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St. Louis-based Nerdy goes public while helping students rebound from pandemic

Nerdy Founder and CEO Chuck Cohn rings the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange on Tuesday, September 21, 2021. The company started trading that day on the NYSE.
Nerdy Founder and CEO Chuck Cohn rings the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange on Sept. 21. The company started publicly trading that day.

One of the newest companies on the New York Stock Exchange is moving quickly to help students make up for lost time because of COVID-induced lockdowns and home learning.

Nerdy, the operator of Varsity Tutors, is one of three St. Louis-area companies to start trading on the NYSE in the past few weeks. Core & Main, a water, wastewater and fire protection products distributor, went public in July. Agriculture technology company Benson Hill did the same in September. Nerdy also wrapped up an initial public offering last month.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Wayne Pratt spoke with founder and CEO Chuck Cohn about going public in the era of COVID-19.

Wayne Pratt: How did the pandemic affect your business?

Chuck Cohn: We see online learning adoption growing at 30%. That's what industry experts expect over the course of the next five years and expect that it'll be a significant catalyst for the industry.

Pratt: So you don't see this slowing down at all, as we begin to come out of the pandemic and eventually get out of it?

Cohn: The opportunity has never been bigger. We had incredible success in the first half of the year. Students took off a couple of months in the summer after, you know, a long school year. And then as school started in mid-August and September, we saw demand for tutoring inquiries come roaring back. We also recently announced a new institutional strategy focused on helping K-12 schools solve important problems and address COVID-related learning loss at a district-wide scale. And this is happening at a moment where on average, students are more than five months behind in math and reading nationally.

Pratt: Do you have any idea how long it may take for students to get caught up?

Cohn: Some of the estimates are that it could take more than a decade, if ever for students across the country to fully catch up to the COVID-related learning loss that's occurred. So it's just a devastating problem. Some of the estimates actually predict that students will never catch up, which is, of course, heartbreaking. And we're doing what we can to make sure that that isn't true.

Pratt: Does going public strengthen the company's position to address this problem?

Chuck Cohn founded the parent company of Varsity Tutors during his junior year at Washington University in 2007.
Chuck Cohn founded the parent company of Varsity Tutors during his junior year at Washington University in 2007.

Cohn: We've been building for this moment for at least six years since we first raised institutional capital. Our core consumer business is doing really well. We've been building towards going public because we're building a durable, enduring company that we want people to talk about for another 50-plus years that has a tremendous impact. What the capitalization related to the financing specifically allows us to do is just lean into the big opportunity more offensively.

Pratt: Talk to me about the journey from this idea at Wash U to where you are today.

Cohn: I started the company based on my own personal experiences finding the help that I needed. When I was in college, I was studying for a calculus course. I was really struggling with the material, and I wasn't able to get the help that I needed. I was at Washington University at the time, and I just was unable to find any solutions to allow me to address the fact that I just didn't understand the material.

And so I ended up starting the company with a $1,000 loan from my parents as a 21-year-old student. Two of my good friends were the first two tutors on the platform. And it started growing from there, and I was able to develop and advance the idea in an intro to entrepreneurship course at the university, and the university has been an incredible supporter.

Pratt: How many tutors would you say you have today?

Cohn: At the end of last year, we had about 20,000. And we've been continuing to grow the number of experts on the platform in anticipation of a big back-to-school [season] and serving school districts.

Pratt: So was this your vision when you launched this back at Wash U? Or has it exceeded expectations?

Cohn: It's, you know, orders of magnitude larger than I thought it would be. On the day I started it I was just very focused on solving what I thought was an incredibly important need that many other students like myself were facing. And over time as we invested in technology, as we had a few breakthroughs, it became possible that there was an opportunity to really transform how high-quality live instruction was delivered. And that it was possible to allow students to access help in any subject anywhere, anytime, in a digitally enhanced way to an extent that had never been previously possible.

Wayne is the morning newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.