Meet Sofia Babool, a neuroscience graduate from UT Dallas. During the pandemic, when the education gap was widening severely, she decided to begin a virtual tutoring company designed to raise self-confidence within the classroom for K-12 students called Bright Owl.
Today, her interests in education, neuroscience, and entrepreneurship have taken their company to new heights. Specifically, they have over 73 virtual and physical tutors from around the USA, and over 80 students globally. Sofia’s interests in entrepreneurship range back to her freshman year of college when she and her friend decided to begin a college cookie delivery company on campus, all the way to a cashflow positive company today.
Currently, Sofia is enrolled in Harvard’s Extension School Program while working on her startup simultaneously. In her free time, she loves to go hiking, spend time with family and friends, and listen to Bollywood music.
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Table of Contents
We are thrilled to have you join us today, welcome to ValiantCEO Magazine’s exclusive interview! Let’s start off with a little introduction. Tell our readers a bit about yourself and your company.
Sofia Babool: After listening to various Forbes entrepreneurial podcasts, I wake up each morning with one question on my lips, “How do I want to show up to the world today?” Although a deceptively simple question, it helps me recenter and verbalize my focus for the entire day. Ever since beginning a company in August 2021, I choose to hustle over my vision- erasing educational inequity, one child at a time.
When I first entered university, I was on the pre-medical track, zoning into “General Chemistry” and “Cognitive Neuroscience” without looking in my peripheral vision at other fields that were calling out to me. In my effort to ensure I was successful in my hardcore science classes, fields like business, entrepreneurship, finance, and marketing were unbeknownst to me. This past August, I received admission into medical school, allowing me to then take a moment to open my eyes to the additional social issues around me. The pandemic birthed a plethora of problems, such as healthcare inequity; however, one of which was educational inequity due to the full switch from physical to virtual learning.
As I struggled to accept the vast financial burden and widening academic gap that I saw on the news and read through articles, I decided to perform qualitative research at my Mosque and local community to see how many students were struggling with the platform switch. As I pored over the problem and realized that virtual tutoring would hit a niche target market, I had a moment of doubt.
I wasn’t qualified to run an operation- what skills did I possess that made me believe I could do this? My entire college career had lived in the pages of my biology book and now I had entered the entirely new ballgame of business? But then again, I had seen the effect of financial burdens through my experience at various youth camps and knew I needed to make a change. The chance to change the stigma of tutoring from a symbol of academic weakness to a sign of academic responsibility and bravery was in front me. If I didn’t change it, who would? I decided to jump in.
According to the University of Michigan, “one of the bigger studies, conducted by consulting group McKinsey & Company, found that students, on average, could be behind by up to nine months in math, for example. For students of color, it increased to 12 months.” According to various sources, students were not only months behind when it came to academic learning during COVID, but very few families could afford the high prices of physical, in-person tutoring.
Bright Owl, the company I then began, is a virtual tutoring company dedicated to providing families with affordable and equitable education over Zoom. At Bright Owl, we provide each student with a free, online diagnostic assessment that assesses their current academic plans and devises an academic recommendation. Today, I wake up to a company of over 80 students and 72 tutors.
Bright Owl is a virtual tutoring company, designed to assist students with homework help, test preparation and college advising for students in grades KG-12. Since August, we have grown to touch the lives of students in Texas, Florida, Canada, California, Pakistan, and Oklahoma. (www.bright-owl.com)
However, above all else, the core of who we are and what we do is service-centered. After growing up in Dallas my whole life and witnessing the educational resources bestowed to me, I have a yearning to give back to the education system that has provided me with such great opportunities to thrive. As a college student, I know I have much to learn, barely touching the surface of what entrepreneurship has to offer; however, I am ready and willing to learn about the challenges of starting a business, common pitfalls, and how to maintain our competitive advantage.
In the future, I hope to target the disadvantaged communities in Dallas, never stopping towards my goal of erasing educational inequity. The poverty level in Dallas is at a 18.9% according to the Census Bureau. With Bright Owl, I have the chance to place a dent in that cycle and spread virtual, affordable education across borders, touching the lives of all those I see.
I am motivated by the potential opportunity that lies at the intersection of education, technology, and service. As a neuroscience major and businesswoman, I live on the cusp of this intersection, ensuring that I play a role with the skills I have to provide accessible education to those around me.
The development of the next generation, when they are in grades KG-12, is incredibly influential on their long-term growth potential. To have the privilege and honor to make an impact on the next generation and the movements they begin, motivates me each day.
2021 and 2022 threw a lot of curve balls into business on a global scale. Based on the experience gleaned in the past couple years, how can businesses thrive in 2023? What lessons have you learned?
Sofia Babool: I believe that businesses can thrive in 2023 by being highly aware of current trends and evolving in response to new challenges. To me, the world and its challenges seem to oscillate and flux constantly, so being open about various new strategies and frequently learning about more efficient business practices is how I think companies can stay consistently engaged with their audience and its needs.
As the founder of a virtual/physical tutoring company, I’ve also learned to ensure that each customer relationship is one that needs to be approached in a human-centric way, rather than with a transactional mindset. Engaging in communication with a sense of empathy is, I believe, the most genuine way to ensure that relationships are sustainable and trustworthy.
The pandemic altered the social-emotional health of many people, including the youth of our society. Being attuned to their needs and providing support preemptively is how I believe we can take “being there for others” to a whole new level.
The pandemic seems to keep on disrupting the economy, what should businesses focus on in 2023? What advice would you share?
Sofia Babool: I think the pandemic, while negatively impacting the lives of many people around the world, also carried with it an era of exponential technological experimentation. To have medical school classes completed online or to have organic chemistry labs completed through virtual simulations were transitions that were never mainstream; the pandemic has shown us what is possible through the virtual realm so my advice to businesses moving forward would be to engage deeply with technology; I don’t think it should be seen as a complete replacement for the head and heart of a human, but I think it should be seen as a supplement to the skills a human brings to the table.
Even for our company, we are exploring ways virtual reality can be incorporated into our curriculum, only because now we know that VR/AR actually increase retention rates and engagement in the classroom. Before, we used to think that Zoom’s annotation features were the best way to interact in a virtual platform, but it turns out that we can supplement these online classrooms with more advanced technology to better cater to the needs of our students.
How has the pandemic changed your industry and how have you adapted?
Sofia Babool: Over 97% of educators reported seeing some level of learning loss during the pandemic; in fact, this exact statistic is why we decided to begin the company at all. Not only were parents faced with low-quality virtual options, but they were also faced with expensive alternatives for private tutoring. Because of this problem, we knew that we needed to place ourselves in a position to stitch this gap together.
In response, the use of highly qualified tutors who are trained in Zoom annotation will soon be trained in social-emotional learning this quarter. We added this training in after the pandemic to ensure that tutors become mentors that are attuned to the needs of their students in an academic and holistic way.
What advice do you wish you received when the pandemic started and what do you intend on improving in 2023?
Sofia Babool: One piece of advice I wish I received when the pandemic started was how quickly our platform would have to evolve to fit the needs of neuro-divergent post-pandemic students in the USA. After we realized that students learn in such diverse ways, we changed our teaching methods to include audio, visual, and kinesthetic learning approaches that are unique to each child’s needs.
In 2022, the addition of our social-emotional training is what we believe will be our unique proposition; this is in direct response to the increase in disruptive behavior, violence and bullying that research has shown an increase of during the post-pandemic educational space.
Online business surged higher than ever, B2B, B2C, online shopping, virtual meetings, remote work, Zoom medical consultations, what are your expectations for 2023?
Sofia Babool: While many technology companies are experiencing massive layoffs right now, I believe that the virtual realm will still be the space where companies and organizations spend the amplest time. In fact, many companies have already told their employees that they don’t need to return to the workplace. Therefore, I believe that 2022 and 2023 will continue to see an increased amount of virtual engagement.
How many hours a day do you spend in front of a screen?
Sofia Babool: Probably over 8 hours!
The majority of executives use stories to persuade and communicate in the workplace. Can you share with our readers examples of how you implement that in your business to communicate effectively with your team?
Sofia Babool: I think when it comes to persuasion and communication, there are two elements that are necessary to remember: how to use empathy to convince those around you and how to be as honest and candid as you can. I have found that people are most easily convinced when you frame your argument in a way that allows them to see how your point will assist them in their goals.
Use empathy when you communicate with your team and converse with them from the perspective of what they want and value. In addition, explain why you make the decisions that you do rather than feeling like hierarchy is an excuse for not telling your reasoning to your teammates.
Every mission is done when people come together and explaining why you are engaging in a particular behavior rather than simply stating it due to status or position, will enable your team to not only feel more comfortable around you, but actually invite feedback you may have never thought of before.
Business is all about overcoming obstacles and creating opportunities for growth. What do you see as the real challenge right now?
Sofia Babool: For our company, we are in the process of scaling, The tutoring market is highly fragmented, but yet, it is concentrated. Therefore, it’s important to have a clear understanding of who the competitors are, what they have to offer in comparison to yourself, and why you are the clearest best choice when it comes to your offering.
Yet, I also think that competitors have a lot to teach you; I think that when you observe your most successful competitors, rather than seeing them as a nemesis, I wonder if we changed our mindset to actually allow for a sense of collaboration and coordination to take place, what the effect would be across various fields. I think those who have been in the field longer and have gained significantly more traction are companies to learn from and grow with.
In 2023, what are you most interested in learning about? Crypto, NFTs, online marketing, or any other skill sets? Please share your motivations.
Sofia Babool: I am incredibly interested in learning about how virtual reality can infiltrate the physical classroom space and how that can be invited into the tutoring realm as well. More specifically, I am interested in learning about how VR/AR can collaboratively be used to transform engagement and retention rates in the classroom; more specifically, I am excited to understand how it caters to the neurodivergent needs of students and the ways teachers can effectively implement it into their curriculum.
A record 4.4 million Americans left their jobs in September in 2021, accelerating a trend that has become known as the Great Resignation. 47% of people plan to leave their job during 2022. Most are leaving because of their boss or their company culture. 82% of people feel unheard, undervalued and misunderstood in the workplace. Do you think leaders see the data and think “that’s not me – I’m not that boss they don’t want to work for? What changes do you think need to happen?
Sofia Babool: I think it’s possible that leaders think those statistics aren’t referring to them, but I think instead of assuming it doesn’t, the best thing a company could do is actually survey its employees to quantifiably measure what they feel, how they feel, and what can be done to address the issues they are bringing up.
On a lighter note, if you had the ability to pick any business superpower, what would it be and how would you put it into practice?
Sofia Babool: Scale! I would love to be able to have the superpower to scale effectively, quickly, and with proportional impact. I believe that scale is our biggest challenge right now and to be able to spread our message of mitigating educational equity through affordable, high-quality tutoring would be an absolute blessing.
What does “success” in 2023 mean to you? It could be on a personal or business level, please share your vision.
Sofia Babool: For me, success is about leading a team towards a vision that is meant to elevate the lives of those in our world; along the way, however, I want to ensure that our team feels valued, appreciated, and loved for who they are and what they bring to the table.
To me, success is a constant engagement towards a mission/vision rather than a simple infatuation with it; it is understanding the level of deep commitment it takes to intimately engage with change agents around society and taking a daily effort towards that goal.
Jed Morley, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Sofia Babool for taking the time to do this interview and share her knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Sofia Babool or her company, you can do it through her – Linkedin Page
Disclaimer: The ValiantCEO Community welcomes voices from many spheres on our open platform. We publish pieces as written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team and must meet our guidelines prior to being published.