Photo by Ron Klein

Angelica Harris

• Spring 2024 issue

Angelica Harris, who earned bachelor’s degrees in computer science and finance at Washington University in St. Louis in 2021 and a master’s degree in computer science from the McKelvey School of Engineering in 2022, is the founder and CEO of Top Tutors for Us, a software platform that matches Black and Brown high school students with tutors with similar backgrounds and creates personalized test prep curricula to fill gaps in academic skills resulting in higher test scores and admissions rates.

Despite maintaining a 4.0 GPA in her New Orleans high school, Angelica Harris encountered the stark reality of educational inequity when faced with the ACT. Her initial score of 16 left her struggling to reconcile the gap between her academic achievements and test performance. Determined to address this disparity, she enrolled in a test prep course, only to find herself the sole minority among high-scoring peers, which left her feeling disheartened and out of place. Harris took matters into her own hands and created a test prep program focused not only on test strategies but also on academic skill development. Through perseverance and dedication, she elevated her score to 32, with an impressive 35 in math, earning her more than $1.5 million in scholarships. At WashU, Harris was a John B. Ervin Scholar and a member of the varsity women’s golf team.


Q: How did you get Top Tutors for Us started?

A: While I was in my master’s program in computer science, I developed a program for test prep after being a test prep tutor for more than six years. I had helped a family friend improve his score from 18 to 27. As a student, I had the opportunity to participate in Skandalaris Center’s Accelerator program. I got to conduct customer discovery with students, teachers, counselors and parents about what they liked about test prep tutoring for minority students. Through these discussions, I discovered a significant disparity in standardized test performance among Black students compared with their peers. Recognizing the importance of these exams, I also found that many Black students experienced feelings of microaggression in traditional test prep programs, with some never having a Black teacher.

My research on cultural competency further emphasized its benefits for students, particularly in closing the education achievement gap. Studies have shown that matching Black students with Black teachers can increase graduation rates by 30%. However, access to qualified Black tutors remains a challenge due to the underrepresentation of Black teachers in the education workforce, particularly Black males, who comprise less than 1.3%. This disparity sparked the idea of Top Tutors for Us.


Q: How are you building your business? 

A: I’ve assembled a small team to drive our efforts. With two former engineering students, we focus on developing our technology. We have won two grants in the Skandalaris Venture Competition, and we won an Arch Grant in fall 2023. We are also a finalist for the 2024 Global Impact Award presented by the Skandalaris Entrepreneurship Center. We work in a coworking space where we have weekly training, use mentors, and are developing an investor pitch deck. We’re also a part of the Greater St. Louis Diverse Business Accelerator, which came with funding and mentoring, and the Idea Village out of New Orleans, where I am from.


Q: Who are your customers?

A: We work in three school districts — two in St. Louis and one in New Orleans. We gained a partnership early on with St. Louis Public Schools. That gave us a lot of validation. They know the problem first-hand and saw that our company could address it.


Q: What makes Top Tutors for Us different from existing test prep companies?

A: We're B2B (Business 2 Business), so we’re primarily selling to school districts. This approach allows us to offer our test prep program for free to students, removing the traditional financial barrier. Additionally, our program integrates adaptive lesson plans, providing a more personalized learning experience.

But what really differentiates us is our focus on Black and Brown tutors and that cultural competency, which we incorporate in our matching process. Students begin by completing an online assessment, which feeds into our machine learning algorithm. This algorithm then predicts the best culturally relevant tutor in our system for each student.

Our online assessment identifies the academic areas in need of improvement, allowing our Top Tutors to address educational gaps more efficiently. Our average ACT composite increase is 4.8 points. We’ve helped students get into schools like Stanford, USC, Vanderbilt, Morehouse, and Xavier in Louisiana, scholarships and financial aid. We’re proud of our results, and it drives us to work very hard. I love making an impact in students’ lives.

We have more than 170 tutors in our database, and more than a third of those are WashU students. We recruit our tutors from top universities, from Howard to Harvard, with a special focus on historically Black colleges and universities. Additionally, we leverage their networks to collaborate with diversity centers like Black student unions, further enhancing our commitment to diversity in education.


Q: How did your McKelvey Engineering education prepare you for this?

A: My engineering education provided me with the necessary skills to develop web apps. Without my engineering background, I would have faced substantial expenses hiring a software engineer to create Top Tutors for Us’ web application. Understanding the app development process has significantly reduced our startup costs. One of my favorite courses during my graduate program at McKelvey was Machine Learning, where I gained an understanding of the mathematical principles behind algorithms. It's exciting to apply that knowledge by deploying these algorithms in my current work.

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