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#94 | From Startup to Global in 4 Years

Ben Welbourn, a partner at Verto Education, tells a great story about how they’ve developed a study abroad program that could become the largest university in the world. 

He and his two partners worked in the student exchange industry and saw the opportunity for developing a program that offered an affordable, safe place with experiential learning for high school graduates to spend their first university semester abroad. For anyone who has been abroad, you know the benefits from visiting other countries – learning about cultures, connecting with people different from you, being exposed to languages, and experiencing new foods, sights, sounds and situations. The United States has a low level of passport ownership and travel is seen as something you don’t need.  Yet, by realizing people share similar wants and needs around the world, countries can develop more fellowship and peace. 

The lack of international experience of 17- and 18-year-old young adults combined with their needing to pick an expensive college and decide what they want to do for the rest of their lives, inspired a great idea in the founding team of Verto.  

They understood that international and experiential learning in a foreign country could open new possibilities and expose young adults to opportunities they might not have considered. 

And they knew that they had to provide a safe, high-quality learning environment so parents would be supportive. 

With this great vision, the team set out to sell to their many audiences: 

  • Stressed students in their senior year of high school 
  • Distrustful parents who care about child’s next steps 
  • Counselors and education consultants with influence 
  • Universities to accept the students after their first semester 
  • Professors to teach 
  • Health and Safety operators to keep everyone safe 
  • Locations around the world for local facilities 

By pulling all these audiences together, they had 8 students attend in 2018.  By 2022, they have 800 students enrolled.  The program has expanded to 6 countries in 4 years and they have ambitious plans to open in other countries in the future! 

In the episode, you’ll hear about the strategy for how they picked their first markets, why they ended up where they are now, and how Covid had a lot to do with a change in locations.   

Ben admits that knowing what he knows now about the launch and then the pandemic, he doesn’t want to go through those times again.  

Currently, they recruit students in the United States and include students from other countries as they hear about the program and apply.  For now, they are not marketing in other countries but they plan to in the future.  They also plan on opening up other Learning Centers around the world. 

Their professors are from quality institutions in the US and the local countries.  Many who come for a semester decide to stay on full time even if they were tenure tracked in their prior institution. 

In a prior episode, #14 with Brittany Cooper, she talks about how her old company tried to open too fast in too many countries and how that brought them down.  This episode is a nice contrast on how to open fast yet be flexible, adapt and be successful. 

Another good episode is #09 with Stephanie Hendricks who talks about their strategy for market expansion.  Another one to listen to if you are considering new global markets. 

Listen till the end when Ben tells the story of his favorite foreign word in Bosnian, olabaviti which means relax or loosen-up. 


Full Disclosure from Wendy – my son is in Costa Rica on the Verto Education program and loving it.  I am so impressed with the whole program – the professors are good, the location is great, the support team is phenomenal, the communication is fantastic, and my son is getting international experience with a group of fabulous young adults.  Next semester he is thinking about going to another country.  After that he plans on going to one of their partner schools.  I am a HUGE fan of Verto Education. 

Read Episode Transcript

ATTENTION:  Below is a machine generated transcription of the podcast.  Yes, at Rapport International, we talk a lot about how machine translation is not good quality.  Here you see an example of what a machine can do in your own your language.  This transcription is provided as a gist and to give time indicators to find a topic of interest. 


[00:00:34] Wendy: Welcome listeners to The Global Marketing Show. Sometimes you meet somebody years ago, but they impressed you so much or they talked about something that caught your attention so much, you just remember them. So today's show, we're gonna have somebody, that I met years ago and have kind of followed along the way, and I'm excited to hear his story.

[00:00:56] But before we get into that, and I introduced him, I wanted to give you the tidbit from Rapport International. As you know, Rapport International is the sponsor of the show they provide foreign language translation in over 200 languages, and there's specialists in global marketing. So if you ever have any questions about multilingual communications, reach out to Rapport International. If you Google Rapport I-N-T-L or that's the website .com, you can get to them.

[00:01:28] So today's tidbit, we're gonna have some fun with it, because it is a really long word. It's 15 syllables, it has 35 letters, and since we're doing an international education show today I thought it would be a good one to talk about. So let's, let's give it a try, it's called; "Hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia." It's made up of the words of hippo, poto, monstro, sesquipe, dalio, and phobia. You know what it means? It means fear of long, multi syllable words. So there you go. There's your, your word for the day. 

[00:02:14] So today I'd like to introduce Ben Woburn of, Verto Education. Now, I met him years ago at a college fair when my first son was looking to go off to college, and he was at the college fair in town and we got to talking and I thought his program was brilliant. So my second son just started his first semester of college in Costa Rica with them. So Ben, Hi Ben, welcome to the show! 

[00:02:41] Ben: Hi Wendy, thanks for having me. Yeah, 

[00:02:44] Wendy: so your background is impressive. Your co-founder and chief enrollment Officer, Verto education, and an alum of a self designated gap year when you hike the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia.

[00:03:00] So people always ask, Did you go Maine to Georgia or Georgia? The domain I'm, I'm gathering you went Maine to Georgia. 

[00:03:06] Ben: I, I did. Most people think that's backwards, but not me, . 

[00:03:10] Wendy: I've, I've heard pluses and minuses to both. And let's see. You've worked in a variety of industries. You taught English and rural Peru, and LED outdoor education programs in New Hampshire and Maine.

[00:03:23] And since then he's overseen international program development, student outreach recruitment. Business development for a number of student travel organizations. And you started verto to increase access to impactful education worldwide. Well, my son is being impacted and so were the group of kids he's hanging out with and going to first semester of college down in Costa Rica.

[00:03:47] So how did you cope this, or what's different about 

[00:03:52] Ben: Verto? Lot. Yeah. I. So I'm, I'm one third of the equation. I'm one, one of three co-founders, so I'm not gonna take credit for all of its origination. But the thing that set me off wanting, wanting to enter this entire thing was that I thought I wanted to be a teacher.

[00:04:09] And I, I lasted one year and remembered that I did not like school. So I felt like a bit of a hypocrite teaching in that environment and that kind of led me toward experiential education and student travel. And everyone who works in that space and study abroad does so because we all feel really strongly that the world would be a better place if more people traveled and met people of different backgrounds and beliefs and values and ideas and, and learned from them and acknowledged that other people are valid too.

[00:04:36] That would solve a lot of the conflicts that we're seeing in the world. Yet that field really is not built for everyone. It's not properly serving everyone. So my co-founders and I were looking at all of the reasons why, and, and price is the, the most obvious thing that sticks out. You know travel is, is assumed to be expensive.

[00:04:55] But then the other, the other piece of it is that travel. Is typically not seen as a need to have or plan a for most families, it's the, the first question for many people is, where are you going to college? And study abroad comes later. So we needed to create a model that that meant that it was part of Plan A.

[00:05:14] And so we started looking at all of the ways to do that. Also to increase access and improve the affordability piece too. But it was really critical that we created a model where everyone could see themselves there and that they felt representation too. So that meant starting by looking at what higher education.

[00:05:35] Kind of across the board's values and, and one of those things is those, those general education or core requirement courses that people take. So we looked at those because they're the most transferable thing, and we said, How do we take this out of the classroom as much as possible and make it practical and active and tangible?

[00:05:52] Because we were also seeing some challenges in the higher education space that weren't properly serving students. If you look at it like almost a third of students, Nationally drop out or transfer after their first year. And that's because we're asking 18 year olds to make a four year commitment.

[00:06:11] That's very expensive with limited context or experience behind that decision. So so we wanted to really show not just the theory of these classes, but the reality. What could this field look like for a career? Is this actually something you want to do? So I like to think that Verto is saving a lot of students four years of the wrong major and, you know, 20 years of the wrong career.

[00:06:33] We all, we all know people who have woken up in their, their forties and they're like, How did I get here? So we wanna, we wanna have a much more intentional approach. 

[00:06:42] Wendy: Oh my gosh. You have just, you have so much of why I like the program and it's nice to hear you articulate it. I have said to so many people that I think it should be mandatory for everybody to live international for a while.

[00:06:56] Mm-hmm. . So you had that thought years ago and have made this a reality. And then I didn't know that a third of college students, like I knew it was easier to get in if you transfer in. You know, as a, a sophomore, but I didn't realize a third drop or transfer after their first year. 

[00:07:14] Ben: A approaching a third.

[00:07:15] Yeah. Yeah, it's pretty bad. Okay, 

[00:07:19] Wendy: so Verto steps in and, and shakes that up and says, Or you and your partners, we're not gonna do the exchange program later on in the college career. We're gonna do it first semester. 

[00:07:34] Ben: Yeah. And, and a lot of families when they first hear about that, they're like, Well, we don't know if we're ready for that.

[00:07:38] And we say we, but really they're projecting for, for students. And, and that, that makes sense because travel is a huge deal and that, you know, I, I remember the first time getting on an airplane alone myself, and that's a huge leap, but. The way our program is, has been developed is, is intentionally for that age group and for that stage in life to provide way more support, to make decisions and, and make mistakes in many cases in a, in a way that can actually be productive.

[00:08:06] So that inclination of, Oh, it should be later in life, is, is kind of backwards, right? 

[00:08:14] Wendy: So it's interesting you that you said that you intentionally developed it for this age group and it was something that we really looked into. My mom was a professor and then moved up into administration and she heard about it and said, Well, I, you know, let, let's look in.

[00:08:30] We wanna make sure he's getting a good education so, David, my son is getting credits from accredited US University and she was impressed with the professors and she said it seemed a little bit more structured than a typical freshman. First semester would be. Yeah. So can you talk to me about how you put 

[00:08:55] Ben: that together?

[00:08:57] Yeah. We've tapped into something surprise, surprise. There's actually a demand for a lot of faculty and professors who, who want this type of career in this type of experience. So and, and many of them are tenure track or, or, you know, they're thriving in that traditional environment, but they've said, Why would I not want to travel with my students, have more of a one, one-on-one relationship with them and really support them in this critical point in their lives.

[00:09:23] Work with smaller classes. I mean, that's, that's a huge part of what we do is, is much more individualized education. And, and just have a different pace too. So so we are able to attract really world class faculty from all over and. And it's working. And yeah. Yeah, I think that we are, we're seeing a difference between us and a lot of traditional colleges where.

[00:09:47] A faculty member may have drawn the short straw and they have to teach a freshman seminar, and, and it's a have to, but we're, we're finding faculty who are saying, I intentionally want to work with this age. I think it's a fascinating point in someone's life. They have a lot of decisions to make. They're learning at a faster rate than most other ages.

[00:10:05] So they get excited by that. And they like the fact that after class they can, you know, go out for a meal or a coffee with their students and continue talking about it. And these are students who. Really curious. They they wanna know more and they, they want to dig in deeper. A lot of our students may not know exactly what they wanna pursue, but that's, that's why they're excited.

[00:10:25] They're, they're there to figure it out. So how do you, 

[00:10:29] Wendy: is so what's more structured about the day? Like in college, you drop 'em, you say, Here's your schedule. You hope that they make it, you don't know what they're doing in between times, but you have more schedule during their day or more they have more accountability to the people there.

[00:10:45] Or how do you, how 

[00:10:46] Ben: did you do that? Yeah, the, the program structure has evolved over time partly outta necessity and then also just from, from our learnings. But we're, our, our model now is that we have a study center and you know, your son is in Costa Rica, which, which is actually a little bit different cuz he's basically on a campus in the rainforest.

[00:11:03] And 

[00:11:03] Wendy: yeah, maybe talk about which other countries you're in too, cuz we haven't covered 

[00:11:07] Ben: that. So we, we have we have Costa Rica, we have Buenos side Argentina. We have Prague in the Czech Republic. We have Spain, Florence, Italy, and London, England this semester. So we have about 801st year college students in those locations right now.

[00:11:28] 800 total? 

[00:11:29] Wendy: Yep. And 

[00:11:30] Ben: when did you. 2018. So I, I officially made this my day job in February of, of 2018. 

[00:11:36] Wendy: So that's, that's so much growth to open up in 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 countries. Mm-hmm. in four years. 

[00:11:46] Ben: In a pandemic, in a, Yeah. 

[00:11:53] Wendy: Yeah. Okay. So, all right, so you, you have the structure, but let's jump over to this now, cuz this is, it's about global marketing.

[00:12:00] It's about building. Sure. So your, your vision had to be global from the start. That's right. Yeah. And so how did you think about building a strategy? Cuz not only are you trying to recruit the students mm-hmm. , you're also trying to recruit all the setups in all those places. So how did, how did you even think 

[00:12:22] Ben: about that?

[00:12:23] Yeah, it's, it's crazy complicated. When we, when we first started, we realized that even the markets that we had to pitch this idea to, there were, there were multiple we had to go out to students. Who by and large are, are really stressed out. They're, they're told that this is one of the biggest decisions they're ever gonna make in their entire lives, and we have to go to them and say, Hey, you know, this concept of college that you think, you know we're suggesting you do it completely differently and in a way that none of your peers are doing it.

[00:12:54] Then we had to go out to parents and say, Trust us. And then we had to go to high school counselors and educational consultants with the same message. And then we also had to go to universities because they are our, our largest partners and say you know, in many ways you're benefiting from the status quo, but we think this is gonna be really impactful for students and we wanna send you students with this, this type of experience.

[00:13:18] So as much as higher education talks about innovation, Very few universities want to be the first ones in. So many of them were looking and saying once we see a peer institution in your consortium, then then let's talk. So that was really challenging in the very beginning, but That doesn't even go into the actual program operations and the academics of what we're providing too.

[00:13:40] So we, we developed curriculum we hired faculty members. We also brought in operations. And, you know, when you're working with 18, 19 year olds for the most part, health and safety and risk management need to be priority one too. So I can give a bit of a history on it, but really in that first year, given our backgrounds in having worked in that space before, we knew how much goes into health and safety, and that if we did it, did this whole thing alone, that would be most of our bandwidth.

[00:14:11] So we would be running a really safe, kind of crappy program, . And so we needed to partner with existing operators and, and use their. Partnerships, their infrastructure on the ground but build our own programming around that. And that that's really how we were able to get off the ground in the very beginning, in, in the beginning of 2018.

[00:14:31] Since then, we've expanded. So partners 

[00:14:33] Wendy: like the, when you built partners, you were building it for health and safety, or you were building. 

[00:14:39] Ben: So we, we, we partnered with existing student travel organizations and they have their own facilities. They have their own connections with local hospitals and everything else.

[00:14:49] And so we were able to tap into their networks and their infrastructure for that. And then we designed our own program and student experience using their, their infrastructure.

[00:14:58] Yeah, you used 

[00:15:00] Wendy: their knowledge and their 

[00:15:01] Ben: connections in the beginning. And then, and then once we really did have enough of a footprint ourselves, then we expanded out and, and now we have our own study centers. So when you walk down the streets of historic Spain, You see Vito's logo on the wall of, of a historic building, and that's our study center.

[00:15:20] Same goes for our other locations as well. Yep. So Costa 

[00:15:24] Wendy: Rica was your first 

[00:15:25] Ben: one, right? Yeah. In that first semester, we had a, we had a dual semester, so the students started in the Dominican Republic, and then they, they spent the second half of their semester for fall 2018 in Costa R. And that was a very different model.

[00:15:42] It was very mobile. So students traveled in a small cohort with their, their program leaders and their instructors. And went from point A to B to C to D and, and worked in a variety of communities throughout that semester. And our model has since evolved to more of a hub and spoke where we have our study center, we have our home base.

[00:16:01] That's where students really get their sense of community. They don't say that time I studied abroad or that time I visited Florence. It's that time I lived there because they have that home base. And then within their coursework there are excursions related to those topics that take them out of those communities as well.

[00:16:21] So it has, it has evolved over time.

[00:16:23] Wendy: So who is working at these study centers? Cuz the professors you're saying are coming in from different universities. Are they local universities? Are they from the. 

[00:16:37] Ben: That's, that's one of the best things. So our, each of our locations is a healthy blend of local expertise and us professors and instructors and staff members too.

[00:16:48] So both really. And you mentioned that, that your son's transcript is coming from a US university, our academic partner. Works with us to identify our faculty and, and we wanna make sure that they are up to the standards of any, any of our 70 partner colleges as well. So so yeah, we are hiring faculty members with backgrounds at a, a lot of different universities, but yeah, they've, they've fallen in love with this, this educational.

[00:17:16] So, 

[00:17:17] Wendy: Do they come, are they there longer term or are they, they'll do a semester than leave? Or how, how, what's the agreement with the faculty 

[00:17:26] Ben: now? Now they're longer term and, and that's really been great because there's, there's learnings after every semester and ways to continue to improve. So so yeah, the vast majority of our faculty are long term long term for, you know, a year plus contract.

[00:17:43] Wendy: Oh, okay. So they might take a sabbatical from when they're on a 10 year track and go work with you for a year. Mm-hmm. . 

[00:17:49] Ben: And in other cases we have, we have faculty who are saying, No, this is, this is my career now with Verto. Yep. 

[00:17:55] Wendy: Oh, okay. Well, they're, well, they'll come and stay with you. So you're creating like your own little university.

[00:18:01] Mm-hmm. . Yep. Now, but the students only do the first year. Do you have any that are 

[00:18:08] Ben: higher? Yeah, we have, we do have some students who come back and they're looking at our course catalogs, which are, which are growing and looking to, to see ways to continue on for their second year of college as well.

[00:18:21] Yeah. 

[00:18:22] Wendy: So they can look at and then take the different courses to build it out before they have to go on. Wow. Yep. Yeah. And our. You recruiting any international students? Now 

[00:18:35] Ben: that is a ongoing conversation. We, we do have international students who have mostly found us by word of mouth when we first started verto.

[00:18:44] You know, this is by definition of global company, like you said. But we were really identifying needs in the US higher education system. It is famously expensive and famously complicated more so than pretty much any other country. So that was the first thing we wanted to address was, was the needs within this country's.

[00:19:05] Education system, coupled with the fact that, you know, passport ownership in the United States is lower than many developed countries, and we wanted to encourage growth there. So we started really marketing to, to us. High school students for when they graduate. Since then, yeah, we have had students from all over the world and right before the pandemic we were about to launch in a few international markets for, for recruiting international students.

[00:19:32] And Obvious things happen since then. But we are, we're about a year away from a, you know, pretty full saturation in three other international markets

[00:19:43] deal 

[00:19:43] Wendy: with language cuz you've got local people on the ground that have to work for you. You've got professors coming in from. The different countries and you're recruiting students, so you've got all sorts of language things going on. How do you handle that? 

[00:20:00] Ben: We do. So for our students they need English proficiency, not just for the academics, but also for safety reasons.

[00:20:07] And so for international students, they need to be able to, to meet that minimum requirement for English language. For our for our classes they are all in English, unless it is a language class, mm-hmm. , and we have immersion options in some of our locations. But you know, for Spanish for example, that's gonna be in Spanish and, and it's also going to be out of the classroom and really accelerating Spanish.

[00:20:31] But but yeah, all of our faculty members and, and staff are. Our full English speakers, we do have local partners where they may not really speak English. And that's, that's kind of an added, in my opinion, kind of an added bonus. It's much more authentic. And for students who are pursuing languages, what better way to, to improve your, your language then to kind of be thrown in the deep end with some of these partners too?

[00:20:58] So, So yeah, we are, we are navigating that and for all of our, our operations teams and faculty and staff in each location you know, they're, they're fluent in the local language to be able to run a really smooth integrated program with each each location. And, and since then, actually we have incorporated in almost all of our locations, so we are, we are a local entity registered.

[00:21:21] So we are not just a US company. Oh, 

[00:21:26] Wendy: okay. So have you had logistic on, on language and then I wanna go to local entity. Have you had any language issues or just Most everything's been in English? 

[00:21:35] Ben: Yes, it's, so the coursework is in English. And then if we are, you know, meeting with. Government officials in a government building for one of the classes or at a hospital for a public health course, things like that.

[00:21:48] Then, then the instructors are gonna be translating for, for students who don't have proficiency in the local language. So, no, no real issues actually at all for, for language. Okay. 

[00:22:02] Wendy: All right. And so then and so you're not doing, so you've built a global company. Doing primarily English. 

[00:22:12] Ben: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

[00:22:14] Aside from those, those those language courses and home stays and things like that, it's, it's primarily in English as far as Yeah. The, the course instruction goes. Yeah. 

[00:22:26] Wendy: No, and it makes sense cuz your target audience right now is students from the United States. So it'll be interesting to see what happens when you're targeting students from other countries.

[00:22:36] They'll have to speak English, but then, All the, I mean, all the wonderful information that you provided us as parents when you were onboarding him was fantastic. And so did the parents have that level of English? That'll, that'll be interesting to see. 

[00:22:50] Ben: Right. But, and, and in, in our admissions process, actually, I mean, we have, we have admissions counselors who speak a variety of languages and we're, we're quite often doing family admissions calls where the, the admissions counselor speaking the local language too.

[00:23:06] Wendy: So that's how you're, So you're hiring bilingual people Yeah. That are able to facilitate it, 

[00:23:12] Ben: right? Yeah. Yeah. And, and the one that comes up the most in the United States is, is Spanish. So a lot of members of of our admissions team are speaking Spanish on, on family calls. Yeah. 

[00:23:22] Wendy: Right, right. Okay. So then, so that kind of handles the language.

[00:23:28] The strategy for which countries you went to and then getting into how you decided to create a, a. Local entity there. So how did you decide where to go? 

[00:23:42] Ben: Yeah. That, that's evolved over the last five years, pretty dramatically. In the very beginning, we used our past experience working in student travel and seeing which markets are very popular with us students and where, I mean, there's, there's open data available for where students are studying abroad where students are coming from for higher education.

[00:24:01] And where early days where we had direct experience running programming. So after that Dominican Republic Costa Rica program, we then expanded to another very mobile program that was in one semester, Fiji, New Zealand, and Australia. And we knew there was demand. We had, I had personally enrolled a bunch of students in high school travel programs in, in those countries already.

[00:24:25] And we had a lot of direct local connections in those countries to run really, really powerful programs. And then we expanded to another one that was China, Thailand, and Laos in one semester. And then the pandemic hit. And that was when we were launching. Florence, Italy and a couple other locations.

[00:24:47] And the first countries that were really the highest profile challenges with the pandemic were, were China and then in Europe, in Italy. So that that impacted our decision making. And so we closed that and really that first spring, that March we had students on the ground. In New Zealand, Australia, and Costa Rica, and we had really almost daily town hall meetings with our enrolled families saying, Here's what we're seeing here is what we're hearing from the cdc, the state Department, local governments, and and our, our teams and our emergency response partners.

[00:25:28] Here are the scenarios that could play out and, and unanimously in those early days, families were saying, No, we feel more comfortable keeping our sons and daughters on the semester in country. And then eventually we started hearing rumblings that you know, New Zealand and Australia maybe closing their borders indefinitely and.

[00:25:49] We got to a point where like, if we don't make a call now, we might have some, some students there for a very long time. So we ended up actually making the call, bringing all of our students home that spring. And within 48 hours of making that decision, students were back in their homes in the United States, even from the South Pacific.

[00:26:08] So it was very fast. We switched to online and we have not been back programmatically in, in Australia or New Zealand or Fiji or China, Thailand, or Laos. Since then, as we were navigating future semesters I mean, the entire world was feeling uneasy about the future, and we wanted to do our part as much as we could to, to give a, a sense of a guarantee to families.

[00:26:32] And so we, we came out with our enrollment guarantee with a scenario plan and scenario A, which in hindsight may have, may now feel naive. A scenario A was, Oh, this whole thing goes away. And here are all the locations that we operate in, and what you enrolled in. You go to Scenario B was, maybe we can't run your location, but we have diversified our locations more than traditional colleges, which means that, you know, you may not be able to go here, but our other locations are more protected currently from the pandemic.

[00:27:05] And you can switch locations or say, That's not the one I signed up for, and will offer a, a full refund, no questions asked. And at the time, colleges were looking around and saying like we have we have in many cases one campus, and if the, the perimeter of that campus is not totally, you know, insulated from the pandemic, then we're in big trouble.

[00:27:28] So it went from a lot of partners and a lot of universities saying, Oh man, you guys are in trouble to if we're in trouble, can we send you our students? And So scenario A did not end up happening. The pandemic pressed on scenario B held for a while and we started kind of open conversations with families.

[00:27:45] We did start offering some refunds. We did start shuffling students to other locations. Then there was scenarios C and d and down the line D was basically nothing can happen in person anywhere in the world and we're gonna be fully online. And that's what ended up happening for fall 2020. But again, we had that enrollment guarantee, which meant that.

[00:28:07] Yeah. Families can 

[00:28:07] Wendy: either, Yeah. Which is very different because not, I mean, the universities weren't offering any sort of guarantee, so you were completely concerned about their safety. Mm-hmm. and guarantee to keep the flexible, which is what you offer. So how did you go from China and in New Zealand presence to now?

[00:28:27] You're not even in those countries, Right? 

[00:28:30] Ben: Currently. Currently. So we, we do have designs to, to reenter a lot of those locations in the future. But yeah, when we were looking at how do we responsibly run a student travel program in a pandemic, there are multiple things in mind. One is, can we ensure a highly high quality student experience?

[00:28:50] Where we are minimizing risk for our students in a global pandemic. I mean, by definition, the fact that we're a student travel organization would, would raise some eyebrows. So for internally too. So where our locations where we feel confident we can run a strong, solid student experience. And also on the other side, looking back at our mission, we wanna have a positive impact on the world and in the communities where we operate.

[00:29:17] Where are locations where if we are bringing in students, it's not a strain on local resources and it's not a stress for local community members. And in developing countries that can actually be detrimental rather than beneficial. So coupled with in a pandemic, where, where is their infrastructure in place to be able to, you know, medical was obviously top of mind as was comfortable.

[00:29:42] Living situations. There was, you know, quarantine and a bunch of other things that were being considered. And where are we gonna be able to hire world class faculty and staff given the current climate? And so we did swing more Eurocentric at that point. That 

[00:29:58] Wendy: was So Prague severe. Florence in London.

[00:30:03] Ben: Yep. Not Prague yet. Prague actually launched for the first time this fall. So that was another addition. And then the other side of it was domestically in the US we were, we were looking around and we were like, there's no guarantee that our border stays open to, to let students either leave or come back.

[00:30:19] So we need a domestic option as well. And so we were looking at continental US and then we were looking at again where is there a market where it's gonna go really well? And we're gonna be able to enroll students who are interested in it, where we can have a really impactful, interesting experience.

[00:30:37] and we have this space to be able to really insulate and, and make sure that we're protecting our students from the pandemic as much as possible. So that ended up not being continental US and it was Hawaii. So we launched a Hawaii domestic semester in response to the pandemic. And in the summer leading up to it, we had to pivot frequently.

[00:30:57] There were regulations in the summer. It was going to be kind of a mobile kind of island hopping style program. And the direction of the pandemic made it very clear in the summer, right before the fall semester, that that was not the best path forward. So we ended up shifting that model to being a stationary campus based semester on the big island, and we had our own space there.

[00:31:19] So that's, if you want, we can go into the process of doing that, but that's, that's how we ended up having a temporary domestic program. And, and yeah. Since things have have opened up more, we, we launched Prague and Buenos iris in Argentina. I mean, I'm 

[00:31:36] Wendy: amazed and it comes through loud and clear that you live by your values and your goal is to make sure the kids are getting a high quality education.

[00:31:46] In a safe environment with a new experience. And you were doing this in the midst of launching during a pandemic. Now, how many students did you have that first year? 2018? Is that when you started? 20? Yeah, 2018. 

[00:32:01] Ben: Fall. Fall 2018. We had eight students in our pilot program. And we have 800. 

[00:32:11] Wendy: So did you come phenomenally through, even through the pandemic?

[00:32:15] Yeah. What have been your biggest struggles? . 

[00:32:19] Ben: Are you looking at my hairline since we started? The Biggest Struggles, Entrepreneur. 

[00:32:24] Wendy: You take it all in Stride, right? , Yeah. Stride. I'm joking. This is an amazing story. 

[00:32:32] Ben: I would say, I mean, removing the pan, the pandemic is an entirely different topic. I think talking to advisors and, and fellow entrepreneurs and educators and every stakeholder you can think of everybody thinks we're crazy.

[00:32:50] Like this is an incredibly complicated business model. And I touched on this at the beginning of our conversation, but we're entering multiple. Multiple markets, multiple stakeholders with something that doesn't have a name. You know, it's, it's something that other people didn't think existed or that it should exist necessarily.

[00:33:12] It hadn't really come to mind. And it's not like Kleenex. There's no brand where there's a name and you know what I'm talking about. So Having to explain it to everyone constantly. had, had, was a challenge earlier on. Now, you know, I just got back from a national conference for higher education and walking around I kind of did a back of the napkin estimate of, okay, all the people I just talked to what was our brand recognition.

[00:33:37] And last year at that conference, I would say it was about 40%. And this year it was 95%. So, That part is getting easier. But you know, for the first three or four years of our existence, that was, that was probably the largest challenge was explaining what it is and why people should care when people is multiple stakeholders.

[00:34:01] Right. 

[00:34:02] Wendy: And just the, and building the trust that you could actually do something like that. Cuz I know David's father and my mom and anybody we mentioned it for, it just, you know, No, this can't, It can't be good. It can't be good enough. But the partner schools that you have developed are really good.

[00:34:20] Like I've looked at the list of where the kids can go afterwards. Mm-hmm. and That's fantastic. Do you wanna talk about some of where the kids end up? 

[00:34:29] Ben: Yeah. And, and there are multiple ways that students are interacting with our partners too. You know, model one in the very beginning. And, and actually, so I, the first year I snuck into that conference because we weren't allowed in it yet, we didn't really, no one knew how to wrap their minds around what we even were.

[00:34:47] And there was a college fair at that conference. So I snuck in and my co-founder and I went by every single college, and the pitch was, We wanna send you our students. And then they'd be like, Well, who are you ? But the, the model initially, the only way that was really thrown out there to, to everybody was you apply to verto.

[00:35:05] And through our partnerships with these universities, you get a joint admission decision from any of them. Then you nail down your four year plan. You're traveling for your first semester or two of college before arriving on campus as a, either a sophomore or a second semester freshman. That was, that was the first way.

[00:35:24] So students applied to us and gained admission to our partners. Then we realized pretty quickly that we were tapping into that issue of, of persistence. The, the amount of students who didn't like their decision and found out later on that that's not the right environment for them and they're transferring or dropping out.

[00:35:42] We've, we've struck a chord. So a lot of students are now saying, I'm 17 or 18 years old with limited life experience, and you're expecting me to make this massive investment when I don't even understand. The value of it necessarily. I'm still wrapping my mind around what that investment is, what that's gonna mean for me financially, for the rest of my life, or for my parents.

[00:36:06] And I don't know what I wanna major in. I think I do, but like, based on what, So a lot of these students are now saying, I know I wanna be a freshman. I don't want to take a gap year. I want to be in line to graduate on time with all of my peers. But that four year commitment is terrifying. And so they're saying, I'm gonna do my first semester or year of college with Verto and use that time to inform where I want to go and what I wanna study.

[00:36:33] And And it's working. I mean, a lot of, a lot of our students are going with that path. They don't know where, which campus they're gonna arrive on after work when they start with us. But then as they're talking to their advisors with us and our college counselors they'll, they'll eventually say, Can you gimme an admission decision from these 3, 4, 5 schools?

[00:36:51] And they'll make a decision based on their experience on the ground with us. So. You know, we're seeing a higher level of persistence through college for those, those students than the general public, which is great. And then the other side of this is, is colleges and universities realizing that they can use us to manage their own enrollment.

[00:37:08] And there's a whole game out there with college rankings in the United States based on selectivity and and demand. And, and, and. High school performance and a bunch of things that ultimately when you boil it down, you have to ask yourself like, are all of those things actually a gauge for will this student be successful at this university and do we want that type of person on our campus?

[00:37:33] That's ultimately what should matter. I. But colleges have to make their class. They have to, to admit students that they feel will be successful and want to be there. Like, if they admit a bunch of students and they don't show up, that actually hurts their rankings too. So that yield rate is, is what they're looking at too.

[00:37:53] So a lot of these colleges are saying, we have a huge wait list. And when a student gets wait listed, that's not a great feeling. So it's a bad experience for the student. And the likelihood that those wait listed students actually end up going to that school. It's lower. So rather than waitlist the student, they can say, Congratulations, you're admitted conditionally for January or next year, as long as you successfully complete a semester overseas with verto.

[00:38:20] So the college gets more confidence knowing that student coming in with more context, more experience, more high performance and that they're gonna be success. And the student gets an option at a school that wouldn't have necessarily considered them otherwise. So we're, we're matchmaking in a pretty special way.

[00:38:36] And, and a lot of colleges are, are doing that with us too. And it's great for the students because they are traveling with other students who are headed to those universities. So they're already building that community overseas with students who are excited about the same things they're excited about.

[00:38:51] And then when they arrive on campus, they already have that community built in. So Anyway, that was a long answer, but the, that's how colleges are using us and how students are using us for these partnerships. But our goal again is, is that every student should do this, which means that our consortium needs to have a good fit school for every type of student too.

[00:39:10] So we're, we're looking at a rounded consortium of big schools and small schools, and public and private and rural and urban. Highly selective schools and then schools where if you're like me in high school wasn't your natural habitat for learning, there's still gonna be a school that's gonna where you'll be successful and excited to be there too.

[00:39:31] So so yeah, wide range. And yeah, to, to your original question, we have schools like you know, William and Mary in Virginia and big flagship state schools like University of Tennessee, Knoxville and Boulder in Colorado, and University of Vermont. South Florida, and then we have small, private liberal arts schools.

[00:39:51] My alma mater, the College of Worcester in Ohio is one of our partners. And yeah, so we have about 70, 70 partner schools in all. 

[00:39:59] Wendy: Yeah, that's, it's just amazing what you've built. And now exactly what you were talking about is David has built his team that, you know, his, his gang that he's connected with down there, and they're talking about doing second semester at another VERTO program.

[00:40:15] So they get to go live in another country and take 

[00:40:17] Ben: classes. And the benefit even after that, I always tell students that not only are you going to arrive on your campus after Verto with other Verto participants, but you'll have couches to crash on all over the world because you're gonna have friends who are gonna scatter to every corner of the world after this.

[00:40:35] We have students who go to universities internationally after Verto. We actually have some, some partner universities that are overseas. We work with Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and the University of Auckland in New Zealand, and University College Dublin in Ireland. So we, we have pretty, pretty good assortment 

[00:40:54] Wendy: overseas.

[00:40:54] Oh, okay. I didn't realize. That. Mm-hmm. now, you know, as a mom I'm starting to go, but wait, I want my kid close. I don't want him that far away for that long . But, you know, as a firm believer of everybody should travel internationally so they realize that we're all people and there's benefits that all different cultures can bring.

[00:41:14] So what what fears do you have going forward as you grow this? I mean, you could end up being one of the largest universities. 

[00:41:21] Ben: So that's, that is the goal. When, and, and when people, people ask me like, What, what is your ultimate goal? Their response is either laughing nervously or they're impressed or they raise an eyebrow and they're skeptical.

[00:41:34] But again, we feel the world would be, be a better place if everyone had this type of experience, which means that we should be the biggest university in the world. That should be our ultimate goal. . And I think the, the main consideration in that pursuit is maintaining that student experience. We don't wanna grow for the sake of growing.

[00:41:54] We wanna make sure that we're maintaining that, that quality experience for students. We don't want to just, you know, mindlessly chase a huge number. So that's, that's the largest concern is that we are gonna really focus on student outcomes and why they are there in the first place, and making sure that we're, we're meeting those.

[00:42:14] Yep. Yeah, I 

[00:42:16] Wendy: think that's great and that, that is a business owner thing is how do I balance the, the quality with the growth. Mm-hmm. , and you gotta, it's a continual juggling act. So there is a, there is another podcast episode, it's number 14 with Britney Cooper where they had a startup company where they went international.

[00:42:34] It was in the tourism industry. And she talks about some of the mistakes they made. And it's interesting listening to this podcast in comparison because some of those mistakes that you may, that they, that. She talked about their company at the time made who didn't make it. You've been able to contain those even though you're going international.

[00:42:54] So if you know, if anybody's listening now, these are two good episodes to watch in conjunction. 

[00:43:00] Ben: I gotta talk to her. Pardon? I said I gotta talk to her. 

[00:43:04] Wendy: Yeah. Yeah. Britney Cooper. She's great. . Awesome. So what recommendations would you have for anybody who's thinking about going global?

[00:43:14] Ben: It's funny, I just listened to a couple other episodes of your podcast where they were talking about the, the Why nots. I think. We've been pretty disciplined. Yes, our model is international, but if you're looking at international sales, for example, which in higher education is admissions and student enrollment and recruitment, we've been pretty disciplined to not just jump in and chase other markets.

[00:43:41] We are going in that direction, obviously, but looking at our model, it is a, it's a playground for a lot of possibilities. And it, I think our, one of our largest challenges has been to not have that shiny object syndrome where we're just chasing a million different things. Like let's, let's offer junior and senior year of college and let's add more partners and let's do summer programs and grad school and high school programs.

[00:44:13] Like, there are so many things that we could be doing. And I would equate that also with international expansion. We have actually made a decision this year to do fewer new things, . And that's why we're not really doing a full launch this year of international student recruitment. We are not adding more program locations this year.

[00:44:32] And that's really to collect ourselves with the, the strain of the pandemic and making sure that our team is energized and focused on student. More than anything else. But yeah, for, for people looking at international recruitment, I would say look at what you're currently doing and that, that old 80 20 rule of, you know, your output for outcomes, if you're not even close to hitting that with your current market, keep looking where you're pointed.

[00:45:02] And, and keep going. So it's a little bit of a contradiction to some of, some of the guests. I've, I've heard on your show, but. I think it, it depends on your current resources and, and what's right in front of you. If you haven't even scratched the surface of your existing market that you're already in, then keep going on that.

[00:45:20] Get a critical mass there, and then consider more international expansion. So that's, that's something that we. Even, even when we didn't have a full strategy and launch for international recruitment, we've dabbled in other locations. And that has, that has proven to be a bit of a distraction. Yeah.

[00:45:38] So, 

[00:45:38] Wendy: Yeah, there's another episode that was on November 11th, 2020. So 11 11, 20 20. There's no episode number on it, but Stephanie Hendricks talked about the way her company did a strategy. Mm-hmm. . And so that's, if you're thinking about which c to go into, this is a good episode. And then listening to her, 

[00:45:59] Ben: the other, the other thing I'm thinking about too For our model, and this may be relevant to other, other business owners each market is gonna see potentially a different value proposition for what you even do in the first place.

[00:46:10] And, and you need to consider that as you're going internationally. Like in the United States, we have a very good handle on why students join ver and it is a healthy combination of, I want, I just want to have an international experience. I want access to a university that wouldn't consider me otherwise, and I wanna save money on college, which we haven't even talked about.

[00:46:30] But that's another element of, of Verto is it's typically more affordable. So those, 

[00:46:34] Wendy: Gosh, I, we are, we are outta time. But that is, I know you just, you gotta look at Verto. You will save on American College costs. I can tell you that. And their grants and scholarships are really good if you if you apply through them.

[00:46:47] So I, we can make that point. , unfortunately we don't have time to dig into that more. What you know that, I'm gonna ask this question. What's your favorite foreign word? 

[00:47:01] Ben: So this goes back when I was in elementary school, my parents decided to host a family from Bosnia during the war over there. So we had a family living with us and they came from their house being bombed and going into camps and being separated.

[00:47:18] And a word that they kept using was all above et. Which is Bosnian for basically like relax or loosen up. So if they could use that word in their, their situation, then whenever I'm stressed out, that definitely helps recenter me. So, Ola, bti, 

[00:47:36] Wendy: Ola, bti. Yep. Above vt. That is such a good one. Such a good one.

[00:47:46] As. As my mom just lost her place in Santa Bell Island from the hurricane that just came in . So we'll have to just keep saying that one. But she's safe and she's got another place to live, so. Oh my gosh, Ben, this has been so fabulous. I am just, So impressed with what you and your partners have done. You really have built a fabulous program.

[00:48:08] I can say that from personal experience with my son and I love that you're a company that had to have multiple partnerships and multiple global locations, and you've done so well at it, so congratulations. 

[00:48:20] Ben: Thank you. Wendy means a lot. 

[00:48:23] Wendy: Where can people reach you if they have questions or find out more about verto?

[00:48:28] Ben: Sure. So our website is verto education.org, and that's V E R T O. All over LinkedIn. And because we're working with teenagers, we are all over TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, you name it. That's, that's a large part of how we're finding students and and adults actually at this point too. So, 

[00:48:48] Wendy: Oh, good.

[00:48:48] Okay. So going to your website and do you wanna you want people to reach out to you on LinkedIn? 

[00:48:54] Ben: Yeah, that'd be great. And my name again is I think on LinkedIn. I'm either Ben or Benjamin. Welbourn, w e l b o u r n. All right. Well, thank 

[00:49:05] Wendy: you so much Ben, and thank you listeners for tuning in on this.

[00:49:08] If you know anybody who has a college upcoming student definitely turn 'em on to Verto Education and if you like this episode forward it, forward it on or give us a five. Definitely subscribe. So when you let, so you get notified of when we have new episodes, we're all on all the favorite listening.

[00:49:27] So thanks so much and we'll talk to you next time. 

[00:49:30] Ben: Thanks Wendy!


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