The diversity and differences in our world are what make life a rich and interesting journey. Where once distance was a barrier to cultural exchange, technology improvements have spawned a new era of mingling. As of 2013, the number of international migrants, or people living outside of their country of birth or citizenship, reached an all time high of 232 million. Global travel rates have been slowly increasing over time too and more young people are traveling to gain work, educational and cultural experiences. With increased global interaction, it is vital that we increase our knowledge of cultures different than our own. This way we can create a more just, compassionate and inclusive society. One company in Austin, PenPal Schools, is leveraging technology to facilitate more of these meaningful cross-cultural connections.
Located right here in Impact Hub-Austin, PenPal Schools creates an app that allows students from around the globe to connect with each other. Through their online curriculum, these students can practice language arts skills while exploring the world. Established in 2012, PenPal Schools is now in over 170 countries and over 100,000 students have gone through their programs.
“We have an app that any teacher and student can use,” says founder Joe Troyen. “The program is already developed and we’ve created a great resource that’s free for them.”
PenPal Schools currently offers four different courses with the most popular being, “World Explorer.” In this course, students are matched with a pen-pal of similar age for a six week exchange where they practice reading and writing in English while learning about life in their pen-pal’s country.
PenPal Schools has experienced tremendous growth and enthusiastic endorsements.
“When teachers like something, they’re vocal about it and share it,” says Joe. “Word of mouth has contributed the most to our growth. That and organic searches; people around the world are searching for pen-pals and they find us.”
Joe says that PenPal Schools receives a lot of inspirational letters from teachers and students on how they benefit from the app. For instance, one girl in Mexico wrote, “I learned a little bit of English and a lot of hope.” The most heartwarming letter Joe received was from Sungu Samnyirwa, the head of Mfangano Girls Empowerment Academy in Kenya. Sungu explained that his students felt a great sense of acceptance and increased self-esteem while in the PenPal Schools course. “This programme will also help them ease off the tense feeling of rejection and pinch of poverty related ills,” he added.
The PenPal Schools team members are not only crusaders of social good, but they also strive to create high quality technology. “I love building something that people will find useful and can add value to their lives,” says Joe. “I enjoy thinking of new ways to engage students that are both fun and deliver learning.” In that pursuit, Joe relocated PenPal Schools from New York City to Austin in 2014 for Capital Factory’s accelerator program.
Attracted to Austin’s budding tech scene and social entrepreneur community, Joe decided to stay in Austin to grow the company. Soon after finishing the Capital Factory program, PenPal Schools moved into Impact Hub (at the time, Vuka). “The aesthetics are so comfortable and calm, and creativity flows really well here,” said Joe. “There are enough people and activity at Impact Hub so we, as a small company, don’t feel isolated.”
Continuing to take advantage of Austin’s incubators, PenPal Schools applied to and was selected to be inTechstar’s 2016 Austin class earlier this year. A pretty impressive feat considering fewer than 1% of the companies that apply to this startup accelerator are accepted.
“Our focus at Techstars was on user-engagement,” says Crystal Germond, Head of Marketing. “We want our app to be fast, easy and intuitive for both teachers and students. We also want it to be accessible for everyone everywhere.”
After three months of workshops, classes, mentorship meetings and team development sessions, Techstars culminated inDemo Day. Here, PenPal Schools announced that they are partnering with Time for Kids magazine to launch a new course which will be in many United States public schools. The PenPal Schools team is excited about how this partnership can further their goal of helping students form strong relationships with each other while breaking down cultural stereotypes.
Ultimately, Joe feels that PenPal Schools is helping to create a more caring world. “You’ll never learn compassion from a textbook,” he says. “Building empathy requires seeing the world from another perspective. PenPal Schools enables students who may never have opportunity to travel, to form personal connections.”
The future is bright and exciting for PenPal Schools as they work to increase the breadth and depth of the company. “Personally, education has changed my life and I really believe in it,” says Crystal. “I’m so proud to work for this company.”
If you are interested in getting involved with PenPal Schools, check out their website or sign up for a course. Whether you are a teacher, youth groups leader, parent, counselor or are simply seeking to have a pen-pal, the team invites you to explore their different options. And lastly, “People are always welcome to visit us at Impact Hub,” says Joe.