An idea “that will help people succeed”

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UNO grad students directing their new startup at STEM students

You two friends?

“I can’t stand the guy.”

Rob LaMagna-Reiter laughs.

He sits in a chair in the Peter Kiewit Institute on UNO’s campus. He laughs because he actually loves working with Manas Bharadwaj, the guy who’s sitting in the chair beside him and laughing now, too.

“There’s no fighting,” Rob says. “Just maybe an overabundance of ideas at times. We share a common drive to want to create something that people find value in.

“We want to help people succeed, and we believe we have a great idea to do that.”

The two young UNO graduate students are partners in a promising startup they are developing thanks to UNO and the Peter Kiewit Institute, where they met and bonded in an e-commerce class.

That class was held in a room just above them on the second floor of PKI. They became friends when their teacher asked them to form groups for a project. Her assignment: design an e-commerce business.

Along with a third student (Felix Burgstaller, who’s since returned home to Austria), they came up with a plan for a massive, free online tutoring site for science, technology, engineering and math. The site would target students from middle-school age through the first level of college.

They’d seen a lot of other free education portals online for math and science. But they realized that most of them were targeting graduate-level students. No one was addressing the needs of younger people in those specialized fields.

“Instead of just completing a school project,” Rob says, “we looked at the data and said, ‘There is a real opportunity here. Let’s create a business plan.'”

For now, their startup is named STEM-Direct. It’s still in development stages. They’re almost to the point where they can ask people for financial help. They feel good that their plan is socially responsible. It will help promising young people – many of them from low-income environments whose parents can’t afford to pay for tutors.

It also will help increase the number of students entering in those STEM fields (STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics – fields widely acknowledged to be building blocks of a competitive society.)

There’s a high demand for STEM-related competency in this country. Yet many kids who have potential in those fields get lost along the way because if they wait until college, it’s often too late to catch up.

The plan was so good it won the 2013 Peter Kiewit Student Entrepreneurial Award.

Said University of Nebraska President James B. Milliken, in announcing the award: “The team behind STEM-Direct provides an excellent example of how students can leverage their University of Nebraska education into a product that will service people in the state and grow the economy.”

UNO Professor Sajda Qureshi taught that e-commerce class where the guys met. Her class was very small. The young entrepreneurs were able to interact with her a lot – she basically customized the class for them. She encouraged them to continue their research beyond the class and guided them down their path.

Their team works, they say, because they have different skill sets.

And because they are friends.

“Rob is super,” Manas says. “He will go, ‘1,2,3,4,5 … these are the steps in the process.’ He does very well defining what we should be working on. Me, on the other hand, I’m all over the place thinking, ‘We can do this. We can do that …’

“But I think it works perfectly.”

They have different backgrounds. Rob went to high school at Gross High, a Catholic school in Omaha and then to UNO for his undergraduate degree. He’s studying for master’s degrees in internet security and business administration.

He chose UNO out of high school because he’d heard a lot of positive feedback from his classmates at Gross who went on to UNO and the Peter Kiewit Institute.

“They told me what a good experience it was and about the cutting-edge technology.”

Manas grew up in India. He’s also studying for two master’s degrees at UNO – an MBA and an MS in Management Information Systems. He came to UNO because his younger brother had gone there and told him what an immense value it was.

“He told me it wasn’t that costly, but the standard for education is extremely high,” Manas says. “I really like this place. UNO and Omaha are great support systems for our small project – whether it’s teachers at the university or other fellow entrepreneurs, it’s just a great supportive environment.”

It’s easy, Rob says, for great ideas to get lost in the noise.

“But UNO is an incubator for ideas,” he says. “They don’t let it get lost. They’re always ready to push you, pull you up, motivate you.”

Information Technology is one of the top priorities of the Campaign for Nebraska, now in its final year. If you would like to support top students like the young STEM-Direct entrepreneurs, please consider giving online or contact the foundation at 800-432-3216.

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