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A former pastor who worked in microfinance in Africa, Eric Fenton ’15 founded Ignite Progress in 2010 to provide test-prep services to underserved communities in Chicago.

Eric Fenton

Start Me Up: Eric Fenton ’15

Fenton provides test preparation for low-income students and makes it profitable

By Chris Serb ’09

7/15/2013 - Editor’s note: In the Start Me Up series, the Kellogg School spotlights young members of the Kellogg community who are bringing bold new entrepreneurial visions to life.

When Eric Fenton ’15 founded Ignite Progress in 2010, his strategy—to find a “gap” in the market and fill it—was pretty standard among entrepreneurs. But what made Fenton unique was his ability to see potential in an area that traditional markets saw as unprofitable.

“High-quality test-prep services cost far too much to be accessible to the vast majority of urban, middle- to lower-income students,” Fenton says. “I thought that I should address that need – not only for social reasons, but because I knew this business model should work.”

It did. In less than three years, Fenton’s Chicago-based test-prep firm has served nearly 550 students, 75 percent of them coming from low-income neighborhoods. And though the sample size is small, the average student has improved his or her ACT scores by 3 to 6 points.

Finding the “Double Bottom Line”
The company also has turned a profit, thanks to Fenton moving away from the typical method of running a test-prep firm. Typically, firms charge a premium for one-on-one instruction in more affluent neighborhoods. But rather than apply that model in underserved communities, Ignite Progress offsets costs by using a small-group classroom model and subcontracting teachers at client schools to work as part-time tutors.

While Fenton has some traditional test-prep clients from the suburbs, it’s the revenues from the classroom sessions and contributions from a nonprofit partner that have helped the company reach that “double-bottom-line” goal of economic investment and social responsibility.

“We’re serving the people we want, but not charging atrocious rates,” Fenton says, “and still making a significant bottom line.”
Still, it’s the success stories that Fenton likes to share. He recalls two cases as especially memorable: A young woman from the North Lawndale neighborhood—which has about a 3 percent rate of college graduates among its adult population—received an academic scholarship to the University of Illinois. A male student improved his scores enough to qualify for an athletic scholarship.

“The most immediate type of success story is when a student comes in with low test scores and a limited set of college options, improves those scores and gets into a good university with significant financial backing,” Fenton says.

“My faith is the overwhelming motivation”
An MBA candidate with a focus on entrepreneurship and social enterprise, Fenton draws inspiration largely from his Christian faith. Before founding Ignite Progress, Fenton served as a pastor, earned a master’s degree in theology, and worked in international microfinance in South Africa.

“I believe the Bible calls us to meet not only spiritual needs but also physical needs, and building a better world is tied closely to economic development and educational opportunities,” Fenton says. “[We’re] not an overtly religious or Christian organization, but I’m not overstating anything when I say that my faith is the overwhelming motivation for what we are doing.”

Read more in the Start Me Up series: