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I Need A Pencil

In 2006, current HBS cross-registrant Jason Shah founded INeedAPencil.com to help level the educational playing field in the U.S. Four years later, Shah is rapidly expanding the program and implementing growth strategies picked up during his experience at HBS.

What is INeedAPencil.com?
INeedAPencil.com is a social business that provides completely free SAT exam and college access preparation to low-income high school students in the U.S.

Why did you start this company, and where does the name come from?
In November 2005, I was a high school junior who had just taken the SAT and was visiting my sister who was an educator with Teach for America working in an urban middle school in West Philadelphia. After a life of generally comfortable public schools, I was shocked to see how far behind many of her students were given the lack of resources at their disposal. I worked with one student in particular who, as a sixth grade student, despite years in the American education system, struggled to spell the word “ball.” I started wondering how in the world these students would get into good colleges when the time came to apply. So I decided to build a solution.

Eventually, once I decided to create an online program and was looking for a name, I just wanted something that would stand out. One day when I was in Spanish class, a classmate, after weeks of being told that we had an important exam, showed up to class completely unprepared. He slowly uttered “Uh.I need a pencil” as he circled in on his desk. The students I wanted to help were not unprepared by choice like he was, but this certainly captured the idea of not being as prepared as one needs to be for an important exam.

How does the service work?
Typically INAP will identify an after-school program with high quality computers and high speed Internet in a low-income community. We get them to reach out to students and set up weekly study sessions. From there, students come into a computer lab, make an account or login, read through our 60 lessons in math, reading and writing, complete more than 800 practice questions in those subjects, and leverage our solidification tools to reinforce material. We have tools like digital notes (to avoid messy post-it notes) and a score projector to help a student get a sense of how much progress he or she has made. Students take a full practice test before beginning the program and one after they have completed all of the content on the site.

To date, our students have averaged a score increase of approximately 202 points (the gap between low- and high-income students is around 230 points). We have worked with more than 30,000 students across more than 4,000 U.S. cities since launching in April 2007.

What’s the business model?
When students register, we match them with colleges and scholarship programs that fit their backgrounds. If students confirm interest and request information from these institutions, INeedAPencil.com earns a modest fee. Moreover, we have licensed content to partners in the test preparation space given the unique nature and results our content has achieved.

How has your time at HBS influenced you and INeedAPencil.com?
As an undergraduate cross-registered in Managing Networked Businesses at HBS, this experience has been tremendously influential. Firstly, I’ve been able to meet professors and peers who have shared experiences with me that I can translate into improvements for INeedAPencil.com’s business model. Moreover, learning about network effects and useful mobilization strategies has showed me that there is a lot more potential for INeedAPencil.com to behave as a platform between students and institutions. The current redesign for the program will incorporate many of the ideas I have picked up during my time here. Specifically, we plan to build more of a community infrastructure, so that learning happens in more of a group setting and each student benefits from having more and more peers on the platform, learning together.

Parting thoughts?
If anyone is either involved with schools or non-profits focusing on low-income students, I encourage you to be in touch to discuss ways to work together. Also, we are looking for partner institutions hoping to connect with and attract low-income, high-achieving high school students. Feel free to email me at JasonShah@INeedAPencil.com to discuss new ideas.

April 26, 2010
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