All through middle school and high school, Jessica Sun struggled to understand why she had such a hard time learning.
“I would not learn anything in class, that was the norm,” Sun said. “After sitting through the day I would go home and learn all the material from scratch.”
As she watched others succeed, Sun thought she just needed to work harder.
“I would put in extra hours and find different tricks to make it work,” Sun said. “I was a perfectionist. I had high standards for myself.”
It was not until she began attending Northestern University in Boston, where the 19-year-old Sun is studying business and economics, that Sun was diagnosed with adult attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD for short.
“I had undiagnosed ADHD throughout high school,” Sun said. “That creates a lot of problems. It affects a lot of things: memory, focus and sleep regulation. I could not focus whatsoever.”
Today, Sun is taking Adderall to control the symptoms of ADHD and is on track to graduate from Northeastern in 2021. She is also the co-founder of an education startup, called Lumos Debate, which is expected to gross $1.6 million this year.
“We are profitable,” Sun says, “but every dollar of profit we put back into expansion.”
Lumos Debate teaches public speaking and debate to middle school and high school students in a series of two week camps, as well as two-day workshops. The idea for the business came directly from Sun’s own experience in school.
“I would bring up my concerns with teachers and educators and get a dismissive response, one that didn’t address my needs and concerns,” Sun said.
Sun wanted to create an environment where learning is fun, and teachers care about students as individuals, offering them solutions if they’re struggling. She says that’s the environment she insists on in her camps.
Lumos students are given surveys at the end of every day in class. How much did you like camp today? How much did you learn? If they don’t rate their experience as a 9 or 10 on a scale of 1 to 10, Sun talks to the instructor about those kids and what can be done to make things better.
Lumos got its start following a fundraiser for Sun’s debate team at Lexington High School in Lexington, Massachusetts, half an hour from Boston.
“I think after the fundraiser we realized it was something a lot of parents wanted,” Sun said. “The kids benefited from it. This was a program that clearly people valued, and I valued. My co-founder and I decided to make it into a business.”
Sun’s co-founder is Zeph Chang, who serves as Lumos’ education director, and who was ranked the top debater in Massachusetts and third in the nation.
In their first year, during the summer of 2016, Sun and Chang attracted 120 kids to their camps. Sun was 17 years old.
“That’s when we realized this was a viable business,” Sun said.
In its second year Lumos grew by 500 percent, and Sun was caught unprepared.
“We had not built the infrastructure to run those camps,” Sun said. “I ended up working 100 hour weeks for nine weeks. Basically we had no directors for the camps except me. I had to run the camps remotely.”
Lumos ran 15 camps in 2017 and 23 camps in 2018. It will run more than 23 camps in 2019, serving around 1,200 kids with more than 100 instructors and additional staff.
Sun is graduating in 2021 and sees Lumos as her future. She wants to expand beyond teaching debating skills and public speaking into other curriculum, including business skills, mock trial and model United Nations.
“We like to think we’re both offering something that wasn’t out there and doing it better,” Sun said. “Debate is an activity people are learning to value more. Especially in today’s political climate you have to know how to articulate and think critically about information you’re getting.”