After travelling around the world, Princeton graduates and friends Poshak Agarwal and Rahul Subramaniam came to India in 2013 and found themselves coaching the children of friends and acquaintances to make rent and pay bills.
“One of our mentors sat us down and asked, ‘What are you doing? You are sitting on a huge opportunity because nobody is exploring mentorship in a professional, process-driven, personalised way’,” Rahul recalls.
In 2013, Poshak and Rahul startedto help students apply to colleges abroad with a special focus on Ivy League colleges. They began with their “meagre savings” from a room in their Delhi flat.
“When we were counselling these children of friends, we found that they already had counsellors, but they still needed help. We realised there were so many students in India who need professional help to realise their Ivy League dreams. But unfortunately, that did not exist,” Poshak says.
The duo had some prior experience working with students. At college, they served on the interview committee for admissions. Rahul also served as a director at a college counselling and test prep company in California briefly.
“We started helping them…more students started coming in, and slowly it became a larger organisation,” Poshak says.
Today, the startup provides high school students with comprehensive guidance on admissions to leading US and UK universities from a team of Ivy League graduates. It has worked with over 500 students so far.
The startup works online and offline, depending on the schedule of the students. It presently runs centres in Delhi, Gurugram, Mumbai, and Bengaluru.
“When our scholars have more time at hand, they love to be in our office and work with counsellors and other specialists. During summer vacations, at least 50-60 percent of our NCR scholars prefer being physically present at our learning space once a week at least,” Poshak says.
How it works
The startup offers a personal mentorship programme that costs approximately Rs 4-5 lakh per year, with students enrolling as early as Class 9. In fact, in 2022, they even enrolled 10 Class 7 students.
At the beginning of the course, Athena analyses the student’s interests, passions, and abilities, or as the founders like to call it “student’s ikigai”.
After this, the programme nudges the students to explore different fields through capstone projects, writing research papers, and AI/ML projects, among others.
Athena then helps the students with SAT preparation, reviewing and rewriting college applications, and mock interviews.
“We are a one-stop shop for all the student’s needs. We see it in three parts: strategy, execution, and the application,” Poshak explains.
“There are people who do the applications, or just the strategy but we do all three. If a student wants to write a research paper, build an app, get an internship, or do a robotics project, we will develop a strategy for the student based on our years of experience, along with people who work with us like an ex-Harvard Admissions Officer.
“Once the strategy is in place, we work with the student for years to help execute it. Once that is done, we help the student communicate that through a comprehensive application. This execution is what differentiates us.”
Each of these activities is handled by different teams. The counsellors, students, and parents can access an overall progress report on the Athena platform. The startup also helps students get internships.
“Over the years, our business model has evolved into more than college counselling,” Rahul says.
“It is like one grand buffet. There is strategic counselling, tactical counselling, emotional counselling. We bring in child psychology experts, admissions officers, our entire in-house research team, tech team, and art consultants. We have a network of internships and summer schools, and now our research team is also developing relationships with laboratories so that students who love science can do lab work,” he explains.
The startup connects with students two to three times a week, and spends four to five hours a week with them on an average.
Shoo-in for Ivy League?
Three years after starting up, in 2016, Athena had its first breakthrough: seven students from India got into Harvard. Three of these students were from Athena.
Cut to 2021.
Fifty-six students applied to foreign varsities through Athena and all of them received acceptance letters from prestigious institutes like Columbia, Yale, Stanford, Caltech, Oxford, Cambridge, Dartmouth, Brown, University of California—Los Angeles, University of California—Berkeley, University of Toronto, Imperial, LSE, among others. Of these, 53 students got into the university of their choice, the startup said.
In 2022, the number of students applying abroad through the startup increased to 68. The startup saw 100 percent of students receive acceptance letters from Ivy League and other top colleges. In 2022, as many as 97 percent of students got into the university of their choice.
On average, every student got admission to five colleges.
Other startups facilitating foreign education for Indian students include Azent Overseas Education, ApplyBoard, EduFund, Leap Scholar, Yocket, Leverage Edu, iSchoolConnect Technologies, and Edumpus.
The startup plans to continue to expand and open more centres in other cities.
“Our focus is clear – striving for excellent results for our students, focusing on quality of services, providing our families access to specialists in all fields, and supporting scholars in becoming the best versions of themselves. Through a convergence of tech, world-class analytical metrics, and team of specialists, we wish to empower many more students to receive a world-class education and become the leaders of tomorrow,” Rahul says.