Alumna Kelly Pierce (BSEd ’08, MSEd ’12) had three eyeopening experiences along her way to launching PIERCE Plan, a web-based service to automatically track high school athletes’ eligibility for college scholarships. Her business plan convinced the competition’s judges to award Pierce the grand prize in the graduate/alumni category.

Pierce had her first eye-opener while tutoring University of Miami athletes with learning disabilities during her junior year at the University. “I realized they had so many fans in the stands and on the fields, but so few fans in the classroom,” she says, recalling not only the frustrations felt by those students – many of them standouts in their sports – but more so the positive impact tutors can have in overcoming those frustrations.

The experience solidified Pierce’s desire to become a special-education teacher in the Miami-Dade County Public School system. But she graduated in 2008, just as a ripple effect of the Great Recession led to a hiring freeze in the county’s schools. Fortuitously, the University’s athletic department ended up hiring her as an academic advisor and tutor coordinator for the entire student-athlete body. “It was my dream job,” Pierce says. She spent significant time evaluating transcripts of high school recruits, determining whether they were eligible for athletic scholarships from the University. “It was a pain point for me,” Pierce says of the arduous, paperand-pencil process of manually matching students’ grades against requirements established by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). There had to be a better, more efficient method, she figured.

In the process of dealing with that system, Pierce realized how many high school star athletes aren’t prepared for the rigors of college academics – and therefore get shut out of scholarships. So she quit her dream job at the University and became a math teacher and boys basketball coach at SLAM (Sports Leadership and Management) Academy in Miami, a sixth-through-12th-grade public charter school. “I thought [the lack of preparation] was the teachers’ faults, but I couldn’t blame them without becoming one of them,” she explains. At SLAM, Pierce came to understand that not just teachers, but administrators, coaches, guidance counselors and parents need to collectively address what she saw firsthand was a broken system. “I finally decided to bring all those stakeholders together onto one platform and to be proactive,” she says, and that became the impetus for PIERCE Plan.

Her winning business plan describes the online service as what is known in the K–12 technology market as a SaaS (software as a service) learning management system (LMS). Pierce’s LMS automatically tracks, in real time, academic requirements set by the NCAA for high school studentathletes to be eligible for scholarships to play college sports. It will be marketed primarily to the approximately 37,000 public and private high schools in the U.S., as well as colleges and universities, on an annual subscription basis. The NCAA reports that nearly 8 million students currently participate in high school athletics, and more than 480,000 of them will go on to compete at NCAA schools, in Divisions I, II or III.

Through the website, students and their parents will be able to access up-to-the-minute NCAA eligibility rules. Guidance counselors will get updates on NCAA-approved core courses or view grade point averages and required SAT/ACT scores, and parents are alerted when their kids’ grades are slipping. High school coaches will be able to obtain progress reports on students’ grades, behavior and truancy, as well as colleges’ eligibility indicators. Even principals are in the loop, able to track their student-athletes who receive scholarships and learn about sports-related grants and funding.

Pierce had been honing her idea at The Launch Pad, the University’s entrepreneurship resource center, and at the Women Innovating Now (WIN) Lab in Miami, an extension of a program started at Babson College to help women entrepreneurs accelerate and grow their businesses. Her mentor at WIN, Suzy Alvarez-Diaz (BBA ’93, MBA ’95) – a management lecturer at the School – suggested that Pierce enter the competition.

With advice from her assigned mentor for the competition, Dean Fogel (BBA ’70), a member of the School’s Entrepreneurship Advisory Board and the University’s President’s Council, Pierce pieced together a winning plan. “As an exceptional student education major, there was a huge learning curve in understanding the financial, marketing and strategic planning necessary to build a business,” she concedes.

Pierce is now developing version 2.0 of her proprietary software, which she aims to roll out in August at a private school in Broward (“my first paying customer!”), a few local charter schools and two Miami-Dade public high schools. “My immediate goal is to get a stamp of approval that confirms that the program works,” she says. 

Spring 2017
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