Nearly a year ago many businesses and schools concerned about the spread of COVID-19 relocated onsite offices and classrooms to the internet. The transition to a virtual platform took some getting used to, but for Bryan Rubin ’18 and Benjamin Steger ’18 the future was finally here.
Rubin and Steger cofounded Virtu.Academy in 2018, as part of Oberlin’s entrepreneurship program. The academy’s mission is to make the highest quality music education accessible to students around the country, no matter their financial situation. Through the program, Rubin and Steger were taught the basics of running a company, received mentors in their field, and eventually won a $10,000 grant to help launch their endeavour. Today, Virtu.Academy recruits teachers from conservatories and institutions from around the world in order to connect them with students for virtual, private music lessons.
“From the beginning, we knew that virtual learning would play a key role in the future of education, but we never could have predicted how quickly that would happen,” says Steger, who studied biochemistry and trumpet performance at Oberlin.
“There are so many students in rural locations who simply do not have access to music teachers, so we knew that this was an important field to expand,” continues Rubin, who majored in politics and environmental studies. “Because of the incredible educators around the world who have worked to make virtual learning effective for their students, people are much more comfortable with the idea of learning online than they were when we first started Virtu.”
Read more about Virtu.Academy and its alumni cofounders in this After Oberlin Q&A.
Did you pursue further education after Oberlin?
Rubin: I began a fellowship with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Multimedia, producing video and photo content for both internal and external use. I was there from November 2018 until June 2020, when we went full time with Virtu.Academy.
Steger: I started a research fellowship at the National Institutes of Health while applying to medical schools. I do plan on going back to school for an MD/PhD program, but we decided to delay that to continue working on Virtu full time.
How would you describe yourself and why?
Rubin: I would describe myself as a creative who particularly enjoys visual storytelling. Essential to this and many other aspects of my life is the desire to keep learning new skills and workflows to improve whatever I may be working on—both for work and personal projects. And equally important, I enjoy having fun and taking a break from work to hang out with friends, even if that’s all virtual for the moment!
Steger: I love to learn! I think that is one of the most important things about me that has helped with running Virtu.Academy. While working on a startup, you have to do a little bit of everything, and I enjoyed learning the basics of skills like accounting, marketing, and web design that we needed to start the business.
What role/duties do you perform at Virtu.Academy?
Rubin: From the beginning both Ben and I have had to handle everything. For a long time we had to provide many hours of support—from emails to live chat to phone channels—before going full time. Luckily we’ve been able to bring on an amazing support team to help us in the last year. Currently, my main role is working with our creative teams to produce marketing materials as well as maintain our social media presence.
Steger: Right now, I mostly focus on recruiting teachers, building our website and platform, and the financial side of things. We’ve had to learn the basics of accounting, customer service, web development, marketing, and many other things that we needed, before we could afford to hire anyone.
How many classes are held through VirtuAcademy?
Steger and Rubin: Right now, we have about 150 instructors who teach around 5,000 lessons per month, but this has been growing by 20 to 30 percent most months since we started.
Where do you see Virtu.Academy in the future?
Steger and Rubin: We want Virtu.Academy to continue growing so every student can have access to high quality music education, and talented musicians from around the world can continue to do what they love and spread their passion for music. We have some exciting plans that we’re working on, such as expanding our scholarship fund and providing more performance opportunities and learning experiences for our students.
Did you participate in any internships while at Oberlin?
Rubin: The summer after sophomore year I was an intern with the EPA’s Office of Multimedia, as well as my junior year winter term. Both of these internships helped me get the position within the same office after college while working on Virtu.Academy on the side.
Steger: During my first winter term, I interned at St. Louis Symphony’s education department and an education program at Jazz St. Louis. After that, all of my internships were science-related. During a few summers, I interned in labs at Washington University and the National Institutes of Health.
Any advice for students who would like to pursue a career in your field?
Rubin: If someone is interested in starting a business, while the beginning can seem daunting, it’s also the most exciting—and personally, the part I enjoyed the most! I think people might believe that in order to start something, you have to have everything figured out, or at least a majority of it, but I don’t believe that’s necessary. It can start small, just from the idea stage that you share with a friend and grow from there. And almost more importantly, what you start doesn’t have to be your area of study or your expertise, or what your life work’s always going to be. After all, I was a politics and environmental studies major.
Steger: For anyone who is interested in starting a business, I think the most important thing is just to take the first step, no matter how small it seems. It might sound cliche, but so many people have incredible ideas for a business, but very few people actually start one. Even the smallest first step, like registering an LLC or buying a website domain, will turn your idea into a real business. Things like that only take a couple hours, and you will be much more motivated to continue building your business once it’s real.
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