The Daily sat down for an interview with Audrey Wisch and Alec Katz, who were recently recognized in Forbes 30 Under 30’s class of 2022. Wisch and Katz started at Stanford in 2019 and are currently taking an indefinite leave of absence to work on their startup, Curious Cardinals.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): Who are you guys? What is your background? Where were you at, leading up to the start of Curious Cardinals?
Audrey Wisch (AW): I’m from New York City. In high school, I was really serious about running and debate and also became passionate about a lot of social justice issues. I was captain of the running team, president of the debate team — areas where success is well-defined. But it wasn’t clear to me what success looked like in areas like immigration or criminal justice reform.
At Stanford, I originally thought I was going to be an immigration lawyer. I found an organization called “Habla” my freshman year where you tutor members of the custodial staff in English. So when I came home from Stanford that year, and I couldn’t continue with Habla, I decided to start tutoring at home.
Alec Katz (AK): I grew up in Los Angeles. At Stanford, I was studying aerospace engineering. Education was always super important to me — my mom really pushed me in math, and I ended up studying calculus in seventh grade.
In high school, I traveled to Senegal and worked at a microfinance bank there and eventually founded a nonprofit called Soles4Good, which sends donated shoes to Senegal in shipping containers. But I felt alone in my pursuits — I would have loved to have a mentor who could connect me with other students interested in other aspects of my projects. I think Curious Cardinals solves a lot of that.
TSD: So, what exactly is Curious Cardinals?
AW: If you are a K-12 student interested in learning about engineering solutions to climate change, the history of women in our country, whatever it may be, Curious Cardinals provides resources and mentorship to cultivate those curiosities. We call it mentorship, because it’s not traditional tutoring. It’s not just about what you want to learn — it’s about who you want to learn from, someone who[m] you can relate to and identify with. You can learn one-on-one from a college student, and we pay the college students $40 to $60 an hour so that everyone benefits in this ecosystem we’re creating.
In spring 2020, we decided to take time away from Stanford to work on Curious Cardinals full time. In June 2020, we hired our first full-time employee. Now there are seven of us, and we completed our first seed round of funding and raised $4.25 million this summer.
TSD: What did you have to put into Curious Cardinals, and how did you decide that it was worth taking time away from school? What have you given up for this?
AW: I gave up everything: social life, school. It’s an extraordinary amount of work. At Stanford, I feel like entrepreneurship can be glamorized. It’s not sexy. It’s a lot of hard work. I would tell students that there is no rush if you don’t know what you want to be doing — find what you care about, find what brings you purpose. If you feel like you are the best person to solve a problem, like you are uniquely positioned to do this, then go for it. Stanford’s not going anywhere.
You feel this fiery energy within you. When I started Curious Cardinals, I couldn’t stop. I realized, “Oh my god, I’m paying my friends to teach what they love.” Find something you care about. Stanford’s such a good place to do that.
AK: If you really want to start something, you should think, “Would I feel fulfilled doing this for the rest of my life?” You have to live it, breathe it. You should want it so badly because it is so difficult, so draining. I am also a believer that if you are able to teach something, then that’s when you have a mastery of it. I encourage people to really have a mastery of something before going all in on it.
TSD: Let’s talk about the 30 Under 30 distinction. How are you feeling about that?
AK: At Curious Cardinals, we measure hours taught and students reached. It’s a huge honor to have this award, but it’s also just this external validation. It doesn’t change what we’re doing. We got to work on Wednesday, and it was the same thing. We have to keep our head[s] down and keep going, but it’s a huge honor. It’s really exciting.
AW: Yeah, we just had to go to work that day and continue to grind. Someone asked “Did you go party last night?” and I was like “No, we haven’t had the time to celebrate yet!” People are like, “You made it, that’s it!” but we are literally just getting started. You have to speak on CNN and scrub the toilets the next day with the same pride! We’re young. We’re just getting started.
TSD: Curious Cardinals is really taking off now. Are there new risks associated with a bigger business? Where is Curious Cardinals headed?
AW: I’m 21 years old. We don’t have spouses or a family. It’s just us, and we’re so lucky to have Stanford as our plan B. But now, we have a team with spouses, and soon kids, and now there’s no more space for immaturity. People’s livelihoods are at stake. We are responsible for their salaries, their healthcare. I’ve always said that the worst thing at Curious Cardinals would be to teach less students than we set out to, but there are additional pressures now. We need to succeed.
AK: People are leaving other jobs to come work with us. They’re really believing in Curious Cardinals. We want this to be the best place for anyone to work, and we’re not going to stop until Curious Cardinals is accessible to every student and really makes an impact on the social infrastructure of the world.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.