Angie Eilers is the founder and CEO of UR Turn SBC, with the SBC meaning specific benefit corporation. It’s part of an emerging trend of businesses organized to make money for shareholders but serve a social mission, too. Based upon her experience in education and education policy, she knew kids still didn’t have what they really needed to chart their progress through school. Her solution was an electronic coach for academic progress, easily accessible on a smartphone. UR Turn, based in Minneapolis, got its start in 2016 with the first users in 2017.
Q: What is your business about?
A: UR Turn produces a goal-setting and progress-tracking application for middle- and high-school students and their families. We do with education data what apps like Mint.com do with banking data or what Fitbit does with your bath-scale data. Right now, students and parents get a lot of different data points like report cards and test scores, but what do those data points mean? What do they add up to? How does a student or their family know if the student is on track of graduating high school or being eligible for higher ed? UR Turn answers those questions for them.
This is never meant to replace the human touch. It’s a supplement by providing meaning and interpretation of data. For example, if you wear a Fitbit it shouldn’t preclude you from visiting with your doctor, but if you want to lose 10 pounds by the summer, your Fitbit will tell you that you need to walk more steps and get your heart rate up a bit.
Q: There is a lot of education technology available, so why is this needed?
A: There has been some reporting on this, but the student-to-counselor ratio in the U.S. is about 450 or 500 to one. In Minnesota, the latest figure I saw reported was 659 to one. At the same time, almost half the states in the U.S. have state legislation that calls for personalized learning plans for each and every student. Who could possibly create personalized plans for 500 students? And who tracks that and how?
As we saw in last month’s big news on the bribery scandals and selective colleges, [wealthier] families have access to private college counselors — and obviously other tools — that can provide them personal guidance. UR Turn is an effort to affordably make a decision-support software tool available to all students and families in districts that purchase it. So we are making an argument for equal opportunity to understand and access data on a personal basis. Besides, we like to think that we can unburden busy counselors from data so they can get back to the job of human connections with students around their mental health needs and other anxieties besides college and career readiness.
The difference between us and something like Fitbit is that the schools see this same visualized data on their own customized dashboard — just as if your Fitbit data was now visible to your doctor.
Q: How is the business organized?
A: I founded the company as a result of winning a National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research award as well as funding from a program-related investment (PRI) — both of which are non-dilutive [to shareholders]. However, we have also received more traditional funding from angel investors in the form of convertible notes.
While the company is registered as a C-corp, we also sought out the designation as a specific benefit corporation (SBC) because we are a mission-based organization — meaning our mission or impact is equal to or of greater priority than the shareholders’ interests. Our mission is to get more students to graduate high school on time and to show them a viable pathway for eligibility for a two-year or four-year degree.
Most corporations have a stated mission, but our mission holds us to a higher standard than profit to shareholders. For benefit corporations, the socially conscious purpose is as much an interest to the shareholders as it is to our company. Theoretically, this protects a company from shareholder litigation if a company makes a decision based on higher ideals rather than pursuit of near-term profits.
Q: Why was this important rather than as a nonprofit?
A: It takes a lot of capital to create a scalable and replicable solution that reaches across the U.S. [and possibly beyond our borders]. At the same time, we’re a benefit corporation because we want to attract investors who value the double bottom line: making a return on their investment while also trying to address some of our education attainment challenges. As a specific benefit corporation, we also want our customers to know we are a value-based company. A benefit corporation puts a stake in the ground that they are committed to a socially conscious objective that goes well beyond profit.