This interview is with Rey Faustino, founder and CEO of One Degree, an educational non-profit that connects low-income families to local resources that help them overcome poverty. Rey is a 2012 recipient of the Echoing Green Social Entrepreneurship Fellowship.
- USC undergrad
- English teacher in Japan
- Harvard Kennedy School
- Founded One Degree
Q. Tell us about your background.
A. Sure. So, I’m 31. I went to University of Southern California and got a bachelor’s in business entrepreneurship, and then I got my masters in public policy very recently at Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government.
Before graduate school, I worked for several years at an education non-profit organization called BUILD, which is a college access organization, as you mentioned. And right now, I’m the CEO and founder of One Degree, which is a non-profit organization that connects low-income families to resources that help them overcome poverty.
Q. How has your career path unfolded and brought you to your current role as founder of One Degree?
A. I actually started out thinking I was going into business entrepreneurship, which is why I started studying business entrepreneurship at USC. I thought I was going to start a restaurant or go into some sort of business, mostly influenced because of my parents, and my father, in particular. He was very business-minded, very entrepreneurial, and I thought I wanted to follow in his footsteps.
When I was at USC, I was exposed to working with youth. I joined a non-profit there called Troy Camp, which is a summer camp and year-long mentoring program for kids. That was my first exposure to working with youth.
Eventually, I became the co-executive director for Troy Camp in the last two years of college, and I loved it. I loved working with youth, and I also loved running the non-profit.
But I still had this thing for entrepreneurship on my mind, so I actually worked for a restaurant for a short period to see if I would like it. It turned out I hated it. I also wrote a business plan for another company, but it just didn’t work out.
So I decided to pursue the education side of my passion and working with youth. I taught English abroad for a year, and when I came back, I really wanted to see if there was an intersection of entrepreneurship and working with youth. Surprisingly, there was.
I found an organization called BUILD through a friend. BUILD uses entrepreneurship as a vehicle to empower youth to go to college, which I thought was a perfect blend of what I wanted to do – both my passions for entrepreneurship and also working with youth.
I jumped on it and I haven’t looked back since. I was at BUILD for five years. I loved the experience.
Q. You started out as an English teacher in Japan. Why did you start your career in the classroom, and why did you choose Japan?
A. It wasn’t a very intentional decision. It was more of a personal choice. I was an immigrant to this country, and I had just gotten my residency during my senior year in college after 13 years of being here in the States. It took an incredibly long time.
I was just really kind of fed up. I was tired of being in the same place, and I wanted to explore the world a little bit more.
A lot of my friends studied abroad. A lot of my friends took trips to other countries. I never got the opportunity to do that, so I viewed this as more of a personal year to dabble in education but also really explore and grow and get out of the US for a little bit.
So I went to Japan. I traveled all over the country. I visited Australia, the Philippines, China, Thailand, Southeast Asia, and it was amazing for me, personally, to grow, but also to get that first taste of what it meant to be working in education.
Q. How did your experience in Japan lead to your role at BUILD?
A. What I realized was that in Japan, they didn’t really value teachers very much. We were seen as cogs in the system. What I really wanted from that experience was to join something that was part of a bigger mission, where I felt like I was a valuable piece in achieving that mission.
Looking back, my time abroad was tough. I wasn’t paid very much. It was an unforgiving kind of situation, and I learned that I wanted to work at a place, and eventually create a place, where people — the talent and the employees — feel valued.
Q. How did you find out about BUILD and what specific steps did you take to get hired?
A. One of my best friends from USC was working in East Palo Alto — where BUILD was headquartered at that time — at a sister organization. She introduced me to BUILD. She knew I was looking for something that coupled entrepreneurship and working with youth, and she immediately saw that BUILD was a great fit for me.
So I looked into the organization. I loved it. I applied for a job there but was actually rejected. Earlier, you mentioned that I do volunteer work with an organization called College Summit, and College Summit takes youth — intercity youth, minority youth, low-income youth from across the country — and does these 4-day summer workshops on the college application process. Students learn how to write a college essay. They learn about financial aid. They learn about the college application process.
When I was volunteering for a College Summit workshop, there were a bunch of BUILD students coming to that workshop. This was a few weeks after I was rejected from BUILD. So my strategy was then to make sure that those students fell in love with me and talked about me to the BUILD person that was there with them.
So, after the workshop, they gave me a recommendation to the BUILD people, and BUILD called me back and said, “Hey, do you want to apply for this other job?” It was a circuitous way of getting in, but I had to play every card to get that job.
It turned out that the second job I applied for was way more fitting for me than the first. It was the incubator manager position. Now, they’ve changed the title to business program manager.
At the time, BUILD was four or five years old and was getting a lot of traction in the community. There was only one site. We all worked out of the same office. There were about 12 employees. It was very entrepreneurial, very small, but there wasn’t a lot of structure to the program. Basically zero structure.
That really fit my skill set because I was able to go in there, create structure, write the curriculum, create the program, create the foundational elements of the program that they still use today. I loved it. I loved those early years. My working with BUILD was filled with creativity and entrepreneurship and being able to create things.
Q. So from that experience, what learnings can you share about how to approach an organization if you don’t have the right background?
A. I think we’re all going to get rejected. Especially if you’re applying for jobs, you’re going to get rejected all the time. At first, I was really devastated by it, but I had to approach it with a longer-term view. If I were to ever work for this company in the future, I need to have grace with them now and not be really upset.
Especially the millennial generation, we feel we’re so entitled to a job simply because we want it, and we feel it was created for us. That’s so not the case, especially at non-profit organizations. They are small and don’t have a lot of resources, and they hire when they need the position. They don’t hire every year or every season, like bigger companies.
With those types of organizations, you just have to be in the know. You have to have people in the field who are looking out for you who are natural connectors, who can connect you to positions. What I didn’t mention was that my friend, Carla, who first introduced me to BUILD, also works for College Summit, which is the place where I volunteered, and what I didn’t mention was that she may or may not have been the mastermind for getting me to that workshop where the BUILD students participated.
It sounds serendipitous in a way, but it’s really not. You have to be really intentional if you want something. You really have to go out and get it. I wanted this, and she knew that, and we took the steps to place me in front of somebody at BUILD.
The interview I did with BUILD at first was just over the phone, and I hate — actually hate — phone interviews. I’d rather see somebody face to face because I personally make a better impression when I’m with somebody.
So we knew that if I made an impression face to face with staff and then with students, that was it. So we just had to be really intentional and find different ways to build in time to have a face to face with them.
Q. Young people today switch jobs frequently, especially early in their careers. You stayed in your first job for more than five years. What does it take to keep an ambitious person in a job for longer than a year or two?
A. Especially at BUILD, I felt like I was a pretty unique person at the time, because in non-profit organizations in general, you rarely hear about young people staying for a long time, much less for five years.
There was a time when I felt like I needed to move on. I mentioned that the kind of work I was doing at BUILD at the beginning was very entrepreneurial. I was able to create a lot of things, and I knew that’s what I did best — the startup process, being entrepreneurial, being creative, allowing myself to express that creativity.
The earlier I knew that, the better, because when it came time for me to not be needed in that role, and I saw that I wasn’t exercising my creativity anymore, that was a red flag for me. I got bored. I was not really focused on anything, and I wasn’t really engaged anymore.
So I let my boss know that upfront. I was like, “Listen. I’m not getting what I need out of this anymore. I’m not really expressing my skill set, and I’d like to explore other things.” So I was able to do other projects within the organization and exercise leadership on those projects.
Then ultimately at BUILD, I was promoted to the site director role, which is like the principal of a school. We worked with about 300 students at the time per year, which is the size of a small school. And the site director role was the leader of the site, managed staff and made sure students were getting what they needed out of the program.
So that role itself, to me, didn’t look like there was a lot of entrepreneurship or creativity because it was like a middle management type of role. That’s not inherently a creative role, but there actually are opportunities, surprisingly, to do that.
Because we were the flagship site – within the first four years I was at BUILD, we ballooned to three other sites, so there was an Oakland site, and there was a DC site, and we were also thinking of opening a Boston site, which has opened since then. So I saw that as an opportunity for our site to be able to create the model for other sites to operate because we had the lowest cost per student, we had the most efficient site, and we had the most successes out of all sites because we were the first.
Just like I was able to create programs and curricula in my other role, I was able to create a model for other sites to follow, and that was important, for me to be in a “creating” mode.
Q. You then attended the Kennedy School and shortly afterward founded your own education non-profit, One Degree. Tell us how you did that step-by-step?
A. We launched One Degree last year. I started working full time last summer, but I wrote the first business plan for One Degree in Fall 2010. That was almost two-and-a-half years ago. I wrote it while I was at the Kennedy School. I wrote it for a final project for one of my classes because it was an education policy class, and I was incredibly pissed off about how horrible our system was working and not working for our students and families.
So some of the tactical things at that time were: first step, just write down your ideas and get them down on paper. Grad school is a great catalyst for that because I was able to do it for a class. Then throughout the two years I was there, I applied to over a dozen business plan competitions and challenges, and part of that was to get grant funding, but the bigger reason to apply to these competitions was to get feedback from people that you can use to iterate and improve your idea.
The business plan I wrote almost two-and-a-half years ago is completely different from our business plan now — completely different, like 180 degrees different. It’s actually much better because of all the feedback we got along the way.
My second year at school, I also interviewed over a hundred different leaders in education, non-profits and community leaders, business professionals and philanthropists, all across the nation, to see what’s needed in the sector, what’s not needed, what’s already out there, and how can this organization be really useful to the sector.
That was really useful — again, I’m talking a lot about getting feedback and improving. I can’t overstate that part of this startup process because you just really don’t know what’s out there that can improve your organization and your idea.
Q. What are a couple examples of the most important types of feedback you got through this iteration and interview process?
A. I got a lot of feedback about focusing, which is a key theme in entrepreneurship, especially in the startup phase. In the beginning, we had a gigantic idea. In the first business plan I wrote, we wanted to start in five cities. So I got a lot of feedback about focusing and honing it down.
I also got a ton of feedback about, “Hey, this organization is out here is doing this, and it’s very similar to yours.” At first, I was like, “I don’t care about that organization. This is my organization. This is what I’m starting. I don’t necessarily need to know about that.”
But over time, I got to see that it was really useful to be able to reach out to other organizations and examine other models and see what they’re doing or have a conversation with them to see how we can collaborate.
So those are the two major kinds of feedback we got at the beginning.
Q. So after all this, what does it take to actually launch? How did you assemble your team and how did you get your initial fundraising?
A. Have you ever tried to cook a five-course meal all at once, like every single course is all out there on the table, and you’re trying to chop things while cooking other things? In the beginning, it’s a lot like that. You’re trying to do everything at once.
It was really helpful for me to first hone the idea and then try to get people onboard. So that was one of the first things I did – build a community around what we were doing. So, very slowly but surely, the hundred peopleI interviewed — I got some of them to be advisers. I got some of them to be board members. I got some of them to be volunteers, connectors, supporters, and then other people I talked to — my classmates, old colleagues, my neighbors – they all helped in different ways, so that took some of the burden off of me.
So instead of me doing the five-course dinner, there were other people in the kitchen as well, which was really, really important because part of the values of our organization is that it’s not just about one person; it’s about the community trying to make a difference. That was incredibly helpful.
I also feel like we’re still very much in the beginning stages. I very much believe that energy begets energy, positivity begets positivity. The very small incremental wins we get in the beginning really lead to other things.
Just like when I was younger, even though I was rejected from BUILD, doing the one little workshop with BUILD students led to something bigger at BUILD, which led to something bigger. I definitely believe in that as well in the startup phase.
The very first competition we entered, we got third place, which I was actually really upset about at first because again, this millennial entitlement feeling of, “Oh, why didn’t we get first place?” But that was the first step for people to say, “Oh my gosh, they got third place. They got a little bit of money. They must be on to something good.” So people started to ask questions and join us and bring us onboard.
Q. Did people work as volunteers until you were able to apply for grants to pay them?
A. Because we’re a non-profit organization, almost everybody is a volunteer. I was a volunteer for a long time, and I just started paying myself a few months ago.
In the beginning, my focus was to get people on board, on our volunteer leadership team or on the board or advisers, to work different roles. Last year, I was very focused on just getting anyone who wanted to help. We were very much in what I call the “support sponge” stage. If you are a body who wants to help and have some sort of expertise in something, we’ll find something for you to do.
Now, I’m slowly transitioning into more of a focused volunteer structure, where we have very specific needs, like we have needs in fundraising, we have needs in our web development and we have needs in our community outreach, and those are the three focuses we have for volunteer positions right now. I’m looking specifically for those and training for those volunteer positions.
I’ve been hesitant to do a first official hire, only because I know we’ve only been in full operation since June of last year, and since that time, we’ve made some stunning discoveries. We’ve made some interesting revelations about our organization and the strategies we’re employing, and we’re shifting.
And so if I had made a hire four months ago, one, that would have reduced the amount of resources we had, and, two, that hire might not be super relevant now, which would have been a shame. So I focused on hiring contractors who are there for a limited amount of time, who can support us in specific ways in the beginning, who could potentially stay onboard longer, if we needed them to, but they don’t have the expectation to do that.
Q. What is the mission of One Degree?
A. Our mission is to connect low-income families to resources that help them overcome poverty, and we do this with our web platform, which is like a Yelp for non-profits, so somebody like a counselor, a social worker or even a family member can easily go online and find the most relevant and useful information for maybe a food bank or a health clinic or mental health support in their neighborhood or city, and we’re starting here in San Francisco.
Q. What do you do day-to-day?
A. Because I’m the only full-time staff, I do everything. This week, I wrote a grant. Next week, I’m writing another grant. Not so sexy, but really important. Fundraising is a huge part of my position.
I meet with folks all the time. I mentioned that relationship building is important, especially in this stage in the game. We just have to build relationships to get out there, get the word out, and also to find out who else can support us.
At every meeting, no matter who I talk to, I ask them if they can make a connection to at least one or two other folks who might be interested in our work, and that gets people thinking, like, “I wonder who can help the organization?” Even if that person doesn’t end up helping, they might connect me to somebody else who can help. I do meetings with people every single week, at least one or two folks every week, if not 20 a week.
I sometimes get a chance to do e-mail, although I can only really do e-mail like 30 minutes a day or whenever I can find time, if I’m on the bus or at dinner without anyone else with me.
Last semester, we piloted both our web platform and also a school-based program. The school-based program was our venture to see what families really wanted, and it was an offline version of the online platform, where families could drop in at a volunteer-run resource desk at their schools, talk to a human being about literally the same things they could do on the web platform, like, “Where can I find a health clinic. Where can I find a food bank?”
This, for us, was really useful to see what people wanted and who the people were, who our “customers” were and how best to tailor our product to them. I spent a lot of last semester working with families, getting into the community, working with schools and understanding our clients.
We’re transitioning out of that now. We’re figuring out a way to do a school-based distribution model a little bit differently, so it doesn’t take as much time this semester, so I can focus on fundraising.
The issue I’m facing right now is that I have to do a lot of high-level strategy work, like how best to move the organization forward, how best to do fundraising, etc. But I’m also doing a lot of day-to-day operations like sending thank-you cards to donors, which is incredibly important, but it takes a chunk of my day, or even answering e-mails takes a large part of my day. So it’s difficult to carve time to do strategy work and fundraising amidst the day-to-day operations.
Q. What is the biggest learning you’ve had so far in all your career experiences?
A. That’s a gigantic question. A couple thoughts. I mentioned focusing earlier. I think the more focused and intentional you are about something, the better. People just respond to somebody who’s very intentional and purposeful.
We don’t have time to waste. Let’s figure out what your purpose is in this world, and be intentional about getting that done. That’s really been important to see.
The other thing is, on a professional basis, I realized everything is negotiable. Literally everything. People say, “Oh, there are non-negotiables at work” or “There are very strict boundaries.” But that’s false. Everything is negotiable, and you can work with people, understand their perspectives, and may not necessarily always get your way, but over time, work toward negotiated solutions.
Q. What’s an example of something negotiable that surprised you?
A. I’m thinking back to my time at BUILD where I was still in my early 20s and I deferred to authority a lot. Especially when we’re younger, we don’t understand our own power or presence in a situation and our own perspectives being really unique as somebody who hasn’t been jaded or involved in a sector for so long.
That perspective of someone who’s new, young, energetic is really useful, but sometimes because of the hierarchy in organizations, we tend to downplay these people, especially young people in their 20s who can give so much. We write them off because they’re young. That’s silly. I think every single person has something valuable to add and contribute.
I think I would have been more vocal when I was younger, more discerning about what projects I was doing and, not defiant, but I would have not deferred to my superiors so much.
There were many times when I felt we were going in the wrong direction, but I didn’t say anything because I thought they were “right” because they’re the boss; they must know something I don’t. That’s completely false.
I think that was one of the biggest learnings. Just because someone is older, it does not mean they know more than you or that their experiences are better than yours. Everyone literally comes to the table with the same stuff, and just because they have CEO in their title does not necessarily mean they know more or they’re better than you or they’re smarter than you or they’re a better leader.
Everyone has insecurities and perspectives that might be different, but you can talk to them and share your own perspective and see how that can influence the direction of your project or organization.
Q. You mentioned earlier the importance of being deliberate and purposeful. How do you strike the right balance between being focused and “keeping your options open”?
A. I feel like what is going on right now is that there is a lot of “keeping options open,” which is fine. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. At the same time, we should look at the costs and benefits of “keeping options open” vs. being super focused. There are costs and benefits to both approaches, and it’s up to you to figure out what fits best with your value system.
For me, when I was 23 or 24, I was very intentional. I wrote down what I valued at that time, and I’ve been sticking to those values ever since, but that’s a unique thing to do. I don’t know a lot of people who would sit down and reflect on what their values are. That was one of the most important exercises for me.
Every year, I revisit those values to see if they still are appropriate, but if your values dictate that you’re free flowing and open and trying to find the next big thing, then by all means, do that. But for me, my values are to make a contribution in this world in a very specific way, to impact the lives of youth, and I’ve known that since I was 23 years old. So I knew I wanted to go in that direction.
I’d say, start with your values, and then pick an approach for how you do things accordingly.
Q. Where do you see yourself in the future and how will what you’re doing today help you toward that goal?
A. I’m dedicated to One Degree and ensuring that this organization’s mission gets accomplished. Eventually, what I want to do is eradicate poverty and ensure that every family, every person, gets the critical life-saving resources they need to succeed and thrive in this country.
I don’t exactly know what that brings for our future, but we have a five-year plan that shows we’ll be expanding nationally over the next few years. Hopefully, that works out. Hopefully, things progress that way.
But you never know. Even over the last six months, we’ve learned so much, and we’ve had to change our strategy. So everything right now is very much in the initial stages and we hope to be able to progress as planned, but that just isn’t always the case.
I’m very dedicated to this. I’ve dedicated the next five to ten years to work on One Degree, which is crazy because, again, not all people are able to give so much time to one thing. But I’m very excited about it. I think we’re going to be doing a lot of interesting things and important work for the nation.
But I’m very interested in lots of different things. I don’t want to just be working with non-profits forever. I see a lot of interesting things that I’d love to dabble in. I love writing. I love art. Maybe I’ll delve into writing more in the future. I’ve also contemplated potentially running for office in the future as well. I’m still 31, so maybe well into the future.
But I think the theme for that, as I mentioned, starting from my values, is how can I make a contribution to the world, and how can I do that on a scale that gets broader and broader.
When I started out as a teacher and later at BUILD, I was working in a very small subset of the population, like a class of 20 people, an organization of 300 people. Now, with One Degree, we have to be serving thousands of people in our region and hopefully across the country. And then, I think the natural next question for that is how do I make an even deeper impact in my community on a larger scale?
Q. What advice do you have for others as they reflect on their own career paths?
A. I would say one very tactical piece of feedback is just to write down your ideas all the time. I’m a very visual person. When I see ideas, they’re very exciting and I love them. I have an Evernote folder where, if I’m thinking in the middle of the night and I come across an interesting idea, I can just write it down really quickly.
Then I go through my ideas every once in a while to see what’s good or if there’s anything worth pursuing, even like years down the line. So this idea for One Degree, it might be a new thing now, but there was some seed of this idea years ago.
When you write things down, you keep a lot of these ideas, and it helps to generate new ideas and keep an active and creative mind.