What’s in a name? According to Shakespeare, not much. But in real life, this could not be further from the truth. Learning someone’s name is the first step to building a meaningful connection, while conversely, mispronouncing a name triggers feelings of exclusion. Praveen Shanbhag understands this pain all too well. He recalls the story of how his immigrant mother, Anupama, worked with a colleague who would call her Anna, rather than take the time to learn how to say her name. Then, while attending the college graduation of his sister, the unthinkable happened. With immediate family and distant relatives in attendance for the joyous event, the announcer butchered her name as she crossed the stage to receive her diploma.
“Her name wasn’t mangled for lack of trying,” Praveen says, distinctly remembering the sense of embarrassment on the part of the faculty announcer. “Most people want to pronounce names correctly, so after that moment, I set out to develop technology to make it easier.”
It was during his free time as a PhD candidate at Stanford, that Praveen began coding an app to collect recordings of students saying their names for their upcoming graduation. Positive responses poured in, prompting Praveen to scale up his ambition into something grander. In 2014, with the help of some friends, he founded NameCoach – the world’s first platform for enabling accurate name pronunciation and gender identification. While the initial app focused on graduation ceremonies, the current NameCoach product is used for use cases spanning from welcoming students at orientation, to making them feel at home in the classroom, to assisting advisers and student services officers with their first crucial interactions with students.
“Time and time again, our users tell us that there’s a subtle but real sense of alienation that happens when your name is mispronounced,” says Praveen, who serves as CEO of NameCoach. “Our mission is to drive more respectful and inclusive interactions by helping people say each other’s name correctly.”
According to a 2015 U.S. Department of Education report titled “Fall Enrollment in Colleges and Universities,” the share of white U.S. undergraduates enrolled in postsecondary institutions decreased from 81% in 1980 to 55% in 2014 as campuses have become less homogenous. That same time period saw increases in the share of black students (10% to 14%), Hispanics (4% to 17%), Asians (2% to 6%), and other multi-ethnic or uncategorized undergraduates (3% to 7%).
Today’s students hail from diverse cultural backgrounds and NameCoach is already being used to promote greater inclusivity. The platform has successfully launched at Princeton University and Northwestern University. The startup has also partnered with the Unizin Consortium of 25 major universities, and acquired Ohio State, Indiana University, and Oregon State as customers. Recently, the company became a CollegeBuys partner with the Foundation for the California Community Colleges, one of a select group of vendors pre-approved for the country’s largest higher education system.
Praveen says that the Michelson Runway Accelerator is a natural fit for NameCoach as both seek to deliver positive social impact. By the end of the year, he envisions having successfully having passed the $1m mark in Annual Recurring Revenue, and launched the general audio name pronunciation recommendation system for both student recruiting and advancement/fundraising contexts within higher education.
Supporting Praveen is a passionate team from diverse backgrounds, each dedicated to the company’s philosophy of inclusion. Their mission is reflected in a quote from a different poet, Henry David Thoreau, who said, “A name pronounced is the recognition of the individual to whom it belongs. He who can pronounce my name aright, he can call me, and is entitled to my love and service.”