By Jamal Merritt
Last month, six companies competed at the quarterfinal round of the Across Boundaries Early-Ed/K-12 pitch competition. The winning prize – a chance to pitch at the Across Boundaries Conference in late January 2019 where 1500+ educators, investors, and entrepreneurs will be in attendance – is an amazing opportunity for any emerging startup.
Six judges with deep expertise in the world of education technology, including names like Jess McLear from the Launchpad Venture Group and Adam Chase from Curriculum Associates, came together to decide the two winners from the group. The event was held at the headquarters of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, an educational and trade publisher located in downtown Boston.
The two winners of the event were GAB-on!, a mobile platform that harnesses parent engagement and cultivates students’ social and emotional learning through conversation, and Schola, an online platform that matches students with their ideal schools.
The judges deliberated for nearly a half hour and carefully selected the winners based on a number of different factors. We had a chance to talk with the founders of the two winning startups, Sylvia and Jarrid Hall from GAB-on!, and Jaime Martinez from Schola. Read below to find out more about their experience during the pitch competition, how they plan to prepare for the upcoming conference in 2019, and the next steps for their emerging startups.
How did your company get started? Where did the idea originate?
SYLVIA H. A couple of years ago, Jarrid and I were surprised to discover that the number one predictor of academic achievement for a child is how engaged the parents are in their education. Our situation is a little unique – our son learns differently due to executive function challenges and our daughter is a typical learner. Our kids are the inspiration behind GAB-on! so it has a mission we’re very passionate about and it has grown organically.
Since our son was two years old, we have been working very closely with his teachers, educators, and neurologists on how he best learns and how we can help him succeed on his education journey. In typical fashion, when we would ask him about his day or what he did at school – questions I’m sure your parents asked you every day – the answer was always “fine” and “nothing”. We heard that every day from both of our kids.
Jarrid met with our son’s teacher to ask specifically why he couldn’t ever remember his day. What she said to Jarrid was, that “asking our son to remember his day is like asking a blind person to look harder”. He had a working memory problem and neurologically could not remember his day. We knew this, but it solidified that we needed to help him remember his day because reflective learning is key to helping a child absorb information and communication is an essential life skill. For our daughter, there is so much that goes on in a child’s school day, similar to your workday, that when kids come home they are tired and unsure of where to start connecting all the bits and pieces of it.
JARRID H. We were faced with a neurological memory challenge and a “how do you tell a story or know where to start” challenge. We explored what was available to help connect a child’s school day to home, but everything was communication between the teacher/school to the parent. We really wanted to get our kids talking: their context, their perspectives, and what they were feeling and seeing through their day. We came up with the idea of student-driven communication – where the student leads and manages the platform by creating content, reminders of their day, to share with the teacher who then publishes it to the parents. We built the platform with educators, parents, and students to ensure we meet the needs of all stakeholders.
JAIME M. At Schola, we help families find and enroll in the ideal schools for their kids from preschool to high school. For the schools, we have created a free online enrollment platform which includes a basic CRM and features our proprietary software that helps them enhance their recruitment and enrollment efforts. Our unique software matches students with the ideal schools and gives schools the ability to identify and connect directly with parents.
I have been in education for about 10 years. It started when I joined Teach For America and became a teacher through that organization. My background with data and marketing gave me a unique perspective into my students, their abilities and their gaps in education. My passion to help students find the ideal school fit was sparked when as a first-year teacher realized that it was impossible to truly individualize a standardized curriculum for students that had diverse abilities, needs, and interests. After being a teacher, master teacher and administrator I was asked to open up my own school. While working on my charter application I was placed as the marketing director for a Charter Management Organization (CMO) and as the marketing director helped them open new school sites, and recruit students for schools with low student enrollment. After a few years, I was recruited by another CMO, helped them expand and soon after was recruited into a national educational consulting group in which my specialty was helping schools understand (through data analysis) why they were losing students, what they had to do to recruit more students and how to establish internal structures to expand their networks. What many people don’t understand is that schools are funded based on a per-pupil basis which means that if schools don’t meet their enrollment goals, then they’re not meeting their budgets.
Helping schools nationally led me to understand three things 1. Low student enrollment is a huge concern for schools nationally and globally 2. Schools (public and private) are spending an average of $500 to recruit a single student, and 3. Parents are confused about where to send their kids due to the increase in school choice. My unique insights and solutions evolved from a consulting agency to a double-sided marketplace thanks to the support and guidance of many mentors from SEED SPOT a social-impact incubator, and the LearnLaunch Accelerator program.
How did you prepare for the Across Boundaries Pitch Competition Quarter Finals?
SYLVIA H. We had so many anecdotes from people who use GAB-on!, our own experience, and teachers’ input. The big hurdle was how do we condense what we do, why we do it, and the impact to only five minutes. Fortunately, we had just graduated MassChallenge and had been presenting and talking a lot about GAB-on!. In addition, we have been working with amazing mentors who add invaluable insight, perspective, and experience on how to best present GAB-on! so that it’s meaningful to our audience.
JAIME M. Lots and lots of practice. I’ve been talking about Schola at competitions and conferences for the last two years. This isn’t something that just came together within a day or two, it’s something that I’ve continually practiced and got better at over time. The better that you understand the business and what it is that you do, the better the pitch becomes.
Did anything surprise you during your experience? What interesting questions or comments stood out to you?
SYLVIA H. What was really interesting was that one of the judges was immediately engaged on the point of parent engagement. Afterwards he mentioned to us that it was something he believes in very strongly which continues to validate our mission. We’re parents working closely with educators, neurologists, and researchers to ensure we impact student outcomes. LearnLaunch is an established leader in the industry – to have this level of support is tremendous. During our pitch, another one of the judges was nodding their head vigorously – that kind of validation continues to motivate us.
JARRID H. All the presenters gave amazing pitches and polished ideas that night. Being chosen to present at the Across Boundaries Conference assures us that we’re on the right path. The judges, the participants and the audience were so engaged and so focused on helping kids grow, learn, and evolve – it was really great. It’s so encouraging to see such a collaborative environment.
JAIME M. Something that I often find interesting is how many people don’t understand how big this space is. There were people in the audience and in the panel who were parents and had the exact problem that Schola is solving but they just weren’t aware of it.
What were the benefits you gained from competing in this pitch competition?
SYLVIA H. We were offered time with each of the judges for feedback and direction on not only the pitch but also the business itself and how we can best make an impact. LearnLaunch brings together exactly who our audience is: educators who are looking to make a difference in the lives of their students. When we talk to educators and people in the education space, we can better understand what teachers need, what students need, and the importance of parent engagement. When I bring that up, they just ‘get’ what we’re doing because we’re talking to the right people.
JAIME M. Doing this pitch competition specifically has helped me connect with more people and touch base with folks that I haven’t seen in a while. It gave me the platform to update people on where we are as a company in our lifecycle. I really appreciate the opportunity of meeting the other people who pitched that night. It was really interesting to see all of the ideas that were coming about. It was interesting to see the judges’ feedback and how they approached things from a different perspective.
What will you be doing to prepare in between now and the Across Boundaries Conference in February 2019?
SYLVIA H. We are eager to continue our work with LearnLaunch on finessing our pitch but also on our impact and growth of the business. We will also consult with our advisory board of teachers, researchers, principals, and parents. We have a lot of people with deep experience that can help us craft a story that will be relevant to the audience. We have stories from our own usage and testimonials of other families and educators. Our next challenge is: How do we craft a story that talks best to what we’re doing and why?
JAIME M. Traction and Investment. The plan from now until the competition is to continue to generate as much traction as we can. In addition to traction, we’re going to be talking to potential investors for a small capital infusion in order to be ready for the 2019 selling season which starts in January.
What are the next steps for you and your business?
JARRID H. The past year we’ve piloted in schools, impacted 300+ families across 3 states, graduated MassChallenge, and are on target to launch our new platform that we can deploy at scale. We are also focusing on research, communicating to families the impact of parent engagement, and adding features in our technology to motivate consistent use. The power of conversation can’t be understated, and it needs to be talked about.
JAIME M. Within the next few years, we plan to aggressively scale nationally. The current plan for 2019 is that by late spring we will be in five additional markets and by the end of the year will reach $1M in ARR. I would also like to start gauging interest for our series A in the fall of next year.
What is your relationship with LearnLaunch?
SYLVIA. H. We were introduced to LearnLaunch last summer and participated in their Summer Showcase. That showcase andone-minutee pitch event was a fantastic first impression of LearnLaunch. We’ve had an ongoing dialogue with them since last summer and plan to continue moving forward. LearnLaunch helps us connect with the education community, communicate our mission clearly, and get our message out. They have a network of experts that we are really looking forward to working with.
JAIME M. 2017 LL Alumni
Schola and GAB-on! Will be among the companies pitching at the Across Boundaries Conference on January 31-February 1, 2019. To learn more and register for the conference, click here.
Jamal Merritt is an intern at LearnLaunch