For twenty-five years, Founder and President of University Instructors, Inc., Jim Popp, has dedicated his life to helping K-12 students better themselves. While growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, he attended DeSmet Jesuit High School with the mission, “Men for Others,” and was constantly involved in community service. Because of this, he knew he wanted to work with other individuals for the rest of his life. His confidence was also built at a young age, as he continuously had older brothers and many soccer coaches to look up to. He has always felt very fortunate for having mentors who helped mold him.
After high school, Jim enrolled into the University of Richmond, pursued his Bachelor of Science in Management and Marketing, and played varsity soccer. As a Business major, he was interested in the structure of organizations, managing people, and streamlining processes.
When he wasn’t in class, traveling with the soccer team, or studying for tests, he was a youth assistant soccer coach. “I really enjoyed coaching and getting to know the players and families. It’s amazing how kids gravitate to young adults. I had younger brothers, too, so I knew how to understand and work with them.”
Wanting to combine helping kids and his interests in management and marketing, Jim believed there had to be a way he could put all of it together. Thinking through his post-college career options, he evaluated becoming a full-time coach, a teacher, and most of all, a social worker. When graduation arrived in 1992, Jim felt he had still not chosen a career path that was perfect for him. He was employed with a computer firm, working with technology, and participating in marketing and sales, but firmly knew that was not the career path he wanted to be in forever. With a past of community service and giving back, he knew he needed to do something that was more meaningful to him and to the community. This is when Jim observed an important event that helped the concept of University Instructors, Inc., (UI) come to fruition.
Still coaching young soccer players part time, he noticed that many players didn’t have older siblings influencing them, and several parents had their hands full balancing their own careers and the academic and athletic needs of their children. Being one of seven, with five brothers and a sister, he was used to a large family and many helping hands.
“I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be cool to create a mentoring and tutoring service. Although I was a pretty good student in college, I benefited from having tutors. I knew a lot of smart and motivated people and figured there might be a business here.”
With that, the idea of UI started to develop, as just one person wanting to help many others. With a network of college athletes, undergrad students, graduate students, and recent graduates, Jim knew these individuals always looked for ways to make money to pay for incidentals. Seeing this opportunity as a “moonlighting gig” at the time, where he was also able to do some good in the community, Jim became the facilitator. Along with tutoring and mentoring kids himself, his job was to connect individual families that wanted a mentor or tutor with his network of friends. Using a lot of undergrad and graduate students that had availability, he came up with the name “University Instructors,” and in January of 1994 the company was incorporated.
A friend of Jim’s, Brad Harris, was one of the creators of the first University of Richmond website, at a time when the internet and email was gaining popularity. With Brad’s web design skills, Jim knew he could take UI a step further with technology.
“I said to Brad, ‘There must be a way we can move this to the internet. We can really go to scale rather than having to keep all this paperwork and excel sheets organized.’”
The duo worked together to create a platform that allowed tutors to enter their time and sessions summaries online, as well as generate detailed invoices for the growing number of families. The University Instructors website was created, and the tracking application “InstructorNet” was developed, helping him to manage dozens of instructors, and hundreds of clients. Jim attributes this program as a key to UI’s early growth.
Jim was the first UI tutor himself and assisted elementary and middle school students. He remembers some of the more popular courses they were helping kids with at the time involved typing on computers and using the software program “Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.”
“I think I had more skills with mentoring and establishing goals than actually teaching,” Jim notes. “I worked very hard at building the network of tutors and felt like my biggest strength was creating the business structure, while reinforcing, and selecting the right individuals. I did all the tasks for about seven years before we had our first-time employee.”
In 1998, Richmond Public Schools (RPS) became UI’s first school district partner, creating a strong, ongoing partnership for now twenty years.
The Standards of Learning (SOL) end of the year tests were a new concept in Virginia and the principal at Richmond Community High School, Ms. Audrey Swann, was looking for some help to prepare students for their mathematics tests. The daughter of the school counselor at RPS was being privately taught by a UI tutor, so she recommended the principal reach out. The principal contacted Jim and asked for several math tutors. UI was successful, which lead to several referrals.
The following year, Dr. Deborah Jewell-Sherman, Director of Instruction at RPS at the time, encouraged Jim to work with more schools and in an even tighter capacity. Jim notes her advice was a huge breakthrough for UI and he and his team learned a ton through their partnership. Inevitably, word spread about the relationship with RPS and UI started working with more and more school districts.
“What’s interesting is when you start and grow a business, is that there are many moving parts and big decisions along the way. There were many strategic shifts in the first ten years, and we continue to make adjustments,” says Jim.
First, the company stopped hiring undergraduates, and only teachers and tutors that had a degree. The reason being is when the group first started with undergraduates, the schedules did not match very well. The students had other events to attend, such as college basketball games and fraternity and sorority events, and they also left campus to go home for the summer. Since the tutors were vigorously working with various school systems, they stopped working individually with families. UI now handles human capital and logistics management for projects with hundreds of instructors and is proud to be an extension of school district instructional teams.
Additionally, in UI’s evolution, out-of-school EPIC® Afterschool Programs and Summer Camps were added alongside the daytime tutoring. After adding these services, Jim says the team learned the importance of the social emotional side of learning. However, regardless of the circumstances and the latest trends, UI continued to find and develop tutors that could connect with the student, empathize with the student, and build a trust. Above all, the team will always believe every student can be successful, individual relationships are key, and there must continually be a focus on communication, writing and ELA.
In 2013, the organization took another big leap as it was acquired by Public Consulting Group (PCG), a private company that helps organizations in the public sector make measurable advances to their performance and processes. Jim was grateful to have found an established partner that is financially strong, understands K-12 and has the complimentary services to help UI. Without a doubt, PCG helped transform UI into an improved company, creating a foundation that helped UI grow at an exponential rate. Since the acquisition, UI has tripled in size and is licensed to work in over 40 states.
“I think the match with PCG has been perfect,” Jim states. “To start, PCG is a value driven company, which stems from their leadership. That matches with who we are as an organization. Secondly, now as a wholly-owned subsidiary, our leadership team can be focused on what’s most important – the students. We don’t have to worry about the compliance dynamics of running a complex business.”
Two years ago, UI made another shift by introducing EdForce™, an educator staffing service trying to help ensure every student has a quality teacher. With the national teacher shortage becoming a larger epidemic, the UI team has taken on the challenge of bringing great teachers into the classroom.
“I just believe the team is bringing some compelling stories and services to the market and I’m excited that we can be impactful,” Jim expresses. “We have shared goals with our partners and we are reaching these goals, which gives everyone involved a feeling of accomplishment that is motivating. What is best about your work is when you have a feeling of accomplishment, and not because it’s easy, but because it is often challenging.”
As UI grows, he continues to find joy in working with his teammates and seeing them develop, acknowledging there are many individuals vital to UI’s growth and successes. He takes great pride in the work of his teammates and says the leadership team has the skill of shifting people around and providing them opportunities to be remarkable. His goal is to keep the organization’s purpose at the forefront and wants to lead with UI’s vision and mission in mind, wanting to help equip young people with the skills and attitudes needed to thrive and succeed as adults in the modern economy.
“My favorite part about being UI’s President is when externally we are seeing districts grow and they express that they appreciate our good works with them. I love seeing the impact we have on students. I also get excited when we make internal business processes more efficient because even that is progress.” Jim adds.
Moving forward, Jim believes the team needs to maintain the courage to be vulnerable, to fail, and further continue to learn, just as UI Instructors teach 21st century learning to students. Each time UI partners with a school, the team learns something new and has takeaways. He believes that if everyone stays true to their value system and they can continue to take the time to hire the best individuals, UI will continue to positively evolve. Furthermore, since the company has experienced rapid growth, the leadership team has been establishing the path for success in a collaborative manner with partners, to not be just a vendor, but instead a meaningful partner. The team wants to continue to mind shift that from the very beginning to make sure there is time to fully understand what is needed as a partner.
“Not every day is peaches and cream. Some days are better than others. I care about quality at every level of our delivery. It can be stressful, but we have a highly motivated team. University Instructors is purposeful, rewarding, and collaborative. That’s how I describe this organization,” says Jim.