Date November 4, 2021
Media Contact

For senior Elvia Perez, an entrepreneurial approach to tackling educational disparities

With classroom experiences across the Open Curriculum and support from the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, Perez built on her own experiences to launch EmpowerU, a startup that connects low-income students to higher education resources.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — For Elvia Perez — a first-generation American who grew up in a low-income household in Los Angeles — the path to a Brown University education was far from preordained. For starters, she didn’t know much about the process of finding the right college or the steps involved in trying to make attending one a reality.

“Growing up, I was not exposed to Ivy League schools, and I didn’t really know what higher education looked like outside of my community,” Perez said. “One of the biggest detriments for low-income, first-generation students is that it can be rare to find role models within our community. It wasn’t until my junior year that I met a fellow first-generation Latina who was attending Stanford on a full ride. She inspired me to see the possibilities that were out there for students like me.”

That encounter, coupled with the chance to participate in a summer program at Yale University — one she discovered independently, scrolling through Instagram posts — put the Ivy League on her radar and prompted her to launch Latino Empowerment, a nonprofit organization, upon her return to Los Angeles.

And the whole of her experience became the driving force behind an effort to help others. Now a senior at Brown pursuing a business economics concentration and a certificate in entrepreneurship, Perez has launched EmpowerU — an ed-tech startup that addresses educational disparities by providing students from low-income families access to resources such as scholarships, internships, summer programs and mentors. 

Contributors to EmpowerU — the tech startup Perez launched to provide low-income families with access to educational resources — meet at Brown's Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship to discuss next steps in development.

“We are seeking to humanize the college application experience, create an empowering sense of community and have a social media component where students are able to connect with their friends and see what everyone is up to,” she explained.

While the seeds for Perez’s idea were planted in high school, a series of experiences at Brown has helped to make EmpowerU a reality. Brown’s legendary “Engin 9” management and entrepreneurship course, and a subsequent independent study with beloved engineering and entrepreneurship professor Barrett Hazeltine enabled her to connect with dozens of Providence-based nonprofit leaders, high school counselors and public school kids to learn how students were navigating the college application process.

She’s also taken full advantage of the support and resources at the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, a major factor in providing both the know-how and the confidence to create her venture. In 2020, she participated in Breakthrough Lab, an intensive summer accelerator program that helps students develop ideas for high-impact entrepreneurial ventures into startups that can attract the funding needed for a full-scale launch. And she’s been a longtime leader for Brown EP, a student run entrepreneurial organization based at the Nelson Center.

“The Nelson Center has been an amazing resource for me throughout my four years here at Brown,” she said. “For me, entrepreneurship is about asking how we can address some of the world’s most pressing issues and do so in a way that is most creative and effective while also taking into account different perspectives. Because the majority of those problems — whether education, health care, food security, the list goes on — strongly affect people of color, people who are not as privileged, and people who come from under-resourced backgrounds, we need to ensure that we are taking these voices into account as we seek to create change in this world.”

Other big boosts: being featured in the Boston Globe’s “Innovators Q&A” feature and landing a $10,000 award for EmpowerU after the venture was named a 2021 winner of the Brown Venture Prize, which supports student projects with significant potential.

“The Brown Venture Prize was incredibly helpful and I am beyond grateful to have received it,” Perez said. “It has been the catalyst in moving our venture to the next stage.”

The EmpowerU app, targeted for the Apple Store in early 2022, is now being user-tested with nearly 100 Providence public school students, with a weekly newsletter that details the app’s features. Their input will be important, Perez said, to help determine what content will eventually be included.

"Brown has encouraged me to explore my passions and enabled me to develop the skills that have helped me work toward creating the change I wish to see in this world."

Elvia Perez Class of 2022, shown here with her father at Brown's Family Weekend 2021
Elvia and father

“Instead of having in-person events, we want to leverage technology to build a community in which students from across the nation can connect with each other, view stories and resources, and share opportunities with each other,” she said. “Overall, the most important thing for students is to have a sense of empowerment — being able to provide them with the notion that they, too, can succeed and that a college education is definitely a possibility for students who might not always see that within their own communities.”

That sense of empowerment has proved essential during her own experience at Brown. Inside the classroom, Perez has made the most of the Open Curriculum, completing coursework in everything from sociology to entrepreneurship (with Hazeltine and Thano Chaltas) to persuasive communication, with Barbara Tannenbaum, distinguished senior lecturer in theatre arts and performance studies. Across a wide range of disciplines, faculty support has been a common theme.

“Professors like her [Tannenbaum] show you how special the Brown community is,” Perez said. “She cares so deeply about her class, not only pertaining to the academic growth of her students, but also to their personal development as human beings. She is one of the most compassionate people I know, and I can say the same thing about Professor Hazeltine, Professor Chaltas, Alan Harlam and other faculty members. All of these individuals have been my mentors and people I look up to.”

As she looks toward earning her Brown degree with the Class of 2022, Perez will remain a co-founder for EmpowerU while she heads to an investment banking position with Barclays in New York. Meera Kurup, a Brown junior studying computer science and entrepreneurship, has joined her as technical co-founder and chief technology officer for the startup.  

From the relationships she has built at Brown and in Providence, to her academic experiences in classrooms and at the Nelson Center, Perez has made the most of her time on College Hill.

“Brown has encouraged me to explore my passions and enabled me to develop the skills that have helped me work toward creating the change I wish to see in this world,” Perez said. “Being surrounded by a community of intellectually stimulating individuals striving to create solutions to the world’s most pressing issues is a beautiful thing.

“As a first-generation student, I never imagined I would be attending an institution like Brown,” she added. “Being here provides me with a sense of responsibility to give back — I always want to remember where I come from and remember that for students like myself, these opportunities are rare and oftentimes unheard of. That’s why EmpowerU means so much to me.”

With additional reporting from Jessica Tabak.