Startup of the Month: Inspirame

College and career navigation platform aims to repair education pipeline

Back Web Only Mar 22, 2024 By Russell Nichols

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The path from high school to higher education and into the workforce isn’t always a simple progression from A to B to C. For many, especially Black and Latinx students, this pipeline is broken. In 2019, CEO Maria Medrano co-founded the equity-driven startup Inspirame to repair these critical gaps in college enrollment and workforce development.

Previously, Medrano worked as chief diversity executive at major tech companies, including Cisco, Visa and Google. Her husband and co-founder, Mauricio Gonzalez, spent 20 years as a tenured counselor at Sacramento City College, Gavilan College and San Jose State University. 

“I took it upon myself to digitize my husband’s brain around how he provides intrusive academic and career counseling,” Medrano says.

The result is Inspirame’s primary product, TecoGuide, a college and career navigation platform. Free to anyone 13 and older, Medrano says, this tool is designed to teach and guide learners through the most affordable certificate and degree pathways available in California. 

By teaming up with businesses, charities, high schools and colleges, TecoGuide seeks to address workforce gaps as a one-stop shop for learners, offering information on majors, credit transfers, degree requirements, financial aid, support services and more. Medrano hopes to refute the prediction that by 2030, California will be short about 1.1 million bachelor’s degrees to meet economic demand.

“Ninety-eight percent of Black and Latinx students face challenges in completing a community college program within two years, and colleges report a 34 percent success rate after six years within the California Community Colleges, the largest higher education system in America,” Medrano says. “This level of achievement is unacceptable to us.”

This is also a personal endeavor for the couple, as they each were the first in their families to graduate high school, college and graduate school. They know many Mexican American individuals and those from various marginalized communities aren’t so lucky. This is why Inspirame (Spanish for “Inspire me”) is built specifically for people facing challenges in education, such as first-gen students, those with low incomes, incarcerated individuals, foster care and refugees and anyone who feels stuck in their life or career.

“Education attainment is the great equalizer in our society,” Gonzalez says. “Earning a college certificate or degree is like wearing a bulletproof vest against racism and discrimination.”

Currently, TecoGuide serves about 3,500 users in Sacramento County, with the expectation to hit 20,000 users by the summer, Medrano says. Customers include nonprofits, high schools, community colleges and universities, with yearly contracts ranging from $25,000 to $100,000. The startup has raised $500,000 to date, including winning $7,500 for first place in the Spark Venture Competition at Sacramento State.

Not everyone has expressed support, Medrano says. She adds that college leaders have called her to say, “What are you doing trying to fix this pipeline issue? We can barely service the students who are currently on campus. If they can’t figure out the website, they shouldn’t be on this campus.”

But others, such as Franklin Reed, saw the need and potential right away. Reed and Medrano had previously served together on an advisory board for a workforce development nonprofit. After learning about Inspirame from Medrano and Gonzalez, he came on board as an investor in 2022.

“I come from the southside of Chicago where you didn’t see a ton of your friends go to college,” Reed says. “The biggest obstacle wasn’t they weren’t smart enough. But they didn’t have resources or didn’t have guidance at home. Those who did go to school were forced to do it with debt, and without guidance they didn’t complete.”

Inspirame helps fill this education gap, he says, offering not only access but also understanding of how to navigate waters of higher education.

“What’s wonderful about what they’re doing is they’ve found a way to create an intersection of a great tech solution and a social equity driven challenge,” Reed says. “I think it’s great when you have a solution that addresses both.”

Inspirame’s mission to “mend the broken pipeline that exists from high school to high education” can have a ripple effect with wide-reaching benefits. “Once we do that, everyone is bound to win,” Medrano says. “Companies, societies and everyone will participate in the economy.”

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