I met Sabrina Norrie, co-founder of Zero Bound when she came to one of my 7×7 mentoring salons for aspiring and early stage entrepreneurs. I was an instant fan of her startup – a platform for students and alumni to reduce student loan debt through sponsored volunteerism. In exchange for volunteering, students and graduates who are saddled with student loans receive donations towards their debt.
What a win-win solution to an issue that so many people feel overwhelmed by today. Many 20-something women and men today see education as the next bubble. They are freaked out by their own student loan debt …and they can’t even begin to fathom how, if they have kids, they will pay their education.
As a little background, The NY Times recently reported that the average student loan debt is $26,500. According to the College Board, it takes an average of 15 years to pay off student loans. Roughly $730 billion in federal and private student loans are outstanding and only 40 percent of all student loans are being repaid. That is a big financial burden but also for the two-thirds of college students who have received a loan, it’s an emotional burden as well. Ready to start their career and embrace emerging adulthood they feel the debt weighing them down.
I sat down with Sabrina to talk about where she and her partner, Kelli Space, got their inspiration for Zero Bound, and where they are going.
Sabrina built her career around social services. First as a policy analyst with the Poverty Reseach Institute, and more recently as a community resource specialist and volunteer center director with the United Way. She has always been fascinated with trying to find new answers:
“I look at social problems and try to envision solutions. Student loan debt kept coming across my radar. 37 million people are dealing with it. I just kept asking myself, ‘how can we get creative with reducing this debt?’ We are turning out students who have accrued knowledge and skills, along with their debt. How can we make this an opportunity to reinvest education back into the community?”
Next she turned to her friend Kelli Space to collaborate. Kelli graduated college with an overwhelming $200,000 debt and a burst of 20-something “wish-dom” — maybe some generous strangers could help her pay down her debt via crowd-sourced donations. She started a blog to do just that (twohundredthou.com) and proceeded to get a lot of media attention which she used to become a voice for student loan debt.
Sabrina and Kelli put their heads together. They knew they were onto something with donations but it had to be more mutually beneficial. The idea of “working” debt off through community service gave birth to Zero Bound, the first national platform to crowd-fund student loan donations by allowing debtors and donors to choose the terms. Students and alumni decide when and where they want to volunteer and donors determine how much and how often they want to sponsor each volunteer hour. It’s a proposition that adds value on many levels:
Beyond reducing their debt, on a personal level, students and grads learn the value of volunteering and getting outside of oneself. Professionally, they can find opportunities to network and gain resume building experience. Donors get a cause-based, results-oriented, feel good way to support youth while reducing the nations debt load. The community wins with access to skilled volunteers. Says Sabrina, “non-profits are so often looking for qualified and motivated volunteers with professional skills, but young professional volunteers are hard to find.”
Here is how Zero Bound works.
You sign up, create a profile and make your pledge to volunteer. This is a chance to make a pitch.
Then the volunteers spread the word amongst their prospective donors – family and friends, social media networks and professional networks. Donors can browse the profiles and find volunteers who match their needs, skills valued or simply inspire them.
Then the donations come in and the donee can begin volunteering. After Zero Bound confirms that the volunteer activity has been completed the donation money is transferred directly to the loan companies.
Sabrina and Kelli designed the platform to leverage the most likely donors and encourage a natural fit. First, it’s tapping into the people who know them – their friends and family. They want to see their friend or loved one out of debt but may never have felt they could make a difference in terms of financial impact. Now their $5.00 will make a difference because it is part of a larger pool.
The second target is the people who don’t know the volunteers but are inspired by the profiles they read. They may find someone who went to the same college as they did or with whom they share a field of interest and experience. They may be inspired by a career aspiration. The video profile format allows volunteers to make a pitch in a sense. They can highlight what is most important and special to them.
Of course there is a larger socio-economic benefit. Student loans have surpassed credit card debt in their contribution to the trillion-dollar debt. Reducing debt frees up money to invest back into the economy. At the same time, real skills and professional experiences get invested back into the community. According to Sabrina, that is valued at a national average of 21.79 per hour per volunteer.
Further, young professionals and students are delaying life events that have social and economic effect. Renting vs. buying a house, not relocating or getting married, defaulting on loans. Sabrina and Kelli see Zero Bound as a platform to give hope. It can make a huge difference.
It’s also a personal mission for Sabrina who sympathizes with the struggle and believes there are people out there who want to help but just need a platform to do so.
“We want young professionals who are dealing with debt to see it as manageable…Instead of feeling stress and guilt about a decision made when they were much younger. There are people who want to help.. We want to be resource they can turn to.”
For many young people, it’s easy to deal with debt by not dealing with it. Sabrina had some personal perspective on how to avoid “hiding from your debt”.
“Every little bit that you pay forward toward your loans goes a long way. For instance, if I can find an extra $80 a month – it can cut five years off of my loan and I can save almost $4000 in interest. For about $1000 a year I can make a huge dent in my load. For those borrowers who can, if you pro-actively think about it, it can help take ownership of it. When you know you are paying it down you have some level of control over it. That is a huge weight lifted.”
Zero Bound is in fundraising mode and has just one week left in their Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. You can find out more on how to sign up here. Sabrina and Kelli are making their final push to get donations, focusing on raising money to launch early next year and fund one year of operations via a grassroots campaign.
More about Sabrina and Kelli:
Sabrina graduated from The College of Wooster with a BA in sociology and Rutgers University, School of Social Work with a masters in social work: nonprofit and public administration. Ms. Norrie serves on the United Way Worldwide Student Volunteer Engagement Council to develop an international approach to enhancing the engagement of students and young professionals. As a policy analyst with the Poverty Research Institute of Legal Services of New Jersey she conducted research and analysis to advocate for social policy reform.
Kelli has partnered with financial education initiative Alltuition as well as signing on with ReadyForZero as a resident student loan blogger, providing much needed advice for students. She currently is an analyst for a UK-based brand protection company. She has a BA in Sociology from Northeastern University and believes more (affordable) education is in her near future. Ms. Space has volunteered with Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison as social media & marketing consultant, working on fundraising, social networking and event planning.