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December 17, 2008

GradeFund: Cashing In on Good Grades

A website launched by Michael Kopko ’09 pays students for every A.


At 24, Mike Kopko ’09 is already a seasoned entrepreneur. When he was a Harvard sophomore, the second-year MBA student launched DormAid, a company that connects professional cleaning services with college students living in on-campus housing. Available today at more than 65 college campuses, the company — which also landed its founder a spot on the Daily Show — is now valued at about $3 million.

Kopko’s new venture, GradeFund, launched last month and has already been featured in Time and on WNBC-TV New York’s nightly news. Here’s how it works: Students create an online profile and send out invitations asking sponsors to pledge money for each A. When a student reaches $100 in donations, GradeFund mails him or her a check (and the company receives 5 percent as a transaction fee). Donors can also have checks sent directly to a tuition office. (Watch Kopko describe the process in a video on GradeFund’s YouTube channel.)

Kopko took a break from networking with corporate sponsors (and studying for finals) to answer a few questions about his latest extracurricular.

It took you fewer than eight months to launch GradeFund after you and your brother, Matt [a first-year law student at the University of Chicago], came up with the idea. Is a second business easier to launch than a first?

Yes and no. It’s easier in that I already have a network in this space — education — and I’ve learned some basic lessons about marketing. For example, I’m not going to invest thousands of dollars in a particular effort until I know it has an impact; I’m more disciplined. And I’ve been able to grow DormAid and see it evolve to a place where other people are handling the administrative aspects, so I know what has to happen for a company to establish itself.

But I expect more out of this project — I have higher expectations! We want this to be an application in every student’s home. We really want to encourage scholarship.

GradeFund’s tagline is “Starting a revolution one A at a time.” What’s revolutionary about this venture?

Students typically don’t have any assets until they’re 25. Instead, most of them rack up tuition debt, not to mention debt from books, computers and the like. Good grades can now function as assets as well as something that young people can be proud of. Ultimately, GradeFund is trying to help them trade with assets that previously have been under utilized.

DormAid was initially criticized for highlighting class distinctions on campus, and an early concern about GradeFund is that wealthier students will reap bigger rewards through their connections than those who may be more in need — and more in debt. Is that a concern?

Ninety percent of the feedback we’ve received so far has been enormously positive. I think that the students who are motivated to use GradeFund are those who really need the money. And the more sponsors they have, the more money they can make; it adds up. This is also a service that can provide students with more time for what they want to do so that they don’t have to take a part-time job, for example, in order to pay for books.

We want to celebrate achievement and empower students.

What’s next for GradeFund?

We recently established our first corporate sponsor, ZooToo.com, which is a Web site for pet enthusiasts. They’ve agreed to pledge $15 to the first 100 students each semester who earn an A in veterinary medicine. I’m already talking to several other potential corporate sponsors.

We’re also developing a job-search engine that will allow employers to search for students who earn good grades in certain subjects. We want the site to connect students with internships and job opportunities that will help them after they graduate.

In the long term, we want to build a sustainable model that has a fundamental impact on people. Jobs are great, but nothing trumps a mission — we’re creating more opportunities for every deserving student.

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