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How one student turned her academic struggles into a million-dollar business

Photo: Jessica Sun co-founded Lumos Debate, a million-dollar education startup that teaches public speaking and debating to middle and high school students. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

It’s not unusual for Jessica Sun to make kids cry. At the speech and debate camps she runs every summer, the Northeastern sophomore has seen her fair share of middle and high school students shuffling in with faces filled with dread. Some weep on their way in while others bawl on their way out because they don’t want to leave. In between that time, there are breakthroughs, ‘aha’ moments that remind Sun why she started on this path more than three years ago.

Sun, who is 19, runs an education startup called Lumos Debate. From its humble beginnings in a Newton, Massachusetts, church three years ago, the company has undergone an unexpected growth spurt that to date has generated more than $1.6 million in revenue for Sun and her co-founder, Zeph Chang, a student at UC Berkeley. The duo is on track to reap in another million by next summer. After paying for necessities such as tuition and rent, much of that money goes right back into the business, she said.

“Reinvesting is something we find really important,” Sun said. “We don’t think we could put a value on it. If we cashed out that would be very, very meaningless to us.”

Like her business, Sun has come quite a ways. She has made Forbes’ 2019 “30 under 30” list, which garnered her a write-up in the magazine. In it, she shares her struggle with adult attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, throughout high school, though she wasn’t diagnosed with the condition until she was in college. The experience, painful as it was, informed her decision to enter the education space.

“I dreaded going to school,” she said. “It was incredibly stressful and emotionally exhausting. I just felt I couldn’t figure out things. (At Lumos) we stress understanding and empathy. That stems from me feeling misunderstood by teachers. I really stress that it is on teachers to adapt to students,” and not the other way around, she said.

“I dreaded going to school. It was incredibly stressful and emotionally exhausting. I just felt I couldn’t figure out things. (At Lumos) we stress understanding and empathy.”

Jessica Sun co-founder of Lumos Debate

Though her high school grade point average of 3.75 doesn’t reflect it, Sun characterized her experience at a competitive high school in Lexington, Massachusetts, as one in which around-the-clock studying and getting three hours of sleep a night were a common occurrence. Among other things, ADHD affects memory, focus, and sleep regulation.

“The lifestyle was not unheard of; a lot of my peers were doing similar things to get into Ivy Leagues,” she said. “I think I was doing that just to get the material or get by. My overall mental being was pretty low.”

The worst part, she said, is that she blamed herself as she cycled through feelings of incompetence and that she wasn’t studying hard enough. Her parents, both pharmaceutical scientists, pegged her as not being academically oriented, while her teachers hardly noticed her challenges in and out of the classroom.

Still, there were a few things she did excel at, among them gymnastics and debate.

Then Lumos came along. The name is a reference to a spell from the Harry Potter novels that conjures a blinding flash of bright white light from the tip of a wand. In the same way that Harry used the power of lumos to illuminate his path so he could look for giant, lethal spiders, Sun has used her startup as a mechanism to give middle and high school students confidence and self-advocacy through public speaking and debate.

Jessica Sun. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Lumos offers two week-long day camps in the summer, in addition to year-round workshops in the Boston area. Since its inception, more than 2,000 students have completed the program. Much of the company’s success has derived from word of mouth. Sun contends that the recipe for the company’s success is that, compared to similar debate camps, the instructors at Lumos are younger, typically high school or college students, and therefore can relate better to the students. Also, there is a strong focus on creating a “playful, low-stakes” environment for the students and maintaining a small student-to-instructor ratio.

When she’s not running the day-to-day operations at Lumos, which include managing a staff of nearly 100, she is a full-time student at Northeastern, where she studies business and economics and sits on the executive boards of the Women’s Interdisciplinary Society of Entrepreneurship and TEDx.

If anything, her responsibilities have grown since high school, but she’s learned the tools and skills to help her cope with her fast-paced life and frequently jam-packed schedule.

“I would describe my life as being at the center of a tornado,” she said. “My mom thinks I work a little too hard. She says, ‘you should sleep; take some time off.’”

Beyond expanding Lumos, Sun said she has a “grand vision” and a “grand, grand vision.” She has set her sights on public education policy reform. For starters, she wants to improve student-teacher relationships and make learning fun by creating a school environment that fosters an intellectual vacation.

In other words, an education experience that produces fewer tears and more smiles.

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