Alumni mends gaps in education

Sophia Babool's startup, BrightOwl, offers K-12 tutoring services across America. Photo by Devinee Amin | Mercury Staff.

UTD neuroscience alumnus Sofia Babool founded a startup company known as BrightOwl in August 2021. The company aims to close educational gaps for students through an online tutoring service. BrightOwl also employs college students looking for a part-time job amidst the pandemic. In the short time since she graduated, Babool’s company has come to employ 80 tutors and serve 70 students across the United States.

BrightOwl offers K-12 students one-on-one virtual tutoring services catered to their needs and availability. Prior to receiving the services, students take a free diagnostic assessment and participate in a Zoom call with the company’s leaders. Various pricing plans are offered based on the planned frequency of sessions per month.

When starting this company, Babool was able to integrate her passions for both education and entrepreneurship. She has deferred her medical school decision by one year so that she can focus on the growth of her company. When applying to medical school, it is common to have a backup plan, as the odds are not always in the applicant’s favor. However, Babool has a different mindset.

“I met a couple of people in my senior year, and a lot of people were like, ‘oh, so have you decided on how you’re going to apply the second or third time?’” Babool said. “I was like, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ because I’m confident in who I am, and I know that I’ve done everything possible to get in, and so I’m going to get in. That happened very gratefully.”

Despite not having an extensive background in business, Babool has a supportive system of friends and family that have assisted her through her journey. She was inspired by witnessing the educational divide firsthand in Karachi, Pakistan for a service-learning project and realized that this issue exists in the United States as well.

“What intrigued me the most about Sofia’s company was the fact that it was led by someone that is not in the business space,” BrightOwl technical consultant Rahul Madhugiri said. “When she told me that she was starting an education company, but she was a neuroscience major, I was taken aback and impressed by it. I guess that’s kind of interesting, because it’s also pushing the ball forward and the removal of the stigma [that] you have to be a business major to create a company.”

UTD has given Babool exposure to various pivotal resources such as mentors like Paul Nichols, Bryan Chambers and Sarah Crowe who assisted with logo design and finding pitch competitions to showcase her idea. Babool and her team participated in 25 pitch competitions last year.

“The greatest thing about UTD, especially medicine in general, is that yes, it’s absolutely one of those paths that needs a lot of focus and a lot of attention, but it also is very interdisciplinary,” Babool said. “I would see doctors own clinics as entrepreneurs, and I really don’t think that there’s a separation or that there needs to be. I think that doctors can be entrepreneurs, and if you’re an engineering person, you can be an entrepreneur. I realized that if I wanted to go down a unique path, and nobody else had really done it before, I’d have to go alone, but I’m going to do it.”

Babool is half-Pakistani and half-Portuguese, making her a first-generation woman of color. She said she has faced various challenges and uncomfortable situations at pitch competitions because of this.

“I went to a pitch competition where all the judges were men,” Babool said. “I had my team slide open, which was all female at the time. This judge comes to me and says, ‘I’d love to invest when you have men on your team.’ I’ve had comments like that said to me, but the thing is that if people don’t believe in me or my idea, I see it as a them problem. Give me feedback that is critical and that will help my business move forward. But if you’re not in the game of helping me, then I’m going to see a leader.”

Two international students from Singapore started their journey with BrightOwl in April 2023. Until this point, BrightOwl’s primary audience has been K-12 students in the United States. Furthermore, the company is trying to utilize tech-savvy methods to provide an effective education to students. Babool and her team at BrightOwl are currently in the process of developing an application to enhance her clients’ experience by giving students access to tutors at any time of the day.

“Sofia is very compassionate,” BrightOwl tutor Rehana Pira said. “She is such a humble and down-to-earth person. She is the type of person that you just want to be always surrounded by because there is so much to learn from her. You grow as an individual. You are surrounded by someone that pushes you to reach new heights and do new things. She’s empathetic and she loves to serve.”

Pira said working with Babool has been a formative experience for her, as Babool’s energy is contagious.

“Sofia is this incredible entrepreneur who is driven, focused and motivated,” Pira said. “Sofia is not money-driven. Her focus is on the impact that she can have on all the kids that are part of BrightOwl. For her, it’s ‘how do I make an impact in the world?’ I think that reflects what BrightOwl has become today just because she is so incredibly amazing. She has a heart of gold.”

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