Karima Bouchenafa couldn’t believe what things had come to at Central High School, where she was a member of the class of 1990.
Bouchenafa, a longtime English professor at a handful of local colleges, wanted to do something. So she teamed up with Azeb Kinder, a fellow educator who had graduated from Girls High a few years after her. Kinder, 40, and Bouchenafa, 42, both of East Mt. Airy, found their opportunity when they learned about the Milken-Penn Graduate School of Education Business Plan Competition.
Their idea: a virtual guidance counselor app. They called it 21st Century Brilliance.
In the end, the duo didn’t win, but thanks to the competition and its companion business incubator, they’re now fully-fledged entrepreneurs. Bouchenafa and Kinder run a consulting company that’s focused on parental engagement — they recently signed their first contract — and they’re also working on their next venture: a social engagement platform for parents that they plan to market to cyber schools.
It starts, like many entrepreneurial stories, with scrapping an idea.
Bouchenafa and Kinder had joined the Education Design Studio, Inc., Penn’s edtech incubator, last summer. All the finalists and semi-finalists of the Business Plan Competition applicants were invited to join the incubator, and the pair was one of nine companies that met monthly for six months to participate in weekend-long startup training sessions. They’d meet at Kensington’s Oxford Mills affordable housing complex.
During the program, incubator manager Sarah Qiao helped with market research. That’s how 21st Century Brilliance found out that there was another virtual guidance counselor app out there that was further along and had more resources. That forced them to reassess. They asked themselves, what exactly was it that we wanted to accomplish?
The answer was empowerment. They wanted to build something that could empower students and parents to take control of their educational experience. That’s how they landed on parental engagement. Their hunch was buoyed by Mastery Charter cofounder Thomas Webster, who came to speak to the EDSi cohort.
“He said, ‘If you can figure out parent engagement, that’s it. That’s the thing,'” Bouchenafa said during a recent interview at Oxford Mills.
So 21st Century Brilliance dropped the guidance counselor app — and the tech angle — and set to work on building a company that could help schools increase parental engagement.
“I guess they would call it iterating,” Bouchenafa said with a laugh — she was new to the language of the startup world. “The pivoting, the shimmying, all that.”
All the while, Bouchenafa and Kinder worked their day jobs. They realized they didn’t look like your average startup entrepreneur but neither did a lot of the EDSi cohort, and that inspired them. There was a broad range of ages, races and experience levels represented at the incubator, Bouchenafa said.
“We’d give each other the wink, like, ‘We’re over 40 and we’re doing startups,'” she said.
The reality, she said, is “we’re not willing to live in our parents’ basements.”
“We’re going to do this part time because we have mortgages.”
When the incubator ended earlier this year, Bouchenafa and Kinder were focused on their consulting company. (They opted not to take an EDSi investment in exchange for equity. It wasn’t the right fit for either party, Bouchenafa said.)
But one of their mentors, Kevin Williams of Drexel’s Dornsife Center, encouraged them to tackle the problem of parental engagement with a product, one that could was scalable and could touch more families than a consulting company. They were game.
They recruited a Chief Technology Officer, Mike Lecke, who went to Central High School with Bouchenafa, and have been working to build the platform, while running their consulting company and holding down part-time day jobs.
Bouchenafa largely credits EDSi in turning her into an entrepreneur.
While she ran her own writing and editing business for a time, she said that back then, she didn’t feel like an entrepreneur the way she does now.
EDSi “really made us take ourselves seriously,” she said.
She has more companies in her future, too.
“I don’t think this is the only business I’ll run,” she said. “I have other ideas.”
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