorm our go-to-market or how to approach fundraising. He was very helpful with introductions, especially since he has a sizable network in private equity as well as EdTech.”

“He is very proactive, which is helpful.” says Morrissey, “we can only prioritize so many things, so it’s helpful if people point out things we might miss, our blind spots.”

Morrissey has also worked with Edwin Derecho, EduLab’s CFO on financial matters and discussed international expansion possibilities with Koji Takahashi, EduLab Capital’s Singapore-based Managing Partner.

“Watching Mentor Collective grow as a Company, in influence and in size, has been a lot of fun. Jackson and James are really thoughtful and care about outcomes, so working with them has been an inspiration to my own journey. There are some people who you just love to see succeed, they are those people to me,” says Liam Pisano.

Growth Mindset

As Boyar and Morrissey look ahead to new products and pilots, their action-oriented mindset will serve them well.

“Failing a lot, or making lots of mistakes and realizing things are okay was really helpful for building a growth mindset or grit early on. I failed a lot. Jackson and I both did. We were both rejected by most of the colleges we applied to, most of the jobs we applied to, most of the internships we applied to. We both had a very healthy mindset — our bigger regret is not trying,“ says Morrissey.

“It sounds a little cliche but I just know that I am going to learn that much faster and get to know where I want to go that much faster if I am ruthless in making mistakes as opposed to sitting still.”

Boyar agrees with the value of learning from mistakes.

“[If I could go back] I would tell myself that nobody has it figured out. All those TechCrunch articles you read about CEOs, some of whom I have now met, they all have problems or feel insecure just like you and I do. It’s part of the process.”

“I would try to normalize it more… Enjoy the journey a little more.”

With great growth potential and people craving meaningful connection more than ever, we are excited to see what the future holds for Mentor Collective.

Mentor Collective’s first Holiday Party in 2017.

EduLab Capital Partners is a VC fund that invests in early stage, education and workforce technology companies to scale measurable impact in our communities.