Rice CS alumna Mei Tan (’17) found her sweet spot with ed tech startup Pioneer

She credits her failed startups for giving her the expertise needed to be a success

Rice CS alumna Mei Tan (’17) found her sweet spot with ed tech startup Pioneer

Rice University alumna Mei Tan (CS ’17) found her sweet spot in educational technology —ed tech— platforms. She worked as a full stack developer on an ed tech product that fascinated her and she began volunteering as a high school Computer Science teacher, which revealed ed tech systems from the consumer’s perspective.

“As both a consumer and developer of ed tech systems, I kept seeing a disconnect across the industry,” said Tan. “There are so many new tools, but are technologists creating what learners and educators really need? How should a district strategize about feasibly and effectively deploying these tools? How would a teacher know which tools would produce the best outcome for a specific lesson or module, or help improve their overall effectiveness in the classroom?

“When I looked at where I might make the most difference, it seemed like interdisciplinary research in academia was a good bet. I joined the Stanford University Graduate School of Education with the idea of connecting academic innovation, school districts, and the powerful economic machine that is ed tech.”

Less than six months into her graduate program, Tan launched a startup, Pioneer, to address one of the disconnects: career exploration for teen-age learners.

“Pioneer stems directly from my teaching experience, where students had the chance to ask me about my career in software development while also learning applied skills,” she said. “With Pioneer, we are introducing teens to professionals from different fields for skills-based mentorship. Students explore career-skills, create projects, and receive directional guidance from professionals.

“Part of my inspiration for Pioneer came from the Marian Wright Edelman quote, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ Some people tell teens to follow their passion. I’d rather expose them to diverse career role models, to let them hear the stories of workers in many different fields and open their imaginations to possibilities beyond their current passion.”

Pioneer provides career information through skills-education and exploration in several formats. In the group-based format, a small team of students are matched with an industry professional project guide who leads them through a series of activities in weekly one-hour sessions. The activities mimic the kinds of challenges the guide experiences in their professional role. After four weeks, students in the group have a better understanding of what a product manager, a video game designer, or a software developer actually does. Plus, they can demo what they’ve built to family and friends. In the more flexible format, students work on projects individually using asynchronous content and schedule 1-on-1 mentorship sessions with the professional guides when they need.

“We are still in the very early days of the project,” said Tan. “In fact, we didn’t really expect to launch this soon. When we spun up the website as a trial, we were surprised at how many people signed up, from both student and guide sides. The first project guides include a video game designer, a software developer, a product manager, and a data visualization mentor, although the goal is to have many diverse careers represented. We are also still learning the ideal parameters for the scope and difficulty of the projects, and how much work can be accomplished outside the weekly sessions, etc.”

Tan said starting up Pioneer in 2022 was a bit of an accident. She didn’t apply to Stanford intending to launch a company in her second semester. In fact, she’d toyed with the career exploration concept in 2018 and again in 2019, but it never seemed to gel. Then, in 2021, it bubbled up in different conversations with several of Tan’s classmates and connections at Stanford.

“So, yeah, my schedule is now absolutely crazy. It helps to love and believe in your work. At least that is what I’d tell anyone who asked me about starting up a company. That kind of belief motivates an unbelievable hustle. Late nights, you don’t feel the tiredness as much as you feel the pressure, the longing to really do this well,” said Tan.

Balancing her graduate work with the startup means Tan has to map out her days in order to stay on task. Fortunately, she has access to inspiring peers, advisors and accelerator mentors in the Stanford community.

She said, “One really good piece of advice was to work smarter not harder, and what really made it stick was how my co-founder described slotting my tasks on an X-Y chart. The X axis measures how much effort a task requires. The Y axis shows how valuable the task is for our project’s goals. The early stages of a startup are about validating that we are making something worthwhile, so it is often short-term, low-effort tasks that will move us to the next stage.

“I also recently learned the big difference between delivery and experiment. Having worked in a large organization, I knew all about the importance of getting the delivery details right for millions of users. But in a startup, we don’t have a million moving parts; we have more of a hypothesis that needs testing —so we can skip a lot of the middle steps required for product delivery.”

Launching Pioneer now is possible only because of Tan’s previous and simultaneous experiences. The opportunity arose precisely because she had worked as a developer in a large technology company, had taught computer science to high school students, and was enrolled in a graduate program with a startup accelerator.

“But it was my failed startups that really gave me the expertise I needed to be a successful ed tech founder,” said Tan. “I had plenty of pitches and prototypes that fizzled. I made all sorts of programs that didn't work and I even accidentally left an Azure machine running.

“For each of the ideas that didn’t make it, I had acquired a new set of skills and familiarity with a wide array of tools. I had taken tons of classes, read countless articles, and learned UI/UX design, illustration, and video production. I learned how to develop from a blank page, setting up new databases and handling authentication - things I never had to do from scratch when I worked inside an established product.”

In each of her roles — individual contributor, senior software engineer, teacher, grad student, and co-founder — Tan has needed to communicate projects and deadlines to a wide variety of audiences. Surprisingly, her approach is the same.

“In a technology company, the more senior your rank, the more your job becomes about communicating and teaching. It was actually my favorite part of my Microsoft job, teaching the new developers and interns about our codebase and projects,” said Tan.

“Think first about your audience and what they want to get out of the interaction. In a work setting, the audience usually needs clarity to make a decision. Your boss, your colleagues, the product people - they need your data and evidence to be delivered as concisely and quickly as possible.

“In a high school classroom, the students need your data and your explanation to satisfy their curiosity or to solve a problem. They may seek analytical feedback to help determine why their code isn’t working, or they need personal affirmation because they are wondering, ‘Am I any good at this?’

“In each of these situations, I learned to be efficient and concise with my words. Everyone is short on time and attention, so my best communication occurs when I put a lot of effort up front to determine what is most important to convey.”


Carlyn Chatfield, contributing writer