By Lisa Intrabartola
When Kayla Michele Jackson’s peers were playing in the sandbox, she was playing the links.
“By the time I was 18 months old, my dad put a set of Playskool clubs in my hand,” said the Rutgers senior, 21, whose father was a caddy at Baltustrol Country Club in Springfield.
That early introduction to the sport instilled in Jackson a tenacity that helps her excel both on and off the greens. And as an African-American woman playing in an arena still dominated by white men, she’s learned never to let others’ judgments limit her.
“I’ve been at tournaments where girls said, ‘One N-word down and one other to go.’ People assume your skill level is not up to par with theirs,” Jackson said of the racism she and teammates encountered on golf courses outside the Northeast. “It’s definitely hard as a 12-year-old hearing that, but it did make me stronger.”
Jackson’s family didn’t have the resources for her to practice with private coaches on private courses, but that didn’t stop the self-described “public course rat” from clinching junior PGA titles and receiving offers to play varsity golf for D1 colleges on the West Coast. The Franklin Township wunderkind turned down those offers to study journalism and media studies at Rutgers University-New Brunswick’s School of Communication and Information, where she plays on the university’s golf club.
“It ended up being the best decision I ever made,” she said.
Jackson fell hard and fast for journalism as a teen, embracing platforms that allowed her to address the wrongs she saw in her world. The editor of her high school newspaper, she co-founded and sold her first business – an online magazine devoted to the empowerment of African-American teens called Nubian Beauty – before graduating from Rutgers Preparatory High School in 2013.
“I’ve always been a minority in majority spaces, and it ticked me off that I never saw positive media representation of women who look like me,” said Jackson of the magazine that quickly captured 500,000 page views and the attention of both Procter & Gamble’s My Black is Beautiful and Black Girls Rock Inc. campaigns before she sold it to Love Girls Magazine for an undisclosed amount.
The experience stoked a new passion in Jackson – entrepreneurship – in time for her first year at Rutgers.
“Rutgers has an Entrepreneurial Society, Center for Urban Entrepreneurship and Economic Development, Innovation Lab and an administration dedicated to helping students pursue their entrepreneurial dreams,” she said. “I believe those resources, and the fact that our community is a mini city, foster the perfect environment to start a business.”
Exploring those avenues led Jackson to likeminded Rutgers-New Brunswick student Chisa Egbelu. Together they founded PeduL (Pronounced “petal”), a higher education crowd-funding platform that aims to reduce student loan debt.
“We are GoFundMe, but for college tuition,” she said. “It’s a third party scholarship so kids can’t go off to Cabo (San Lucas) or buy a car with what they raised. It goes straight to their university.”
The group started working on PeduL in January 2016 after a friend of Egbelu’s was forced to abandon his dream of studying music at a college in Boston because he couldn’t afford the tuition.
“He said, ‘I really wish I had something like Kickstarter for college,’ ” said Jackson, “And that’s when Chisa said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”
What will set PeduL apart from other fundraising sites? Jackson envisions a platform that will allow corporate sponsors to invest in and groom future talent.
“We want to make the crowd-funding process more than just about the money. It’s about networking,” she said. “Building relationships and community are as essential for success as education.”
PeduL entered the incubation phase this June after receiving funding and a pre-launch valuation of $600,000 from IDT Ventures. PeduL’s beta site is expected to launch in January. Her immediate goal is to increase her young company’s valuation to $1M before she graduates in May.
“My dream is just to make cool things that help people,” she said. “I don’t want to stop at PeduL I want to be involved in anything that will help make people’s lives a little better than it was the day before.”
Though she’s veered away from pursuing a journalism career, Jackson said she sees great benefits to remaining committed to her major. Which is why she took those internships as a digital product coordinator at the Golf Channel, a social media coordinator at Essence magazine and an investigative reporter at WNBC.
“I knew I was interested in learning the technique of journalism and critical analysis of news and how to consume news with a critical eye,” she said. “All the skills you learn through the major transcend all industries.”
Her journalism professor Steven Miller lauds Kayla’s multifaceted approach to her education, calling her a “renaissance student.”
“Kayla is a throwback to the days when students were encouraged to try their hand at anything and everything and given the opportunity to excel at many things, as opposed to specializing in just one,” said Miller, director of undergraduate studies in journalism and media studies. “The fact that she is so talented in all of these areas makes her stand out even more. She exemplifies what Rutgers students are capable of and represents the best of her generation.”