A former Muscogee County School District student and her business partner have won $100,000 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, supporting their entrepreneurial effort to improve college graduation rates.
Asha Owens, a 2012 graduate of Columbus High School, is chief executive officer of BestFit Inc., which is trying to launch an app that will help students and colleges find their best fit — and that will be profitable enough for this venture to become her full-time job.
Owens is a double Ivy Leaguer, earning a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience from Brown University in 2016 and a master’s degree in instructional technology and media in 2018 from Columbia University. She lives in New York City and works as a product engineer for Story2, which uses the neuroscience of storytelling and its online EssayBuilder toolkit to help students gain admission to the colleges of their choice.
And the mission of BestFit is similar but targets a more specific population: helping low-income, underrepresented and first-generation college students find institutions from which they will graduate, Owens told the Ledger-Enquirer in a phone interview Friday.
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The BestFit app will be free for users. It will have videos of college students explaining the benefits and challenges of attending their institution. Through licensing fees, colleges will be able to use the app to better connect with students that might be difficult to reach, Owens said.
The idea for BestFit was born last fall, when Owens met the fellow student who became her business partner, Rebecca Kwee, after they separately signed up for the Columbia Teachers College inaugural EdTech Innovation Award contest. They agreed to work together on a project addressing the phenomenon known as “summer melt,” when as many as one-third of students accepted into college don’t enroll, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
“We took a step back and asked, ‘What’s the bigger issue?’ A lot of research focuses on access, but we felt not enough emphasis is on completion,” Owens said.
Research shows that 74 percent of low-income, underrepresented or first-generation college students don’t graduate, Owens said. She added, “You’re clearly qualified to be there, but why aren’t you finishing?”
Through months of research and interviewing students and college officials, Owens and Kwee created the BestFit concept and won the EdTech Innovation Award’s $1,000 grand prize, plus $1,000 in Amazon Web Services credits.
BestFit describes how the app works like this:
▪ Students create an online profile based on their needs and interests.
▪ BestFit recommends a range of content and colleges.
▪ Students build their knowledge and are guided toward next steps.
▪ Meanwhile, colleges use BestFit to expand their prospective student outreach.
After testing the prototype, BestFit became a finalist in the Pitch Black: The Future is Female competition at SXSW in Austin, Texas. Among their other awards, Owens and Kwee received $10,000 from the 4.0 Schools Tiny Fellowship.
BestFit was among the four grand prize winners out of more than 70 entries from around the country in the New York University Social Entrepreneurship Progam’s “Algorithm for Change” competition . A panel of judges selected three finalists in each category through two rounds of written proposals. Then, on July 12 at NYU, the finalists had 5 minutes to make their pitch to the judges, who questioned them for 10 minutes. The winners were announced on stage that evening.
When she heard BestFit had won, Owens said, “My heart stopped and then started beating really fast. … It was really exciting and sort of surreal.”
Winning the Gates Foundation grant and the six months of professional mentoring, Owens said, “was huge for us. … It really validated that people believe in what we’re doing, that there’s a need for what we’re doing, that we’re on our way.”
Less than 20 high school students tested the prototype, but their response was encouraging, Owens said.
“One thing they really liked,” she said, “is hearing from current college students, and the feedback has really driven our product’s road map and what we’re hoping to achieve.”
Now, they are developing BestFit’s MVP (minimum viable product), scheduled to launch next month, so 500 to 1,000 invited students and several colleges can further test the app, Owens said. They will track their progress this school year.
“We want to figure out what features worked and what didn’t,” she said, “and how these students do, and are colleges engaging with students they wouldn’t normally be able to.”
If successful, they expect to publish their research. The plan is for BestFit, a for-profit social enterprise, to start generating revenue from college clients in late 2019, Owens said. They haven’t decided whether to accept advertising, she said.
As a black female, Owens is an underrepresented student, but her parents went to college and her family wasn’t low-income. So combined with her guidance counselor at Columbus High, she had plenty of support to conduct an effective college search without the help that BestFit promises to provide.
But she calls herself lucky.
“That’s the type of thing we’re trying to bring to students who don’t have those resources,” she said.
To contact BestFit, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.