Tonio DeSorrento on building the gateway to career acceleration
As the world rapidly changes, the very foundations of higher education and career development are shifting with it. Access usually reserved for university-affiliated networks is now available through the rise of innovative financing methods and career accelerators.
We spoke to Tonio DeSorrento, a member of The Room and CEO of Vemo Education, to explore how his revolutionary work in higher education is also helping Americans accelerate their careers. Vemo Education partners with higher education institutions to offer Income Share Agreements (ISAs), an innovative financing model to empower learners through access to education.
Vemo Education’s work is really incredible. What inspired you to begin this journey?
I had worked as a lawyer in private practice, helping people with various financial products including Income Share Agreements. While many of these products failed, I still believed in the idea — the idea of paying for education based on success. The more I thought about it, it struck me that what was missing was schools. The right way for ISA’s to succeed was to offer them in partnership with schools. People have been trying to solve the education problem as if the main problem were student loans.
That’s a very interesting perspective. But didn’t student loans open up higher education for many more people?
The United States had a problem with higher education access, which the government resolved by making loans easily available to students at all levels and for all kinds of schools. But this caused the United States to borrow its way into a student debt crisis. Ten years later, people want to resolve the crisis by using something better for students.
That’s where Income Share Agreements came in. An ISA is a contract where students pay their tuition through a 10% portion of their future income over several years. Although it’s ethically simpler for people of faith, it’s also more humane, especially if a person isn’t working and their balance isn’t growing. This makes it very different from loans. Now, unfortunately, while many thought ISA’s were a better way to remedy the problem, it turns out, fixing the financing wasn’t enough. The problem was the tuition in the long term. Students and parents stopped asking, “How can I afford this?” and instead asked, “Is this worth it?”
So, there was a conversation shift from affordability to value derived?
Exactly! As the conversation shifted, more schools wanted to communicate value and to invest in the career outcomes of their students. This was the case for schools who helped adult learners, transitioning veterans, immigrants — anyone who needed upward economic mobility and was looking for a career path out of school.
So, we started Vemo Education 5 years ago, and were inspired to take Income Share Agreements and use them as a more fair, progressive and transparent form of tuition. Through ISA’s, universities could now switch to a pay-for-success model, helping them signal to potential students that they are serious about their career growth, be accountable about this, and protect students if they don’t succeed.
What has the journey been like for Vemo Education?
Vem0 Education works from the perspective of rewarding the good schools and letting the good schools, who lean into their value proposition, stand out and win. The higher education market is notoriously difficult to sell to. Schools are pretty independent and receive federal funding. It was very hard to get them to act or change. The hardest part was building the thing that colleges actually want, which is not the product. What they want is the outcome — the impact of a program on a school and its students. It took us years to make that and earn our first institute.
Schools want to buy the outcome that a similar school received from using this product. Overcoming this took us years. We got our first college in our first year in business and it took us another year to get a second college. We’re in our fifth year now and we are at 56 colleges and it has gotten to the point where we can sell this way. Our aim is to continue bringing about greater change and hopefully reform higher education.
The rise of ISA’s has also prompted the rise of career accelerators. What value do you think these can add to helping individuals become more successful in their careers?
I think the concept of paying for success whether through ISA’s or not is really important to convincing people to invest in themselves. For many people in their mid-career looking to switch careers or get more value to grow, getting another degree may seem like the obvious option, but it doesn’t always translate to the immediate skills required to start or progress in a career path.
I think about my own story. I served in the U.S Navy and Marine Corps for about ten years. When I transitioned into civilian life, I experienced this fear of how to succeed without a credential. So, I bought a law degree, a credential. If this didn’t work out, I thought, I would be dead. I didn’t know what to do, I had no connections and I would be deep in debt. For many of my fellow Marines, this was the same situation. They would invest in an expensive education, but that wouldn’t guarantee success and wouldn’t necessarily help them navigate life and their career journey.
But with career accelerators, you see your value in your investment. It’s all in the name, career and acceleration mean you make more money afterwards than you did before. They focus on providing people with relevant job-ready skills and getting into great employment. Basically, with them, you pay for success and are rewarded at the end with a progression in your career.
As we finish this interview, we’d like to know, what are you still learning about yourself?
It’s my first time being a CEO. As this company expands in different directions, I have to either expand myself or hire to cover the new needs that arise. When the company grows, I have to grow. So, I find myself learning more about my strengths and weaknesses, dealing with employees, customers, investors and others.
Another thing I am looking forward to is giving. In my prior career, I was a lawyer in private practice. I helped people all the time. A bunch of them could not afford to pay me, but I still loved doing it. Right now, I am often very focused on my own little business. I find myself helping other people less often than I used to do. In The Room, I hope that I can meet other people who are coming up through their careers, starting companies, and have genuine conversations within authentic relationships.
Tonio DeSorrento is the CEO of Vemo Education, through his leadership, Vemo helps colleges demonstrate the commitment to students’ outcomes using Income Share Agreements and enables them for career success.