Taran Lent – Transact
Remember those days in the dorm when you fretted about how many meals were left on your meal card for the week? How about keeping spare change for the washer and dryer in the basement or fumbling for your key while trying to get inside the dorm on a winter night?
Once, that was part of the experience in higher education, and Taran Lent has made a career of making those experiences as dim a memory as the small blue booklets once used to answer essay questions.
As vice president of product development for Transact, Lent is continuing 25 years of enabling colleges and universities to digitize and automate payment processing while making the basics of campus life easier for students, he says.
“What I love about the career I’ve chosen is we serve a marketplace with tech-savvy users and early adopters of new ways of doing things,” he says. “We’re an intersection of all these cool technologies, we’re helping them build a formative relationship with technology in four crucial years.”
Payment with a click
Transact was originally founded in 1984 and is headquartered in Phoenix. The company has expanded from providing tuition and other payment solutions for colleges and universities to other commerce and security solutions, including building entries, on-campus meals and even payments to do laundry.
The financial solutions and services offered by Transact facilitate $45 billion in transactions annually and serve 12 million students, according to its website.
The company’s platforms and services enable students to access buildings and events with their mobile phone or digital watch. They can also buy meals, snacks and other essentials, anywhere on or around campus, using funds linked to Apple Wallet or Google Pay.
The mobile credentials and apps took on greater importance as colleges and universities grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic. Lent says touchless solutions were already proving convenient, and as campuses reopened with guidelines on spacing and contact they also helped students stay safer.
The apps were also used to help schools manage capacity in bookstores and fitness facilities and as students moved in and out of dorms, he says.
When creating and upgrading the solutions, Lent says he and his staff consider the variety of devices students are using. For instance, the apps must be designed with colors and print fonts visible on phones and tablets. In all, development can be a hit or miss process for a demographic well-versed in using technology.
“It’s a great exercise in humility and empathy,” he says. “I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve designed a solution we think is brilliant and then learned through usability testing with students that our approach was not intuitive.”
When recruiting people to join the company, Lent likens Transact to a startup. In a way it is, having been acquired by Reverence Capital Partners from the educational technology company Blackboard in 2019. That startup feel is also created by students.”
They’re “are all about mobile, so the question is how to make products viable for the next decades,” he says. “The payoff is sometimes anti-climactic, in that students will naturally adopt the solution and ask, ‘What took so long?’”
While Transact continues to change how schools and students process and pay for fees, services and amenities, Lent says it’s also going through its own digital transformation.
Transact’s cloud migration is powered by Microsoft Azure because it’s powerful, affordable and “gets us from idea to solution faster than ever,” he says.
The cloud shift is a strategic step in preparation for schools’ similar migration path. Integrating systems in the cloud will provide a consolidated view of student information and activity. That real-time data access is a potential catalyst for the use of predictive analytics on campuses nationwide, Lent adds.
“Today, data comes from multiple, disconnected sources, so there is no way to correlate patterns, learn behaviors and make predictions,” he says. “With ERP in the cloud and integrations to payments and ID systems like Transact’s, institutions will be able to perform connected analyses not only to improve campus safety, but also to possibly create student profiles to assess drop-out risk and bolster retention.”
From campus to career
Born and raised in Colorado, Lent came east to attend Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in engineering in 1996.
With the engineering curriculum, he also studied economics, banking and finance, and was a captain of the football team. After graduating, Lent began his career as a co-founder of Transaction Service Providers. He helped secure the U.S. Small Business Administration loans and equity investments needed to start the payment processing company, and his alma mater contracted with it to manage on-campus payment card operation.
After selling the company to Student Advantage in 1999, Lent stayed on as its senior director. He then became a co-founder of CardSmith, which he says is the first cloud-based campus card payment provider. While he managed partner and supplier relationships, the company grew to serve more than 300 clients while processing 20 million transactions annually.
In 2014, CardSmith was sold to Blackboard, where Lent became senior director for product management and development. When Blackboard sold Transact in 2019, he moved on, too.
“It feels good to help our education system work better,” Lent says. “But it’s also about creating the next generation of leaders. If you serve that cause, you can feel really good about your work.”
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