Handshake, a startup that has raised $74 million from investors including the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Spark Capital, and Kleiner Perkins, helps connect more than 400,000 employers with university students looking for internships, part-time gigs, or full-time work. Consider it an automated, third-party version of the college career center, with a breadth of opportunities few schools could even try to match.
The concept was born out of a frustration common to students who lack the professional connections to easily land their first jobs. Indeed, Handshake sees itself as helping to solve the so-called “pipeline problem,” the belief that there aren’t enough qualified candidates, particularly among underrepresented groups, to fill STEM roles.
But Handshake also had its own pipeline issue, because it was open only to students who attended institutions that agreed to work with the platform and essentially market it on their campuses. It was an effective and relatively cheap distribution strategy, one that has put Handshake in front of student bodies at close to 800 universities, ranging from state schools and mid-tier private colleges to Ivy League institutions. But the setup ultimately limited the platform’s reach.
Today Handshake announced that it has opened access to its platform to all undergraduate students attending a four-year university in the United States, a move the company says will further its mission to provide more access to opportunities regardless of privilege or pedigree. All students need for proof of enrollment is a valid “@.edu” email address.
“We want to help bring and kind of unlock this social capital and unlock the information that comes with going to a premiere campus or going or growing up in a high socioeconomic status family,” Handshake co-founder Garrett Lord says.
In the 2017-2018 academic year, there were 3,883 degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the US, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Roughly 2,400 of these were four-year schools, with two-year colleges making up the balance. (Notably, students at two-year college are not included in Handshake’s platform accessibility update, although the company says it’s readying a pilot program to explore the possibility.)
Handshake’s expansion is perhaps a reflection of several converging trends, from the availability of technology offering more personalized targeting of job postings to the challenge of hiring in a tight US labor market. Using a platform like Handshake allows employers to reach out to students based on their skills or prior work experience, as well as side projects or extracurriculars. And it allows students to look beyond household names as potential sources of future employment. “You know, you think about most companies that are successful on a college campus, it’s the consumer brands,” Lord says, pointing to Google and IBM as examples.
Handshake was founded in 2013 by Lord, Scott Ringwelski, and Ben Christensen, all graduates of Michigan Technological University. Being located in the upper peninsula of Michigan—eight hours away from Troy, Michigan, and six hours away from Chicago—and lacking family connections he could lean on, Lord says he struggled with not knowing the next career steps he should take. It was the kind of problem Handshake was invented to solve.
Lord says Handshake allows employers to reach out to students from underrepresented backgrounds and universities at scale; it has more than 120 minority-serving institutions on its platform, including historically black colleges such as Morehouse and Spelman and women’s schools such as Wellesley. Lord gives the example of how PayPal has connected with nine times more women, nine times more black applicants, and 14 times more Latinx candidates since it began using Handshake. Amid a tight labor market, the increased reach of Handshake could give employers more opportunities to hire outside of typical demographics.
In addition to expanding access to its platform, Handshake is adding new features for students, allowing them to find peers who have landed roles and connect with them for interviewing tips, career advice, and networking. For employers, the platform will offer better targeting features and make it easier to gain more detailed insights into who’s applying.
Handshake is not the only platform targeting college students and recent grads. Its competitors include startups like WayUp as well as giant recruiting platform LinkedIn. LinkedIn says more than 20,000 US companies use its site to recruit employees, and more than 3 million jobs are posted on the Microsoft-owned platform in the US every month.
More broadly, Handshake shows how the connection between campus and career is strengthening. Lord notes that some schools, such as Arizona State University, have employer advisory boards that bring in hiring managers and business leaders to help academics understand how they can adapt their curriculum to match the skills needed in the workforce—and how the need for different skills is going to evolve in the next five to 10 years.