Student Spotlight: Sinthuja Nagalingam and Tilt

May 26, 2020

Posted on May 26, 2020This is part of a series of stories about how student entrepreneurs have adapted or shifted their business in the face of a global pandemic. Sinthuja Nagalingam was a former high school math teacher who was interested in entrepreneurship before arriving at Kellogg in the fall of 2018. In her first quarter at Kellogg, she began working on an idea to make extracurricular activities more accessible to low-income high school students. “I was really interested in helping high school students find their purpose and passions. One of my ideas was around helping students find extracurricular activities that they were excited about.” After months of research and exploration however, Sinthuja realized that it would be tough to make a business out of this concept. “Unfortunately, the families that we wanted to work with don’t have the income necessary to support a lot of extracurricular activities, so after we looked at different business models and talked to a bunch of people, we decided that it wasn’t feasible.”The decision to pivot the idea while continuing to serve the same student demographic led to the formation of Tilt at the beginning of 2019. “Over winter break, we had a brainstorming session and landed on college access. We started working on a problem that I knew that my students had faced, which was just being able to meet all the deadlines required for college applications. There are all these systems that you have to manage. For a kid who has a part time job and is dealing with a lot of other things in their life, that can be very difficult.”Working with some high school students through one-on-one consulting sessions and even running an online bootcamp for the college application process, the Tilt team was able to further refine their offering. “We went through the process of applying to colleges and getting accepted with students this year, and really saw that although applications are important, the biggest barrier for the students that we were working with was financial aid. It was something that they needed a lot of help with, and something that their counselors often don’t have time to help with. There are so many resources out there for applications, however financial aid is a burden that falls on low and middle-income students, and there aren’t that many resources dedicated to it out there.”Dipping Your Toes in Entrepreneurial WaterSinthuja joined The Garage as a Tinkerer in her second quarter at Kellogg, and became a Resident last Spring. Tilt was one of ten teams chosen to participate in Wildfire, The Garage’s summer pre-accelerator program that provides mentorship, programming, and $10,000 in funding to student startups. One of the main benefits of participating in Wildfire for Sinthuja was having a de-risked environment to reimagine her self-image as an entrepreneur. “Thinking of yourself as an entrepreneur isn’t easy. I don’t have anyone in my family who has done it before or have close role models that I’ve seen do it, and it’s hard to imagine something when you don’t have a lot of exposure to it. Since Wildfire was a structured program with mentorship and financial support, I was taking a risk, but not as big of a risk. It was a way to dip my toes into the entrepreneurial water and see ‘Is this something that I’m good at? Is this something that I like to do?’”Through Wildfire and with the continued support of The Garage’s resources, Tilt has continued to evolve its focus on how to best support ambitious high school students. “Today, we’re helping students understand their financial aid reward letters, so they can compare what the schools are offering them and how much of the cost they would have to bear. We’re also curating and vetting scholarships for students, once again to make college more affordable for them. We’re thinking about how to help them with the decision making process. For next year’s seniors, we’re building a platform for them to take into account when they consider which schools to apply to.”Even after Wildfire ended, Sinthuja enjoyed the physical component of The Garage, something she misses now working from her apartment in Evanston. “My favorite spot on campus is The Garage. I like to work there, it’s a nice place to study, and to just meet with people. It is sad not being able to see people now, although I’ve been able to stay in touch with everyone through The Garage’s programming and Slack channel.”

A Mission More Important Than Ever BeforeSince the start of a global pandemic, Sinthuja believes the mission of Tilt is even more important. “College affordability is now more important than ever, so we want to make sure that that’s something students are taking into account as they apply to colleges. In the current situation, more high schoolers are reconsidering if they’ll go to college in the fall or take a gap year. For the demographic that we serve - low income or first generation college students, if they take a gap year, it’s a lot more difficult for them to get back on the college path because they have a lot more family obligations. So we’re just motivated to give students a path to college that is as affordable as possible and doing what we can to provide students with options.”Being stuck at home has given the Tilt team more time to focus on their mission. “Shelter-in-place has allowed us to spend more time working on Tilt because there are fewer competing priorities now. The Garage has probably taken up more of my time this quarter, and I’m staying in the loop through various programming. I spent a lot of time at the physical Garage before this happened, and it’s still a big priority that I’m invested in at Northwestern.”Tilt was recently accepted into VentureCat, Northwestern’s annual student startup competition that will be judged virtually on May 20th, giving away more than $300,000 in non-dilutive capital to student-founded startups. As Sinthuja is working on her pitch and presentation for the competition, she is also feeling sentimental about the event. “I feel like VentureCat will be somewhat of a culmination of my Kellogg experience, because I’ve only been working on this business as my priority and my baby for the entire time. In some ways, VentureCat will be a bit of a graduation ceremony for me.”After earning her MBA from Kellogg next month, Sinthuja intends to continue working on Tilt and college affordability in one way or another. “I’m hoping that Tilt will be something I continue working on when I graduate, whether that’s full-time or part-time. I think through this experience, one thing I found was a real passion for higher education and college access, and that’s something that I’m definitely going to continue to pursue and work on after graduation.”

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