Top of the class
Black-led Austin startup picked for prestigious new Google program
When Melvin Hines Jr. entered his first year of high school in Albany, Georgia, he was joined by about 250 other freshmen. But by the time their senior year ended, he and just 67 of his classmates had earned diplomas. That works out to a graduation rate of a little over 25 percent.
This eye-opening experience spurred Hines to launch an education tech startup called Upswing International Inc., which provides a technology-powered platform designed to help non-traditional and online college students achieve success. Now, tech giant Google wants to help Austin-based Upswing achieve success.
On July 31, Google named Upswing to its inaugural 12-member class in the Google for Startups Accelerator: Black Founders program. During the virtual three-month program, Upswing and 11 other Black-led startups — chosen from a pool of about 300 applicants — will gain technical and business development expertise from Google specialists and industry experts. In June, Google announced a $175 million project to support Black business owners, startup founders, job seekers, and software developers.
“Melvin Hines Jr. and his team at Upswing are doing some incredibly exciting and vital work to reach, relate to, and retain non-traditional students. Through our longstanding work with entrepreneurial hub Capital Factory, Google for Startups has long known Austin to be an ideal city for innovative companies,” Jason Scott, head of Google’s developer ecosystem in the U.S., says in a release.
Upswing says it has prevented more than 30,000 online and non-traditional students from dropping out. That’s been accomplished through a platform offering:
- Around-the-clock access to online coaches.
- A chatbot that provides assistance to students.
- Online connections to various college services.
Involvement in the Google initiative will enable Upswing to improve its chatbot, among other things, according to Hines. “Really, it’s just a matter of us wanting to learn more about how we can create better tools and products for non-traditional students,” he says.
Upswing has partnered with dozens of colleges and universities in the U.S., including Houston Community College, Lone Star College in Houston, Blinn College in Brenham, and the University of Houston-Victoria. Among Upswing’s financial backers are the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the United Way, the Impact America Fund, Pro Rata, Rethink Education, the Lumina Foundation, and the Strada Education Network.
Hines says that aside from his tenure in high school, his parents’ path to education influenced the desire to establish Upswing. His mother, Brenda, and father, Melvin Sr., were both non-traditional college students. His mom and dad earned bachelor’s degrees when Melvin Jr. was a kid, and his mom proceeded to get a master’s degree.
Hines took a more traditional route to a college education. With his high school diploma in hand, Hines enrolled at the University of Georgia, where he received a bachelor’s degree in economics in 2006. He went on to earn a law degree and an MBA from Duke University. Afterward, he worked at a consulting firm in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and taught law at North Carolina Central University in Durham.
Today, of course, he’s focused on running Upswing as its co-founder and CEO. The company got off the ground in 2013. Upswing initially began as an online tutoring company in North Carolina that collaborated with local community colleges. After Upswing graduated from the Dallas-based Tech Wildcatters startup accelerator in 2014, the company relocated to Austin.
Upswing now has 20 full-time employees, as well as roughly 300 online coaches. It’s one of a tiny sliver of U.S. startups that are led by Black entrepreneurs. Programs such as Google’s startup accelerator help companies like Upswing serve audiences that might be overlooked by a lot of entrepreneurs, according to Hines.
“At Upswing, half of our student users are Black or brown. And about a third of our users are student-parents or are working their way through school,” Hines says.
“We didn’t set out to create Upswing to target Black or brown students. We set out to target a certain need that resonated with me growing up. It just so happens that half of the 800,000 students that are now using our system happen to be minorities,” he adds. “So I think that’s what happens when people from different perspectives are finally able to build products that reflect their backgrounds.”