We sat down with the co-founders of Tilt, Jimmy Kam (Kellogg ’20) and Sintuja Nagalingam (Kellogg ’20), participants in this summer’s Wildfire program, to learn more about their startup.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is Tilt?
Jimmy: We are building a mobile college guidance platform. The hope is to help under-resourced students navigate and succeed in the college application process. Right now we are focusing on building tools that help students keep track of their application process.
How was the college application process for each of you?
Jimmy: Well, I went to school in Hong Kong. I was born and raised there, but I always wanted to go to school in the United States. During my high school years I applied; I was also a first generation student – my parents never went to college and didn’t speak any English – so I was navigating the whole application process on my own. I applied to 6 or 7 schools in the U.S. and didn’t get into any of them. I ended up going to college in Hong Kong, but I realized the process can be really difficult if you don’t have the knowledge or resources. I had friends who got into schools as legacies because their parents studied at one place, even if their grades were not as good as mine.
Sintuja: My college application process was a really long time ago, I don’t remember it that well now. I do know that I was really lucky, growing up in California and having the UC system (a single application system that helps students apply to multiple California Universities at once). I did apply to schools outside of that system, but that process was really not straightforward. I have more recently gone through the graduate school application process. Especially for business school, a lot of students hire counselors and pay thousands of dollars to walk them through the application process. And now even a lot of high school students are paying for that type of service for their undergraduate admission process.
Who is Tilt for?
Sintuja: I think students who are either first generation, or low income, or students of color. We are really gearing this towards students who do not have adults in their lives who have gone through the college application process. We are also thinking about schools with guidance counselors who have hundreds of students to help through this application process. We really want to help support them with the menial tasks like tracking application deadlines and take those off of their plates so that they can have personal one-on-one interactions with the students.
What is Tilt right now?
Sintuja: Right now we are doing a six week “summer bootcamp” with 40 students. We’re really just trying to give them resources each week to begin thinking about the college application process. That can look like online communication, articles, videos, emails, and text reminders. We just want to keep college on their minds. In the fall, we are launching the next stage of the project which will center around the process of applying once students have a list of schools they are interested in. We will help walk them through what they need to do to apply to each school as far as testing, recommendations, and essays. We want to help students get it all done. In the long term, we want to help students navigate all the way to career success. I think college is a huge opportunity for mobility, so we want to help students get into a college that is a good fit, and then help them understand what the next step is to the career they desire. We are really excited about helping students on the path to success, and we haven’t decided when that path ends.
Jimmy: We really want the students to feel empowered and in control of their future. I think that’s the key mission that we have.
Is your ideal product something that leans more heavily on the automation of tasks during the college application process, or the personal connection and mentorship side of things?
Jimmy: One thing that we’re trying to do is really simplify the application process for students. We want to help them make sense of the mess of information they’re seeing in the college application process – that could definitely involve automating certain things for them and having the tools to structure and organize the process. We are trying to build in that human element, too, just because the process is so stressful. On top of the social and emotional support, these students just need mentorship from people who have been through the application process already. We are looking at how to build that community with peer support and mentorship.
Sintuja: Building off of that, we don’t want to be the one-on-one interactions students have in this process, but we want to facilitate it with people already in their community. We’ve been working to partner with more localized nonprofits and providing them with tools and resources. So we are automating, but we want to build in that human touch.
How did you choose Tilt for your name?
Jimmy: We chose this name around the same time as the recent college scandal with money influencing college admissions. One of the articles on this issue had a quote about how important it is for us to be tilting the admissions system back into the students favor, and I think that’s what we are trying to do. Tilt wants to give under-resourced students an advantage in a system that is rigged against them.
Who has been Tilt’s greatest mentor?
Jimmy: We have been working with Mark Desky, a founding member of the Groupon marketing team and startup executive. He has a lot of experience working with startups that seek to benefit disadvantaged communities, so picking his brain on this product has been really helpful. He’s offered a lot of good advice. We really enjoy working with Mark because first, he gives really actionable advice, and second, he always makes time for us.
How has your experience been different working on Tilt in Wildfire than outside of Wildfire?
Jimmy: One of the biggest differences is just having the time and space to work on it. We started this idea in the school year and worked on it through classes, but it was still difficult because we didn’t have time to think about the big ideas: our mission, how this product might evolve, what we want our messaging to be. We’ve actually had the time to think. In classes we get 30 minute time chunks to think, but in Wildfire it can be all day brainstorming. I also think that collaborating with the other teams in Wildfire can help us to inspire each other and not get stuck.
Sintuja: I think the other thing is the motivating factor of the program. It’s so much easier to dedicate this time to our business without feeling like we should be taking internships or working on other things when we are able to say that we are part of this Wildfire cohort and meeting goals. It’s hard to leap to working full time on your startup when there are other options that may be easier. Wildfire really made it easy to say yes to our own startup.
This article is part of an ongoing series highlighting the startup teams admitted to Wildfire, The Garage’s Summer Pre-Accelerator Program. For more information about Wildfire, click here.