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Reed Switchboard Selected from 400 Applicants for $20K Slice of PIE

By Lauren Cooper '16 on August 06, 2013 04:34 PM

Reed Switchboard, the networking site created to share Reed love, has been given a boost by Wieden & Kennedy as part of the ad firm’s Portland Incubator Experiment (PIE). Switchboard is the networking brainchild of Mara Zepeda ’02 and Sean Lerner ’10.  They created the website so current Reedies and alumni could share their work experiences, offer assistance, post jobs, and give community members a leg up in a post-recession and increasingly competitive job market.

PIE had an ultra-competitive selection process, with only seven tech start-ups picked out of over 400 applicants. Switchboard, a Reedie endeavor, manned by Reedies, and beta tested on Reedies, was one of the lucky seven. Each startup receives $20,000 in seed money, office space at Wieden & Kennedy, and three months of hands on mentorship from past PIE winners and other successful technological ventures.

Mara and Sean are hoping to use the money and expertise they gain through PIE to open up Switchboard to other college communities, offering the same basic format that connects Reedies with Reedies, but instead connecting Clarkies with Clarkies, and so on.

The number of Switchboard success stories, which range from restaurant recommendations to job offers, is growing. Martha Janicki ’14 arranged an internship at the World Health Organization from a connection made on Switchboard with Katherine DeLand ’95. Switchboard recently helped road-tripping alums locate the best sites and burritos in the Southwestern United States.

So how did Mara, a Russian major from 2002, and Sean a classics major who graduated eight years later, meet and decide to launch a tech start up? On Switchboard, of course, during its fledging days last summer when Mara posted a request for help in creating software that would expand Switchboard capability to manage the “tsunami of tasks and offers.” Sean answered her call and the two began a whirlwind collaboration via Skype, as Mara was in Italy and Sean in California. The nine-hour time difference meant many sleepless nights, reminiscent of their days at Reed. The end result was what Mara refers to as an “empowered, self-organized Reed community.” The pair launched the site this past October and will soon see its 10,000th visitor, which constitutes a third of the Reed community. Mara attributes the rapid growth to “Switchboard's secret sauce: when your community helps you, you are inclined to help your community.”

Mara found Reedies’ uninhibited feedback incredibly helpful. She says Reedies responded to the “beauty and simplicity” of the site, a community founded on and sustained by “generosity, altruism, kindness, integrity, and trust.” Mara considers these things to be the core values of Switchboard and hopes they are not exclusive to Reed. She, Sean, and their task force of hardworking, loyal Reedies are currently busy perfecting Switchboard 2.0, which will include features requested by users, such as better filters, user profiles, and a way to bookmark posts. They plan to roll it out later this summer.

Reedies’ desire to help Switchboard’s development and growth reflects Mara’s impression that “the true learning that happens at Reed, happens between Reedies.” Professors like Lena Lencek [Russian 1977-] and Darius Rejali [political science 1989-], who offered support and encouragement, but also opened their homes for Switchboard activities. Professor Ellen Millender [classics 2002-] advised Sean to forgo graduate school, supporting his decision to help build Switchboard. Current students work tirelessly around campus to contribute to Switchboard’s growth. And, of course, students and alumni use Switchboard to connect with each other to make the confusing and intimidating career world more navigable.

It was in that generous spirit that Mara said, “We didn’t create Reed Switchboard. They did, they do, and they deserve all of the credit.”