Non-profit Vittana lands CNET's Wolaner as CEO

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on June 27, 2013

From The News Desk

Seattle-based Vittana, a non-profit that helps crowdsource loans for students’ secondary educations, has landed a new CEO. Robin Wolaner, former executive Vice President of CNET, founder of Parenting magazine, and recent advisor to start-ups Foli and Skout, will be leading the organization’s expansion.

Vittana was founded in 2008 by Kushal Chakrabarti, a former Amazon technical lead who oversaw the development of the site’s personalized recommendations engine. Through Vittana, anyone can loan $25 or more to a student in a developing country who wants to continue school but can’t afford to do so. The money is then distributed through local microfinance institutions that charge students 10-15% APR. Vittana has grown quickly – the year after the company was founded, it gave 78 micro-loans. By 2011 that number had increased to more than 2,000. By 2012 it had quadrupled to 8,200, and it increased to 10,000 by the first quarter of 2013.

Chakrabarti eventually decided he needed a new CEO to guide the organization through its rapid expansion, and turned to a search firm that specialized not in the non-profit sector but in technology recruitment – Equity Search Partners. “When we talk about Vittana’s growth, we talk about tripling every year," Chakrabarti says. "There aren’t many non-profits that can talk about tripling every year. There are not that many people who understand growth at that scale, so we thought we’d have better luck finding a CEO in technology, where you see a lot of this.”

The recruiters put forth Wolaner’s name and she quickly rose to the top from hundreds of others. “Robin [Wolaner] was by far the person that not just the board, but also I was really excited by,”  Chakrabarti says. “First thing that struck me about Robin…firecracker. Someone who clearly got it – understood scaling businesses, and who had enough battle scars from building companies, which isn’t easy.”

New CEO Wolaner said that part of the reason she wanted to run Vittana was because of its startup culture. “When I walked into the [Vittana] office it looked like any startup office I’ve been in, whether Skout or CNET," she says. "Lots of whiteboards, everyone’s in their twenties except me, and they’re very nimble. Ideas change, they jump on it, and people are not afraid to make mistakes.”

Wolaner had left the CEO mantle behind when her own startup folded in 2009, but an auspicious moment convinced her she should pick up the helm again. The day she went to meet the Vittana team in the Seattle office was the day Meredith, a publishing company, bought Parenting magazine and promptly shut it down. So, 26 years later, the company she had founded was toast.

"I want to change the world," Wolaner says, "but I also want to leave a personal legacy. I’m superstitious, and it felt like a sign that this [Vittana] is what I should be doing.”

Although Vittana is a non-profit, its roots are in the tech world. The organization was selected as one of only two non-profits in Facebook’s first incubator in 2009, and investors in the company include Google, Mitch Kapor, Vinod Khosla, Rich Barton, and Tim Ferriss.

Sebastien de Halleux, co-founder of Playfish and a Vittana board member, says, “In my opinion, Vittana is one of those rare startups attacking a truly big existing problem: the fact that one of humanity's most precious resource is grossly under-utilized: the human brain.  We estimate that they are well over 100 million students who despite being literate lack the basic professional skills that would give them access to a better life…Now that's a project worth investing in!”

Chakrabarti says he’s used lessons he learned at Amazon to make Vittana successful.  “At Amazon, more than Google or Facebook, there’s the sense of frugality. Our desks were doors. It’s a hard business we’re in, and we have to be cheap and critical with our resources."

As for Vittana’s future with Wolaner at the helm, in the short-term the non-profit is launching a debt fund as a for-profit microfinance vehicle. Bigger financial firms will be able to loan money to students in developing countries and get returns through interest.

The new CEO says she’ll consider the non-profit a success once it’s self-sustaining. “We’ve depended on the kindness of tech donors and haven’t raised institutional money yet,” Wolaner says. “The endless philanthropy is not something I want to sign up for -- we think it can be self sustaining.”