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HackerYou & Y Combinator: The Fight to Fix Higher Education

June 04, 2019

Blog — Why Juno? HackerYou & Y Combinator: The Fight to Fix Higher Education

5 min read

Heather Payne

CEO & Founder

One of my weaknesses as a founder (and as a person) is that I only take risks when I know I’m going to win. It’s why, as a kid, I only ever played Summer soccer. Joining a new sport meant being the worst for a while, and I couldn’t stand the thought of sitting on the bench.

So I’m not exactly sure what I was thinking on April 18th when I submitted my application to Y Combinator. For those unfamiliar, Y Combinator is the top startup accelerator in the world, based in Silicon Valley. Notable Y Combinator companies include Dropbox, Airbnb, Stripe, Reddit and so many more. I had decided to apply exactly one day before, on my 32nd birthday. Before then, it hadn’t crossed my mind, other than for five seconds in February when a friend (and YC Alum) suggested that going through YC would be good for me. Back then, I immediately dismissed the idea, but for some reason, on April 17th, it popped back into my mind. And this time, I decided to go for it.

I found out that evening that I’d been selected for an interview, which was set for a few days later, on the following Monday. That Monday also happened to be the second day of a family vacation we’d planned months ago, in Jamaica. Unfortunately, interviews can’t be rescheduled and since I’d applied late, all the other time slots were taken. So, with my husband looking at me in disbelief (but I knew, also with his full support), I started booking flights, an Airbnb and a rental car.

I ended up flying with my husband and our two kids (we have a 2.5 year old and a one year old) from Toronto to Jamaica on Sunday, but I didn’t even step outside the airport. Friends we were travelling with agreed to help my husband out with the kids, so from arrivals I kissed everyone good-bye and headed back to departures. There are no direct flights to San Francisco from Jamaica, so I had to connect through Charlotte, NC. It was a brutal 24 hours of travel that I mostly don’t remember now. All I know is that I made it to my Airbnb in Mountain View safe and sound.

Before my interview, I felt confident. Afterwards, I had no idea what to think. It was 10 minutes of answering question after question, and I couldn’t tell if they liked my answers - or my view of what the future of education looks like - at all. A few hours later, while hanging out with a friend in San Francisco, I got the call that I was in. The entire journey from application to acceptance was less than a week.

So, why Y Combinator for HackerYou, for me, and why now? For HackerYou, it’s all about the opportunity. The higher education industry is on the verge of collapse. Tuition is too high, student debt levels are unfathomable, and the majority of higher education customers seem to wish they could get refunds. And don’t even get me started on outdated atrocities like tenure. What’s happening right now isn’t sustainable. When the bubble bursts, people are going to be looking for a new answer. And although those who don’t know us well might think of HackerYou as “just another coding bootcamp” - well, they’d be wrong. We have a much, much bigger vision than that, and that’s what Y Combinator sees in us. Today, we help our students land great careers in tech - fast - for just $1 upfront, but that is really just the tip of the iceberg.

(We’re also changing our name, which I couldn’t be more excited about. Late last year, I decided we need a new name that fits with our new vision. Though we’ll be officially re-branding in August, we’ll be sharing our new name sometime in the next few weeks.)

The next question: why Y Combinator, for me? I certainly don’t fit the mould. Female, over 30 and a mom, plus my business is fairly well-established and profitable with 30 full-time employees. I don’t need to raise money. The $150K USD that Y Combinator gives startups in exchange for 7% of the business represents a fraction of our annual operating budget. But here’s the real reason I applied to Y Combinator: since having my second child, I am a completely different entrepreneur. And I like to talk about how I’ve changed, because I know there are women out there who worry a lot about what is going to happen to their career once they have a child, and then they worry again when they start thinking about having more than one. Well, based solely on my own experience: don’t worry. I am a million times more ambitious now than I was pre-kids. And now that I have two kids and I know what my life is like, I feel...free...to be who I want to be when it comes to my career.

And here’s who I am: an entrepreneur who wants to build the best company I can, one that has an impact on the world and makes it a better place. One that transforms an industry - cementing the death of out-of-touch higher education providers, while paving the way for other innovators to join me in the fight to fix higher education. One that my employees and customers are crazy passionate about - a place they love coming to work, and to learn. One that does the right thing as it grows, showing the world that there are better ways to build companies than the current model we all seem to have accepted. YC feels like the right place for me because it ensures that I have access to the very best advice, guidance and - if I decide I want it - capital to help make my and my team’s vision a reality.

And finally, why now? Specifically, it’s because of Income Share Agreements. I first heard about them in December, decided we needed to adopt them in early February, and by mid-April we had launched. In the first two weeks after the announcement, we received five times the normal number of applications. Suddenly, our market had grown 10x or even 100x, overnight. Previously, our market included people who live in the GTA and have access to about $10,000. Now, our market is anyone who wants to land a career in tech - fast - and has $1. People from all across Canada, the US and even across the globe are our market now, because making tuition just $1 upfront means that it can make sense to travel to Toronto for the program and live here for the duration. And as we think about our next moves, making it even more affordable to attend HackerYou is at the top of our priority list. Income Share Agreements helped broaden our market - and now that we have the ability to help more people, we have to make it happen.

Today is the first day of Y Combinator’s Summer 2019 batch. For the next 76 days, I’ll be flying back and forth to San Francisco, spending a few days there each week. I don’t quite know what’s in store, but no matter what happens, I’m ready for it. And I’m definitely not sitting on the bench.