College is supposed to be a life-defining experience–but that doesn’t mean students always graduate with all the skills they need to build their lives. Paragon One, an online career coaching service and mentor marketplace, wants to fill in the gaps. The startup announced that it has raised $1.9 million in seed funding from Y Combinator, Foundation Capital, Learn Capital, University Ventures, Li Yuan Ventures, Altair Ventures, Jimmy Lai, the CFO of online English school 51Talk, and former Tencent CTO Jeff Xiong.
Paragon One, which took part in Y Combinator’s last batch of startups, works with all college students, but one of its biggest markets is students from China studying in the U.S. The site differentiates from other career coaching services with a recommendation engine that pairs students with mentors based on their backgrounds and personalities . That tech is key to Paragon One’s ability to grow and its seed funding will be put toward product development to make the system more scalable so it can handle more students.
The company was founded in 2015 by CEO Matt Wilkerson and CTO Byron Hsu, who met 15 years ago while studying engineering at MIT. They came up with the idea for Paragon One when a mutual friend who owned a test prep school in Shanghai started referring students to them for career advice.
“They were clueless about basic resume writing, how to interview, and it was really obvious to us that colleges and universities were doing nothing for them,” says Wilkerson. “I remembered back to college, that even though we went to a great school, we knew that we were completely lost by the time we graduated.”
During job interviews after graduation, Wilkerson realized he had a hard time nailing down exactly why he wanted to become an engineer even though he had majored in it. He ended up going into finance after college instead, while Hsu became an entrepreneur. The two started a mentorship organization at MIT to help students like them not only hone in on the right career, but also become competitive job candidates.
Matchmaking students, coaches and companies
Many of Paragon One’s students want to work in fields like data analysis, data science, consulting, market research, and software engineering. A coaching plan is developed after they take a career assessment and Paragon One’s recommendation engine matches them with professionals on the site’s marketplace, which currently has about 160 mentors (Wilkerson says there are 300 more waiting to join).
“Instead of the student picking who they want to talk to, we do it for them, so it’s an automated counselor laid over this marketplace, instead of the typical mentor marketplace, where you don’t know who is better or who is not good,” says Wilkerson.
Paragon One’s technology pairs students and professionals based on information like alma maters, college majors, hobbies and interests, and personality traits. They share career advice, help their mentees figure out what courses to take, and prepare them for interviews. After coaching, students are matched with interview opportunities from companies.
Paragon One works with smaller companies that, unlike Google or Goldman Sachs, don’t have their own internship and campus outreach programs. Companies participate for free, while coaches and professionals on its marketplace are paid per session (they can also chose to donate their fee to a charity).
The company’s network of coaches and companies builds on the connections Hsu and Wilkerson made while mentoring.
“Yes, there are alumni networks, but there was nothing holding students accountable for learning basic life skills,” Wilkerson says. “Think about the money you spend—$100,000 to $200,000—on colleges. But colleges think the end result is getting a degree and the truth is that most parents and students are looking at success as what they do after college.”
Parents whose offspring sign up for Paragon One are willing to spend plenty on their kids’ education and have probably already used other college prep services like Princeton Review or Kaplan. Wilkerson says the company usually requires a three-month subscription that costs about $2,000 to $3,000.
“The average parent won’t say I paid all this money for college, now let me shell out more money. Their assumption is that this should be taken care of, but more are realizing that the ROI on college is not really there,” says Wilkerson.