It’s hard to get hired fresh out of college – doubly so if you are graduating from an under-the-radar school or don’t have plugged-in parents. Forbes 30 Under 30 alum Garrett Lord built Handshake to help.
By Kristin Stoller
At age 22, Garrett Lord accomplished the near-impossible: Without the advantages of attending an elite school like Stanford or MIT, or a built-in network bequeathed by wealthy parents, he managed to cold-call (well, cold-email) his way into a summer internship at Palantir, then one of Silicon Valley’s hottest data-mining startups.
For the computer science major from Michigan Technological University, located in the small Upper Peninsula town of Houghton, a job at the CIA-backed company was a ticket to the big leagues. Sweet gigs at VC-backed software unicorns, complete with high salaries and equity grants, were sure to follow.
Days after arriving at Palantir’s Washington, D.C., office in May 2012, though, the 6-foot-1 Midwesterner had serious self-doubts. The 15 other interns seemed to hail from a different universe. They all attended brand-name schools and spent much of their time chatting about their high-end research projects or bragging about upcoming European vacations. Lord’s only trip out of the U.S. was to nearby Canada for a hockey tournament when he was a young teen.
“I remember calling my dad and he said, ‘You might not be smarter than them, but I do know one thing: You’re not going to blow this opportunity, and you will work harder than them,’ ” Lord, now 33, recalls. Rather than retreat, he decided he was “gonna crush it” and prove he could “hang with all these kids.”
Crush it he did. He won the company’s annual hackathon and gained the respect of Palantir higher-ups, who, he says, were shocked that someone so smart and talented came from such a little-known school. They offered him a referral bonus—$5,000 per hired engineer—to bring in other talented students from Michigan Tech.
That’s when the light bulb lit up: What if Lord could create software to connect talent-hungry companies to the thousands of students across the country at lower-profile schools like Michigan Tech? “There are talented students everywhere. And what Zip code you grew up in shouldn’t define the career outcome you have after college,” he says. “At Michigan Tech, we weren’t seen.”
So when he returned to campus that fall, he teamed up with two comp-sci buddies, Ben Christensen and Scott Ringwelski, and got to work. The three undergrads envisioned an easy-to-use, mobile-first networking platform to virtually connect students, universities and employers. They launched Handshake two years later in 2014 and were featured in the Forbes 30 Under 30 class of 2017.
The light bulb lit up: What if you could create software to connect talent-hungry companies to thousands of students across the country at lesser-known schools like Michigan Tech?
Handshake’s growth has been supercharged by a tight labor market and the move to virtual hiring and remote work during the pandemic. The number of students who “handshake”—it has morphed into a verb on college campuses—is up 600% since 2017, when just 1.6 million students were on the platform. Revenue will hit $120 million in 2022, according to Lord, up from $75 million last year and $3 million five years ago. Handshake, which has yet to turn a profit, raised $200 million in January from investors including Lightspeed, Kleiner Perkins and Coatue Management. That round brought its total funding to more than $430 million and boosted its valuation to $3.5 billion. Forbes estimates that Lord and his cofounders still own at least 15%, worth some $525 million at the peak of the tech market last winter.
But here’s the rub: As with most universities and job search sites, the company doesn’t have a clue how many students actually find jobs via Handshake. After they connect with recruiters, they invariably go off-platform to continue the process. Most students and employers don’t report back to Handshake about whether they got hired or made an offer. The best Lord can say: “We’ve had less than 1% of universities ever leave the product, because universities are able to impact more employers and more students more efficiently.”
Handshake also faces stiff competition from job search giants LinkedIn, Indeed and ZipRecruiter. And that’s just on the job seeker end. Other software startups, including Virginia–based Symplicity, are targeting college career centers. Lord thinks he has built a moat by coming up with a cheaper, more intuitive way to connect the various parties. Maybe. But it’s worth noting that LinkedIn parent Microsoft, for one—with a current market cap of $1.8 trillion—could easily scoop it up, moat and all.
The biggest test: a weakening economy, especially in the tech labor market. Elon Musk just axed thousands of Twitter engineers. Other top employers including Meta, Amazon and Cisco are reducing their workforces or, like Google parent Alphabet, are slowing hiring.
Lord says he isn’t worried. He maintains that employers still want and need young talent that is cheaper and more technically skilled. Plus, Handshake isn’t geared toward any one industry. Big tech faltering? Maybe consider a career in oil and gas. “What we saw during the first Covid pullback when companies were scared was there is still huge demand for technical talent in the country, and I think that really insulates our business now,” says Lord, who is quick to point out that Handshake still has more than $200 million of VC money in the bank, which should help it weather a recession.
Lord grew up in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where he spent most of his time hanging out with his large extended family, including his sister and eight cousins. His father was in construction; Mom was an administrative assistant. Despite excelling at skiing and other sports, Lord was a self-professed “nerd” who loved computers. As a teen, he hoped one day to have his own computer repair shop or become a CIO, like his uncle’s successful friend.
Expected to pay for college himself, he lived at home for two years after high school and took classes part-time at nearby Oakland Community College while running a side hustle repairing computers and teaching local moms how to use iMovie. After starting at Michigan Tech in 2010, he befriended an upperclassman while dumpster diving for old computer parts. His new friend was so impressed by Lord’s technical chops that he helped him land a computing fellowship at New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory that summer.
With that résumé booster, combined with his doggedness, he landed at Palantir in 2012, where he soon had his fateful epiphany. “I wasn’t linked up to the right people,” he says. “So much about navigating your way into a career is about who you know, what you know, the socio-economic status of your family.”
Handshake was easy to build, but not initially easy to sell. Lord turned down a job at Palantir and left school a few credits shy of earning his degree to focus on his nascent company. The trio of cofounders spent six months in 2013 living out of a Ford Focus, driving from school to school begging them to try their software while camping in McDonald’s parking lots and showering at university pools. “We almost got arrested at Princeton by campus police. . . . I’m thankful for the security guard who was able to look the other direction before we went to the career center and tried to sell them on our software,” Lord recalls. Eventually, they got five schools in Michigan and Indiana to sign on and pay a small annual fee: Aquinas College, Eastern Michigan University, Hillsdale College, Valparaiso University and Wabash College.
Getting employers onboard was much easier, especially given that initially Handshake’s founders gave the software to them free, gambling that it would later be relatively easy to upsell them to a premium version. Among the first to give Handshake a try: Procter & Gamble, IBM, Box and Mastercard.
Here’s the rub: The company doesn’t have a clue how many students actually find jobs via Handshake.
By 2017, the cofounders had raised $30 million from investors and moved their operation into a seven-bedroom house in Palo Alto, California, where a staff of roughly 20 lived and worked on the tech day and night. That year, Handshake reported revenue of $3 million.
From there, sales scaled quickly as it got existing customers to spend more. Roughly 30% of paying companies on the software sign up for additional services each year, says chief operating officer Jonathan Stull. The federal Centers for Disease Control, for instance, agreed to pay extra so employees outside the HR department can have access to the platform and recruit talent.
Universities also came around. The University of Miami switched from Handshake competitor Symplicity in 2015, reducing its annual spending by about two-thirds to roughly $10,000 a year from $30,000 or more.
“[Symplicity] was a clunky system. Students were not happy with it. They were frustrated with how difficult it was to use,” says Christian Garcia, the executive director of Miami’s career center. “[Handshake] was created with students in mind, as opposed to making it super-convenient for us as the managers behind the scenes.”
At the University of Rochester, Joe Testani was on the advisory board of Handshake competitor GradLeaders (a small Columbus, Ohio, company formerly known as CSO Research) when the ever-persistent Lord persuaded him to take a chance on his software.
“It was cheaper than the other platform the university was on, so there was a cost savings,” says Testani, who was director of the school’s career center at the time. “I went to community college, and I went to a public university. This spoke to me as a first-generation student.”
The pandemic presented Handshake’s first big test, and its greatest opportunity. Within weeks during the spring of 2020, the unemployment rate for college graduates between 20 and 24 years old skyrocketed from 4.2% to a peak of 20.4% that June. “We threw our entire product roadmap out the window and rallied our company to figure out how we could build virtual tools,” Lord says. “We had an opportunity to really help make sure that the graduating class that year didn’t fall by the wayside.”
The company quickly launched a product that let colleges host virtual career fairs. Employers could use Handshake’s software to easily schedule 30-minute group meetings or 10-minute one-on-ones with students. In 2021, Handshake helped host almost 6,000 job fairs, three-quarters of which were virtual. Covid-19 had accelerated everything: In 2019, Handshake had 954 schools signed up. By the end of 2021, that figure hit 1,399.
Handshake, which has 66 of the nation’s 107 HBCUs on the platform and 280 schools that cater to other underserved communities, also claims it’s helping employers deliver on the diversity hiring goals they promised in the wake of #MeToo and George Floyd protests. Of Handshake’s nearly 12 million users, 13% identify as Black, 12% as Hispanic or Latino, 15% Asian and 59% female.
“Handshake does provide a lot of data on where you can find good talent, and because of that, it helps drive [diversity] discussions with leadership and with hiring managers,” says Renee Davis, who runs college recruiting at language-teaching app Duolingo.
At least one person thinks Handshake might be making things worse. “Those jobs that they are posting now, the problem is that those are available on the internet,” says Ryan Craig, managing director of private equity firm Achieve Partners, which has invested in tech-focused apprenticeship startup Multiverse and experiential learning platform Riipen. “So Handshake is just providing a curated platform for seeing those jobs and, as a result, making them more competitive for students, which I think is likely to reinforce pedigree- and degree-based hiring.”
Handshake is not recession-proof, but its widespread adoption gives it some protection from economic headwinds. “They’ve cornered the market a bit,” says Michele Militante, an HR exec at Pepsico, one of Handshake’s larger clients.
Lord has now set his sights overseas. In April, Handshake made its first acquisition outside the United States, paying more than $10 million for Talentspace, a German virtual recruiting outfit. Back home, the company is building out its AI to suggest marketable courses and skills, based on searches by top employers on Handshake. For example, if a student looks for jobs in software development but lacks the skills needed for many high-paying positions, Handshake could theoretically send them an alert about relevant courses at their university or off-campus coding boot camps to increase their chance of being hired.
Let LinkedIn and others focus on your past, Lord says. Like many of its students, Handshake is looking to the future. Leaning back in a conference room chair at Handshake’s loftlike headquarters in San Francisco, Lord—who lives in New York City and “United airport lounges”—reflects on his company’s journey from “very uncool, very unpopular” to big man on campus. “There’s just such an opportunity to deliver a magical experience for students and young professionals that we’re really excited about,” he says. “And we’ve got enough capital to do it.”
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