Jon Boggiano had a brilliant idea. He and his brother Chris, both West Point graduates, would go back to graduate school at Stanford University. The duo had just sold their successful job training business, and Jon thought they needed a new adventure.
Chris was adamantly opposed to the idea at first, but as with many things between the two brothers just a year apart in age, eventually he relented. And with just 12 days to spare before the Stanford business school application period closed, the two pounded out extensive essays, sourced letters of recommendation from former CO’s, calculated costs, took the GMAT, told their wives their plan, and prepped for an interview with the admission folks. They got in.
That June, both families including three kids (one on the way) and one large dog packed up and headed west from Charlotte, North Carolina to campus housing in Stanford, California.
“The biggest transition was going from a 2,400 square foot house to an 850 square foot campus apartment with one bathroom,” Jon said. “It was more like a cabin.”
Almost immediately the two met Nicki Boyd, a British educated triathalete and fellow entrepreneur. The three would embark on the year-long Stanford MBA program together with a very clear goal in mind.
“The north star was to revolutionize education,” said Chris. That was the summer of 2013. Today, the Boggiano brothers and Boyd have 11 employees on the rolls of their company, VersaMe. And they’ve launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds to manufacture their inaugural product, the Starling, the first educational wearable for babies and toddlers.
The wearable, a plastic orange star, tracks the number of words said to a child—the idea being that the more words said, the higher the child’s IQ potential. The research is there and parents will no doubt embrace the concept that, by simply verbally engaging with a child, they can truly affect his or her vocabulary.
But the story of how these two former Army guys wound up creating a little orange wearable for babies goes back both to their days growing up in Jersey City, New Jersey with a police officer (and former Marine) for a father and their time in the military.
“Service to our country was definitely part of our upbringing,” said Chris, who graduated from West Point in 2002 and later served in Kosovo. Then came a tough deployment to Iraq where he was a tank platoon leader with the 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry. “The Army got its money out of me during my time in Fallujah,” said Chris.
Similarly, Jon deployed to Kosovo and Iraq. After witnessing firsthand the unintended consequences of the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, the brothers returned home and transferred to the reserves to start a company that trained workers for careers in the green jobs sector.
During that time, it also became clear to both Jon and Chris that the education system was broken. Folks they were training had, for example, been employed for decades by a steel mill that then suddenly closed down.
“Some of them didn’t have email addresses,” Jon said. “Every academic opportunity had passed them by or failed them.”
“We started looking into trying to fix this economic problem and it always came back to education,” added Chris, who’s also a father to two girls. “We realized that fixing the system meant having a massive impact much earlier in life.”
And off to Stanford they went with an ambitious plan to “swing for the fences,” as Jon put it. By March of 2014, the idea for a wearable was born and the three entrepreneurs decided to solicit funding, hire ambitious employees and scale up. And thanks to far too much time spent in unsavory parts of the world, the team had much-needed perspective about launching a startup.
“Having been to places like Iraq and Kosovo where people have literally nothing I quickly realized that the risk of failing at a startup isn’t nearly as bad as what life could be like in a lot of places in this world,” Chris said.
“It’s really a great way to transition from military,” Jon said. “You can change careers, change geography and have an adventure.”
But the brothers also feel their company is much more than an adventure. “I really do think we are making the world a better place by doing what we are doing,” Jon said.