Access and equity for Black children is Vernee Hines's mission. She is the co-founder of UpBrainery an online educational platform that is building better brains through augmented reality. In her previous work as an instructional designer for a well-known educational franchise company, Vernee saw the acute disparities. She noticed the economic disadvantages between Black and non-Black children whose parents could afford additional educational resources to enrich their children's education.
"I'm not seeing enough kids that look like me that come from the same background as me that looked like my nieces and nephew. I need to find a way to reach them because they may not necessarily have access to get to a brick and mortar campus or necessarily have those funds to kind of inject into their enrichment education. There has to be a way to provide this to them on their level," said Vernee. She recognized that there needs to be a complete disruption in education. The educational system has remained unchanged for centuries.
According to Vernee, children are not educated at their level of learning and understanding. Therefore, the lack of personalized content isn't meeting their educational needs. "I really wanted it to make equity an aspect, a big, big theme in UpBrainery for teachers, for students who look like me, and just for education in general," shared Vernee.
The lack of access to STEM education for Black children is not as available. Vernee would see children who would come into the program with the understanding of profound engineering principles because either their [parents were engineers, and she thought, "How can I get this in their hands? How can I do this without a book? You know, how can I do this without that bias?" Vernee was fortunate enough to be enrolled in a school with a STEM component that was life-changing forever, whereas her extended family didn't have that access. So, she imagined how a small amount of access could change the trajectory of these children's lives.
Microaggressions start as early as preschool. The question is are teachers considering students in all aspects of learning. Vernee said, "There is no way we can continue to let those kids experience those biases and disparities in classes anymore." With UpBrainery, she hopes that disadvantaged students, in particular, Black and Brown students who not only have access to the internet, will now have the resources by eliminating biases across the board.
What are you most proud of when it comes to UpBrainery?
Vernee is most proud of everything she has learned about business in the last two years, and coming from a corporate environment, she always had someone to lean on and check-in with. Being a co-founder of UpBrainery has forced her to step up as a leader and founder. She felt like her business accelerated her growth. She laughed, "I'm still blown away. I still go to bed. Like, what's heck? What have I done? Like I still can't believe I'm here."
Vernee is also proud of the partnerships that her company has developed in a short time. UpBrainery has partnered with The Houston Rockets and Whataburger. Vernee loves how these organizations are focused on doing social good to their communities. "You can be for-profit and still do social good and give back," said Vernee.
Being a for-profit company, people look at her company with further scrutiny wondering if they're there to help people genuinely.
What were some of your biggest fears along your journey?
"When the day comes, when you have to leave your job to truly follow your passion, it's the scariest thing I've ever done," said Vernee. Like most entrepreneurs who transition out of corporate America, leaving a steady paycheck and the security that comes with it is scary. Vernee struggled with self-doubts and wondered if she was doing enough if she was doing the right thing, and there are days the imposter syndrome becomes too much to bear. "It's kind of like, man, am I supposed to be here," asked Vernee.
The last significant fear that Vernee shared, "You know, just not truly feeling like you belong and the scariest thing is being a Black woman in tech. That is the scariest thing ever because it's a white male-dominated field. So having to be me and be loud and stand alone in the weeds, it's very, very scary and very difficult for me."
Black women have to monitor their Blackness, their hair constantly, and they wonder how their multifaceted selves will impact their businesses. Will this keep investors at bay? Is what some of the questions. She further shared, "I'm a Black woman in tech, but tech does not accept Black women in their full capacity. You know, they have an image of you that they want to see. Oh my God, that's the most difficult thing ever is just making sure my Blackness is not too Black." Black women entrepreneurs often wonder if investors are listening to what they're saying and believe in them.
Tell us about any significant setbacks that you had in your business and how did you recover?
The launch of UpBrainery was scheduled two weeks from the day after the COVID shutdown. They had secured a partnership, and everything was going according to plan. But they were selling courses without the backend system being built because people were asking for it. They were registering students and getting classes up and running a lot sooner than they had anticipated.
The separation from her team also created further challenges for them to manufacture the product, so they had to learn how to be a new remote team. So, essentially, Vernee and her team had to enroll students and manage a remote team, they launched their POC (Proof of Concept) in two weeks to get their partners into the system, but all they were working with was the front end of UpBrainery.
"I was like a month into owning my own company and really having to figure out these grown-up business decisions on the fly. Luckily, I have a great co-founder who—literally has taught me everything I know. So luckily, she was there to kind of steer the ship 'cause there was no way I would have gotten that done without her," shared Vernee.
Describe what it was like preparing for the pitch competition?
This wasn't Vernee's first pitch. However, this was her first major public pitch. Usually, she pitches to a small group of investors, whereas the BGV pitch was live, but it was her first online crowdfunded competition. Vernee said, "It was also my first time kind of really coming together with a group of Black women, which I loved! We had these really great pitch practices, which I am so grateful for, so, so thankful for. Everyone had great feedback for you. The energy is really just kind of what kept me going. I know it's a competition, but it really was just like a family."
The pitch practices were an opportunity for Vernee to perfect her pitch deck and it helped remove the nervousness around pitching. The highlight was being a part of a community around her cheering her on. Working with BGV as an organization has been something that Vernee has wanted to do, and she's blown away by the experience.
Vernee and her co-founder used the pitch funds to do the third release of their software by expanding their brain lab system, creating a smart quest for teachers, and allowing students to socialize with one another through their brain lab platform.
Vernee's advice to those who are looking to pitch is, "There is no method to the madness. You need to be you. That is the biggest thing." She suggests letting you, as a woman, as a Black founder, shine through your pitch. You may be pitching your business, but people need to see your personality. They need to understand who you are and the passion behind what you're doing. The knowledge part of your business is a bonus, yet you still need to know what you're talking about and know every detail about your business.
How do you measure success?
Answering this question wasn't easy for Vernee. So much happened for UpBrainery since they launched that she feels like there's so much more to do. "I would say as a business owner, success to me looks like happy customers. You know, someone who wants to come back, um, engage with my software, again and again, that would be my success as a business owner and as a founder and having those repeat customers," shared Vernee.
Support is not always given to Black and Brown women in business; when has this shown and hurt or disappointed you the most?
When speaking with investors, Vernee notices a clear difference between how investors interact with her and how they interact with her co-founder based on how she presents herself. She shared, "I don't want to present myself as too Black, you know, I don't want to scare them away. So it's just very difficult. You see it in everything you do from investors to customers, to people just wanting to engage with your material on social media." She constantly experiences microaggressions that often cause her emotional and mental fatigue.
What's the most critical lesson you've learned about business, in general?
The experience of COVID has taught Vernee and her team valuable lessons. She shared, "Preparation is truly, truly your greatest friend. And that goes into everything into your operational planning and your financial planning. Preparation is truly going to get you through some of the toughest times as a founder. Preparation and being flexible."
What's it like working with a co-founder? Can you give some advice on how to maneuver that?
Working with a co-founder can be challenging, with different personalities and communication styles, but Vernee couldn't imagine not working with a co-founder to launch her business. She is fortunate to have a co-founder that's much more seasoned than she is. She shared how having a co-founder has been her saving grace, and she loves having one to work with. Her advice for those seeking co-founders is not to seek one who will say yes to everything, that having the same ideals isn't always necessary.
However, you do want someone who will be true to your business and loves the vision as much as you do. She believes it's essential to have similar backgrounds and similar experiences. It may feel natural to search for a co-founder in the same age group but be open to stepping outside that narrative. Vernee's co-founder is 30 years her senior.
What's the biggest risk that you've taken so far?
Vernee said, "I think every day is a risk as an entrepreneur. You have to get up. You have to work hard. Leaving corporate America for me was my biggest risk." Age is a factor for her since she was new to the workspace, so Vernee didn't have a 401k that she built that she could lean on. Everything was holding on to faith that UpBrainery would be successful. Another risk that Verne mentioned was how taxing it is to be an entrepreneur, not only as an individual but also for your relationships. She's fortunate that her friends and family continue to support her, so when she isn't taking care of herself, they'll send her groceries and make sure she's okay.
What do you think is an important skill or asset you need to be successful in business?
Vernee shared, "I think being flexible is going to be your greatest ally. Because there are things that come daily, that's not even business-wise. You need to be able to kind of just take it on, pivot, and run with it. Because there are so many things that I planned to go one way, and they can not go that way." Without flexibility, you might have more setbacks in your business than you care to have. Vernee also mentioned transparency is another crucial skill to foster. "I believe transparency goes a long way. Not only with your investors, in your team members and your co-founders, but with your customers."
What's the most exciting part of your business?
Every day Vernee is excited about impacting students. That has been her primary focus since she started her business. She has been able to create curriculums and other pieces of the software that will impact Black students and rural students who have limited access to educational enrichment. "This is my passion, and I get to do it every single day," she shared.
What do you think the future holds for Black and Brown women entrepreneurs and small business owners?
Vernee candidly stated, "I believe Black-owned businesses, Black women-owned businesses, are the future. There's just no way we can ignore it anymore. I'm hoping to see the pivots of funding and money and the influx of money going into Black-owned businesses. But I truly think that Black-owned businesses are the future of business. You just simply can't ignore us anymore. And there's no way you can keep these walls up, keep these doors closed because Black women, Black men are just kicking them down." She believes Black-owned businesses are changing the world as they have been for decades.
If you and I were meeting three years from now, looking back, what would it take for you to feel over the moon about your progress?
Vernee hopes to see one of her students who has gone through the UpBrainery educational system and can attest that they started in 9th grade and are now doing a trade or entering the workforce because they've earned many certifications through the platform. She wants to be able to confirm the accessibility of the product to students. To be able to see the growth and the impact of the learning would be a huge accomplishment for her.
Running a business while balancing a personal life can be demanding and taxing. How do you take care of yourself?
Self-care looks a little different for Vernee. She makes time to be surrounded by her friends and family and those she loves. She must be around people who understand her and her journey. Vernee also allows herself to feel every last feeling that she is experiencing. If she's feeling stressed, she allows herself to feel the stressful feelings. If she's feeling happy, she allows herself to feel happy. She makes sure she prioritizes herself first and foremost.
What is your favorite quote or mantra?
A quote by Marshawn Lynch, "I"m gonna get got sometimes, but I'm a get mines before I get got."
What is your favorite book and podcast?
Vernee hasn't read or listened to podcasts for quite some time, but she listens to anything funny or anything involving true crimes when she does.
What's your favorite business hack or app that you can't live without?
Name one food item that you have a hard time saying no to.
Cheese sticks and energy drinks.
What's next for UpBrainery?
UpBrianery is planning a few more releases and valuable features for the platform. UpBrainery will be going through Halcyon and Google Startups. She and her co-founder are looking forward to growing even further this year.