Here’s a report card no one wants to bring home: Nearly 40 percent of students who start at a community college will abandon higher education within their first year. And that percentage rises to over 50 percent when you focus on lower-income first-year students.
Tade Oyerinde wants to turn around that failing trend — and he has a vision to do so. The online community college he founded Campus (which launched originally as Campuswire in 2016) offers students access to live classes with world-class teachers from institutions like Princeton, Spelman, NYU and Vanderbilt. Oyerinde was homeschooled growing up and attended Leeds University before dropping out to pursue entrepreneurship, so he is very aware of the power of online learning.
A significant perk of enrolling at Campus is that tuition is less than the maximum Pell Grant amount, meaning that many students can get their associate’s degrees essentially for free. Federal Pell Grants provide tuition assistance to low-income students who “display exceptional financial need,” and unlike student loans, they do not need to be repaid.
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Campus has received top marks in the funding world, garnering $29 million in its Series A funding round from prominent investors like Discord founder Jason Citron, OpenAI founder Sam Altman and Bloomberg Beta. And just recently, Campus announced that the company landed its (literally) biggest investor yet: Shaquille O’Neal.
Entrepreneur spoke with Oyerinde and O’Neal about the business’s mission and how a 30-year-old college dropout was able to connect with, pitch and eventually bring the big man to Campus.
Can you give us the elevator pitch for Campus?
Oyerinde: We’ve created a new kind of community college where anybody who enrolls in Campus can learn from professors who teach at top universities like Princeton, UCLA, NYU, Howard and Morehouse. They complete their first two years of college, get their associate’s degree, and then we help them transfer into a four-year school to complete their bachelor’s degrees. We’ve done everything in our power to ensure that our tuition is low enough that most students don’t have to pay anything out of pocket. Government Pell Grants cover their full tuition cost, and we supply laptops to any student in need of one. We’re trying to do everything needed for the students to succeed. Getting into college is a great accomplishment, but getting your degree is really what this is about.
How did you connect with Shaq?
Oyerinde: After our initial success with fundraising, Forbes did a story on us. Someone on Shaq’s team saw it, and they reached out. Honestly, I thought the email was fake, but we followed up, and it was real. The rest is history.
Shaq, what did you see in Tade and Campus that made you made you want to invest?
O’Neal: Well, you know, back 15-20 years ago, I heard Jeff Bezos say, “If you invest in things that are going to change people’s lives, you always have a great outcome.” So, I met with Tade at an event in Vegas, and we had a great conversation. There are three things I look for when I’m investing: passion, wanting to change a person’s life, and the exit strategy. I tried to throw him off a little bit, but he just kept giving me great answers. When he said “debt-free degrees” and mentioned all of the incredible teachers he had access to, I was in. I’m not smart enough to go to NYU, but I would love to learn from that teacher. So it all made a lot of sense to me.
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You’ve reached a level of success where you could just sit back and drive around in nice cars, travel the world and mess around with Charles Barkley all day. Where does this drive to do things in business come from?
Oyerinde: He can’t fit in a nice car. [Laughs]
O’Neal: There are a few reasons. One, I have seven children, and I have millions of children who look up to me. My parents were big on telling horror stories, and one they always told me was that professional athletes go broke. So they told me to go back to school and get my bachelor’s, get my master’s. I have two PhDs. They told me to keep learning, and that’s what I tell my kids: “We don’t need another basketball player. I would like to have a surgeon.” And the best way to teach is to show by example. You know, a lesson I learned came from Miami Heat owner Micky Arison. One day, I was shooting around and saw his son cleaning the locker room. I’m talking about picking up jocks, mopping the bathroom. I asked Mick about it, and he said everybody needs to start at the bottom and work their way up as they learn. That really stuck with me, which is why I’m so into this education thing.
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Who would make a better classmate on a group project at Campus: You or Charles?
O’Neal: Oh, me! I went to LSU. Charles went to Auburn.
Tade, walking into a pitch meeting with anyone is nerve-wracking, and you have met with and secured funding from some serious heavy hitters. How do you prepare yourself and stay calm?
Oyerinde: Honestly, I say a prayer or two, and for the really big meetings, like the one with Shaq, I listen to “Lose Yourself” by Eminem. I also take a lot of inspiration from great athletes. My favorite is Kobe [Bryant]. Sorry, Shaq! [Laughs] It’s just tapping into the killer instinct and knowing you can’t choke. And the biggest piece of advice I ever got was from Sam Altman, and I was already following his advice before he said it. He told me, “You’ve got to work on big, important problems. That’s what gets powerful investors excited.”
Shaq, any parting words of advice?
O’Neal: I always tell people to take advantage of the access to information that’s out there. When I was at the Lakers, a guy named Bill Bertka was the assistant coach, and he told me, “I coached Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] and Wilt Chamberlin.” So I started listening to him, and he brought my game to the championship level. Same thing in business. I wish I was 16 years old now just because of all the information that’s out there. Back in the day, when we had to do book reports, I had to go to the neighbor’s house to borrow their encyclopedias. That was my only way of getting access to information that wasn’t in school books. Now everything is instantly accessible. If I had that when I was young? I would be a genius right now. Almost as smart as Tade.
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