EmpowerU, a startup founded by Elvia Perez ’22 and Meera Kurup ’23, seeks to address educational disparities by providing first-generation college students still in high school with resources, all housed in one app, to navigate the college process.
The app will centralize resources for college scholarships, internships and other college programs, and offers opportunities for community-building among users.
The app is still in its developmental stages, and the founders are planning a launch for February or March 2022. EmpowerU is currently focused on serving local Providence with its services, with hopes to expand geographically in the future.
The idea for the app was born out of a combination of Perez’s personal experience as a first-generation, low-income student and her experience taking ENGN 0090: “Management of Industrial and Nonprofit Organizations” as a first-year with Professor Emeritus of Engineering Barrett Hazeltine.
“In my high school, we had over 500 students for one college counselor, and what ended up happening is that … we didn't know much about the college application process and if college was a feasible option,” Perez said.
In high school, Perez created a program similar to EmpowerU called Latino Empowerment, which she wanted to build on after coming to College Hill.
Upon Perez’s completion of ENGN 0090, Hazeltine suggested she do an independent study after she shared her idea for the app with him.
“Ultimately, he helped shape the company in the early stages,” Perez said.
She conducted bottom-up research in the community during the spring of her first year and spoke to high school students, counselors and teachers to better understand what the community was lacking in terms of secondary educational resources.
Perez was able to apply what she learned to create a better platform to help high school students. But she had to find a co-founder to help build the app. Perez and Kurup met through a mutual friend, but Perez said she had also noticed Kurup in one of her Zoom classes junior year.
“My friend connected us, and she thought (Kurup) would be an amazing fit. I also really admired how she articulated her thoughts (in class). We started messaging and having several interviews and that’s how I found out she was perfect for EmpowerU,” Perez said.
Kurup is studying computer science with “a secondary focus in entrepreneurship.” “My wheelhouse is mainly technology and CS, but a lot of what I did in high school was focused on finding opportunities for women in CS and I noticed the many educational disparities that people face,” Kurup said.
The two aim to create a platform that paints college as a feasible and accessible option for high schoolers who would be the first in their families to attend college. “Many (first-generation students) don’t see people from their own background or don’t see people in their community that have pursued opportunities,” Kurup said.
The app will have a feature that will allow older students to post their own first-generation college success stories, which the founders hope will encourage younger students.
“It’s oftentimes hard to strive for something you cannot see, and we really want to create the platform in which students can see other students like themselves succeeding,” Perez said.
Professor of Sociology Gregory Elliott discussed the trend of “imposter syndrome” that many first-generation college students face, especially at elite institutions. It is often difficult for first-generation students to strike a balance between staying connected with their roots and “at the same time (becoming) a very different person,” Elliott said.
Entrepreneurial platforms like EmpowerU must take this into consideration, he said, and should focus on more than just “social mobility” when it comes to broadening access to college.
The EmpowerU team, which now consists of seven students, is in the process of holding a pilot program in order to gain additional information to improve the platform. The pilot program consists of several 15- to 20-student focus groups that will give feedback on the app’s services. The goal is for 100 users to take part in the first pilot program, which allows the EmpowerU team to make sure that users are getting “personalized attention,” Perez said.
The first pilot program began two weeks ago and will continue for about three months. During that period, the founders will make necessary changes to the app in response to feedback.
“We want to make sure that we are implementing features that the students want to see (and) are ultimately going to be adding value to student’s lives,” Perez said.
The app’s target group is high school freshmen, sophomores and juniors who are considering applying to college and may be figuring out how to attain that goal.
“We do think it’s going to be more effective to target students in their early stages, when they’re still kind of developing their resume for college,” Perez said.
The team is currently focused on the Providence student community, allowing Perez and Kurup to conduct presentations and hold some focus group sessions in person.
In order to obtain funding for EmpowerU, Perez took part in various opportunities at Brown. She was a participant in Breakthrough Lab her sophomore year, an eight-week summer program for Brown and Rhode Island School of Design students to develop “high-impact ventures,” according to a description on the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship’s website. The program gives participants a stipend of $4,000, which Perez used for EmpowerU. Additionally, she participated in the Brown Venture Prize contest earlier this year and won third place, earning her a $10,000 grant.
“For me, (it’s) having the courage to really put yourself in these positions and knowing that at the end of the day, whether or not you win … it’s a huge benefit to have that experience,” Perez said.
The EmpowerU team hopes to eventually expand outside the state and impact communities across the nation.
“We just really want to make sure that we are catering our app toward the students’ needs,” Perez said.