Smartly MBA Student James Lu Morrissey on Higher Education and Making Forbes 30 Under 30 List

We sat down with 2019 Forbes 30 Under 30 recipient–and Smartly MBA student–James Lu Morrissey to discuss co-founding Mentor Collective, learning with Smartly, and disrupting the world of higher education.

Smartly learners tend to reflect the platform itself: innovative, disruptive, and equipped with a global scope. Those are just a few of the qualities that have led to three Smartly learners being named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 lists in the past two years.

James Lu Morrissey (MBA – August 2018) is a perfect example of this. Lu Morrissey’s personal experiences with international education inspired him to found his company Mentor Collective, an international online mentoring community. Lu Morrissey was born in the United States, but he attended elementary school in Taiwan. Moving to a new school can be difficult for any child; moving to a new school in a new country is even more challenging.

Adjusting was made easier, however, by joining the school’s sports team (namely football and track). There, he was mentored by his older teammates, who eased his transition and allowed him to find his place. At a young age, he began to understand that mentorship was critical to adjusting to and excelling in a new environment.

He also recognized the need for peer mentorship as an undergraduate student at Carleton College. He had many friends from international backgrounds, and he noticed that many of them had difficulty integrating and adjusting to American culture and education system. There wasn’t necessarily a track team with teammates that could mentor them. When he started paying attention, he noticed that this feeling of cultural disconnect wasn’t just limited to international students; in fact, it existed throughout the student body.

“All students are a stranger in a strange land,” Lu Morrissey reflected. “You might be coming from Minnesota to go to NYU. That’s a very foreign experience.”

A lack of personalized support for college students is one of the factors contributing to a college completion crisis, particularly at public universities. According to Forbes, less than 60 percent of students graduate from public institutions in six years or less. With rising tuition and student loan debt and the increasing necessity of a college degree for career advancement, students who do not graduate are often at a serious disadvantage.

To solve this problem, Lu Morrissey and colleague Jackson Boyer co-founded Mentor Collective. Mentor Collective uses scaleable and transformative mentoring, a format supported by technology and designed for large-scale application. Mentor Collective achieves this by matching students to mentors who have a similar background.

To that end, Mentor Collective has developed partnerships with more than 50 universities, including Penn State, Johns Hopkins, and Washington University in St. Louis. Through these partnerships, they’ve mentored over 35,000 students, resulting in an up to 9% in retention rates and 5x decreased likelihood of academic probation.

Working towards those results has certainly kept Lu Morrissey busy, but he has still found time to pursue a Smartly MBA. While residential MBA programs had a high opportunity cost, Smartly made it possible for Lu Morrissey to “continue doing my day-to-day company while having a flexible option to learn at my own pace.”

Furthermore, Lu Morrissey has found Smartly’s courses are directly applicable to running Mentor Collective. “I can complete a lesson, take that, and use it the very next day at Mentor Collective.”

Lu Morrissey also appreciates the flexibility and global perspective that Smartly offers. He tries to work overseas for two to three weeks every winter, and, with Smartly’s online platform, he doesn’t have to disrupt his learning schedule to travel. “I can do Smartly while hanging out in Shanghai and not have any problems with time differences.”

Lu Morrissey also sees both Smartly and Mentor Collective as disrupting higher education in a much-needed shakeup. Universities, with the “massive endowments and very strong brands,” don’t feel the same need to innovate “in the same way as an other industry,” Lu Morrissey noted. “And that comes at a big cost to everyone. If a school is not making an impact on students’ lives, then it doesn’t matter.”

Like Smartly, Mentor Collective’s team is passionate about the students they reach. Lu Morrissey attributes Mentor Collective’s success rates in large part to his 24 Boston-based employees. Noting that his team was all interested in social impact, he emphasized that “something unique happens when you collect a lot of very mission-driven, hungry learners and put them all in the same room.”