From the hallowed halls of academia to the electric world of startup, Angie Eilers of UR Turn is transforming her educational background and expertise into a bustling business. It’s also incredibly important to point out that she has an adorable cat.
This is A Workday With Angie Eilers, founder and CEO of UR Turn.
Tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I am a former professor at the University of Illinois and a long-time educational researcher. I have conducted research on schools, students, and families with terrific research universities over the past 20 years, including University of Minnesota, Stanford, and University of Wisconsin—Madison.
Maybe more importantly, I am also a mom. From years of research in schools and as a parent, the professional and personal insights led me to develop the software solution, UR Turn. UR Turn is a data-driven, research-based app that helps students and families navigate their way successfully through high school and onto post-secondary colleges and universities — especially first-generation college aspirants. This research area is of interest to me because I am also a first-generation collegegoer (meaning first in the family to attend college). Expectations and levels of information are different for “first gen” students who do not fully understand the winding pathway to and through college. It is a mission of mine personally and professionally to see more and more students make it through college.
Have you experience burnout or rough mental waters during your business journey? How did you cope with those times?
At the start of launching my company, the highs and lows were wild swings, like a very jagged line. Any little conversation about a prospect was greeted with unabashed optimism; any rejection from a potential customer or funder signaled the end of it all. Over time, that jagged line has smoothed out quite a bit… like a steady heartbeat. What some might call cynicism, I have learned to not get too excited about anything (until $$ is in the bank). I don’t attribute this steady state of emotion to cynicism as much as I attribute it to maturity. All things mellow with time and reflection. This current steady beat comes after a few years of riding the emotional roller coaster; I can now anticipate the ups and downs instead of being surprised by them.
The onset of the COVID-19 virus created emotional gyrations not unlike what we are seeing in the stock market. The timing of lock down happened to coincide exactly with the K12 sales season (February 1 to July 1). I had $12,000 on the business credit card for travel to national conferences where I was slated to speak or to exhibit. With the lock down, it felt like a big birthday bash had been cancelled. The only thing that has reverted me back to that steady heartbeat is that I am not alone in this. Everyone is experiencing the same pain and frustration. The good news is that I have a bit of money in the bank, email outreach seems to be working, and customers are renewing for the coming year.
Who is the person you go to for support during the highs and lows of the business journey?
My husband, without a doubt. He has been the absolute best and perfect partner to see me through all of this. He has been on his own entrepreneurial journey in the past, and he regularly reminds me that he survived and that I will, too.
What’s a recent work-related challenge you had to conquer? Walk us through your process.
The shutting down of all travel during sales season has been the #1 challenge. An email drip campaign accompanied by social media presence is about all that is available to any of us. Knowing everyone is in the same position — and that a sea of emails flood into inboxes every day — we worked very hard to make ours stand out. We led with empathy. Our first series of emails were not about us; they were about free resources that educators could use as 50 million students transitioned from the classroom to their family’s kitchen table.
UR Turn is connected to a lot of national ed tech advocacy groups, so we helped circulate to our customers and customer leads a variety of sources of free materials, free tools, etc. Next, we extended empathy by honing in our target market’s biggest pain points — monitoring attendance and keeping students on track to graduate high school. By letting our customers and potential customers know that we understand how challenging this remote work is, we led with compassion and offered a solution.
What time do you rise and shine?
I am a night owl. I stay up past midnight every night (always have) and wake up at 8:00 a.m. I drink a half of pot of coffee while reading local and national newspapers online and fire up the computer about 8:45 a.m.
What do you usually eat for breakfast?
Go-to-breakfast is always around 10:00/10:30 a.m. — a hearty bowl of oatmeal with sliced almonds and some sort of fruit (apples, raspberries or blueberries).
What’s the first work-related task you tackle each morning?
Email! Especially now. All communication is done on email with no out-of-office meetings. I used to like to start the day with face-to-face meetings, but that habit is on indefinite hold at the moment.
What is your workspace setup?
Pre COVID-19, I worked out of WeWork at Capella Tower. Since March, I have been working out of my home office (which I have always maintained even when I had an out-of-home office). I have a terrific stand-up desk that faces the window to our picturesque backyard, a white board the size of one wall, and photos of my twins all over the place. I also have my company banner hanging behind my desk which I would have used while at exhibiting at conferences. It serves now as a nice backdrop when I have video demos and video conversations with potential customers or funders.
What’s the most interesting/fun/meaningful thing on your desk?
I have a picture of my twins from their first day of pre-school, and recently I appended pennants of their colleges to the picture frame. They just graduated from college in June 2020 from Santa Clara University and Stanford. This framed photo encapsulates for me their education journey… from tiny to mighty!
What do you need to get done before lunch to feel like you had a productive morning?
I answer all urgent emails, set up any meetings, review the coming days. The afternoons are designed for planning, reflection and planning some more, but I also use afternoons to catch up on education industry news and trends.
What are you listening to these days?
I’m not wild about K-Pop music, but I am fascinated with their social media savvy, so I listen and learn from what they are doing/saying socially and politically. They have left a big impression on the world and I want to understand it.
What podcasts are you listening to?
How about TV?
“Explained” on Netflix.
What’s the last movie you saw and what would you rate it (out of five)?
“The Shawshank Redemption” (for the 3rd time). Obviously 5 out of 5, because I rarely watch a movie more than once.
What book would we find on your nightstand?
“Don Fraser: Minnesota’s Quiet Crusader” by Iric Nathanson. Don Fraser was a long-time mayor of Minneapolis, former Congressman, and friend of Hubert Humphrey. I am happy to say I knew Don personally before he died in 2019. He worked on social issues his entire life, including education. With where we are right now in Minneapolis after George Floyd’s death, I want to understand more history of Minneapolis. I make it a point to read biographies, autobiographies and memoirs (my all-time favorite is the auto-biography of Katharine Graham, the former publisher of The Washington Post, called “Personal History“). We all have a lot to learn from other’s stories.
18-year old cat, Danallini. My daughter made up the name when she was three years old, and I have to say the name suits our adorable cat. We think of her as Italian, like Donatella Versace.
How do you fend off the post-lunch lull?
What do you use to stay organized during a hectic day?
Push alerts on my calendar.
What’s one thing everyone could do to be more productive?
Reflect! Try to sort out the signal from the noise. It is both very zen and very gratifying.
What’s the last work-related thing you do at the end of a day?
Look at the calendar of things that will be coming my way for the week (knowing that a lot of unanticipated things will land on the calendar — the best laid plans are always going to be interrupted).
How do you decompress at the end of a long workday?
A three-mile walk around Cedar Lake down the street from my home.
What time do you hit the hay?
Anything new with UR Turn?
UR Turn is a goal-setting and progress-tracking app for middle and high school students and their families. We like to think of it like FitBit or Apple Watch for education. UR Turn plugs into student data systems and visually transforms the data using data visualization and data analytics. We are now in a partnership with the largest student data warehouse company in the United States (PowerSchool), and we think this partnership will be a game changer for us during the 2020-21 school year.
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Photos courtesy of Angie Eilers and UR Turn.
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