Marcus Howard’s startup journey began when he was in fifth grade on a test day.
Throughout elementary school, Howard made straight A’s and was generally known as a math and science whiz. But something happened one morning to disrupt his education. It was something many students face: his parents got into an argument at home and Howard was pulled into the middle of it.
“I was totally devastated because I was the only child and I was in the middle of it,” Howard said. “It was just the first time something like this happened. I had prepared for the test, but when I got to the test, I couldn’t remember concepts.”
This was the tiny spark that would lead Howard to found Chapel Hill startup ROSA Technology years later. It was the first time he realized that emotional well-being can impact how well students perform.
Fast forward to when Howard had just graduated UNC and was working as a middle school math and science teacher in Las Vegas for Teach for America. Again he saw firsthand how students, often from low-income backgrounds, were dealing with life stressors that ultimately impacted their ability to excel in school.
As a teacher, Howard knew he had to provide social and emotional support for them to succeed, and it’s likely part of the reason he was named Teacher of the Year in his second year. On the award, it was engraved, “Mr. Howard was able to bring the most out of his students.”
That’s when it fully hit him: not only do schools need to address the academic concerns of students, they also have to address their social and emotional concerns.
After completing his PhD at NC State in education in 2020, Howard felt prepared to finally launch a platform that would track students’ mental health so schools could step in before their emotional well-being impacted their academics.
As a web-based software, ROSA enables students to complete clinically grounded mental well-being check-ins. ROSA aggregates this data and then sends it to teachers and counselors, who can now fully see which students have indicated they need immediate support.
And ROSA’s mental-health responders can respond in real time through chat technology. This will either provide a short therapeutic conversation to get students back into the learning environment or, if necessary, redirect students to a counselor or outpatient mental health facility immediately.
“ROSA is a counseling friend for students and a powerful data tool for schools,” Howard said.
The name, ROSA, aims to broaden outreach in underrepresented communities. The cultural relevance of educational materials is key in how Black or Latinx students connect to the material, Howard said, so it’s fitting the name “Rosa” is a familiar one in the Latinx community and might also bring to mind Rosa Parks, the prominent civil rights leader.
After launching late last year, ROSA is already live in schools across Texas, Arizona, Missouri, North Carolina and Ohio. They operate on yearly subscriptions per user.
Last month, ROSA became one of the 15 startups to be selected for a $10,000 NC IDEA MICRO grant. This was the first outside funding, and Howard hopes it will begin a chain reaction of others investing in ROSA’s vision.
“It’s a huge part of our next step,” Howard said. “Right now, I’ve poured my personal savings account into this company because I really believe in it.”
With the funding, Howard said ROSA will build on its technology in order to fully scale for the next school year, when the company anticipates it will serve between 14,000 to 20,000 students.
Howard looks back to his fifth-grade self and knows he would have benefited from a platform like ROSA.
“If I went through that that morning and had a mental health counselor to talk to at the beginning of the day so that I could be mentally prepared to take the test and deal with things that are going on, that would’ve been transformational,” Howard said.
When Howard looks at ROSA’s trajectory, he sees a startup that began as a data tracking tool for daily emotional well-being and then evolved into a mental health counselor support program where students can find daily micro-doses of support.
Twists and turns along the way
Naturally, like in any startup journey, there have been blips along the way. One of the early features ROSA offered was a daily wellness score for each student. This score, while innovative in its own right, became a distraction in classrooms as students began comparing scores, diverging from the purpose of ROSA. From this, the ROSA team has learned the importance of listening to the teachers they are serving.
ROSA has also benefited from a recent increased focus on mental health, especially students’ mental health. Throughout the pandemic, there was a national spotlight on students facing mental-health challenges as they dealt with pandemic-caused isolation and remote schooling.
Schools are more likely to say they are looking for solutions to this problem now, Howard said.
“We want to see a new generation of emotionally intelligent young people who can identify, manage and address their daily emotions,” Howard said. “We know that’s a big thing because we feel like if every young person is able to identify, manage and address their daily emotions, the world, quite frankly, would be a better place.”
Howard said what’s truly different about ROSA compared to competitors is how the platform provides assistance to students every single day. When considering the challenges that students struggling with poverty or abuse face on an everyday basis, it’s important that schools are working daily to combat suicide and chronic depression. With ROSA, they can.
“We are doing something that nobody else is doing,” Howard said, “and that’s addressing the daily social and emotional challenges that impact a student’s ability to learn in the classroom.”
Beyond just schools, though, ROSA plans to implement its mental health outreach solution into the workplace as a way for companies to check in on their staff.
The long-term vision of ROSA is a future in which the platform is integrated into everybody’s days, he added.
As the startup scales, ROSA is looking for more advisors who have clinical and research expertise in social-emotional challenges in adolescents. They are also seeking funding to help achieve their mission.
“We’ll be looking to just develop a generation of people who are emotionally intelligent and able to build better relationships with each other, express their feelings, emotions and really be a productive part of global society,” Howard said.