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Wayne Weber: “Build a Movement.”

Build a Movement. Don’t be enamored with building a company, it’s boring. Do not focus solely on products, even worse.We spent years building our company, technologies & innovations, and even some award-winning products, but it came together for me when I saw Gift of College for the movement it is. We are not about cool products or […]

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Build a Movement. Don’t be enamored with building a company, it’s boring. Do not focus solely on products, even worse.

We spent years building our company, technologies & innovations, and even some award-winning products, but it came together for me when I saw Gift of College for the movement it is. We are not about cool products or technologies. We are about obliterating student loan debt. Everything we do, everything we create must be dedicated to this mission.


Aspart of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Wayne Weber.

Wayne Weber is CEO and Founder of GiftofCollege.com, a crowdfunding platform that makes it easy for friends, family, and employers to contribute to any 529 college savings or student loan account. Its suite of products includes Gift of College Gift Cards (available online and at over 3000 retailer locations including select Target, Save Mart, Lucky, and H-E-B stores) and Gift of College At-Work, an employee benefit program offering payroll deduction and employer contribution technology.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Ihad no inclination of ever starting a business until the day I did.

One December, I was standing in a toy store trying to figure out what holiday gifts to buy my nieces and nephews and I was confident whatever I purchased would be celebrated today and at a garage sale tomorrow. Toys felt like a complete waste of money. I wanted to give them something they could thank me for later.

I decided to help them save for college (cool uncle status… shattered).

Helping a kid save for college sounded like an amazing gift and in theory should be simple. But I quickly realized how much of a big pain in the ass it was. For starters, kids need a 529 plan, which most parents are not familiar with or know how to set up. And even for those parents who had established 529 accounts, I found out that in order to contribute to someone else’s account as a gift-giver, I would need to ask the account owner which plan they were investing in, along with their account number. I’d then need to fill out deposit coupons, write checks and mail them. So much for a holiday surprise! It was a completely antiquated system. I was so frustrated. There had to be an easier way.

I looked around at funding and registry sites and they helped people save for all sorts of things, but not college. I knew I wanted to change that. GiftofCollege.com, a crowdfunding platform for 529 college savings plans and student loans, was born.

Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?

Starting a new business in the financial industry is complicated. We were met with a load of challenges, roadblocks and quite frankly we needed expertise that I just did not have. I have found when you are passionate about your mission, there will NEVER be enough resources.

In the early stages of Gift of College, we were adamant the process of giving for college needed to be simplified. To accomplish this we needed a website, a compliance model, and a gift card with retail placement. My background was in software sales. All of this was new to me. We needed help.

As we have grown, we identified the need for employers to be a part of eliminating student loan debt for their employees. We had never created an HR platform before. We needed help.

If I would have tried to get out there and do this all on my own, Gift of College would not be where it is today. The lesson? I encourage every CEO, founder, entrepreneur to recognize what you don’t know and ASK FOR HELP. Don’t go it alone. Don’t let your ego get in the way. Be willing to listen and learn. You will quickly find there are others who are passionate about your mission and are willing to support you or connect you to people who can help move your mission forward. I’ve been blown away by the people I’ve met over the years and thankful for the help they have provided thus far.

What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?

Hands down. Perseverance. Every step of the way.

I cannot even begin to tell you how many times we were told “no” or “that will never work.” It could have been easy to just shut it down; to give up. Helping potential partners and other stakeholders in the college savings field take a fresh look at a different, but complementary, the approach took time, education and patience. I needed to step into their shoes to better understand their perspectives and to appreciate their feedback. We now have a wide range of 529 program partners who have embraced our offerings in one form or another.

It was the same for retail. We worked to get placement across dozens of national and regional retailers. We heard dozens of “nos” until we heard our first “yes”. Now our vision has come to life. You can find us in 3,000 stores across the country at multiple retailers. People can walk into Target and other retailers and grab a gift card for celebrations ranging from baby showers, to births, to birthdays and holidays. It’s a smart and easy gift to give, and you don’t need to spoil the surprise by asking recipients about whether and how they are saving for college. The beauty of the gift card is that it helps non-savers get started saving for college and those who already are saving, save more. And it’s a timeless gift that’s not going to be quickly outgrown.

And it was the same in the workplace. We reached out to several employers to offer our Gift of College At-Work solution. Not only did we hear “no”, we heard all the reasons why it wouldn’t work. We listened. We adjusted accordingly. Now we have a wide range of employers of different sizes, from various industries who are using our solutions to help their employees across the country save for college and pay down student loan debt.

But at Gift of College, we have not “arrived.” Success is not an endpoint, it’s a journey. We needed perseverance then; we need it now. We cannot rest on our laurels.

I urge any CEO or founder to never give up based on the lack of someone else’s vision. Persevere.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.

Only 5? Ok here we go…

  1. Ask for help. You will never be able to do this alone.
  2. Build a Movement. Don’t be enamored with building a company, it’s boring. Do not focus solely on products, even worse.

We spent years building our company, technologies & innovations, and even some award-winning products, but it came together for me when I saw Gift of College for the movement it is. We are not about cool products or technologies. We are about obliterating student loan debt. Everything we do, everything we create must be dedicated to this mission.

3. Find your extender or retractor. Barbara Corcoran talks about the importance of having business partners who extend or retract. When I have a new product idea, I want to launch it tomorrow. I want to shout my ideas from the rooftops, even when they are not fully baked. I need a retractor and her name is Patricia Roberts, our Chief Operating Officer. She reels me in, she dives into the details and brings a voice of reason, she applies talent I do not have. She makes me stronger. Our company is better because of our extend/retract relationship.

4. The buck stops here. It may sound cliché, but I’ve taken this to heart. When I make a wrong decision, it affects my company and my people. I own it.

5. Advice and ideas come from all directions. Competition, opposing viewpoints, unrelated industries are all sources of inspiration and can cause ideas to surface. Be open, be curious and know there is value in all situations. And always listen.

What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Self-awareness is critical. You must recognize the symptoms in yourself. When I am at the end of my wick, I start to have the same dream. In the dream, I am always late. Missing flights, meetings, my own wedding. I wake up in a panic. This is my signal. I know I need to take a step back and slow down.

I encourage people to prepare for burnout. It will come. The key is to recognize it in yourself and pivot. Focus on habits that are life-giving and provide rest. It could be as simple as a morning routine of reflection over coffee or tea. It could be an exercise routine or going to bed early. For some, it could be a sabbatical. Although it may seem hard to take a step back when there is so much to be done, I genuinely believe your mental wellness as a CEO is critical to the success of your company. You will not achieve your mission if you burn out.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

My wife Michelle. No question.

When I decided to start my business, she said “go for it.” When I felt it was time to quit my day job, she said “do it.” When we needed funds to build GOC, she worked hard at her job to invest in what I was doing.

There have been times when I have wanted to give up entirely and she lovingly called me an idiot! Michelle is my best friend, advisor, and motivator. I know I could not do this without her.

What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?

Personally, if I am still skiing when I’m 80, I will consider it a big win.

Professionally, I want to put myself out of work by eliminating student loan debt. This won’t solely happen through our work at GOC. We need advocates to make it happen. We need Congress. We need employers. We need to create a system in our country, where employers receive a tax advantage for making contributions to 529 plans, just like a 401K. This does not just happen overnight, it takes legislation. My goal is to get the right people in the room to ensure the next generation doesn’t have to live with the overwhelming anxiety of student loan debt because their employers have programs in place to help them to better save for it or pay it off.

What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?

I want to be known as the guy who saw a problem and worked hard to help people eliminate their student loan debt. I see it as my life’s mission.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!

My life’s work IS this movement. Every day I wake up to help people obliterate student loan debt. I want to help families start 529 college savings plans early so they can avoid this debt.

My advice is to find your thing and run at it. We all see problems in the world and you may be the person who can solve it.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

https://www.facebook.com/Giftofcollege,

https://www.linkedin.com/company/giftofcollege/

https://twitter.com/soulsoles

https://www.linkedin.com/in/wayne-weber-9a2865a/

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