Earlier this week, as President Donald Trump was readying his second attempt to block immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries, two entrepreneurs — a refugee from Iran and the daughter of an Iranian immigrant, were laying the groundwork for the launch of their business aiming to transform educational access.
The dichotomy between the founders of Toot, who are trying to expand access to tutoring via simple text messaging — a service that could potentially help students around the globe — and the anti-immigration ideology of the current administration could not be starker.
Co-founders Sophia Parsa and Shakib Zabihian are building a business that aims to increase access to educational assistance through Toot, their mobile tutoring service. They’re also creating paying jobs for a number of people (mostly fellow high school or college students) who could use the extra work.
As public schools ready for likely changes to their federal funding thanks to new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Toot could be a supplement parents may want to entertain.
By texting 424-292-TOOT and paying 50 cents a minute for a single tutoring session or $49 per month for unlimited tutoring sessions, students get to text immediately with a vetted tutor who will help with math, science, statistics and physics homework problems.
Fleeing discrimination and creating opportunities
Persecuted in his homeland, Zabihian was denied access to higher education because of his family’s faith, Bahá’í.
A self-taught coder whose first business was helping his father design Web sites, he eventually started his own company, Sohasoft, a Mint-like tool for financial management.
With the money from his website development business, the self-taught Zabihian went to Tehran, Iran’s capital. There he enrolled in an underground educational institution to continue his studies.
“We had in-person classes for one week out of every month and would meet in different houses,” Zabihian said. “The places were announced in the morning and in an hour you had to be there.”
For students and teachers who are caught by the authorities, the punishment for educating Bahá’í is a prison sentence.
After seven fraught, fear-filled semesters, Zabihian fled to the United States. The road to Los Angeles was a 16-month odyssey. From Iran, Zabihian went to Turkey, where he was smuggled across the border under rifle fire.
Once in Turkey, Zabihian and his fellow asylum seekers received papers from the United Nations allowing them to live in the country. Then came the process of applying for permission to come to America.
“We had two interviews with the UN and we had an interview with a U.S. official,” Zabihian said. “We had an FBI security check and a medical check and then we got a paid ticket to LAX.”
Chance encounters and an educational opportunity
It was in Los Angeles that Zabihian would meet Parsa, through the close-knit Iranian immigrant community that thrives in the city.
Parsa’s grandfather had immigrated to the United States before the revolution, and her father subsequently built a reputation for an aptitude with technology, first as an employee and then as an entrepreneur launching several businesses in Los Angeles.
Zabihian was renting a $600/month apartment from someone who had known Parsa’s grandfather and introduced him to the family, thanks to Zabihian’s computer aptitude.
That introduction was the spark that would create Toot.
“We started working on this app that connected tutors and students on-demand in LA,” said Zabihian.
That product was born out of both the discrimination Zabihian experienced in Iran, and Parsa’s own experience in college.
“Originally… I just started it because I wanted to solve a problem I had in college. The night before my finance final my tutor’s wife went into labor… and I needed help right away,” but Paras redoubled her efforts after meeting her co-founder. “When I met someone so gifted who didn’t have the right to go college. That’s when I thought I would go all in on it.”
The first iteration of Toot, the on-demand web-based service, scaled to 2,000 tutors over the course of its first year of operation, but both Parsa and Zabihian were concerned about scaling the business further to reach everyone who Parsa felt needed the service.
“It was really hard to expand to other places because you need people in those cities to service that city,” Zabihian said. “If we wanted to expand to the other cities with the old platform we’d need to meet and hire managers… if we enabled users to do it remotely we could use our current tutor base.”
With that realization and a new business model in tow, the two young founders went out to the Los Angeles investment community, raising $500,000 from a slew of angel investors, including Spider-Man’s Tobey Maguire, the founders of local startup FabFitFun and Overnight, Chuck Pacheco and the Getty family, to name a few.
“Looking at the industry and where it stands right now… we have this dream to help fix education and I don’t know that in-person tutoring gives any information for how we can help do that,” says Parsa.
Ultimately, Parsa hopes that Toot will not only help students but, through the collection of data, also help educators and publishers craft better tools to teach new generations of students.
Beyond the loftier — and longer-term goals — Parsa and her partner are looking to tackle a more immediate problem. Access to quality tutors at an affordable cost.
“We wanted to solve a problem that students have every day, not just once a week for an hour,” says Parsa.
Every day students are confronted with problems they don’t understand, and their typical response is to text a friend. “We want to be that friend,” says Parsa. “Now they have this tool, where they can text a friend (AKA us) who will walk them through a problem.”
The first test of the company’s new service came off of a single Instagram ad that brought in 1,000 questions.
Typically, students will spend 28 minutes in a session with a tutor. Once a student texts the number 424-292-TOOT they are immediately logged into a session. A chatbot determines the course of study that the student wants help with and connects immediately to a tutor. Tutors initiate the session with a command to the chatbot and stop the session in the same fashion.
Tutoring sessions are monitored by the company for inappropriate chats and each tutor receives a rating from the students they work with.
Candidates for tutoring are also thoroughly vetted by the company — including background checks, interviews and testing.
“This is a new way of learning… and… I think that initially when people hear about it, they don’t understand how their student is going to learn via text, but text is the preferred method of communication for students. They want this,” Parsa says.