One Monday afternoon in early March, a group of about a dozen college students gathered in an office space in lower Queen Anne. The mix of male and female coeds were all approaching graduation, most from liberal arts degree programs, but they were all still missing one key skillset: The tools to navigate a challenging job market.
Hillary Spanjer, a 2013 Eastern Washington University grad, was one of those students. "My mom found an article on LinkedIn about Koru. She said it was put in her path for a reason," she says. "She knew I had just graduated and was struggling to find a job in a more professional atmosphere. She was concerned my resumes were going into a pile of resumes."
Koru, a startup founded in Seattle last year, provides career counseling workshops to college seniors facing a looming and intimidating job market. It's not all dry lecture or classroom learning though. Koru sets itself apart by bringing together students with professionals hiring for actual job opportunities at growing Northwest companies like Julep, REI and Zulily.
The company is backed by a strong leadership team. Co-founder Josh Harrett is the former head of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s higher education innovation unit and co-founder and CEO Kristen Hamilton headed Microsoft's Educator Strategy and Marketing division before founding two different companies — most recently Onvia.
The pair have raised approximately $4.35 million in funding for Koru from major investment firms that include Maveron, Battery Ventures, First Round Capital and Andreessen Horowitz. The forum will expand to San Francisco this summer.
Hamilton's inspiration for the program came from the children of her friends, recent grads having a hard time getting a foothold in a slow job market. “It’s lonely and it’s challenging," she said. "The problem with losing the connection with your university’s resources, such as career centers, [is that] the network has changed and typically recent grads will apply too broadly and it’s sensed by employers that there is lack of interest or passion when looking for a new hire."
Koru co-founder Kristen Hamilton (left) working with students during Koru’s career bootcamp. Photo credit: Koru
Ironically, the employers Hamilton talked to were also having a hard time finding candidates who met their needs. They were looking for applicants with skills in data analytics, sales, marketing and, most importantly, problem-solving. Not necessarily classes included in your average liberal arts degree.
Koru is trying to bridge this divide by giving their students crash courses in those kinds of more marketable corporate skills and giving them immediate feedback about how they're presenting themselves, what each company is looking for and how to think more innovatively on the spot.
Students get an inside look at REI with Benjamin Russell, Senior Ops Manager at REI. Photo credit: Koru
During this spring's session, representatives from Smartsheet, Julep, Zulily and REI visited Koru, each armed with a real job opening at their company and a problem they were trying to solve. “A specific challenge from our employer partners becomes the basis of the program,” said Hamilton. “This course is surrounded on solving a relevant problem a company is facing. The company will present it as a challenge to the current cohort.”
Koru students learn about each before walking through mock interviews and company tours. At the end of the course, after three and a half weeks of practice and feedback, they have the opportunity to actually interview for these positions.
“At first they [students] may stumble in answering to an employers’ needs, but they realize that and change with vast improvement over a short amount of time. That growth is visible to employers,” Hamilton described.
Challenges are formed into games and provide on the spot critical thinking. Photo credit: Koru
Koru has already offered four sessions since their initial launch last year and alumni of the program have been hired by a variety of companies. Sixty-three percent of Koru's 24 person March cohort obtained full time jobs with partnering companies.
“Employers want to see continuous improvement, incredible curiosity, and an appetite for learning; your ability to take initiative, and work hard,” said Hamilton.
"Koru gives students an opportunity to demonstrate those skills beyond the typical job interview."
"I didn’t have a network, but I knew what I could bring to a company," Spanjer explained. "I needed a way to connect, and a way to stand out. Koru gave me that."