SoFi’s management has been “blown away” by the response to the #2BillionTogether contest, says chief marketing officer Aimee Young. The essays submitted by the 2,400 entrants were both touching and revelatory, Young says. “What we found was how crippling student debt can be even for folks who graduate with their MBAs or from law school,” Young says. “They were postponing starting businesses or philanthropic work. They said things like, ‘I haven’t gotten married yet’ or ‘My spouse and I are waiting to have kids until we don’t have this tremendous burden,’ and also things like buying a home, that they weren’t able to make that investment in their first home because of their student debt burden.”
RUNNER-UP PRIZES ADDED, BUT THEIR VALUE IS STILL SECRET
Because the contest produced such strong participation among SoFi borrowers, company management have decided to add four runner-up prizes – the substance of which will remain secret until the grand prize winner and runners-up are announced July 1, Young says.
For Calderon, the SoFi prize would allow her to launch the startup that arose out of the loss of her mother Wanda to stomach cancer in 2007. Calderon had been a primary caretaker for her mother when she was dying. “I tried to feed her. You have this sick mom, and she’s going to chemo, and she has to eat something, and everything tastes terrible. She just couldn’t eat, wouldn’t eat,” Calderon says.
The problem Calderon faced is widespread. Loss of desire to eat, and wasting of the body’s muscle mass, have a powerful impact on cancer patients’ condition and length of life, but the clinical relevance is often overlooked, according to a 2005 report in the journal Nature Clinical Practice Oncology, which also notes that optimal therapy should combine dietary changes with drug therapy.
From watching her mother rapidly weaken and diminish until her death at age 58, Calderon became determined to find a solution to cancer patients’ food and nutrition problem.
PASTA THAT TASTES LIKE METAL
“The issue is that you know how to feed your family – now. You know what their preferences are. When someone has chemotherapy, then everything changes,” Calderon says. “Not only is their appetite dramatically lower, but the way food should or could taste . . . is completely different. Imagine if you ate some pasta and it tasted like metal.”
Calderon has teamed up with her best friend from growing up in Seattle, Paige Stoll, founder of a company, Garden Grow, that prepares and delivers organic baby food. For Calderon’s budding enterprise, Palate Love Care, she and Stoll are delivering meals to a few cancer patients in Seattle. Through research and consultation with nutritionists, they develop dishes, and test them and re-test them with patients. So far, Stoll’s spinach souffle is a winner.
But Calderon is aiming to turn the venture into a nationwide company, shipping flash-frozen nutritious meals to cancer patients via online ordering – a cancer-care version of Plated or HelloFresh, but with ready-made meals instead of assemble-yourself sets of recipe ingredients, she says.
“I want to scale this,” Calderon says. “You can’t really do that with $3,000 a month in student loan payments.”
Calderon obtained a law degree “to learn how to think,” and an MBA to learn how to run a company, she says. She did a summer stint as an associate at Kirkland & Ellis in San Francisco, but business seemed to have more appeal than the law.
At Kellogg, a class in pitching to venture capitalists provided important information to use in the future, and validated her belief that she would excel at raising startup funds. “I really realized, ‘Yeah, I could do this,’” she says. Also of particular value for her entrepreneurship plans was Kellogg’s introductory strategy class. “There’s just a lot of great thinking that goes on in that class,” she says. “I had a business undergraduate degree so it was really nice to think about applying what I knew.”
NOT PUT OFF BY PROSPECT OF MASSIVE DEBT
The cost, and debt, of a dual-degree education at Northwestern hadn’t put her off, she says. “I figured I would pay it back the way everybody else is paying it back: work really hard and save every penny.” The average debt burden of a Kellogg MBA is estimated at just over $95,000, a sum she easily beat due to her dual degree.
Calderon plans to officially launch Palate Love Care and devote herself to it full time as soon as she unburdens herself from her student debt, whether that happens this year, with a SoFi contest win, or later, after she repays the debt herself. She wants to give families across the country the ability to do what she tried so hard to do for her mother.
“I would give the world to have the opportunity to feed her now.”