College: 3 High School Students, 1 Crucial Decision

Hi everyone! I’m Vivian Auduong, a 17 year-old high school student attending Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago, and I’m excited to be a part of team InReach. I’m writing this to tell our story and process.

InReach started at a startup weekend, specifically, Startup Weekend EDU. In case you haven’t heard about a startup weekend, they’re amazing events that unite people with all sorts of skills and perspectives to pitch an idea, gather a team, conduct customer validation, and develop a product in 54 hours! The event we attended, SWEDU, is a type of startup weekend that focuses on education. Because of our school’s performance in national Capture the Flag (CTF) competitions, computer science students Patrick Gallagher, Joshua Sanchez, and I were invited to SWEDU to share our student perspectives.

When we walked in, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. We started with an icebreaker and were also told to think about pitch ideas. Originally, the three of us didn’t have any idea of what to pitch! Luckily, Nicki Anselmo prodded us to get thinking: “You guys are the ones still in school. You have a way better idea of the problems in education than everyone else here.” As a result, we started talking about things that bothered us about school. Our original ideas were things that we couldn’t really fix, like climbing too many stairs, having too much homework, or the walls between classrooms being too thin.

Eventually, we stumbled upon the problem that all of us felt: college applications. Josh was a senior who had recently finished the process. Meanwhile, Patrick and I, both juniors, were growing increasingly worried as our time was soon approaching. Early in the year, I had noticed how the seniors in my classes were completely drained from filling out college applications. Regular discussions consisted of how many hours they spent on essays, how much money they were paying for these applications, and how worried they were that they wouldn’t be happy with where they would spend the next four years. The atmosphere affected all of us. In particular, our mentor in the writing center, Ms. Pasulka, was swamped every period as students sought her advice on their college essays.

College is a huge decision, and everyone is aware of that. We’re told to do lots of research on colleges, and colleges send us massive amounts of letters, cards, and emails in order to promote themselves. However, from all the responses of “I don’t know” each time the subject of college is brought up, something that none of us really understand is what to do with that information. I personally felt overwhelmed every time I thought about the process, especially since neither of my parents had attended a 4-year college.

Vivian overwhelmed with college mailers

Something specifically challenging is deciding what college to apply to. For one, it’s hard to find out information from a college mailing when all of the information is overwhelmingly positive and superficial. Some options to get to know a college better are through college visits, or talking to someone who attends. However, not everyone has the resources to do so. As a result, we thought it’d be a great idea to provide a service where high school students could get to know colleges better through being matched to college students.

Drawing connections to a dating site that created matches, we affectionately named it “EduHarmony”, and Patrick got in line to pitch the idea. We were given one minute to present our problem, solution, and the skills we were looking for in a team. The fast-paced pitching style was contagious and encouraged everyone to think of and pitch new ideas!

Patrick pitching EduHarmony

After the pitches, we went through rounds of voting to select the the top few of the many that had pitched. To our surprise, EduHarmony was one of the ideas with the most votes! What followed was a frenzy of people approaching us to ask us more about our idea and offer their skills to be a part of our team. SWEDU called this “organic team formation”, and it certainly seemed that way as clumps formed in the crowd. This led to some disbalance, as some teams were missing developers, designers, educators, students, or business people. They even tried to recruit us from our own team! However, at the end of the team formation, we had a fabulous team.

The InReach team. From left to right: top row — Jamie, Michel, Vivian, Patrick. Bottom row — Josh, Zach, Molly, Angela, Natasha

At the end of the night, we quickly exchanged phone numbers and created a slack channel to collaborate. We went around the table and introduced ourselves and what we could bring to the team. This was a confusing time. For one, there was a lot of skepticism towards the effectiveness of the idea. All of us had questions about who the product would benefit, if it would be sustainable, and whether or not we would be a non-profit organization. Another point was that it was nearing 10 pm, and 1871 was reminding us every few minutes that we had to leave. Finally, thankfully Angie told us that what we really needed was a business model canvas. With that, we dispersed into the rainy evening in order to get a good night’s rest.

The following day, we launched into activity. Angie arrived early and secured us the spacious conference room. Mentors in education came to talk to us, giving us a better idea of the validity of the product. As a result, throughout the day, we were able to better answer the questions that we had the night before. We also dove into customer validation. Natasha and Jamie dug into their networks, contacting high school students and college students who were former alumni. By matching them together, we were able to test our Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and decide if creating these matches was valuable. Angie and Michael wrote out assumptions and risks of our product, as well as addressing what features each of the types of users would be using. Molly started designing the wire frames and logo that the customers would be using. Meanwhile, Zach, Patrick, and Josh began developing the demo of the product.

A recurring problem during that weekend was a lack of time. That night, some members of the team stayed until 2AM to keep working on the project! This is our migrated team after the SWEDU people told us to go home.

By the end of the weekend, we were able to see how the product could benefit high school students in their college search, college students by providing a voice, colleges by providing another avenue to reach students, college counselors in providing students with resources, and local businesses through promotion. We also decided that EduHarmony needed a name change, as parents would definitely not approve of their high school students using a product with dating site connotations. From EduHarmony, we tossed around names like TassleChat and ChatVersity (Thanks Jamie!) before settling on InReach, the name that it goes by today.

We prepped our final presentation until the last minute on Sunday. We saw how our idea had a lot of potential to continue developing, and our demo worked and looked great! Our pitch deck was coming together nicely, and Angie coached Patrick on improving his presentation. For some reason, I decided to save my college letters, and I got the idea to dump my bags of college mail to demonstrate the severity of the problem.

Twitter and #maildrop, which the judges loved!
We won the NBC Open Possibilities Award!

We ended up winning the NBC Open Possibilities Award, meaning that a few of us will attend SXSW EDU next year. In addition, some people from the Lean Lab fellowship were there to talk about how their fellowship program for startups in education. The idea of an incubator is still somewhat new to me, but I think it’s basically a place where new startups can get resources and mentors to continue developing. We applied to the fellowship and were accepted two weeks ago! Angie, Jamie, and Zach are in Kansas City for a month to continue developing the idea. I’m excited to continue working on my development and design skills and to contribute to the team. In addition, the Common Application just opened up, which means that I’ll have a lot to talk about regarding my own college search. It’ll be exciting to see how students will “get InReach” in the future!