SIPA Class of 2018 alumni Niara Valério and Rahel Tekola (pictured above in the graduation caps) are co-founders of the ed-tech startup, Learnabi. We’re excited to feature their journey from SIPA to startup.
Tell us about your startup, Learnabi.
Niara: We are an NYC-based ed tech company that wants to bring personalized learning to all schools across the U.S. Our approach to personalized learning is a holistic one, where we use data, tech, and engage with key stakeholders to develop individualized learning profiles for students. We provide students with engaging learning experiences that are tailored to their individual needs, preferences and skill level.
Rahel: Our ideal world is one where all students have the resources to do well academically, but more importantly, for them to gain insight into themselves and their personal strengths so that they become lifelong learners. We brought our services to the Bronx initially because we saw a huge need for a personalized format to education, but we’ve discovered that our strategies are applicable to schools across the U.S.
What motivated you to enter the ed tech field?
Niara: I think part of it came from teaching SAT courses in the Bronx, and part from my own personal academic experience. I think most students require more than just time in the classroom to learn and absorb information and schools don’t always have the capacity to do that. The onus falls on the student, but studying and test-taking is a skill in itself, and I think many students don’t really understand how to do so effectively until they get to college. Learnabi was motivated by that. We asked ourselves, “How do we get students to develop these skills early on? How can we fill that gap?”
Rahel: I went to high school in Texas where I was fortunate enough to have access to programs that supported me throughout my journey as a student. However, after moving to NYC I realized that not every student has access to resources to support them and their unique needs in learning. Seeing what our initial impact, prior to starting Learnabi had in our partner school, made me realize that we can have a greater impact on students in NYC and beyond.
How did you balance being grad students and running the startup at the same time?
Niara: Honestly, I look back now and I really have no idea how we were able to pull it off. You end up sacrificing a lot, and it also feels like a huge risk because everyone around you is looking for full-time employment. I would spend all day working in the Bronx then I’d have about an hour to head down to SIPA for classes in the evening, and we were working on Saturdays at the time too. It’s not easy, and I don’t think I’d recommend it haha. But I also think we were lucky in that we didn’t leave jobs to do this full-time, so I think starting a business as a student gives you a safety net and cushion that you wouldn’t have otherwise.
Rahel: Most people in graduate school are juggling multiple priorities, and having a business while in school is a juggling act but a much bigger beast. Achieving balance is easier when you have a co-founder who is equally – if not more – dedicated to you and that was the case for me. You also become comfortable with saying no to things to achieve that balance. So, for example, Niara and I made a lot of sacrifices and said no to enticing opportunities that came up, so we could take that time to focus on Learnabi.
What’s the biggest challenge of running a startup?
Niara: You have to do everything and be everyone, especially when you are starting out and that’s tough. You’re doing marketing, finances, sales, it’s a lot and I think there is a huge risk of burn-out as a result. Rahel and I don’t go home after 5pm and not think about work — you’re always working on some level. So I think it’s really important to take breaks and do frequent check-ins with yourself. I think there is a trend with millennials these days where it’s become a badge of honor to be so busy that you have no time for anything or anyone. But I am really not a fan of this hustle culture we’ve created, I think finding balance is far more important and I try to do that as much as possible. Emphasis on try…
Rahel: Not comparing yourself or your startup to others! It’s easier said than done, but it is so important to remember this. As a founder you want to accomplish a lot of things for your venture to be successful, and we can get caught up in the idea of getting far and quickly. Comparing yourself/startup to others also plays into this notion. However, everyone’s journey looks different. Success is defined differently for each venture, so try not to get caught up in the vicious cycle. Niara and I take the time to surround ourselves with a supportive group of board of directors and advisors who cheer us on with each accomplishment and remind us often that setbacks are inevitable but achievable.
What do you wish you knew when you were first starting?
Niara: You can plan as much as you want but you will inevitably run into challenges you hadn’t thought of, so I think it’s important to stay flexible and open-minded.
Rahel: It’s encouraging to surround yourself with other entrepreneurs, not just those in your niche market. It serves as a reminder that you are not alone in this journey.