Capturing Lightning
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Ousmane Sall

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“When you have passion
and you work really hard, there will be people that support you.”

Ousmane Sall, co-founder and CEO at PeerChecked

Ousmane Sall is the co-founder and CEO at PeerChecked, an open platform to help students, professors, and hiring managers make more intelligent decisions when it comes to employment. Here he talks about the excitement that keeps him driven every day to solve a problem affecting millions of people, and how fulfilling it is to find a team that can unite around the same mission.

What was your initial vision for PeerChecked?
I wanted to increase transparency between hiring managers and college students. In the U.S., only 11 percent of managers believe students are ready to enter the workforce, while on the other end, 70 percent of students believe they're ready to start their career. As you may notice, this is a huge gap. That's something that needs fixing. Students are prepared, but using the résumé itself—using our current method—it's hard to assess a student because, when you look at a student's résumé, you have their education, experience, and then skills. But for students, they barely have any experience. The ones that are proactive enough, they probably held one or two internships prior to graduation. So 80 percent of recruiters rely on the student's education, and that is just their GPA, which only accounts for a small variance in how someone will perform in the workplace. I realized that when I was in college, and I had to find a way to differentiate myself. So I thought that understanding the problem and finding a way to solve it would be beneficial to many others.

What drew you to that vision on a personal level?
When I first started college, I thought I would be a professional soccer player. I just wanted to go to school, be a professional athlete, and use my degree to start small businesses once I had retired from soccer. Unfortunately, I did really poorly my first year in college. I actually ended up with a 1.8 [GPA] as a freshman, and I had to dig my way out of that. I held an almost perfect GPA until graduation, but again, going from a 1.8 to a 3.4 GPA—not everyone can see the changes between my freshman year and graduation. When you send out a résumé to hiring managers, they only see the average. They only see a 3.4, which is average to them. There are plenty of students with higher GPAs than that, so they will go for those. They don't see the work you've done, how many people you've tutored, how often you helped your professors doing research. The résumé itself loses a lot of data when it comes to representing a student's potential.

When I realized that, I decided to do research. When I was looking for an internship my sophomore year, it was really hard because companies were not going past my small GPA. I had to understand the problem, so I worked as a recruiter for the Fund for the Public Interest. It's a national nonprofit located in Philadelphia. I was recruiting graduating seniors to work for them as directors in their Philly office. Through that process, I realized that the method that is used is more like a sales strategy, where you just gather a lot of leads, and then hopefully will land one of them. It's not truly assessing talent. It's all about data aggregation and picking one, hoping that works. So I realized that was a problem, and I started interviewing recruiters, hiring managers, and students to figure out this problem. When I found a solution to this, I decided to apply it for myself to get a job when I was graduating. Prior to graduation, I had already held three internships. When I was graduating, I wanted to work for a private equity firm, which is very difficult for someone with an average GPA and someone who did not go to an Ivy League school. So I had to aggregate the things that I worked on when I was in college—research that I did with professors—and get referrals from peers and professors, and send that with my résumé to the company. I received an offer the next week to start working with them.

Did you have any fears about becoming an entrepreneur?
Yes. It was scary for me to go full-time at first, because although I knew this was something I wanted to do, leaving a good job to start a startup to solve a problem that I would never have to encounter again was a little bit challenging. But my desire to solve the problem far outweighed the fear I had of failure or leaving the company I was working for. When I got to that point, I knew that I didn't have any other choice but to go for it.

What has been your biggest struggle in founding PeerChecked?
The most difficult part would be the emotional roller coaster. I mean, for any person that starts a business from the ground up, to bring the pieces together, it's emotionally challenging. All your senses will tell you this is crazy. It's draining energy-wise, but once you get a good Sunday night's sleep, then on Monday everything else goes away. Burnout puts your emotions all over the place. I would say that's the most difficult part, managing your emotional rollercoaster. But that's something you learn to cope with as you go on.

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“Every day I ask myself:
Why am I working on
PeerChecked? Why do I
want to start this
company? And every time,
the answer excites me.”

Ousmane Sall, co-founder and CEO at PeerChecked

What has been the greatest triumph in your founder’s journey so far?
I would say having a solid team that has the same vision as I do. Currently, I have four people working for me here in the U.S. When they joined, they saw the vision. They saw the problem I wanted to solve and believed in it as much as I did. That has been one of the greatest things, one of my greatest triumphs, because it's hard to get people who you don't pay out of pocket—just in equity—to work for you. We have a team in India that helps out in certain things, but those guys, I have to pay them. Having people here that can just come in and work more than eight hours a day to solve a problem that they believe in as much as you do is definitely one of the things that makes me happy.

What has been your greatest sacrifice?
I'm not able to help out my siblings as I used to. They're all in college now. One is a senior. The other one is entering her junior year, and one is starting his freshman year soon. They rely on me for a lot of things that they need. I'm not able to provide them the same support that I used to. But they understand why. That has been my biggest sacrifice. I don't look at it as a sacrifice anymore, because I believe in what we are doing. It's bigger than just staying at a stable company and helping them [my siblings] with their small expenses, right? That's something we all understand.

Was there anyone in your personal life that tried to dissuade you from becoming an entrepreneur?
I did not have anyone that thought I had a bad idea or I shouldn't really do it, but my mother was a little bit skeptical. That's because she didn't want me to go through the pain of being an entrepreneur. She has been an entrepreneur her whole life. She came here as an immigrant and worked for herself. What she wanted for her kids is to go to college and get good careers and not have to worry about any of the things that she went through. But after speaking with her, she realized that the problem I'm trying to fix is not something I can easily forget, because it's something that I have my eye on, and I cannot do anything else but solve the problem. When she realized that—because she believes in me and trusts me as well—she realized that it's the best thing for me. At this point, she supports me fully.

Is there anyone in your personal life who has been a constant source of support?
Definitely family. My family has been a constant support. My co-founder has been a great support. I've known him since we were younger. We've been working on projects since the ages of 11 and 12. He's always supportive. I graduated from the Founders Institute Accelerator Program in Silicon Valley. I graduated with 13 other founders. I have meetings with them every month where we discuss things that we're going through—the challenges, some obstacles we overcame. So they are a great support. We also have mentors. We have advisors. There are a lot of great people surrounding me. 

What does you work-life balance look like?
My work life balance is—I would say it's fairly balanced because it works for me. I work every day, and I try to put Sundays just for rest. On Sunday mornings, I play soccer at the University of Pennsylvania. I play soccer at the park there. I work every day, and some Fridays and Saturdays, I try to drive Uber to balance my expenses. Most of the night times, I’m also working with the people in India due to the time difference. But on Sundays, I play soccer in the morning and try to spend some time with family. I try to go to bed on around 8:00 to 9:00 p.m. on Sundays to just fully recuperate before the week starts.

Did you ever come close to giving up?
There was never a moment where I felt like, "I'm not doing this." But there was a time where I had to ask myself: Why am I becoming so comfortable at my former job? I liked the people that I worked with. I liked my manager. It was a good atmosphere to work. But I feared that I was becoming a little bit comfortable because I wasn't moving at the pace that I wanted on PeerChecked.

I started working with my former employer as a junior analyst and, three months into the job, they liked my work to the point where they promoted me to a specialist, which then increased my working hours for them. So I wasn't doing a lot of things to get my startup at the pace I wanted to. Around that time, I started asking myself if I'm stepping away from this [PeerChecked]. Every day I ask myself: Why am I working on PeerChecked? Why do I want to start this company? And every time, the answer excites me. I know why I want to solve this problem. For me, solving the problem is better than working for any other company at this point, or any other company I previously interned or worked for. So that was a good enough reason for me to never think about giving up. I guess maybe the day the answer doesn't excite me as much would probably be the day I would consider giving up. But I don't see that happening.

What would make you feel like you accomplished what you set out to do with PeerChecked?
What I really want is for PeerChecked to be the place where students can rely on getting suitable employment, and also, when employers are thinking about recruiting a college intern or an entry level position, PeerChecked would be the first thing that comes to their mind. We provide more data than any other platform to assess a student's potential, and we also provide students more data to help understand what the company does before they even join them. So you will see a lot of companies doing feedback. You have Glassdoor, where former employees can post things. But we are creating incentives that allow students to communicate with the companies directly. We want to be the bridge between higher education and the workforce.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?
One of the things that I learned is that when you believe in what you're doing and you get up every day to work really hard, although you may not get everything you want right away, people will see that. People will appreciate that, and people will support you. That has been one of the greatest things. The mentality is usually: The higher you go, people like to bring you down. But I think that's not really the case unless you're communicating with the wrong people. What I've learned is when you have passion and you work really hard, there will be people that support you.

What is your favorite thing about being an entrepreneur?
The thing that I enjoy the most is that I'm solving a problem. It’s a problem I see and notice—I don't think there's really anything that can replace that. Something that could help millions of people is something that you cannot just forget, you know? It's not something that you can overlook. It's exciting.

This interview has been lightly edited from a phone conversation for clarity. Capturing Lightning is a project from Woden, a strategic storytelling agency in Philadelphia that helps organizations articulate who they are and why people should care. To learn more about how to tell your story, visit us at wodenworks.com.