This 24-Year-Old Start-up CEO Offers Some Serious Career Inspiration

Photo courtesy of Campus Jobs.
Liz Wessel is 24 and the CEO of the multimillion-dollar start-up Campus Jobs. She launched the website — which helps students find part-time work, internships, and entry-level jobs — with cofounder and fellow UPenn grad J.J. Fliegelman, in the summer of 2014. It’s been a whirlwind year for Wessel: In the past nine months, she quit her job at Google, raised close to $1 million in seed funding, started her website, and took part in Y Combinator, an intensive three-month program that has helped to launch the likes of Airbnb and Reddit. (Wired calls it the “tech world’s most prestigious program for budding digital entrepreneurs.”) 

Wessel’s worked her butt off to get there, putting in 20-hour days, six to seven days of the week. And, she’s loving every minute.  

A week doesn't go by without another think piece about women in tech. Many are negative, with tales of sexism, discrimination, and bro culture. But, there are also success stories like Wessel’s, which should be celebrated more: She's a perfect example of the bright and brilliant women making changes to this industry. 

We sat down to chat with Wessel just a week after news broke that Campus Jobs received $7.8 million in a new round of funding. Ahead, our conversation with Wessel about how she launched a successful start-up — and what it’s like to be a true lady boss at just 24.      

Tell us about Campus Jobs and the inspiration behind the website. 
“[In college] I was the Anheuser-Busch campus rep, and like who doesn’t want that job? Every frat guy would ask me how I got that job, and I had no good reason. I got an email by accident that I shouldn’t have gotten. It was the best job. 

“So, senior year of college, I came up with this idea to solve [the problem] that every start-up or Fortune 500 wanted to hire students to represent their brands as campus reps. And…students wanted those jobs. They paid well, [and you] got good marketing experience.   

“J.J., [the Campus Jobs] cofounder and I, met...it's a funny story. I hacked into the back-end of a sign-up form for a hackathon at Penn. I went through every résumé and...one stood out, and it was J.J.'s. So, I emailed him saying a friend of a friend told me I should meet him. We met up. I told him the truth, and then I pitched him an idea. He loved it; we did it.   

“So, we had this side project, [Campus Reps], that we did in college, and we started to learn a little bit about the employment space and we saw how fragmented and broken it was. [After graduation], I went to Google. J.J. went to McKinsey, and over two years the website started to grow… So, we were like, We should probably do this legitimately.  

“I moved back from India July 1. I quit Google July 15, and by July 31 we raised a million dollars in funding and started a new company — with the inspiration from that side project... We were like, Let's start fresh. And, the whole point of this company was not just campus-rep jobs, but all jobs for students. So, summer internships, part-time jobs during school, whether it's like a Starbucks barista, an Uber driver, or that really prestigious internship during college at the investment bank. And, we just launched entry-level jobs last week for seniors."      
Did you invest any of your own money to launch the company?
“J.J. and I wanted to bootstrap from the start, and I had saved a lot of money at Google, and J.J. saved some money, so were like, Let's just bootstrap.   

“We moved to New York, and we were working out of — it's slightly illegal, but a college campus, using their Wi-Fi... All of our users were there, so when we came out with a new feature, I’d just go to a million users and say, 'What do you think?'... The issue was we needed to hire more, because I'm obsessed with growing quickly...and you can't do that when it's two people with a website. You need more people. 

“We wanted to hire our first employee, but we couldn’t have bootstrapped and hired her. So, I said, ‘Okay, I'll raise like $200K'... Then, we met one investor at Female Founders Fund (FCubed), and she was like, ‘No, it's going to be double that. Raise $400K...and, I'm in.’

"After hearing that she was interested, I met with BoxGroup. In our second meeting, they offered to lead the seed round, which means to be the largest investor in a round for $650,000. And, this was my dream investor. All my life, I just wanted to have David Tisch and Adam Rothenberg be my investors. After getting confirmation from BoxGroup, I pitched a few others who could contribute money that would make up for the leftover room that BoxGroup and FCubed weren't taking. But, people wanted to contribute much more money than I had hoped, so our round ended up getting pushed up to be a $1 million round."

How did you get the first meeting with that first investor?
"A VP of Google India is married to a woman who is an LP at FCubed, which is run by Anu Duggal. When I moved [back] to the U.S., I met with Anu, and she immediately expressed interest. I really enjoyed meeting her.  

“After that, the next meeting was [with investors who] went to Penn. I had an investor introduce me, and I couldn’t believe... I was in shock when they said that they wanted to invest. I was like, ‘You know we don’t have a product, you know we don’t have users, you know this is our first company. I just want to put that out there.'... And, they were like, ‘Yeah, we're gonna do it.’ So, it was awesome.”      

Is it scary having that much money? Is it ever overwhelming to think of the responsibility to use it correctly?
“We've raised over $9 million dollars, and we still have almost all of that in the bank, which clearly shows we need to learn how to spend money. Part of that is hiring, and we're hiring a kick-ass team… I would say it's not scary as much as...pressure to make sure that we're spending it wisely, and that we're really growing in a sustainable and consistent manner.”   
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Have you experienced any sexism in the industry?
“No investor ever said, ‘Oh, do you have a male partner?’ It was not even a question. I actually probably got…the opposite of sexism, in that when I walked into a meeting, it was obviously up to me to pitch. I think some people are very aware of the fact...that women…do kick ass and therefore might be a little more open to taking meetings, even if you don’t know mutual bros from your fraternity or whatever.   

“I actually reached out to Sheryl Sandberg while I was in California, and I had dinner with her. I flat-out said I think she had a huge, huge impact on women's ability to thrive... Ever since that dinner, I've started to talk to more and more of these amazing, influential women... Obviously, there are some schmucks out there... I think it's getting a little bit annoying when all they talk about is sexism and not about the accomplishments that had nothing to do with you being a woman or a guy.”      

What’s the best advice you’ve received? 
“I almost asked myself every day, Am I faking it? I don’t know what I'm doing. I don’t know how to pitch to investors. They ask me these questions, and I give them my best response, but I don’t really know anything more than what I know. One of my investors once said to me, 'No one actually knows what they're doing. Everyone is really good at taking best guesses and faking it.' And, one day, I was like, You know what? I'm going to stop worrying about the fact that I don't know what I'm doing, and I'm just going to take my best guess every day, every decision. So far, it's worked out, but I think my biggest learning / piece of advice has been that no one really knows what they're doing. Like, no one.”      
Was it scary leaving Google and the security of a full-time job?
“No…I moved to India knowing zero people in a 1.2-billion-person country. I lived in Japan when I was in high school, knowing zero people in a big country. I've always been a big believer that until I get to a point where people are depending on me — like having a family — I should take every risk I can. I wasn’t scared at all. 

“If anything, I just wanted to make sure that this was the right business, because I'm a 110% person. Anyone you ask about me, anything I do, I go 110%. Right now, I work seven days a week, 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m., and so does my cofounder... I think what gave us…the thumbs-up was the fact that investors really jumped on it, and our users...were like, ‘Yes, I need this. There is nothing out there. I don’t know what I'm doing with my life. Please help.’"
And you’ve had good responses from the students?
“We did a study a few weeks ago where we found that 25% of college students who have applied for a job on Campus Jobs actually get hired. And, there is no website that we found that has those stats. It's pretty awesome, and every student will email us. These students are willing to vouch for the fact that Campus Jobs got [them] that job. 

“I promise, by the time we get up, I'll have 10 emails on my phone from students — either saying, ‘Can you get this employer on the site?’ or, ‘Hey, wanted to let you know your company paid for my tuition this year.’ Or, ‘I just got the most kick-ass summer internship. I'm telling all my friends, and I love you.’ It's a really good feeling when you're doing stuff like that. At Google, you know, you're doing really good things, but users don’t usually tell you, like, 'You really helped me'... It's pretty cool.”      
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