The most important thing Pablo Fuentes learned in Stanford's MBA program was what he didn't want to do.
Until grad school he had been on a steep and linear trajectory: immigrated from Chile as a teenager; went to UCLA, got into the finance game; started doing stock analysis and working for a hedge fund; figured he'd pick up another degree; then on to bigger and better things in the world of finance.
Then Fuentes had an epiphany: "I realized I didn't care about The Wall Street Journal. I didn't care about researching stocks. So, why was I doing that with my life?"
Oh, one other thing Stanford provided: A chance meeting at the gym with Sean Falconer, a computer science Ph.D. Falconer, who was doing postdoc work at the time, is now providing the technological muscle for an idea Fuentes developed through conversations with fellow business students: What if a company came up with a way to harness technology to help those on the short end of the economic divide find jobs?
Fuentes started with a text message service to help connect day laborers with those who had projects for them. He moved on to trying to make matches between contractors and those working in the trades.
Traction, as they say, just wasn't building. So, last month Fuentes and Falconer launched Proven, a mobile app that they hope will one day be the LinkedIn of retail clerks, restaurant servers, house cleaners, baristas and others who often patch together two or
"It's this idea of using mobile technology to help a demographic that has never been addressed when it comes to using technology," Fuentes says.
I'll admit it: I'm a sucker for a business idea that has more than just making money as its ultimate goal. And yes, Fuentes and Falconer would like Proven to make money some day. And the angel investors and venture capitalists who've backed them would like them to make some money some day, too.
"We think Pablo is a terrific entrepreneur," says Mitch Kapor, whose Kapor Capital has invested in Proven. "And we also, from the first, have been really interested in and aligned around the fact that he's trying to help a group of people that are typically overlooked by tech startups."
Sitting with Fuentes outside a San Mateo coffee shop (a dog-friendly one willing to accommodate Coal, his ever-present black lab/German shepherd mix), I'm reminded of the true power of technology. Fuentes is one among many in the valley who have a dual purpose, the old do-well and do-good school, which may be the best of what the valley has to offer.
Of course, wanting to better the world is no guarantee that an idea will succeed. The market is unsentimental.
Like many startup founders, Fuentes is stingy with business particulars. Other than saying the company isn't yet profitable, he doesn't talk about the number of Proven subscribers, the company's revenue and the like. But he says the number of users is growing rapidly and that there are several paths it could take to profitability.
We'll see. But either way, I like the idea behind Proven. The mobile app provides a way for users to search Craigslist for specific jobs. Job seekers can store resumes and cover letters in the cloud and use Proven to attach them to job applications with the tap of a finger. It's ideal for someone who's looking for a job while working a job that doesn't provide a comfy cube complete with computer.
"I'm in front of a computer all day, sitting," Fuentes, 32, says. "They're not. They have a 15-minute break. They can use their iPhone to look for a job."
The efficiency and portability of Proven was part of the appeal for Candice Robertson, a user I called to see what job seekers thought of the app.
"I can only talk for a few minutes," she said, "because I start a job today that I got off of it."
No, I'm not making this up. Robertson, who landed a job as a customer service representative in Los Angeles, where she lives, had applied for 70 jobs in a month through the app. She says she received five calls back, five interviews and one job.
Fuentes, who makes it a point to regularly go out in the field to talk to people about how they use Proven and to watch them navigate through its features, says success stories are definitely part of the payoff for the work he and Proven's staff of five have done.
"I think we can make a meaningful difference eventually," he says. "We can make a meaningful difference in these people's lives, and that matters to me."
Which is a pretty valuable lesson, when you think about it, no matter where you learn it.