Matthew Jaskol’s professional journey has spanned both the US and Asia. Now he brings people from everywhere together with Pioneer Academics, an innovative venture that gathers small groups of students from around the world into an online space where they are mentored on projects by elite US college faculty.
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John: Entrepreneur on Fire 778. Hold on to those after burners, Fire Nation. Johnny Dumas here and I am fired up to bring you our featured guest today, Matthew Jaskol. Matthew, are you prepared to ignite?
John: Yes. Matthew’s professional journey has spanned the US and Asia. Now, he brings people from everywhere together with Pioneer Academics, an innovative venture that gathers small groups of students from around the world into an online space where they are mentored on projects by elite US college faculty. Matthew, I’ve given Fire Nation just a little insight. So share more about you personally and then expand upon the biz.
Matthew: Absolutely. So yeah, I grew up in New Jersey, was as American as apple pie for a long time actually. And I got into studying things about Asia when I was in college, came over here not too long after. Pioneer Academics is a really interesting, innovative company. What we actually do is we bring students, as you said, from about eight or nine different nations right now in together for small mentoring under outstanding professors from distinguished universities. And then, actually, each one of them picks a research topic, something that they’re really lit up and fired up about. And that professor will mentor them to do college level research while they’re in high school.
John: Boom. And give us a little bit about you personally, Matthew.
Matthew: Sure. So as I said, I grew up in New Jersey.
John: Yeah, but like right now more like.
Matthew: Right now? Okay. So I’m contacting you from Taipei, Taiwan right now. I spend about 70 percent of my time here, maybe 30 percent of my time back in the states. It’s an inspiring thing to have the opportunity to live in different parts of the world and interact with all different kinds of people. And that’s what lights me up.
John: See, what I love, Fire Nation, is when people find things that light them up. You can double down on that. And that’s what Matthew has done. And that’s what you can do, Fire Nation, if you just keep swinging that bat. If you have the courage to quit things that don’t light you up to find the thing that does light you up, and then just double down. Go all in. It’s an amazing feeling. And Matthew, we’re going to talk about how you got to that feeling. We’re going to talk about your journey as an entrepreneur. But before we do all that, we always start with a success quote and why you chose this particular quote. So take it away.
Matthew: Absolutely. I was thinking about what my quote would be if I was to think of one that was representative. And when I was little, I was this nerdy, Tolkien fan. Loved the Lord of the Rings. So this is kind of funny. This is maybe not the most traditional quote that you would hear. But Tolkien, in one of his books, he has this quote that says, “All that is gold does not glitter, and not all those who wander are lost.” And I think that’s a really interesting quote because it inverts the quote from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, which says all that glitters is not gold.
And basically, Shakespeare is out there saying, hey, look at these things that are really – when you look at these things that look like they’re valuable, they’re not always. Well, Tolkien actually inverts that and says, you know what, to find meaning in things, to look for things that are really going to be valuable, you have to look at those things that might not appear that way. And I think that’s something really important for entrepreneurs to actually look at – to find a meaning, to dig deeper into those things, and find what’s the opportunity that other people are not seeing?
And when he talks about not all those who wonder are lost, I think it’s important for all people, but for entrepreneurs especially, to sometimes, for a very brief moment, set aside that laser focus and actually be willing to wander, to be inspired, to hear the – to not make everything else background noise, but to kind of hear what the market is saying, to hear what people are saying, to get in touch. And it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have an exact purpose. But you have to be out there listening and walking around and wandering. I think that’s important for everybody for a brief period of time.
John: See, Matthew, I love the theme that’s already kind of developing here. Fire Nation is all about experiments and trying new things and being willing to pivot and being open to experiences in general because you never know what’s going to strike your fancy. I’m looking out my window right now, Matthew, and I’m seeing a bunch of people kite surfing. I’ve never tried kite surfing. I might hate it. But I might get on that kite surf and be like holy crap, this is the best thing ever. Like I love this more than Matthew loves apple pie in New Jersey.
Like this is incredible stuff. So just be open to these things, Fire Nation, because you never truly know. So Matthew, I want to now talk about your journey. I want to take the spotlight of this interview and turn it to you. Entrepreneur on Fire is unique in a lot of ways. But the specific way is we really focus on your journey and the stories within. And you have a lot, Matthew, but I want you to zero in on one story right now. I want you to take us to a moment that you failed, just fell flat on your face, Matthew. Share with us that moment in time and the lessons you learned.
Matthew: That’s a great question, actually, because I think people often talk about success and entrepreneurship as starting from a series of failures from which you learn. Everyone is always talking about how you learn from failure. Well, one of those times for me was actually in a previous venture that I started with some partners who were – it ended in a really bad break up. And I think that’s a very common thing you’ll hear is people fall down on their road to success. But what I think, if I was to really look at where maybe I didn’t do what I should have done, was really early on in that venture.
Maybe about six months in when things had happened, and my partners were kind of changing the story and changing the situation around on me. And when I had gone out to dinner with one of them, and my wife was along, and they were trying to explain their situation. And as we left the restaurant, my wife said to me, this was just me and my wife on my own, and she said, “Matthew, don’t work with these guys. They’re not respecting your opinions. They need you on the team now. But once they don’t need your particular capability as a foreigner here in Asia, they’re going to marginalize you.
And you can see that. You can see how stubborn they are.” And it was the kind of thing – and this is I think advice I would give to all entrepreneurs is that sometimes, you want something so much that you’re not willing to see what the real situation. And I should have listened to her. So I think it’s really important to – entrepreneurs are such A type, confident, positive personalities so often. And I think you don’t want to be blinded to what’s really happening. When something is going to fail, you’ve got to make it fail fast. You’ve got to move on and get to the things that are going to succeed.
And even if you put in a lot of commitment, time, or money, you have to be able to identify both the situation as it is and act on it appropriately.
John: So Matthew, the reality for most entrepreneurs is just that. It’s about building teams. It’s about bringing the right people on. It’s about finding the right partners, ones that have strengths where you’re weak, and ones that potentially are weak where you’re strong so you can really make a good fit. How would you share with Fire Nation some things that you’ve learned now in hindsight about building that team, about partnering with the right people, about doing the right joint ventures? What would you say?
Matthew: Well, I think that’s a really good point. And you know, you really have to be able to stick to your gut, to stick to the sense of who the people you’re working with are. You know, there are so many people who will talk about, for example, they talk about the O’Hare Airport test. Like if you got stuck in an airport with this person, would you want to spend the time with them? So that I think is a real factor. One thing I might bring to this conversation a little bit more internationally than some of the people you typically interview is when you’re dealing with – in another culture, 24 hours a day, you need to have a cultural interpreter there.
You need to have somebody who not only gets you but gets where you are. And for all of the people who are looking at doing international business, being overseas or actually just cooperating with other people, you really need to have somebody who is going to not only understand the language but also to be able to understand the nuances of the situations you’re dealing with. I think that is absolutely critical. So when I look for partners, I look for people I want to spend time with who share the same values, the same ideals, who seem capable to me.
But at the same time, I’m also looking for people who are going to be able to operate in the markets they’re in representing me and my values well, too, and helping me to understand what’s really going on there.
John: Love that. So Matthew, let’s really keep this story format as we go forward. And we’re going to shift a little gears here. And we’re going to talk about the other end of the spectrum. Not a failure but an ah-ha moment, an epiphany, a light bulb that you’ve had at some point in your journey. So let’s really kind of take us to that moment when this light bulb went off in your head. Really describe that moment and walk us through the steps you took to turn that idea into success.
Matthew: Yeah. That’s an interesting question. So this company, Pioneer Academics, has been operating for three years. As I’ve thought about what were those moments that really contributed to our identity, one moment, I would say, was back maybe a year or two ago, I was a conference of the Association of Boarding Schools. This was in the states. And there was a keynote speaker who was just – she was just lightning. Her name was Shabana Basej Rasik. And this woman was actually a young woman from Afghanistan who had started a school for – like a high school for woman in Afghanistan.
And she was there actually talking to the people from these boarding schools saying we have these amazing young women who are hungry to learn. Give them a scholarship. Give them an opportunity to go to your school and get a real education because it’s not so available necessarily in Afghanistan. And at the time, I was thinking to myself, man, if I had a school, or if I had some money, I’m an early stage entrepreneur, but I would love to push that agenda. That just seems so meaningful. And that was the ah-ha moment. And it really had two components. One was to realize that we don’t have a lot of money to work with, but we do have this program that we run.
And actually, that is a resource that we could commit to doing something for some of these young women in this program. And actually, while it didn’t work out with their organization specifically, we found this amazing program called the Afghan Girls Financial Assistance Fund. And we now – we started to work with two young women, and we were able to connect them to our community of professors and give them mentoring opportunities. It was costly for us. But it became a real part of our identity. And we are now a program that has about 20 percent of people on need based scholarships throughout the world.
And it just redefined who we were as a company because what it allows us to do now is to bring actual – some of the top academics to work with people from around the world. We now have students in Rwanda. We have students in Afghanistan. We have some need based, amazing, young scholars in America. And that’s – so I said the ah-ha moment is really two points. One is to realize that just because you feel yourself as resource poor doesn’t mean there aren’t resources you can’t bring to the table. And the other thing, and this is something I feel is really important to me, I’m a big fan of straddling the area of profits and nonprofit sometimes.
And I think that you shouldn’t wait to do good and be what you want to be. If that’s part of your value set, it shouldn’t be wait until I have enough excess resources. We didn’t want to wait until we had enough money or we had – it’s something that you can do right now to look at what you want to be and become that. And that helped define our business anyway to be the kind of social entrepreneurship that we want to be.
John: See, I love that so much. And Fire Nation, I hope you’re really absorbing the reality that’s when you’re an early stage entrepreneur, or even when you’re rocking and rolling a little bit, you may not have money. You may not have a ton or disposable revenue that’s coming in. But what you do have is value and potential value. And what Matthew was able to do was create that potential value and form partnerships from that. And that is incredibly powerful stuff. So Matthew, that’s my No. 1 takeaway from your ah-ha moment. But I want you to break it down because you just did a carpet bomb of value bombs.
So share one. What’s the one that you really want us to hang onto and walk away with?
Matthew: Well, I would say it’s really that idea of saying when you are looking at potential things you want to do and say is this something I should do now or something I should wait until later, you should think about what your value set is. What are you about? Because that’s going to be communicated in your business. And it’s going to be communicated to your customers. It’s going to be communicated in your public relations. So think about what you want to be about. And I realized at that moment that we wanted to be about more than just doing outstanding educational products.
But we wanted to make educational access more open and have a product that’s actually diverse socioeconomically in terms of what value it’s offering to people. So the real ah-ha moment there maybe is just to realize that there was an opportunity to say what are we now, and who do we want to be? And can we do that now? And I think if you can identify with things that resonate with your value set, that makes your company, that makes your existence, that makes the meaning you’re adding through what you’re creating all the more strong.
John: Love that. So what I want to do, Matt, now is take a second and step back and think about a story. And this story is going to be the last story specifically that you’re going to share of your journey. So make it a good one.
Matthew: Okay. You got it.
John: What I want to hear is a moment in your journey that you would consider your proudest entrepreneurial moment.
Matthew: You know, there’s been something recently that I think is interesting to bring up. We actually started to allow – to create an initiative where some of the students from around the world who work with us who finished these programs and did this amazing research with these professor faculty mentors. We allowed them to create their own videos. They’re basically thank you videos that we’re going to assemble and present to these professors.
And I think it’s a strange idea as an entrepreneurial moment, but when you sit there, and you watch these students talk about – thanking their mentors for the value that has been given to them, they’ll say – I watched students just recently say you re-enlivened education for me. Or you taught me about – we had students from China talking about –
John: Matthew, share with us a moment, buddy. Let’s get really into one student’s one moment that was really powerful.
Matthew: Got it. Okay. So recently, we had a student who, as I said, was doing this kind of a thank you video. And she was a student in China and was talking to a professor in the states about how she was so excited to learn about African American studies. This is something she has no idea about, and she was thanking that professor. And that feeling at that moment was really powerful for me because I felt like, all of a sudden; all I was doing was being successful. What I was doing was trying to – we have a company that is allowing people to get – to broaden their perspective and their education.
To me, that moment was where it said you’ve done what you wanted to do. You’ve gotten students who didn’t have educational opportunities and experiences and provided that to them. And the key value of that moment was realizing how these professors would appreciate a thank you. I think that’s so important, so many people don’t think about that is the value of having a thank you that says you’ve added meaning to what I do.
John: Proud moments, Fire Nation, are meant to be cherished. And so when you find those moments that you’re feeling proud of what you’ve done, what you’ve accomplished, getting kind words from somebody, cherish those moments because we have plenty of the opposite of that. The tough days, just the struggles, when we feel like we can’t do anything right, and just the whole world seems to go against us. You want to save up those proud moments for those days to get you through because it is a roller coaster that we’re on. And speaking of a roller coaster, we’ve actually brought this little roller coaster to present times.
So share with us the one thing that has you most fired up right now.
Matthew: About our business you mean?
Matthew: Well, one of the things I’ve seen that’s really cool is that we’re in the education space, and I’m really excited about the education innovation that I’m watching going on in our program right now because we have these professors, when you give them the opportunity to basically say you can connect with students from around the world, how would you do this, and what would you want to do? We have these professors, these faculty members, coming up with these really exciting things like online laboratory work like having students from different continents presenting together to the current students at university right now. Those things, I think, are really interesting.
So I’m really excited about having these resources and letting them run with their own ideas about how to do things. And then when you find great ideas, thinking about how to make that spread around the entire organization. Being able to capture creativity from one section and bring it to other areas.
John: Love that. And Matthew, we’re about to enter the lightning round. But before we do, let’s take a minute to thank your sponsors. Matthew, welcome to the lightning round where you get to share incredible resources and mind blowing answers. Sound like a plan?
John: What was holding you back from becoming an entrepreneur?
Matthew: You know, I wasn’t really the kind of person who was all – in business school or in college was all about saying that I’m going to work for myself, and I’m not going to have a boss, and those sorts of things. So what really might have been holding me back was that really maybe initial motivation to get up and say this is the track you’re going to go down. And I think the financial crisis helped a lot with that. But I think, other than that, it was looking at the opportunities and saying where am I going to be able to add the most difference and having people who supported me to say you can do this. And I think that was the biggest help.
John: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Matthew: Boy, that’s an interesting question. I would say that when you are understanding relationships –
John: So say that one more time.
Matthew: Sure. I would say the best advice I’ve ever received is to understand that relationships are roughly the same everywhere. When I’m in Asia, people always say to me it’s all about these connections, and do you have these valuable relationships? That’s typical in a lot of developing economies. I think this advice to say relationships are about being genuine. They’re about forming connections with people and treating them the way you’d want to be treated and doing it when you don’t need things. And that’s advice that actually one of our teachers once gave us. And it’s advice I’ve heard quite a number of times.
But in Asia, it’s really important to not look at these things and say oh, you’re in a culture that’s based on the relationships you were born with. It’s not about that. It’s about being genuine. It’s about connecting with people. It’s about doing things for people when you don’t need things. And then it comes back, even if you don’t have a prediction of how it’s going to happen.
John: Share one of your personal habits that you believe contributes to your success.
Matthew: Well, for me, I think a big thing about what I do, as we pioneer different ways of doing things, I think a big thing we try to do, or I try to do, is to really look further down the line when you are faced with questions, to look at the implications of it, to not necessarily jump off and push down a particular path if you’re not sure about it. So I think very carefully about our values. And I bring our team in to think about our values. That’s what I think the leadership of a company should be able to do. They should say what are our values? And looking down the line, is this going to match our values, is this going to be okay for us?
John: Do you have an internet resource like an Ever Notes that you can share with our listeners?
Matthew: Yeah. You know, I kind of live and die by Asana. And probably a lot of people have said that. But Asana is a great project and task management system. And it allows for us to cut down on meeting time. It allows us to be very transparent about what everyone is doing in the company. I can be – we can be operating in all different parts of the world and actually easily see what’s going on. So that’s a fantastic resource for me. And my only frustration sometimes is maybe getting everybody else to use it as much as I do.
John: Oh, we use it very heavily in Entrepreneur on Fire land. And Matthew, if you could recommend one book for our listeners, what would it be and why?
Matthew: You know, this one might be a bit frequently mentioned I guess if you asked this question. But I would say Daniel Pink’s Drive was a real fantastic book for me because when – because he identified in there the idea that finances and money are kind of a hygiene issue. You need to be clean. You need to have people operating with the basics covered. But what’s really motivating people is the meaning that they’re creating and they’re putting into their work and what they see as the value they’re doing there. And if anyone is too focused on money, they’re probably not right for your organization.
But that really getting people to achieve and to be excited, as he points out, is really about having them create meaning, provide value, and see what they’re doing beyond the financial aspects of things.
John: Well, Fire Nation, I know that you love audio, so if you haven’t already, you can get an amazing audio book like this one for free at EOFirebook.com. That’s EOFirebook.com. And Matthew, this next question is the last of the lightning round, but it’s a doozy. Imagine you woke up tomorrow morning in a brand new world identical to earth, but you knew no one. You still have all the experience and knowledge you currently have. Your food and shelter, taken care of. But all you have is a laptop and $500.00. What would you do in the next seven days?
Matthew: That’s a great question and a doozy, as you said. I would go to college. I know that’s kind of a funny thing. I think where a lot of people would probably talk about the value of networking and getting things, but I think I want to be among the ideas. And there are so many colleges that allow you to actually audit courses to sit and listen to the speakers who come in at night just talk to those people there. Everyone there is about ideas. So I think for seven days, I would suck up as much of that as I possibly could. I would talk to everyone I can about what they’re doing and about these ideas.
And if it turned out to be a great business, and I could rustle up a fantastic team that would be fantastic. If not, I’ve been inspired and learned all kinds of things. But I think that what lights me up, what sets me on fire for this podcast [inaudible] is about being among motivated people and just at the nexus of where all the great ideas are and thinking about how you want to put them together.
John: Boom. Now that I think about it, I’d want to go back to college, too. Four of the best years of my life. Matthew, let’s end today literally on fire with you sharing one parting piece of guidance, the best way that we can connect with you, and then we’ll say goodbye.
Matthew: Absolutely. Well, we have a website, which is Pioneer Academics, and you can contact us through there. And yeah, it’s a good resource to be able to see the different kinds of things we’re doing and to be able to look at educational opportunities that are really interesting from around the world. So yeah, that’s Pioneeracademics.com. And you can go to contact us.
John: And a parting piece of guidance.
Matthew: Oh, and a parting piece of guidance. Yeah, I would say my parting piece of guidance would be think about what it is that you want to do and don’t compromise. That goes back to my comment about the value set. Figure out what you want to be about, and go for that. Don’t go for necessarily the easy thing. Don’t go for what’s in front of you. Think about what you want to do because we have this amazing opportunity in this lifetime right now to redefine who we are and to define what we want to be. And I think that that is maybe the most treasured fact of our existence right now.
John: Well, Fire Nation, you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. And you have been hanging out with Matthew and myself today. So keep up the heat, and head over to EOFire.com. Type Matthew in the search bar. His show notes page will pop right up. And Matthew, thank you for sharing your journey with Fire Nation today.
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