Brandeis International Business School

030: Intentionally Gaining Experience & Moving Forward

David Klein is the CEO and co-founder of CommonBond, a FinTech company that gives students and graduates better ways to pay for higher education. Named one of Fast Company's Most Innovative Companies and Times' Genius Companies, CommonBond has funded over $2.5 billion in student loans and helped more than 300 companies offer common bonds for student loan benefits to their employees. It is also the first finance company with a one-for-one social mission, where for every loan CommonBond funds, it funds the education of a child in need.

If you have or need a student loan, CommonBond is there to help. They are with people over their entire higher education financial journey, from the moment they need to take a loan out to go to school, to the point at which they graduate with a lot of debt and are looking to refinance that student debt on the CommonBond platform, likely at a lower rate. If you have student debt, and you're currently working, CommonBond also provides employer-based student loan benefits.

One benefit is called Student Loan Contribution, where they enable employers to contribute monthly to their employee’s student loans. They also have the Student Loan Evaluation, where employees can enter a little bit of information about themselves, and their technology can tell them how best to pay that debt off. Sometimes through refinancing and sometimes it might be a federal or state-based program.

College in the U.S. is generally very expensive. Undergradraduate degrees range from $15,000 to $35,000 a year just in tuition. Once you throw living expenses, rent, and textbooks in there, you're looking at thousands more on an annual basis. So there is clearly a great need of a platform like CommonBond.

From the Dorm Room

David graduated from Brandeis in 2002 after four years where he majored in Political Science and minored in Economics. He was also part of the International Business Program.

Brandeis education is liberal arts education, but it's also a scientific research institution, and it has the small liberal arts college dynamic as well. Brandeis instilled in David a genuine curiosity to learn more about a lot of things that are important in the world that he didn't have a strong knowledge base for.

Not only did it help him learn a lot while at Brandeis, it's helped with learning after Brandeis as well. It's that genuine curiosity that developed at Brandeis that has served him very well in life, and specifically, in starting his company.

When you start a company, there are a lot of things you don't know that you need to know, and you need to pick those things up fast. And so, to have that genuine curiosity, which helped him in figuring out a lot of things quickly and consistently over time, was invaluable.

Right after graduating, David had a great opportunity to live abroad and teach English in France, which he did for a year. It was a chance to experience what life in another country would be like, and to pick up another language and culture. When David got back from France, he spent 10 years working in corporate America before returning to business school in order to incubate his business idea.

To the Boardroom

David didn't start a company right away because he felt it wasn't quite the right time. He made a very conscious decision while in France to put himself into corporate America for 5 to 10 years. He wanted to know what it was like inside of a great company at scale because he knew that, one day, he wanted to build a great company of that scale. He needed to experience, appreciate and understand what that was actually like.

He then came back to the United States. He was fortunate enough to start working at the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, where he stayed for about three years working with a host of different companies across multiple industries, mostly financial services companies. 

From there, David went to work for American Express, where he provided several roles, from strategic projects to membership rewards, partnerships, marketing and more. McKinsey had given him exposure to a wide range of business problems, outcomes and perspectives, while American Express gave good experience on implementation and execution. He got to feel what it was like to make things happen on the ground for consumers and partners.

That was David’s corporate experience. He spent around five years at American Express and then decided, "I want to go and start my own thing." He came from a family of entrepreneurs, so he knew that it was going to hit him eventually. And after spending close to 10 years in corporate America, the time was right to take all the learnings and apply them to entrepreneurship.

At that point, he had a choice to either leave his job at McKinsey and start a company, or apply to business school and use that as an opportunity to incubate and accelerate an idea. He was accepted and attended business school at Wharton, and he used that as an opportunity to build the company, CommonBond, from there.

The Entrepreneurial Edge

Every week, we highlight one piece of advice for aspiring, struggling and successful-but-want-to-be-even-more-successful entrepreneurs:

“Nothing is a straight line. Once you know you want to start something, and you have that motivation, that clarity of conviction, everything you do happens through that lens. You just put one step in front of the other, and even if you can't see two or three steps ahead, you know what the next step is, and the next step is, and the next step is. And before you know it, you're building a company.”

David also offers some productivity tips he uses to help keep himself organized and on track:

“There is a lot of email back and forth that happens on any given day. If I open up an email, I either answer it right there, or I don't answer it at all. And that way, every time I open an email, I don't get caught up in opening it and then never answering and saying, "I'll get back to it," because then there's gonna be a lot of work on my plate, and I probably won't get back to it. And so, I've made a commitment that once I open an email, either I'm going to answer it, or I'm going to dish it off to somebody else, or I'm not going to answer it. So, that's number one. When I open an email, I address it before moving on.”

“There are a lot of productivity tools and apps out there that a lot of people like to use. There's Monday, there's Asana. There's a whole host [of them]. I'm much more primitive and simple than that. I use the notes app in my iPhone. There are certain things that I need to do before the end of the day, or before the end of the week, or before the end of the month, I just keep it in my notes app. And I know to go back to my notes at least once a day, twice a day. I know to go back to my notes app over the weekend to make sure that I've cleared everything off my plate over the weekend or to give me a heads up of what I have coming up in the following week, or to realize, 'Oh crap, I didn't get to what I needed to get to. I better finish up before the week ends.' And so, something as simple as the notes app on iPhone is something that I find pretty effective for me.”


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