When middle school students in a small town in Texas were learning about the brain, their class teacher arranged for a lesson with a direct source: a brain surgeon in New York City. Connected virtually, the first question from students was less about the brain and more about geography: “’You’re in New York City. Can you turn your computer around and show us outside your window?’ That’s how the session started,” recounts Sabari Raja, co-founder and CEO of Nepris, an education technology company connecting K-12 school classrooms with industry professionals.
It’s one of many moments that stand out to her since co-founding Nepris in 2013, especially since it underscores the equity of access she strives to create.
Raja explains that many of the students in that Texas classroom had never left their hometown. The brain surgeon talked about autism, she recalls, and when it ended, she describes a teacher tearing up after a student saying when she grew up, she wanted to help kids with autism.
It’s those kinds of “aha” moments that are at the core of Nepris’ mission. “The primary motivation was: it doesn’t matter who the student is, where they are located, or what they look like. It doesn’t matter. Every student has to have a level of access to professionals from around the country and around the world,” says Raja.
Teachers can go onto the cloud-based platform to link industry professionals to their classrooms. Raja says, to date, there are over 170,000 educators across the country on the platform, close to 5,000 companies represented, roughly 55,000 industry professionals, and Nepris is directly integrated with LinkedIn. She counts close to two-million student impressions.
When a Single Moment Can Make a Lasting Impression
The idea for Nepris was born out of Raja’s personal experience. Growing up on a small coconut farm in South India, she remembers visiting her uncle in Bangalore when she was in fifth or sixth grade and he pointed out the sprawling campus of a biotech company, telling her it was founded by a woman.
“Understanding that a woman from not a similar background, but from a somewhat similar environment, coming from a similar culture was able to found this bigger multinational company, the first biotech company in India, it just opened all kinds of possibilities for me.” says Raja.
She wants students to feel that same spark, adding: “You can’t aspire for something you don’t know exists.”
Raja makes the case that by introducing career professionals to students in their early years, it also leads to more engagement with what’s being taught. “When students are in elementary or middle school, that is a perfect age to make an impression and give them the real world connection, because it starts with bringing relevance to learning so it’s not just here’s a career day once a year,” Raja emphasizes.
For second graders learning about rocks, a geologist may speak to the class. For students a little older, a research chemist at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing gave them a behind-the-scenes look at how money is printed as they learned about how scientists help develop technologies to secure U.S. currency.
General Motors & the Future Workforce
For middle school and high school students, career pathways become more of a focus.
Among the thousands of employers on the Nepris platform: General Motors. “The future workforce – which is the current students – really needs to understand the changing market, especially in the automotive space with respect to electrification and autonomous vehicles,” says Anbu Subramaniyan, continuous improvement manager at the General Motors assembly plant in Arlington, Texas. She also chairs the employee resource group GM Women in Arlington.
Subramaniyan, an engineer, says since January, GM Women has virtually connected with more than 35 classrooms in 17 states talking about things like careers, STEM curriculum, robotics, and VR involved in the assembly business. “They have an opportunity to see the people who work at GM and what diverse backgrounds we come from and what education we have,” she adds.
She says the group connects mostly with middle and high school students who learn about careers they may want in their future, including skilled trades where there is high demand.
“Skilled trades is a great opportunity for students who graduate out of high school if they want to continue skills like an electrician or a plumber or a die maker. There are awesome opportunities right out of high school,” says Subramaniyan.
Trying to Pique Interest in Cybersecurity
Looking to build a future worker pipeline for the cybersecurity industry is one reason why the National Cryptologic Foundation connects with students on Nepris. “Our job is to get into that middle school, high school environment and pique their interest to say there are all these great opportunities. The cybersecurity field is extremely broad, vast, and diverse,” says Mark Loepker, education program director at the National Cryptologic Foundation. The organization describes itself as a nonprofit focused on influencing the cryptologic future.
To date, roughly 598,000 cybersecurity jobs are unfilled. Loepker points out that because of that demand, entry-level jobs such as cybersecurity specialists earn an average salary of $99,000, with those jobs requiring a high school degree along with specific certificates.
Loepker describes both a passion and urgency to spread the word about the demand to build a future cybersecurity workforce and he has a metric for success. “I want to go into a sixth grade class and when you ask what they want to be, amongst the doctors, the lawyers, the plumber, the electrician, I want them to say I want to be a cyber professional. Well, they don’t have the knowledge to know that those positions are available to select those,” explains Loepker. He says joining the Nepris platform in 2018, though, has helped multiply his organization’s reach.
That kind of focus on middle and high school students is something Nepris’ Raja says she’s seeing more among employers who are realizing that not everyone is able to go to a four-year college and there are high-demand industries that need to fill jobs.
She emphasizes that just one connection can make all the difference in a young person’s life.
“It really doesn’t take weeks, months, or years to sort of create that spark,” explains Raja. She adds: “It really takes just one class, one interaction, one person, and that has been our mission.”