From Classroom to Career: Constraints and Their Release by US Startups


US startups are dismantling traditional constraints in education and employment through impact-creating startups. Financial limitations, skills gaps, and access to support are forever in the news. However, the human struggle that these constraints cause leads not only to truncated careers and studies but also to people who feel unrealized – unable to reach their potential.

Even in 2024, US startups continue to grapple with persistent financial challenges and limited support structures. Despite the country’s thriving entrepreneurial spirit, the competitive landscape, coupled with economic uncertainties, has left impact-creating startups, in particular, scrambling to secure investment to fuel their growth.

Moreover, the regulatory maze sucks time, resources, and often specialized expertise, tripping up early-stage companies and placing further strain on already stretched US startup budgets. For this reason, investors and foundations are stepping in to support entrepreneurs with socially invaluable startup ideas.

From truncated careers to time-long vocations

There are pioneering, impact-creating startups releasing people from these constraints. On the ADAPT initiative led by Village Capital, the liberation of talent and potential is happening via groundbreaking and innovative startups. Three such companies are redefining pathways and providing individuals the ability to grow personally; they are Pay4Me, WorkOnward, and ThriveLink.

No student left behind thanks to Pay4Me

Thousands of young people were saved from truncated careers and higher education when an impact-creating startup was born in Sunday Paul Adah’s mind. It happened when he was kicked out of school due to a delayed cross-border payment of his fees. First, as an international student advisor helping hundreds of students from 120 countries, and later as the CEO of Pay4Me, Paul has been supporting those struggling with exactly the issue he faced. 

Paul identified 25 countries in particular, whose citizens were facing delays and blocked transfers that would interrupt – or worse – end their studies and their pursuit of a career. Beginning as an online community for peer-to-peer currency swaps, specifically for cross-border tuition payments, Pay4Me streamlines the process of paying tuition and fees for students and educational institutions, businesses, and government agencies all over the world.

Looking hard at how it works, Paul’s platform uses API-integrated services in partnership with banks and fintechs to be seen as trustworthy and effective. It processes payments faster, more efficiently, and is more affordable for students: “We’ve streamlined a 4+ weeks payment process to less than 24 hours,” says Paul.

Before Pay4Me, international students from countries like Cameroon, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria, to name only a few, struggled to pay application fees, school fees, and living expenses, as well as their fees to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), wasting time and energy on the fear that their dreams may be truncated, instead of focusing on the degrees and certificates for which they’ve worked so hard all their lives.

“We’ve been highly rated by over 1,300 international students for speed, affordability, and ease of use on the Google Play store and the App Store,” says Paul. Balikis Malik, for example, an international student from Nigeria, had been going from bank to bank trying to pay her college application fee. Just when she was about to give up on her opportunity to study in the US, she learned about Pay4Me via a personal contact. In her words, “I paid my application and in less than a few hours, I had an email from the school that they received my application fee, that I should go on and upload my documents. I was so happy!”

The work of this US startup is not limited to student support – Pay4Me recently partnered with Tredford, an African-focused edtech, to be the exclusive payment processor for its program to provide no-code tech skills training to over 10,000 potential and current students and immigrants. In addition to facilitating training for young people and providing tuition and school fee payments, Pay4Me helps professionals pay for certifications and evaluations, language proficiency tests, licenses, and exams if they are hoping to relocate. Therefore, the most gifted people can qualify for better jobs in other countries without being held back by financial barriers in pursuit of their dreams. 

“Soon, we’ll launch an in-app community feature that helps international students and immigrants recommend resources to each other while adjusting to their new homes away from home.” We’ll be keeping our eyes peeled for the inevitable advances with a social motivation that this startup is on the cusp of achieving. 

As Pay4Me ensures young people complete their studies, WorkOnward helps society in the next stage of our careers: employment. This next US startup has an equally social motivation.

Dignified job searches for hourly workers by WorkOnward

When ineffective job posting sites are the norm, one impact-creating startup has designed a way for both candidates and budding businesses to find each other. “Small business owners have told us that they don’t interact with conventional platforms like Indeed and Monster because of the time-to-fill and their cost. Apps like Facebook and WhatsApp do not provide competitive alternatives either,” says Founder and CEO of WorkOnward, Holly Diamond. While tech jobs dominate the media conversation about work, in truth, the labor force runs on small business hourly jobs. WorkOnward serves this segment: business owners who lack the resources for hiring agencies and traditional staffing services and hourly workers intimidated by having to create a resume, let alone navigate corporate-centric platforms.

WorkOnward is leveling the playing field with an applicant tracking system (APS) by offering a free solution, making recruitment accessible for businesses of all sizes. It displays the approximate location of candidates on the map, which helps with equal access to jobs. As standard, companies making offers made via the platform may select “open to negotiation” to boost the possibility of people who are less likely to ask for a raise. Having everything documented at every step avoids unjust situations, which means that only honest corporations make the most of the platform. 

It all began when first-generation immigrant and self-taught entrepreneur Holly opened a Korean restaurant — Mista Oh — with her family during the pandemic. She was confident that, with her formal education and decade of professional experience in recruiting, she’d easily manage staffing, even if others were struggling. But after two years of trying every service and platform to find quality local workers, Holly was so frustrated that she decided to build a solution herself. Bootstrapping WorkOnward from the ground up, living this problem that millions of American business owners face, Holly set out to solve one of the most fundamental needs a person has: finding good work.

The startup’s platform is not intended to be fast above all else. “Potential users ask us if our tool can help them find people faster. I argue that you don’t want a person fast as much as you want a mutual commitment.” Instead, WorkOnward aims to make long-lasting employee-employer connections and — perhaps because it is map-based and offers extra positioning opportunities to local businesses — centers on the community. By offering both parties an opportunity to get to know one another — the hiring process becomes less mysterious, less adversarial, and indeed, more community-based. 

1500 companies are currently using WorkOnward. "When you think about it, 90% of the candidates that a recruiter sees get rejected, but they are good candidates. My software helps them find jobs and companies to streamline their hiring process by posting jobs, scheduling interviews, and making an offer all in one place," explains Holly. 

The platform does more than help workers; its greatest impact is on vulnerable populations: It’s designed to represent overlooked and underrepresented citizens. After all, who’s to say someone over 65 isn’t valuable to the workforce or that someone who’s a second-language English speaker is not the ideal candidate? Should those who were previously incarcerated not have a second chance? This mission aligns perfectly with mentors at Village Capital, who teamed up with AmFam and Dream.Org to disrupt and reimagine the often less-than-just systems for individuals and communities impacted by the criminal and civil justice system. “WorkOnward is not about judging, but about the right person for the job.”

Moreover, those who struggle to read can use the platform’s text-to-speech buttons and WorkOnwards also manage a multi-language feature. Lastly, the site is entirely mobile-friendly and suits those who are not job-seeking from desktop computers.

When asked about the reservations many of us have about digital platforms and their integration of AI, the founder explained: “While we all fall into the trap of stereotyping each other, our innate biases can be even more prevalent in hiring settings. On top of that, the kind of AI that’s used in many recruitment platforms can make even faster sweeping decisions on ‘suitable” candidates.’ Whether interviewing people or programming systems to filter candidates, we all need to work with more empathy and nuanced evaluations,” she asserts. “And while we all work on that in ourselves and our hiring processes, WorkOnwards is leveling the playing field specifically for hourly workers. AI is a socio-interactive tool. You can use it transactionally or to make a real impact on those who need it.”

Today, WorkOnward employs 20 people and partners with about 200 companies, including Fortune 500s like Samsung and LG. She credits her father-in-law for his sound advice: “Treat every customer as if they are your first customer.”  

Perhaps founders’ experience in people-facing roles curates a sense of empathy. Not only did Holly implement a bridge to jobs and employees to help people like her, but this next founder also sought a solution sparked in his 9-5.

Well-allocated aid following ThriveLink’s innovation

“I used to joke that I was a travel nurse before it was cool!” says Kwamane Liddel, Founder and CEO of ThriveLink. Working in the emergency department, Kwamane saw too many people in Black and Latino communities lose their lives and wellbeing, not due to the costs of emergency healthcare, but because of prescribed medication costs and access to healthy foods that would control their blood pressure and glucose levels. 

“I remember a patient who came in with high blood pressure. I was aware of programs that could assist her, so I initiated the application process and handed it over to her. However, a month later, she came back to the emergency room after a stroke. Her daughter later told me they were unable to read the application and were too embarrassed to tell me.” This experience led Kwamane to discover that 130 million adults have reading and comprehension barriers – an alarming statistic when every social program, from food stamps to utility health insurance, requires reading and comprehension skills. 

In 2023, 13.8 million people, including 2 million children, lost Medicaid coverage due to procedural disenrollment – because their parents couldn’t complete the application. According to ThriveLink’s team, the written applications sent by the government and the websites are inaccessible.

To aid people of all levels and accessibility needs, ThriveLink was born. The impact-creating startup lets people sign up for programs like health insurance, food stamps, and utility assistance by verbalizing their answers to application questions. That means that 130 million people directly benefit from ThriveLink’s existence.

During a recent call recording audit, Kwamane heard a voicemail from a family asking for help paying some of their bills and they were terrified of being evicted. They were able to avoid this blow thanks to ThriveLink – and called back again, eternally grateful. Another user was concerned her electricity, gas, and water would be turned off because she couldn’t pay them. Her doctor showed her ThriveLink, where she talked her way through the utility support application and covered her USD 500 utility bill. “She thanked her doctor directly for paying her utility bill,” says Kwamane. “This is a new level of trust I've never seen as a nurse.” 

Not only does ThriveLink ensure everything gets paid, it increases uptake and improves health outcomes: a Medicare and Medicaid study found that, out of 86,000 people sent for referrals, 55,000 people completely disengaged and never sought out treatment. “Think about asking a sick person, who just got out of the hospital, to go sit in a government aid office to help them with their application,” Kwamane explains the dilemma. With ThriveLink, unwell people can save themselves trouble and strain that could only worsen their grievances.

Whenever the subject of government assistance comes up, there will be critics. Conversations around dependencies on state aid are overblown, according to Kwamane, who says that USD 90B in social programs go unused every year. For example, 6 million mothers who qualify for food, formula, and baby supplies do not access this help – primarily through the inability to comprehend or interact with the government platforms. 

What’s next for families using ThriveLink? On top of verbal interactions with the programs they need, they will soon access program explanations through the same platform. This will save time for healthcare workers when rolled out, not only improving health outcomes for people all over the United States. 

While ThriveLink addresses accessibility barriers in social programs, enabling millions to access vital services through verbal interactions, Pay4Me emerges as a lifeline for thousands of international students facing financial hurdles, ensuring smooth and timely cross-border tuition payments, and WorkOnward revolutionizes hourly job searches for small businesses and job seekers.

These three US startups share a commitment to social impact, driven by founders with lived experience that led them to create technological solutions for real people. They each leverage technology to streamline processes and prioritize building communities – this is much more than a buzzword for founders Holly, Kwamane, and Paul. 

Entrepreneurs are never in short supply, but access?

While there is a wealth of entrepreneurial talent in the US, access to support networks and mentorship opportunities can vary significantly depending on location and industry vertical. Startups outside of major tech hubs may find themselves at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing crucial guidance and mentorship from experienced entrepreneurs and industry veterans. 

Since a lack of access to financial services, healthcare, employment benefits, and adequate financial protection disproportionately impacts historically excluded and underserved communities – globally, Village Capital supports the startups tackling these issues with mentorship, training, connections, grants, and exposure. 

The second iteration of the ADAPT initiative chose to support 10 startups helping communities and individuals adapt to global challenges related to climate change, healthcare, wellness, and economic mobility in the US. 

Despite the hurdles, the resilience and ingenuity of US startups continue to drive progress and innovation across industries, paving the way for a brighter future. Thanks to experienced mentors from US startups, investment, and guidance, the startups that support their communities are being given their shot. 

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