Co-Founder & CEO, The Graide Network
While working as a market research analyst for Robert W. Baird, Blair Pircon ’16 was charged with researching macro trends in the education sector. As she studied K-12 education, in particular, she began seeing the depth and breadth of the problems plaguing the system, and it left her feeling troubled.
“I was really disheartened by how pervasive the issues were and how little change seemed to be happening, despite the great efforts of many,” Pircon recalls. “It was also striking to me that technology had really not yet come to play much of a role in education because of a number of different barriers.”
By the time she enrolled at Kellogg, Pircon had channeled those insights into a plan: She would start a technology company that would contribute to fixing what was broken in education.
That kernel of an idea has since blossomed into fully formed company. The Graide Network, co-founded by Pircon and former teacher Qinyuan (Chen) Liu ’16 in 2015, connects K-12 teachers with qualified teaching assistants who provide on-demand grading services. Through the online platform, teachers can upload student work, find the appropriate “Graiders” for their assignments, review and download grades, and rate their grading-service providers.
By transferring the grading workload to the Graiders, Pircon explains, teachers have more time to focus on other key tasks, whether that’s preparing classroom lessons, mentoring individual students or developing strategies to improve learning outcomes. Last year, teachers who participated in The Graide Network’s pilot program reported an 88 percent reduction in time spent grading.
Teachers aren’t the only ones who benefit from this model, however. For students, receiving more feedback on their work in a shorter period of time positively impacts their learning, development and engagement.
“Students are really excited that another adult is taking the time to read their essays in detail and given them thorough feedback,” Pircon explains. “And it helps align the student and the teacher to be on the same team to say, ‘Okay, now how should we work through this feedback that you’ve gotten?’ It creates this really cool dynamic where the students are engaging a lot more in their own learning process.”
In addition, this model also benefits the learning experience of Graiders, who are undergraduate students studying education at schools such as the University of Illinois or University of Michigan. Grading student work gives these aspiring teachers the real-world experience they need to better prepare for the classroom while also satisfying requirements for their college programs, Pircon notes.
Creating a business that integrates the interests of three disparate groups — teachers, students and teaching assistants — was a complex affair, but Kellogg “played an instrumental role in the formation,” says Pircon. She cites courses such as New Venture Development and New Venture Launch as giving her the structure to develop, test, iterate and launch her startup, and notes that the Zell Fellows Program gave her mentorship, resources and community support as she worked on getting her business off the ground. In addition, the NewDay Social Entrepreneurship Awards provided substantial resources as well.
As full-time CEO, Pircon is focused on expanding her partnerships with elementary and high schools, primarily in the Midwest region. She recently brought on a full-time partner and several other staff members, while her co-founder Liu has stepped into an academic advisory role.
Long term, this fourth-generation entrepreneur wants to expand the company globally, and she’s already received some interest from schools in Germany. Short term, she’s simply focused on keeping the company and its mission alive, even during the “dark times” when the challenges of running a startup as a lone CEO feel overwhelming.
“I am planning for success,” Pircon says. “There is no Plan B.”