Pro:Up Aims to Connect Kids to Life-Changing Career Opportunities

When Pro:Up CEO Justine Sheu and her co-founders were working as college guidance counselors in the troubled Detroit Public School system, they noticed how crippling the perceived lack of opportunities could be to the students they worked with. Kids from low-income families or ones that hadn’t yet sent a member to college seemed especially underexposed to the kinds of programs and internships that could help smooth their path to higher learning.

“Getting them the right career information can totally change their trajectory, but there’s only one counselor for approximately 700 students,” Sheu explained.

So Sheu, along with co-founders Justin Cook and Myles Morgan, decided to launch a startup with the goal of delivering career information to high school students through a free, easy-to-digest private social network and accompanying app. Pro:Up helps connect users to summer programs, classes, and internships, and it can send customized text or email notifications based on the student’s skills and interests. Pro:Up also allows users to share, like, and apply for the various programs it connects students to.

“Unlike a lot of online aggregators, we’re focused exclusively on the high school market,” Sheu said. “Pro:Up has a wider range of opportunities—educational enrichment, mentoring, summer programs—and we approach student development from a broader perspective.”

Pro:Up’s philosophy involves meeting students where they already are, hence the text messages and social networking. Sheu said today’s youth have little use for the static databases of the past. “Our secret sauce is our app’s functionality and design,” she said. “It maximizes student engagement while looking simple and cool. People say it looks like a fashion site, and that’s good—that’s what we want.”

Students can use Pro:Up to create an academic profile with basic information, such as the school they attend and future goals. They can select from a long list of potential career interests and click for definitions if they don’t know what a word means. There’s also a career assessment tool where students pick what kinds of programs they want to learn more about. Finally, they input the maximum distance they’re able to travel to participate in enrichment programs. Once that information is uploaded, users are taken to a dashboard with a list of current opportunities related to their interests.

“People say it’s easy and they’re able to set it up on their own,” Sheu said, contrasting Pro:Up with the current system most of Michigan’s career counselors use, called Career Cruising. “We had to force students to get on once a year. We realized we needed something more engaging, so we made it cooler and simpler. The text messaging piece was really big.”

Every time a new opportunity is added to Pro:Up that matches a student’s interests, Sheu said, they get a text message with details. From there, they can comment, like, apply, share, or pose questions to program organizers, who post their own listings. Sheu said Pro:Up relied heavily on student feedback during its development process.

“We learned to listen to the market and our users,” she said, adding that the Pro:Up team interviewed more than 120 students, teachers, and parents before building the website. “It doesn’t matter how great your product is if nobody uses it. I think our site is popular because we listened.”

Pro:Up got its start in the DTX Launch program at TechTown Detroit in 2014. “That was the first time we ever spelled out our business model,” she recalled. “Before that, we were just idealistic teachers.”

Thanks in part to the mentorship of TechTown executive-in-residence Gerry Roston, who is alsoserving as Pro:Up’s interim chief technical officer, the company has attracted the attention of local and national media. Forbes covered the Detroit-based startup a few weeks ago, and the company was also highlighted earlier this month in a Channel 7 (WXYZ-TV) broadcast. In addition, Pro:Up has won a total of $55,000 through local grants and a number of competitions, including TechTown’s business acceleration fund, the Macomb Innovation Fund, the Michigan Women’s Foundation, and the Mobileys, a national contest for mobile and Web apps, where it placed third.

“Without the generous support of the ecosystem here, we wouldn’t have been able to fund the beta site,” Sheu said. The company hopes to raise additional capital later this year to hire a marketing executive and expand Pro:Up outside of Southeast Michigan. So far, the site has more than 1,000 student users based in and around Detroit.

Pro:Up recently met with a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) foundation in St. Louis, MO, that is interested in a customized version of Pro:Up, and Sheu thinks these kinds of partnerships will eventually help the company scale.

“They contacted us because they wanted to catalog STEM opportunities, but they didn’t want to reinvent the wheel,” she said. “We went there and saw it was very similar to Detroit—a struggling school system with horrible segregation. Our tool can help kids get out of that cycle.”

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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