Rachel Romer Carlson is a woman with a mission. She’s the co-founder of Guild Education, which Forbes so aptly reported has just “rocketed to a $1 billion valuation” with its goal of helping workers get college degrees. Guild was just launched four years ago, but companies are aligning themselves with it because they are quickly understanding that the education benefits they offer to their employees will not only help these workers to balance their family life, work, and studies, but ultimately give the companies better workers. Carlson has already been able to channel $100 million+ to workers this year in the form of tuition benefits. Guild Education has numbers which are astounding. But behind the numbers is Rachel Romer Carlson and its good to get to know the clear-thinking woman who has changed the way educational opportunities are made available.
1. Rachel has twin daughters named Magnolia and Lily Grace.
Before she left on maternity leave before her twins were born, Rachel read a letter to Guild employees out loud. She told them she wanted to make certain that all women and men would understand that the company respected full leave; even though she might come into the office while she was on her own leave. She wanted them to know that they shouldn’t limit their own time away from work. She intended that they clearly see that her “popping into the office” shouldn’t be taken as a signal that they should do so also. Her twins were born just eight days after Guild had raised another $41 million, pushing the total to $71 million at the time.
2. Rachel is left-handed.
In a photo taken at Guild’s downtown offices in Denver on November 30, 2018, she was spotted writing on a white board. Her engaging smile hints of the enjoyment she has teaching people about Guild’s “in-network for all” philosophy of empowering low-income workers with benefits designed to support their college educations.
3. Rachel is a Colorado native.
When interviewing with InfoQ, Rachel was asked about why she chose Denver, Colorado for Guild’s headquarters. Guild was first situated on the campus of Stanford, she answered. She then responded that she knew Denver to have an “entrepreneurial spirit” and considered Denver’s talent pool to be “equal, if not better” than other cities like Denver. Though Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas were initially considered for the headquarters’ location, the search for the right location became Denver. Rachel noted that Denver had an obvious ability to attract new talent to Guild. The decision was influenced by the fact that Jessica Rusin was found in Denver. Rachel considered Jessica “the absolute best candidate” for the Director of Engineering position, and now serves as SVP of Engineering at Guild.
4. Rachel was born into a family of educators and political leaders.
Her father, Chris Romer, is a co-founder of American Honors; which encourages students enrolled in community college to make the move to 4-year institutions. Mr. Romer founded the I Have a Dream Foundation in Colorado. Though he’s currently the Vice President of University Partnerships at Guild, he is also a former state senator. Rachel’s grandfather, Roy Romer, founded the Metropolitan State University of Denver in 1965 and he served as the 39th Governor of Colorado. Rachel’s grandmother, Bea Romer, raised six children while founding and serving as director of Montview Community Preschool & Kindergarten. Bea had graduated from Colorado State University with a degree in child development. Bea’s sixth child was enrolled in the preschool while Bea served as its Executive Director. Rachel credits “talking at the dinner table about education all the time” for giving her a mind and heart of education reform.
5. Rachel worked on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.
She also worked in the White House, spent years working at The Parthenon Group and American Honors. She was in her twenties during those years and spending time at these education companies influenced her thinking and broadened her knowledge base.
6. Rachel’s wish for Guild was that the company help hundreds of thousands, and perhaps even millions, of students a year.
Her experiences in school and business taught her that many of the non-profits which help working adults to pursue higher education are small. These non-profits may be able to support “a few dozen” or perhaps “a few hundred” students each year. These adults benefit from career counseling and financial support and Guild offers these supports via employers who are willing to pay tuition as part of their training and “upskilling benefits”.
7. Rachel was married at a cattle ranch owned by her grandparents.
Rachel married David Kurtti Carlson in July 2014 at Bea and Roy Romer’s ranch located in Bailey, Colorado. Officiating at the ceremony was The New York Times columnist David Brooks, who was ordained by the Universal Life Church. For Rachel, getting married at the ranch was perfect. She and David exchanged their vows in Rachel’s “favorite meadow” and the reception was held inside a tent next to the ranch’s original 1890s barn. The Knot featured details of the wedding on the company website, telling all about the wedding and reception décor. Featured were blue, gray, and white colors with some bold red added. and the materials included wood, burlap, and baby’s breath, creating “a rustic themed, shabby-chic soiree” At the time, Rachel had completed her undergraduate degree and her first year of study for her M.B.A. and a master’s degree in education at Stanford. She had founded Student Blueprint in Palo Alto, California. Student Blueprint provided online career services and education planning for community-college students.
8. Rachel achieved a huge part of her goal of helping thousands of students when Disney Aspire partnered with Guild. The next part was reached when Walmart decided to go nationwide offering Guild support to millions.
When The Walt Disney Company announced its welcome to University of Arizona in August 2019, it stated that “Disney’s 90,000+ eligible hourly employees and Cast Members” would be able to take part in “the company’s 100% tuition-paid education initiative”. The Disney Aspire program already had a network of programs offered at several universities and colleges, but it added 14 bachelor’s degree programs, as well. Disney partnered with Guild Education, turning to its educational benefits leadership for administering the program. Walmart originally planned to start locally, but by the time Rachel was almost due to give birth to her twins, the company had expanded its vision to the nationwide offering.
9. Rachel believes in having a plan just as much as she believes in throwing it out.
She told CEO Chad Grills of mission.org that plans are good to have, but often aren’t used in the end. She’d planned to become a lawyer in the public sector after working with President Obama in The White House. He advised her to go to business school and work in start-ups instead. She did what he recommended and that completely changed her life. She thought about the problem of helping hundreds of thousands of people working and needing further education to improve their lives. She realized that employers needed ROI and brand value improvements. Finding investors to buy into her vision was difficult. She started with Chipotle and Taco Bell, and then added universities who would partner with Guild. It took 3 months for Chipotle to come on board, but as soon as that happened, Rachel received the news on her cell phone while she was at a wedding rehearsal. She went back to work because hundreds of Chipotle employees had started calling Guild as soon as the news hit that they could have help with college.
10. Rachel’s success with Walmart took off when she helped the company expand its network of 3,400 vision centers and 5,000 pharmacies.
Rachel had traveled to Arkansas two days before Thanksgiving to meet with Walmart’s Director of Workforce Strategy, Ellie Bertani. Bertani’s struggle was finding qualified people to staff Walmart’s vision centers and pharmacies. Rachel didn’t hesitate over the problem; she simply told the Walmart team that her Guild team could find a solution to the problem quickly. She organized a range of options for training online including one with Penn Foster to earn a one-year pharmacy technician certificate and another training online with Southern New Hampshire University to a B.A. in Healthcare Administration.
11. Rachel believes that mission and margin are tightly entwined.
She believes that if you begin business with thinking about how the business will get paid, then mission and margin will always be aligned. At Guild, she viewed this process as risky because the company decided to be paid term over term as students succeed; rather than up front, which is the more typical business model. Having this plan put all of Guild’s revenue at risk from the very beginning. Guild’s mission is to enroll students in educational programs and have them succeed, which then leads to great job placement. Guild is only paid after these steps take place. But, with this mission, when the students are successful, the profit margin also is successful. The company is taking a short term hit on cash flow, but the risk provides more predictable long-term gain.
12. Rachel worked on 6 or 7 Democratic campaigns throughout high school and college.
She felt that the luckiest opportunity in her life was working on the Obama campaign, which ultimately led to her becoming part of the Transition Team and on to working in The White House. It was her dream job and she dropped out of Stanford to take on the mission-oriented work with all its excitement and focus. She was drawn to the community college sector because of the information that the Obama campaign turned up. She discovered that 64 million Americans actually need to go back to school in order to earn a middle-class wage and support their families.
13. Rachel believes that ambitious mothers are the best under-utilized asset.
She believes that “having a conversation with the 30 to 35-year old work force” because high tech companies are making it difficult for ambitious mothers to have careers. The complexities of biological clocks, work cultures, and helping people figure out ways to take time off from work in order to have families is a serious issue in her way of thinking. She thinks too many companies make potential parents choose between parenthood and careers. She believes that companies need to find solutions like short commutes so they can head home to solve problems and return to work later. The Guild campus is committed to creating a day care center on site so that parents can work and care for children without having to leave work. She says that at Guild all sensitive topics about maternity and childcare are “talked about a lot”.
14. Rachel says that Walmart gave Guild the footprint to learn about every community in America.
Rachel noted that Walmart exists in every community in America. There are more Walmart stores within driving distance than there are colleges. She said that Guild understands the average American customer. That is one strength that Guild shares with Walmart, which she believes Walmart understands the needs of the average American customer better than anyone else in the world.
15. Rachel’s moment of self-awareness came when James Taylor, Tony Bennett, and John Legend were scheduled to perform for a Democratic campaign event.
About 100 people turned up to hear these great musicians. Rachel’s team found out that Kanye West had set up at another venue down the street and the entire crowd went there. But she and her co-workers had a wonderful chance to hear Taylor and Bennet in a great duet. The situation opened her eyes to how easy it is to have what is expected take a different turn at the worst possible moment.
16. Rachel believes in online education’s power to help single mothers succeed.
Rachel went to school on the other side of the track herself. She believes that talent is equally is distributed around the world, but opportunity is not. She views education as the most efficient way to distribute opportunity. She realized that nobody was trying to reform higher education in the same way that K-12 education has been. Because she’s always believed in college and has parental support to be able to do so. But, that’s not the case for everyone. She cites the stories of many single mothers who have children, work during the day while their children are at daycare, and then return home to care for their children after work. Having online education opportunities allows single mothers the chance to study after their children are asleep at night.
17. Rachel had a “really tough” first Fall at Stanford.
She thought about transferring closer to her family and friends at another college. She’d always been successful in high school and wasn’t used to having trouble with schoolwork. She realized that she needed educational counseling to move past her problems. When she thought about it more, she realized that her problems were shared with many, many more. The final stages of education are when students discover opportunities for work which will change their lives. Having great mentors and great coaches is a necessary part of education and she believes that Guild does an excellent job of helping students to succeed.
18. Rachel is always impressed by what Americans view as the value of time.
When community college students fail to succeed, the real challenge is time related to money. She says that students need to understand that the time they spend improving their education is worth it because of the increased options in terms of money that they will have upon finishing college. She says that much of her thinking about time also focuses on saving travel time. That’s why Guild has so many online educational offerings. She and her husband both use calendars to help them stay on track and their twins already have their own Gmail calendars so that she and their dad can keep their schedules straight, too. She added that time management is an ongoing topic with Guild students, employees, and her own family.
19. Rachel would train for a triathlon if she had 3 extra hours in a day.
She was in training at one time for participating in a triathlon and she really loved it. Work and life responsibilities eventually got in the way, so she hasn’t had time to do this kind of training recently. But she hopes to be able to enjoy this once again. Five to ten years from now, she would like to still be working at Guild. The things that keep her up at night are often her two children, but while she is taking care of them during the night, she often thinks about how to provide equal opportunities to all children. She believes that she was lucky to be part of the “birth lottery” in that she was born in a zip code where opportunities were abundant. She wants the world to be a more equal place for everyone to live in.
20. Rachel was listed as one of the 2017 Forbes 30 Under 30.
Rachel shared the honor with Guild co-founder Brittany Stich. Rachel will also serve as a judge for the 2020 Forbes 30 Under 30 along with Janet Napolitano, President of the University of California, former Governor of Arizona and former United States Secretary of Homeland Security; Reshma Saujani, American lawyer and politician and founded of Girls Who Code; and Gregg Spiridellis, co-founder of digital entertainment studio JibJab.
Written by Allen Lee
Read more posts by Allen Lee