Alumni Q+A with Tonio DeSorrento

August.30.2018

Tonio DeSorrento is the co-founder and CEO of Vemo Education, a social enterprise that helps colleges and accelerated learning providers charge tuition based on graduates' success. He worked as an associate at Orrick in the Structured Finance group from 2008 to 2012.

1. What do you like most about your company?

Vemo Education works with schools to set up income-based finance programs. We're almost three years old, venture-backed, and have 30 employees and a couple dozen school clients. It’s interesting, because the idea for my company really stems from something I was working on back when I was at Orrick. I worked on income share agreements back then – agreements that reduce the upfront cost of college for the student by paying a set percentage of their income after graduation – but the idea never really took off for my clients back then. And I always wondered why.

2. So take us through how you got from Orrick, working on income share agreements, to running your own company based on this question that gnawed at you?

I left Orrick to be general counsel of one of my clients, a startup where I was the first employee. After a year I reconnected with another former client, SoFi, and I joined them as deputy general counsel. There, I learned a ton from seeing an excellent management team up close. At SoFi, I also got to help build and fund a bunch of new financial products. In 2015, I again came back to that problem – scaling income share agreements – that I first saw at Orrick. But this time, with the benefit of my SoFi experience, I started to think I understood why the agreements didn’t work, what the missing pieces were. I thought if a company had the right management team and a product with more value for the college, one that could help colleges succeed in attracting the right students and help to align their revenues with student outcomes, instead of just substituting for student loans, it might work. Once I saw this solution, I could not unsee it. And so I left SoFi to start Vemo Education with three cofounders to put these ideas to work

3. What’s different about being a lawyer at a firm versus a lawyer at a company?

Well, I really like law, and I also really liked my work at Orrick and my clients. But I wanted to be able to focus on one client. I wanted to work on one, singular thing that really motivated me and that I really loved. I know lawyers who love law for the sake of law. And then there are lawyers who use law to solve business problems. I fall into the latter camp. I wanted to build a thing, and I wanted to own part of it, and that meant going to a small company where I could be an equity owner and a part of the management team. 

4. Are there different challenges from working at a company versus a firm?

I think that the day-to-day for me is probably similar to that of a senior leader at a law firm. It’s all people. It’s relationships with clients, investors and employees, and how I’m going to manage those and how I’m recruiting in all three lanes all the time. Who can come build this with me on the client side, on the investor side, and as a management team member or employee? One thing that is different from the firm is that all of the value of what we are doing at Vemo is in the future. So if you do something in a law firm, you get to bill for it today or maybe in a few months or maybe later in the year, but there’s a horizon at which you are paid and it’s some knowable quantity of money. Starting a company like mine requires a lot of patience. All of the value is in the future – we have a very complex business with a complex product and a very long sales cycle. I have to always ask, “What does this look like five years from now?” Not what it’s like this month or this quarter because those things are going to come and go very quickly. I am always building on a path to a point five years out, and if you ask me in a year what’s my time horizon, it’s five years from then.

5. What’s most exciting about what you do?

I like that I can see the future – I'm building something and I already know what it needs to become and I need to get everyone else in the world caught up with me. What I see is that people are going to have transparent data about the outcomes of different educational programs of instruction at different institutions. Today, in a market for higher ed or post-secondary ed, where there are nineteen million students in 6,000 colleges, the colleges or the institutions or schools who get the students are the ones who advertise well. Those are not always the best school for the student. Eighty-eight percent of the students in the market are in the market to get a job even more than a credential. A lot of people would benefit from a broad liberal arts education, but they can’t all make a career in that. So we’re counting what happened to the graduates, and we send that data back to the school, who will hopefully tout that so that students can pick schools that are the best for them. Our products also let students who are from debt-adverse backgrounds, which includes - according to academic research published by Vanderbilt University – African and Latino American students who have had bad experiences with debt in their families, invest in themselves through post-secondary education.

6. What’s something you learned at Orrick that is helpful to you now?

Two things that I saw and appreciated, and tried to internalize, even if I could have done better at the time, were the firm’s culture and standard of excellence. I was fortunate to benefit from many mentors. Three who stood out were Cam Cowan (now retired), Geoff Thompson (now GC at Apple Pie Capital) and Rachel George (now a deputy GC at Navient). They all helped me acclimate to civilian life, and also law firm life. When I came to Orrick, I still shaved my head and stood up whenever a senior person entered the room. I was straight out of the Marine Corps – psychologically I was, at least. I didn’t know what it took to be successful in professional services, and they showed me by example how to do that and how to be excellent in work product. If you had told me back then that I drafted a 200-page prospectus with only ten little typographical mistakes, I would have said, “That was the best thing I’ve ever done!” And Rachel George would have said, “That was ten too many. Try again.” And they showed me how to get it right, and they saved me. 

7. You mention coming to Orrick straight from the Marine Corps. Did that experience help you with your job here?

My experience helped me be a good teammate. I had trained a lot of sailors, soldiers and Marines in artillery, and I was good at it. I knew what it was like to teach a complex subject, in a job that went all hours of the day. That helped me put myself in my supervising attorneys' shoes, and (I like to think) be a better follower and teammate. 

8. What are you doing outside of your job that you’re excited about?

I love spending time with my family. They're the best. :)