2023 Most Disruptive MBA Startups: Project Read, Stanford Graduate School of Business

Project Read

Stanford Graduate School of Business

Website Link: www.projectread.ai

Industry: EdTech

Founding Student Name(s): Vivek Ramakrishnan

Brief Description of Solution: Project Read supports teachers in delivering high-quality literacy instruction aligned to evidence-based strategies. Our AI Reading Tutor listens at the phonemic level as students read stories out loud, provides real-time coaching, and generates subsequent stories based on their individual needs. At the end of each session, teachers get granular data on each student’s skills gaps and classroom trends. Our Decodable Stories Generator allows teachers to quickly generate stories aligned to the phonics skill they are teaching.

Funding Dollars: NA

What led you to launch this venture? Only 1 out of 3 fourth graders in the US can read proficiently. For low-income and Black and brown students, it’s closer to 1 out of 6. Prior to doing my MBA, I was a teacher and then founded and led a charter school in my hometown. In both of these roles, I saw the on-the-ground reality of those statistics, and it’s sobering.

Across the country, school systems have overhauled how they have taught reading for decades, instead implementing curriculum aligned to the Science of Reading. However, the challenges and switching costs for teachers are significant. Simultaneously, we know that 1-1 tutoring is the most effective method of instruction for any age and subject. To this point, it has is largely beyond the reach of low-income students and families.

We saw an opportunity with recent breakthroughs in AI to build a 1-1 tutor that serves as a teacher’s co-pilot for teaching reading more effectively, compatible with the curricula they’re now charged with implementing. We also went through schools and teachers because we did not want to build something that was reliant on a family’s ability to pay.

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with venture? We have had tens of thousands of teachers sign up in the three months since launch, all without paid advertising, meaning through referral and word-of-mouth. I also routinely get stories of students whose confidence and reading progress has blossomed with the AI Tutor.

What has been the most significant challenge you’ve faced in creating your company and how did you solve it? Designing a voice-based user experience for young students (think as early as Kindergarten!) who may not yet be able to read is very difficult. For example, early on, students struggled (or forgot) to start and stop the record button at the right time. So we built an automatic recorder that picks up when they start speaking and perceives when they have finished trying all the words on the page. We had some awesome pilot school partners over the summer; every day, I was on the ground with students as our engineers sprinted to test new features and fix user issues I saw in the classroom. That stretch was invaluable at such an early stage of product development.

How has your MBA program helped you further this startup venture? It’s through Stanford GSB that I met my cofounder, John Danner, a serial entrepreneur and former teacher who was a Distinguished Career Institute Fellow at Stanford the last year I was there. John pushed me as a non-technical person to take advantage of the other resources at Stanford, like CS courses, and get into the weeds of code as we built our MVP. Beyond that, it may be cliche to say, but Stanford exposed me to classmates with career backgrounds very different from my own and from whom I learned a ton. I also took a year off in the middle of my MBA, which also gave me the benefit of learning from my original class and their post-grad journeys too.

What founder or entrepreneur inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial journey? How did he or she prove motivational to you? My previous co-founder, Kaleem Caire, has been instrumental in my entrepreneurial journey. Kaleem leads with his heart and is fueled by a personal mission to bring opportunity to students who are typically short on it. And he will take the hard, non-consensus path to changing the status quo despite what’s put in front of him. He’s a big part of why I went to GSB and my journey into education to begin with.

Which MBA class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? Entrepreneurial Approaches to Education Reform was definitely the most relevant to Project Read. The class had a range of awesome guests, and was taught by Professor Gloria Lee, who has been spearheading innovation in public education in the US for a long time. It’s also where I met my cofounder, John!

What professor made a significant contribution to your plans and why? I’m grateful to many professors at the GSB, but Ginny Lee, Scott Brady, Chris Mahowald and Hugh Keelan are all top of mind for me. They have been supportive of me as an entrepreneur and Project Read, and just as a person outside of anything career-related.

How has your local startup ecosystem contributed to your venture’s development and success? n/a

What is your long-term goal with your startup? I want Project Read to change the game for millions of students through access to personalized instruction, regardless of their economic background. Literacy is the highest leverage tool we have for long-term mobility.

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