INNOVATORS & ENTREPRENEURS: Edtech startup looks to fill gaps in student engagement

PEP Rally Founders
Nikki Patterson, left, and Sean Smith are the co-founders of the edtech startup P.E.P. Rally, which is participating in the inaugural Russell Technology Business Incubator. Their company’s app aims to improve student engagement while giving students direct access to critical resources.

As a youth services coordinator at Ballard High School, it’s Sean Smith’s job to remove barriers that impact learning by connecting students with needed resources.

But when the coronavirus pandemic hit last year, he lost that face-to-face time with students that had been critical in identifying the issues they were struggling with. Fortunately, the school system gave students laptops and internet access, which enabled them to learn from home alongside their peers in a way that wasn’t possible prior to the crisis.

Smith said the newfound tech capabilities pushed him to pursue an idea for a smartphone app he had the year prior that would act as a resource hub, check on student’s mental health and wellness, and encourage engaged learning.

“I started thinking we could just remove these barriers and show the students where the answers to their problems are more directly, instead of having all of these different resources spread out throughout the school,” he said. “Instead of trying to separate school and technology — because they’re on their phones all day anyway — merge the two and have them work together to better the students’ lives and better their engagement in school.”

Nikki Patterson, Smith’s fiancee, was immediately on board with the idea. Patterson, the lead content curator for a boutique marketing agency, said they quickly recognized how expensive it is to hire a software developer to create the app and they were unsure of how to move forward.

That’s what led the couple to the Russell Tech Business Incubator, where they have had access to Kela Ivonye, an exited founder and business coach for the program, to steer their edtech startup, P.E.P. Rally, in the right direction.

“If RTBI didn’t exist, this would be just another idea on the cutting room floor,” Smith said. “Without this program, we would not be anywhere near where we’re at with this. It’s been a huge blessing.”

With a business plan in place, P.E.P. Rally’s next steps is to raise funds for app development. Patterson said they will be looking to raise $150,000 to $200,000, and in the meantime, Smith’s school, Ballard, has already agreed to be a test site for the platform.

Here’s more from Smith and Patterson in the Q&A below:

Who has been one of your top mentors? Why?

Kela Ivonye has been our biggest mentor without a doubt. In the very beginning, all we had was an idea we thought was pretty good. Kela’s enthusiasm and knowledge of having created other technology-based businesses has really helped to steady our course of action.

Do you think there’s an advantage to launching a company in Louisville? Why or why not?

Sean: We have the benefit of being Louisville natives and have a number of connections and resources in the city as a byproduct. Also, I’ve been working in Jefferson County Public Schools (Louisville Public Schools) for 10 years. So, when it’s time to put our app into schools, I have great resources inside the school system that can help us scale. Bigger cities may have the technology and capital to make an idea come to life faster, but connections within our close-knit city will allow us to stand out with community support.

What is the biggest challenge you’re facing in growing P.E.P. Rally?

Nikki: Our biggest challenge in growing P.E.P Rally has been navigating the wonderful world of raising capital. When we initially set out to bring our idea to life, we were very naive and underestimated the amount of seed capital needed just to initiate the process of bringing our business to life.

What’s it like starting a company with your significant other? Fun? Tough? Somewhere in between?

Sean: I think it’s somewhere in between and similar to the work-from-home issue many people faced during Covid. Sometimes it’s nice because we don’t have to wait to bounce an idea off of each other but other times it’s tough because home is also our workplace and our business partner is the person who forgot to take out the trash. We try to be intentional about having time to talk about starting a business and time when we are talking about what we are eating for dinner but there is a lot of blending in conversations.

How do you plan to keep students engaged with the P.E.P. Rally platform?

We want to be clear that the platform is a way for schools to better engage with students throughout the day and not something to compete with students’ attention. With that being said, we believe that students will be engaged from the gamification in receiving points through daily activities and trying to keep up with their circle of friends’ positive activities. We want to make student life at school more accessible and interactive so that they can experience new levels of success and feel supported.

Where do you want to see P.E.P. Rally in five years?

We believe that P.E.P. Rally will be used in all 50 states and available on the global market in five years.

Is P.E.P. an acronym for something? If so, what does it stand for?

Yes! Well we originally thought, “What is a fun time in high school that really embodies the best of the school community?” and we decided that it was pep rally day. It was exciting and it involved the full school community.

The more we worked on it we felt that we wanted to see students as People and really invest in them. We wanted to create better Equity for students with our platform. Most importantly, we wanted to bring the school community into the technology age and Progress from the old way.

By Haley Cawthon  –  Reporter, Louisville Business FirstAug 9, 2021 –

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