Kader Sakkaria – StudentUplift
For many young people, college—especially their first year—can be as stressful as it is exhilarating. They’re often immersed in a perfect storm of living away from home, adjusting to different eating and sleeping habits, establishing new relationships and under pressure to perform academically while avoiding the pitfalls of their newfound independence.
The American College Health Association’s most recent survey revealed that 75 percent of more than 54,000 undergrads experienced moderate to severe psychologic distress, with 44 percent showing symptoms of depression. Suicide trails only accidental injuries and illnesses as a leading cause of student death, with a mortality rate of 6.17 per 100,000. The COVID-19 pandemic likely intensified anxiety and loneliness through forced isolation, the long-awaited college experience being reduced to interacting with faculty and classmates through virtual means.
None of this comes as news to Kader Sakkaria, an Indian American who’s fashioned a career by applying technology to real-world situations in various industries. Now he seeks to make a difference on campus through his brainchild, StudentUplift, which harnesses the latest from the wired world to deliver customized mental health support to students at colleges and universities.
“The key is being able to provide a hyper-personalized solution,” he tells Toggle from Chicago in November while overseeing StudentUplift being beta launched at three Midwestern colleges. “We’ve created a very smart engagement model. We work with artificial intelligence in ways to collect what the students are going through, analyze the data and provide them with personalized content.”
A growing roster
By the semester’s end, Sakkaria hopes to have at least 10 schools active in the program and 20 or more in place by the conclusion of the 2024-25 academic year. The goal, he says, is for StudentUplift to be the leading mental health and wellness app for higher education and, in the process, improve student retention and performance.
There might be a few counselors inside those ivy-covered brick walls, but their caseload can be overwhelming with a student population in the thousands.
Thus, he says, control of mental health must be in a student’s hands with around-the-clock services that can only be accessed via technology. StudentUplift offers an engagement model, the only one that Sakkaria says is powered by AI but based on research done by staff psychologists familiar with what students are going through and how they prefer to consume content.
The app offers the student customized video content built around the pillars of well-being such as sleep, social situations and managing stress. The content is built in short format videos designed especially for GenZ, who has become accustomed to consuming content in this format. The app also contains a customized mood meter that leverages AI to push specific content to help the student cope and move to form lasting positive habits. Through AI, there’s access to third-party partnerships, real-time and in-person weekly mentoring sessions and video content, news articles, surveys and other interactive opportunities.
A student’s state of mind can be tracked through a mood board, and while privacy is ensured, the aggregated data is made available to coaches and college administrations. It’s also wired to deliver content through several global voices, and its white-labeled platform enables the school to speak in its own brand voice.
“This demographic has many more ups and downs,” explains Sakkaria, himself the father of school-aged children. “Meeting new friends and having new experiences is exciting, but there’s much academic stress and/or challenges in a new environment. Some of these students experience new challenges and don’t know how to handle their feelings.”
Wired from the start
Sakkaria seemed to thrive in his academic pursuits, he recognizing the potential of technology as a young man growing up in India and earning a degree in computer science and a master’s in computer applications at the University of Madras between 1988 and 1994. He’s applied his skills to such industries as real estate, health care, finance and consumer products, and while serving as vice president at TransUnion Software Services in Chicago, managed his time well enough to score an MBA from Northwestern University-Kellogg School of Management.
Before founding StudentUplift, he logged three years as chief digital and technology officer at education consultant Ruffalo Noel Levitz, a position that prepped him for his current role, which he recently combined with being an adjunct professor of advanced business courses at Aurora University. According to him, it’s always stimulating to be on campus and all the better if his apps can help build positive habits in the education environment.
At StudentUplift, he’s aided by a dream team of accomplished technologists and support staff in Chicago, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Australia and the Middle East. There’s much potential to build on this model on all shores, Sakkaria sees it growing to a $100 million company in three to five years and expanding to other verticals.
There’s no turning back the AI tide, he says, and, like fire, artificial intelligence can be a valuable tool or dangerous master. He’s committed to using it for the most beneficial causes, and for now, that’s the well-being of students in particular and education in general. According to him, self-help tools will always be needed, and StudentUplift (studentuplift.com) has just scratched the surface of a world of opportunity.
“With my deep technology and leadership experience in various industries, I realized a genuine market gap,” Sakkaria says. “We have an opportunity to help people worldwide but have started with an audience with a genuine need: college and university students.”
View this feature in the Winter I 2024 Edition here.
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