As founder and president of College Thriver, Shawntia Lee is on a mission to help first-generation, low-income students and students of color achieve higher levels of educational attainment while avoiding student loan debt. Channeling her own experience as a first-generation student and expertise in education, she is well-equipped to close the equity gap and change lives.
See highlights from Lee’s interview with us below, including her experience as a member of Cenfluence’s Learning Sciences + Human Performance Cluster and words of wisdom for other entrepreneurs.
How did you get started in this field?
I am a first-generation college student from a small, rural area. When I was going through the college admissions process, my mom had only completed 11th grade and my dad only had his GED, so I had no guidance on what to do. Despite this, I was determined to be the first in my family to break the pattern and go to college. Today, I’m mapping out the process for students who are in situations where they have no guidance and no help. We can’t help where we’re born and where we’re raised. Many students out there who are in disadvantaged situations don’t have the necessary resources available. College Thriver is here to change the game.
Why do you love your job?
I don’t consider this a job. First and foremost, I consider this my calling. I think the thing that burns me up is when I see a student coming in with doubts, concerns and frustrations. These students have had people tell them that they would never be anything in their life. Then, they work with College Thriver and, in the end, they’re graduating, and they prove everyone wrong. I think that’s my favorite part.
It was obvious to me that I should start this business in my backyard because I had already built my pillar of success here. I’ve actually been a college admissions adviser for the last 10 years, so I really combined my experience from being a student and being a college admission adviser. I’m marrying the two backgrounds and creating this perfect, harmonious product with the College Thriver platform.
Has Florida’s innovation ecosystem supported your business growth?
Absolutely. I was accepted into StarterStudio back in 2020. The team there really helped me carve out my idea and turn it into reality. They introduced me to a phenomenal investment company here called SeedFundersOrlando, where they invest in minority-led tech companies. SeedFunders allocated an investment of $50,000 toward the College Thriver platform, and now I am looking to just continue scaling and growing with the help of Cenfluence. I would say I have gotten so much love from the local community, especially as someone who just had an idea in 2020 and now it’s a reality in 2022.
Can you share more about your involvement with Cenfluence and how it has impacted your business?
I’m very new to Cenfluence, but so far, it’s been amazing. Anytime I need help, I’ll send Amy an email requesting assistance and she’s always willing to set aside time to coach, mentor and just help guide me along the way.
What’s your advice for other entrepreneurs?
Don’t give up. I was faced with a challenging time with my product, where I had to work with about five developers to try to execute my idea. It was frustrating because you put in the time, you put in the effort, you allocate money and then you expect to blow the world away. And for me, that was not my story. I’ve actually been building this app now for two years. And so, my advice would be to not give up. No matter the frustrations, no matter the pains, no matter the tears, just remember the audience that’s waiting on you. That’s really what keeps me going.
How would you describe the state of diversity in Central Florida’s tech industry?
It’s definitely low as far as the amount of founders who have access to resources, but I will say I think getting involved is the biggest thing. I know Black Orlando Tech is one organization encouraging more involvement and I’ve served as a speaker for them. But, I definitely think we can do a lot better.
What advice would you share with black entrepreneurs who may be just starting out?
I will say one thing to black entrepreneurs … because I’ve experienced this myself … for some reason, we are taught to carry that heavy burden or that load ourselves. I advise you to reach out for help whenever you need it – sooner than later. It’s okay to reach out and ask for help.