Last spring, the IT department at Higher One was alerted to a problem: Some computer equipment wasnÂ’t running up to par. So they used their considerable expertise to get the system running. It was not just another valium generic at the office. On this particular day, the system in need of help was at New Haven Reads, a non-profit group that provides children and adults access to free books and tutoring to increase their literacy skills and academic here.
Before the tech project, there One had focused its volunteer efforts with New Haven Reads on tutoring. But when Higher OneÂ’s Pete Boynton, Danielle Sheehan and Matt Desfosses were made aware of the need at New Haven Reads, they drew from the company, personal donations and even outside connections at Cisco Systems to better the non-profitÂ’s ailing infrastructure.
Photo: Many Higher One employees serve a higher calling: (top l-r) Colleen Hines, Leah Dudley, Shannon Velazquez; (middle row l-r) Chris Joseph, Natasha DellaPerutam, Patrick Pearon; (front l-r) Amy Rubino, Miles Lasater, Mark Volchek, Matt Desfosres.
Higher One is a good friend to have. Founded in 2000, the New Haven company provides an array of payment services to institutions of higher education — two- and four-year, public and private. Colleges and universities retain Higher One to disburse money to students in the form of financial aid, payroll and other payments. A payment service helps schools with tuition billing and any inbound payments and payment plans. The company also provides customized financial services — debit cards and full-service bank accounts with no monthly fees — for students on campus.
Founded by three Yale students 12 years ago, Higher One today has more than 200 employees and offices in New Haven, Atlanta, Ga. and Oakland, Calif.
Co-founder Mark Volchek says the idea for Higher One came about after observing that there were no customizable financial services for students and few if any technology solutions for universities and colleges. "So we put those two problems together and found a solution,” he says. “With the Internet becoming more mainstream, we had to start offering Internet-driven financial services.”
Today, Volchek is Higher One’s CFO and works with co-founder and COO Miles Lasater. At the end of June, Volchek will step into the role of CEO as Dean Hatton retires. Today Higher One has 770 college and university clients and more than five million student customers.
The company is based on more than technology, education and a good idea. Volchek credits the company’s core values, which include teamwork and open communications: “That is reflected in the office and is key to the way we do business.”
A committee called Higher One CARES (Community Action for Resources, Education and Service) focuses on identifying opportunities for community involvement and engagement through support of local non-profits. Last year, CARES conducted a food drive for FISH of Greater New Haven, a group that delivers food directly to the homes of those in need. During the holiday season, CARES participated in Adopt-a-Family, working with the St. Vincent’s Day Home.
On March 13, Higher One will host a Volunteer Fair from noon to 4 p.m. at its new corporate headquarters on Munson Street in New Haven. The event is open to the public and will showcase opportunities for individuals to volunteer in the New Haven area.
Higher One’s workspace features an open working environment with few offices and ample open space to encourage engagement between and among staff.
“Employees are encouraged to interact with different departments and even folks within their own departments,” explains Volchek. “It not only makes for a better business, but it makes for happier employees.” Other Higher One core values include integrity, creativity, stellar service and focus.
Lasater says it is adherence to those values that have driven the company’s success.
“We’ve heard overwhelmingly from our employees that volunteering is important to them,” Lasater says. “We think it helps set us apart as an employer of choice in attracting new talent. It’s increasingly important. Customers want to feel good about working with a company that has a mission that’s broader than purely a profit motive.”
The company co-founder knows the value of hard work and remaining humble.
“Personally, to a large degree, my volunteer time is work that I’d be doing anyway,” he says.
That’s no idle boast. Lasater sits on the board of directors of Yale-New Haven Hospital and has served as a member of the Port Authority of New Haven and Yale’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility. He is a past recipient of an Elm-Ivy Award, cited by New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and Yale President Richard C. Levin for strengthening partnerships between the New Haven and Yale communities. Lasater and Volchek also co-founded the Yale Entrepreneurial Society.
Volchek is chairman of the board of directors of Tweed-New Haven Airport. His past civic activities include positions on the New Haven Economic Development Commission and the Regional Growth Partnership Strategic Planning Committee.
“The airport is an important economic development driver,” says Volchek. “It’s a thankless position, but focusing on any means of transportation is going to be very important for the community.”
He sets a good example for Higher One employees, who are encouraged to serve on boards of non-profits in the local area.
“From the beginning, we’ve been focusing on what will make the company grow and what will make it successful, so internally we spend a lot of time on goal-setting and making sure all company goals are aligned with department goals and individual goals,” Volchek explains. “We drive the culture toward making people accountable to their goals rather than specific hours of sitting in the office or being in a specific place at a specific time.”
The company recently moved into new headquarters at New Haven’s Science Park in one of the old Winchester Repeating Arms Co. buildings. But the relocation didn’t take place without some soul-searching.
“Since we renovated the building from the ground up, it’s much more functional and really supports the values and the cultural aspect of the company,” Volchek says. “We focused on providing great things for our employees like a gym and a cafeteria.”
“Downtown office space is corporate and expensive, so many companies move out of New Haven to a [suburban] office park that is less expensive and easier for parking,” Volchek says. “We decided to stay in New Haven. We liked the culture here more than an office space surrounded with a thousand parking spaces.”
To make the financials work, Higher One worked with the state, the city and Science Park and essentially designed a building with the tax credits they received from the state.
“It was competitive with moving to an office park outside of New Haven and now we get the benefit of the character of Science Park and being a few blocks from the Yale campus,” Volchek says.
City Economic Development Administrator Kelly Murphy is pleased Higher One stayed.
"Higher One was one of the first companies to relocate to Science Park as a small start-up,” she says. “Since then, the company has grown to employ more than 200 people, many of whom have been actively involved in the community, including serving on numerous city boards and commissions. While Higher One had cheaper options outside the city, we are fortunate they chose to grow here in New Haven and invest in the renovation of the old Winchester factory for their new office space.”
Volchek is also pleased with his decision, but admits to wishing that there was better public transportation in the city and state.
“That’s a problem we have in Connecticut in general,” he says. “Keeping that in mind, we put our bike rack indoors to make it more convenient than a parking lot. It’s important for businesses to work with New Haven to make the city a better place.”
Last year, the Higher One CARES committee focused on corporate and employee engagement with the communities its workers live in, work in and serve. The group focuses primarily on education, financial literacy and entrepreneurship.
“We want to make it easy to give — not necessarily monetary, but also for people to give their time,” Volchek says.
The company also awarded $50,000 in college scholarships in 2011.
“I think our university clients appreciate that level of support,” Lasater observes. An additional $30,000 was granted to campuses as part of the company’s Financial Literacy Counts program.
Last spring, Higher One also awarded scholarships to New Haven high school students. Kathy Flores and Jeffrey Kosko, seniors at Common Grounds High School, received awards during the Rock-to-Rock bike ride in April that began at Common Grounds High School. Matt Desfosses, who chairs Higher One CARES, personally raised $1,000 that went directly to a scholarship. The third scholarship went to Aloysia Maria Jean, a Hillhouse High School junior.
In addition to the scholarship donations, members of Higher One CARES participated in the Rock-to-Rock bike ride to show support for the many environmental organizations that benefitted from the event.
Higher One’s founders believe that students can learn financial responsibility and, when given the proper tools, can successfully live within their means. To that end, the company has dedicated resources to financial literacy including its Financial Intelligence online financial literacy course, the “One For Your Money” blog dedicated to the fundamentals of finances for college students.
The CARES committee was formed five years ago and focuses on helping the community through education, literacy, entrepreneurship and, according to Volchek, “We think it’s key to share our expertise with the community.”
“We’ve been criticized for not hiring more local folks, but we hire the best people who apply,” Volchek explains. “We don’t care where they live. We don’t discriminate, pro or against anybody. It’s about hiring the best people and the way to get the best people in New Haven is through education to qualify for the jobs that we and others create.”
There are no requirements placed on Higher One employees to volunteer or donate, but there are incentives in the form of matching programs with the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven and a paid day off in exchange for a day of volunteering.
Higher One offers a flexible work environment, so employees can come in late, leave early and tend to out-of-work responsibilities — as long as the goals associated with their assigned job are met.
One such way employees can earn a day off is by volunteering on Junior Achievement Day each spring in New Haven public schools. Louis Golden, president of the southwest New England division of Junior Achievement, says Higher One employees provide a valuable resource to students each spring.
“Higher One is a true example of the power of mobilizing volunteers in the community,” says Golden. “They go into a school, spend their time working with young people, and in our case, inspire and prepare children for business.
“There are many companies that care about the communities and they do it by focusing on ways they can connect with the community better,” Golden adds. “They are very focused on working with the young people on JA Day. Those people have other jobs and other demands and they’re leaving all of that behind to help young people. To do that, each one of those people have to go back to the office and catch up. They’re giving up hours to be in the school, and for those students, it can change their lives. It’s very important.”
Consistent with the core mission of their company, Higher One employees tend to become involved with giving projects that focus on education and technology. For example, last summer, Higher One partnered with the Community Foundation to launch Give Greater, a website for online giving. Through the site, 165 non-profits in Connecticut can accept donations at any time of day or night.
“Our employees were among the first to give through the site and we gave a company match for the first givers,” says Lasater. “It provided a nice platform to raise awareness about many of our local organizations. It’s driven by individual donors who want to play a more active role in giving, rather than turning it over to a organization to make grants.”
Lasater encourages Higher One employees to join organizations such as All Our Kin and LEAP at the board level: “Doing hands-on project-based work with an organization provides one type of reward for people, but serving on the board also gives you a unique perspective on these organizations and the issues they face,” he says. “It helps build leaders here.
“You gain perspective about strategic issues and you learn more about your own personal ability to contribute,” Lasater explains. “Being able to step into another organization and play a different role can help grow your talents and understand where you can get things done based on what’s coming from within, not just an exterior title.
“Every little bit adds up,” he adds. “It’s the ripple effect of setting an example, encouraging our employees to take it seriously and make time for it. It impacts their families and other places of business, and hopefully that ripples out in a positive way. It’s not just about what we’re doing directly.”
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