At Hallway, a start-up for high school students by high school students

Evy Mages/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST - Sean McElrath (L) and other rising seniors at Thomas Jefferson High School have created a company called Hallway, an online portal for students to ask and answer one anothers academic questions.

Education technology upstart Hallway shares office space with other young, fledgling companies at The Fort on K Street NW, but its accommodations are a little different.

When its executives arrive earlier than the others, they plop down on the lobby floor, crack open their laptops, and wait for the adults to arrive. As 17-year-old minors, The Fort’s lease precludes them from having their own key to the office.”

Young entrepreneurs aren’t exactly groundbreaking. But even in a post-Mark Zuckerberg world, a crop of teenagers building a technology company from scratch as their summer job is far from commonplace.

Hallway offers an online portal where students can submit questions on various school subjects, such as calculus or algebra, that their peers then answer. Students can rate which questions and answers are most helpful so that useful information rises to the top.

Co-founder and chief executive Sean McElrath and his co-workers Cyrus Malekpour, Michael Chan, Darren Bolduc, Dennis Lysenko and Allison Chou, are rising seniors at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a selective but public magnet school in the Alexandria area.

The group has attracted angel investors who have funneled tens of thousands of dollars into the company, and could soon raise additional capital as they look to hire full-time staff.

The idea originated when McElrath created Facebook groups so students could communicate about assignments in specific classes. Membership in a group for physics students soared to more than 300 and a single question could garner hundreds of responses.

McElrath said those groups taught him that students learn best from collaborating with peers in an online environment, yet many schools cling to a chairs-and-chalkboard approach.

“There’s all this amazing digital content that’s out there ... and all these institutions like public education and stuff like that haven’t really changed with it, and that’s one of the things that Hallway is trying to accomplish,” he said.

After-school investing

If it’s not already clear, students at Thomas Jefferson aren’t exactly average teenagers; many are exceptionally smart and hard working. The curriculum includes such courses as microelectronics, supercomputer applications and chemical analysis.

But where do teenagers meet investors? In this case, an after-school club. McElrath and a friend created an organization for students with business ideas called Invent Team with the help of several local alumni and entrepreneurs.

Among the club’s mentors were Evan Burfield, chairman of StartupDC and a 1995 Thomas Jefferson alumnus, and Jonathon Perrelli, founding partner and seed-stage investor at Fortify.vc.

McElrath “had an incredibly clear idea of how kids learn in high school today,” recalled Burfield, who now serves as Hallway’s co-founder and chairman.

That idea has now developed into a full-blown company. McElrath’s parents said they weren’t surprised by their son’s determination, but by how much work it has required and how it was embraced by investors.

“Very frankly, we were a little skeptical” at first, said Lee McElrath, Sean’s father. “We didn’t know the players involved, and as a parent in today’s world, your antenna is always up when there is an adult paying attention to your child.”

Building the business is about to get a little more complicated. McElrath and his friends return to school this week, where a schedule of classes that includes multi-variable calculus and Advanced Placement Spanish awaits them.

The students plan to use task management software that allows them to designate and complete jobs without sitting side-by-side in the same office. They’ll also curtail their extracurriculars to make time for the business.

“What we decided, and they really led this charge, is they would not be taking on other activities like sports,” Perrelli said.

There are advantages to their situation. McElrath and his peers don’t have rent checks to write, cell phone bills to pay or mouths to feed. They’re still the mouths being fed.

And being high school students, building a Web site for other high school students fits easily into their routine.

“There’s probably not a single other company, or very few, that every day they get to be immersed in their target environment,” McElrath said. “Every day we get to talk to students and see how they’re using it.”

 
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