Every year, millions of students across the U.S. apply to college, yet the overwhelming majority find themselves attempting to navigate the process all by themselves.
In fact, 75% of college applicants—who represent a whopping 7.4 million students—face the daunting and nebulous application process alone. And with high school guidance counselors stretched thin on available time and attention, students, often first-generation and lower- to middle-income candidates with little financial or informational resources, are tasked with tracking down helpful advice.
That glaring need served as the inspiration for Class of ’23 McIntire graduates Sophie Smith and Leah Guesman to found and develop College Contact, an edtech platform for college admissions advising and mentorship that uses an algorithm to pair university students with high schoolers. The nascent business is supporting higher education-bound hopefuls and garnering respect and funding from entrepreneurial investors.
An Unexpected Consequence—and Opportunity
Smith, who concentrated in Marketing and IT, while pursuing an Innovation Entrepreneurship Minor with a track in Business Analytics, first launched College Contact in June of 2020, during the first wave of the pandemic.
“I had just lost my summer internship with UBS, so I quickly pivoted,” she recalls. Crediting her time in Professors Brendan Richardson and Chip Ransler’s summer EOLO fellowship program, she was primed on the world of venture capital and startups. That learning experience was followed by an internship with UVA-founded education venture Student Impact, which assisted younger students as they transitioned to virtual learning. As part of her internship, Smith posted on TikTok, promoting one of the organization’s summer offerings geared for high school students. The results?
“The video was going viral, and high school students started reaching out to me regarding their looming college applications,” she says, sensing that there was an opportunity to meet that market demand. “I attached a Google help form to my TikTok account—and within a period of a few months, had over 800 responses of students on a ‘waitlist’ for my help,” Smith says. At one point, there were nearly 3,000 students on the list.
Smith then enlisted some of her talented friends attending universities throughout the U.S. to work as college advisers, priming them with a training course she put together from interviewing college admissions officers, working with students, and her own experiences writing college admissions essays.
Guesman, who graduated from the Comm School with a Marketing concentration and minored in Economics at the College of Arts & Sciences, joined Smith’s venture in June of 2021 as a college counselor.
“It was a refreshing to work for a company whose mission aligned with my own values—a big change from the typical part-time jobs I’d had in retail and restaurants,” Guesman says. “As a child of two first-generation college students, I’ve grown up hearing about how much college changed the trajectory of my family. The opportunity to work with students who wanted to reap those same benefits for their own families was special to me. Once I recognized just how many students needed reliable, affordable college counseling, it was obvious that Sophie had stumbled upon a big opportunity.”
And that opportunity was growing. By the end of 2022, Smith had 16 contractors working for her and had helped hundreds upon hundreds of students get accepted at the schools of their choice.
Taking a Chance on Themselves
For both Smith, who passed on two offers to join the wealth management department of Morgan Stanley, where she interned in the summer of 2022, and her business partner Guesman, who interned with BCG, College Contact has become a full-time commitment.
“The best part about this decision is that I am not alone in my pursuit of being a full-time startup founder,” says Smith. “Leah, my co-founder, has been behind me ever since I invited her to join me as a founder this past April.”
Guesman explains that while she keeps the business moving forward day-to-day, Smith ensures those efforts are supporting and advancing the larger goals. “Right now, that balance works well, and I’m sure it will continue, even as our roles become more specialized,” she says.
While they are sure about what they are aiming to achieve now, the decision to reimagine their future as founders driving a new venture didn’t come easily.
“It wasn’t until we won the UVA eCup’s Concept Competition in Social Entrepreneurship that my mindset on the business really shifted,” Smith says. “Up until that point, I saw College Contact as a fun and extremely rewarding side hustle. It was a fantastic real-life business textbook that supplemented my McIntire education.”
After that accomplishment, Darden’s Damon DeVito (Darden ’94) invited her to join his renowned Venture Velocity course. “My mindset changed from that point forward,” she insists.
Smith asked Guesman to join her in the course so that the two could explore how they might scale their young company.
Now acting as College Contact’s COO & Co-Founder, Guesman says the value of supporting others in reaching their university goals has made it easy for her to assume greater responsibilities within the business: “Sophie and I are both highly motivated to make the company succeed because we care deeply about helping our students succeed. The biggest loss we’ll face if the company fails is not being able to provide the help our students deserve.”
From there, Smith and Guesman went on to win the Discovery Concept Competition, and earned first place in the final leg of the eCup Launch competition. Combined, the wins generated College Contact $26,000 in non-dilutive grant funding and opened doors to the broader Charlottesville community; the venture was then named one of the Most Innovative Startups in Charlottesville at the annual Tom Tom Festival event, where Smith and Guesman shared their pitch to a live audience.
Their next accomplishment came in April of 2023, when the duo were invited to take part in the Galant Challenge, the annual pitch competition hosted by McIntire’s Galant Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Once again, the results were overwhelmingly positive.
Smith remains thankful to Mark Galant (McIntire ’80) and Professor Eric Martin for being asked to present at the Challenge. Being selected as the only student venture in the competition proved exciting for many reasons: “Not only was it our first time pitching live in front of a room of prominent investors, but it was the first time Leah and I were pitching in front of an audience where the award wasn’t prize money. We had to learn how to rework our language to be attractive to an investor, and we had to dive into financial models to determine a startup valuation and term sheet.” She’s confident that they’ll rely on what they learned for what is likely to be the first of many pitches they’ll give to potential investors.
Capping off a successful run, College Contact won the Student Entrepreneurship Award given by the Charlottesville Business Innovation Council in June 2023. They are currently working on their venture at Darden’s startup accelerator, iLab, through the end of the summer, when the partners plan to move to edtech hotspot Austin, TX.
Comm Faculty and Coursework Loom Large
In the journey of building and expanding College Contact, Smith and Guesman credit their Comm School professors and coursework for guiding them in their journey.
“The biggest value add of McIntire has been the faculty support and advice I have garnered,” Smith says, explaining that professors have been there every step of the way—from sitting in board rooms with them to providing insight on strategy during late-night Zoom calls. “Chip Ransler has helped us iterate our product strategy and fine-tune our pitches for the eCup and Galant challenges; Eric Martin introduced us to a plethora of well-known mentors and investors in our edtech space, which has further solidified our startup’s presence in the Charlottesville area; Brendan Richardson has spent hours on our financial models with us; Nicole Montgomery has helped us with our marketing strategy; Jingjing Li and Jing Gong have helped us figure out our matching algorithm and data collection processes,” she says. “There are so many more.”
Guesman also recognizes McIntire faculty with supporting them through the processes of raising funds, navigating legal issues, and understanding the “nitty gritty of the startup world.” They’ve also helped them to think more broadly about their long-term mission and goals.
The two Comm School alumnae have likewise relied heavily on what they learned from their McIntire classes to advance their company.
“We have used management principles to work with our staff. We have revisited our financial coursework to derive insights for our accounting systems. And we have utilized our communications learnings from ICE to generate beautiful pitch decks, investor memos, and business-forward emails,” says Smith.
Guesman says her Comm classes regularly helped them with decision-making. “We routinely stop in our tracks and realize we’re falling victim to pitfalls we learned about in Organizational Behavior, Project and Product Management, Digital Marketing & Analytics, and so many other courses.”
She praises Professor Rob Patterson for teaching her to write impactful emails and to speak clearly, sharing that the techniques are paying dividends. “As I write emails to busy investors and advisers now, I’m grateful my bottom line is up front,” Guesman admits. “The number of emails you write when running a business is pretty much infinite, and good emails can be the difference between getting opportunities and getting ignored.”
Smith and Guesman have found that the time they have put into College Contact has taught them a plethora of important lessons that have sharpened their management, marketing, finance, and data knowledge—while also giving the business partners ample chances to exercise their communication skills.
“In addition to improving my speaking abilities, I’ve also learned the value of talking about the business,” says Guesman.
“We arrive early, we stay late, and we try to meet and talk with anyone we can. We recognize that opportunities for College Contact exist everywhere and conversations are often the door to those opportunities.”
Rewarding in Many Ways
With their social impact venture, Smith and Guesman feel that they are genuinely supporting high school students with practical advice and provided at a reasonable cost. And because that advice is given by peer counselors close in age to those they are helping, the clients are more at ease.
Those connections and the results of students being accepted to universities proved to be inspirational for Smith: “Receiving testimonials, videos, and phone calls from these students who have been accepted to college has been a life-changing experience for me. Many of them were not going to pursue a collegiate education in the first place—College Contact made [higher education] happen for them.”
Guesman says that helping high schoolers see their lives in a new light has been particularly rewarding: “I’ve had students come to their first meeting insisting that their life is boring, they are not special, and there is nothing interesting to write an essay about. It can be hard to talk or write about ourselves, and digging deep into who we are can be intimidating. However, I find that when students have someone to help them through that process, it can be an incredibly valuable one.”
An additional positive for Smith has been creating earning avenues for the university students whom the business employs. “I saw an opportunity to allow these college students to become their own ‘mini-entrepreneurs’ on my platform,” she says of the socially motivated students who set their own hours.
Both business partners recognize the challenges with scaling the company and finding ways to best reach their large addressable market, but Smith promises that they’ll soon be rolling out updates that should propel them to the next level of growth.
For someone who had founded a series of other ventures in high school and earlier as an undergrad at UVA, College Contact represents the most serious endeavor she’s ever launched and developed. It’s the biggest business opportunity of her lifetime.
“Ever since I was little, it was my dream to be an entrepreneur,” Smith says.