Making life easier for students with learning differences

Fourth-year students Yash Dhir and Rahul Nambiar were awarded the President’s Innovation Prize for their web-based education management tool, Jochi, to help middle and high school students.

Yash Dhir and Rahul Nambiar.
Yash Dhir (left) and Rahul Nambiar have been awarded the 2024 President’s Innovation Prize for their web-based educational management tool, Jochi.

Since the initial days of his first year at Penn, fourth-year student Yash Dhir has been steadily working on an idea that came to him as he was studying remotely from his home in London during fall of 2020: how to enable students to structure their time outside of class with the same level of support they have inside of school.

Named Jochi, the idea has evolved into a web-based education-tech management platform for middle and high school students who have learning differences, like ADHD, to help them keep track of their school assignments and outside activities. Schools that license Jochi integrate the management tool into their system, giving access to educators so they can better provide the students support.

“I had learning differences in high school, and I had gone through a lot of obstacles to get to Penn,” Dhir says. “A lot of what we’re doing with Jochi, it’s really resonated with me.”

Dhir’s partner is fourth-year Rahul Nambiar, who is from Dubai. Both are in the School of Engineering and Applied Science: Dhir a systems science and engineering major, and Nambiar a computer science major, who is submatriculating for a master’s degree. They have been friends since they met on campus in January of 2021, during a pandemic-delayed student Move-In, both of them living in the Quad, Nambiar in Riepe and Dhir in Fisher. They were roommates in Harrison Hall their second year, and by the third year they were business partners.

Now the pair are recipients of the President’s Innovation Prize. They will receive $100,000 for Jochi, and a $50,000 living stipend each. In addition, Jochi will have a workplace in the Pennovation Center, Penn’s business incubator.

Awarded annually, the President’s Innovation Prize and President’s Engagement Prize empower Penn undergraduate students to design and undertake post-graduation projects that make a positive, lasting difference in the world. The Prizes are the largest of their kind in higher education.

“Inventors at their core, Yash Dhir and Rahul Nambiar identified a gap and a solution to support students with learning differences. They have used their creativity and determination to turn an ambitious vision into a very useful product,” says Interim President J. Larry Jameson. “While balancing the academic demands of college, they’ve imagined—and reimagined—Jochi, a project we are pleased to award this year’s President’s Innovation Prize.”

The Innovation Prize is one of several Penn awards Jochi and its founders have earned in recent weeks. Together this funding totals nearly $300,000, including the $50,000 Draper Bridge Fund Award from Penn’s Venture Lab and $30,000 for the Startup Challenge. They also were named semifinalists in the international 2024 Milken Penn GSE Education Business Plan Competition.

The Innovation Prize will allow the pair to accelerate their already-ambitious goals, in part because of the financial backing, but also because of faculty support. “We’re in an education market, so having Penn’s name behind this, validating our product, and validating us as student founders, is so important,” Dhir says.

The company is generating revenue and currently is in nine schools, reaching about 900 students, they say. The goal is to reach 20,000 learners by May of next year.

Their faculty mentor is Amanda Antico, who teaches the Education Entrepreneurship course in the Graduate School of Education. Dhir took the class last spring and Nambiar this spring, undergraduate exceptions, and two of the most promising students she has taught in her nine years at Penn, she says. She is “thrilled” they were chosen for the Innovation Prize.

“They deserve it. They’ve earned it. And they’re ready to hustle,” says Antico, founder of the firm EvolvED. “They are going to change a lot of young people’s lives with this product. And they’re going to help educators be focused on what neurodiverse students need. It’s all very real-time and very data-driven, and it’s easy to use. That’s really a special combination.”

What is Jochi?

Jochi is an integrated management solution for students with learning differences who attend traditional schools. The tool comes in two components: a planner for students and a management tool for learning specialists and educators.

Students using Jochi have a personal interface to a digital planner that connects to their school computer systems, assisting them to manage their time. “A student basically manages their entire life outside the classroom on our tool,” Dhir says.

Yash Dhir.
“We’ve painted a complete picture for these educators to really understand how their students are doing inside and outside the classroom so that the support that they provide to them is as resource-efficient as possible,” says Yash Dir.

Educators similarly have an interface and can provide support based on the real-time information. “What we’ve built is a dashboard that consolidates everything they need to know about a student,” Dhir says. The tool tracks grades and assignments, how long it takes them to do an assignment, and extracurricular activities and responsibilities. “We’ve painted a complete picture for these educators to really understand how their students are doing inside and outside the classroom so that the support that they provide to them is as resource-efficient as possible.”

The name Jochi stems from a Korean word for “it’s good,” Dhir says. “But it also means in an abstract way productivity and organization that are embedded into your day-to-day life. It’s like a way of living.”

And Dhir says he and Nambiar liked the “funkiness” of the name, different from something like “daily planner.” “We wanted something that says, ‘We’re taking this new approach, this new energy, to ed tech.’” The signature color is an eye-popping purple. “That was symbolic to how we wanted to be known in this space,” Dhir says.

The beginning

Dhir was born in London, lived in New Delhi for nine years, and then returned to London for high school. He wanted to study engineering but was also interested in business. In high school, he started an ice cream company, a clothing brand, and a design agency for tennis academies and athletes. “I had a lot of these different passions,” he says. “I was very entrepreneurial from a young age. The one thing tying all of these passions together was the social-impact oriented mission.”

Penn was his first choice, Dhir says, because he could see the interdisciplinary possibilities of having access to the Wharton School. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to be in a place where you could have these different types of conversations,” he says. “And I liked that it was a very international place. I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.”

Like other Penn students, Dhir was taking classes remotely that first fall semester. “High school ended on a pretty low note,” he says. And that experience was the origin of Jochi.

“The project has evolved significantly, but it started with this simple thesis that students weren’t being supported outside the classroom in the same way that they were inside the classroom,” Dhir says. “I really don’t think that kind of realization or urgency would’ve come if we hadn’t had the pandemic.”

Building the product

Dhir says his first Zoom with his Penn email was with one of the directors of the Venture Lab, now in Tangen Hall, a hub for entrepreneurship, to get started on his project. Dhir worked with students and educators at an alternative-learning school in Philadelphia, the Revolution School, to help create the product and features to meet the needs of the students and educators.

The summer of 2022 Jochi was chosen for the Pennovation Summer Accelerator, a six-week program designed to help students build their entrepreneurial projects. “I started relying on Rahul quite a lot. I would come home every night and get his insights, his technical experience,” Dhir says.

Rahul Nambiar.
“I’ve learned so many different things in school, in the classroom, which are so helpful to apply to the real world,” says Rahul Nambiar. “But we are jumping into something that they don’t really teach you. I’m a computer science major; I learned how to code in this specific language. But if something needs to be fixed, if the product fails, I have to force myself to figure it out.”

“We were talking about it every day. I used to work out of the Pennovation Center with him some days, and I watched him pitch. That’s when I really started getting excited about the project,” Nambiar says. “He pitched me on the idea of me coming on and dealing with the product and the technical side of things.”

“We are both originally Indian, both international, both engineering, so we quickly became really good friends. We like to say that before all this we used to be best friends and then we started a company together,” Dhir says, both of them laughing.

Dhir convinced Nambiar to become a founding partner in Jochi, with the task of creating the computer software, and moved ahead to forge partnerships with five schools.

But in spring of 2023, Jochi faced a major setback: The company that provided the technical capabilities to connect the product to schools canceled the contract, and their partnerships came to an end. “It was a really tough moment because we had done all this work and felt like nothing had worked out,” says Dhir.

Betting on them

However, one school, La Jolla Country Day School in San Diego, stayed with the project. “They just really took a bet on us,” Dhir says. The reason? Because Kristy King, director of the school’s Learning Resource Center for students who have learning differences, believed in the product, Dhir says. “She really liked the idea of how the tool could be used specifically for them,” he says.

It was a turning point. Taking her suggestion, Dhir and Nambiar decided to retool Jochi specifically for students who have learning challenges, starting with the 100 students at La Jolla.

“We spent last summer building a product directly for this group of students who have learning differences, and their learning specialists,” Dhir says. “The whole idea was how do we help these specific students with their time management organizational skills, while also helping the educators support these students better.”

The connection to La Jolla was through Ryan Song, a 1999 graduate of Penn’s College of Arts and Sciences, who previously worked at the school. Song, who graduated from Penn GSE with a master’s degree in 2000, was one of the nearly 800 Penn alums Dhir emailed to ask for advice. Now Song is on Jochi’s board of advisors, along with Antico, and Patti Boyle, who has her Ph.D. from Penn GSE.

In a recommendation letter in support of the Prize, King wrote that Jochi “has the capability to simplify everyday functions which would save learning specialist and administrator time that can then be directed toward individual attention to the students.” And that she’s been “most impressed by the professional delivery and responsiveness of Yash and Rahul to our school’s individual needs,” meeting to demonstrate features of the Jochi program, answer questions, and solve problems.

“I’ve learned so many different things in school, in the classroom, which are so helpful to apply to the real world,” Nambiar says. “But we are jumping into something that they don’t really teach you. I’m a computer science major; I learned how to code in this specific language. But if something needs to be fixed, if the product fails, I have to force myself to figure it out.”

It’s just the two of them as partners, but they have also had undergraduate fellows, three this year, all first-years. They meet once a week. “They’re all passionate about entrepreneurship and want to start their own thing,” Dhir says. “It’s been cool to share with them our experience and be mentors and have them also be involved in our journey.”

Marketing to schools has been a priority this year. The pair have been going to educational conferences around the country—Boston, Atlanta, St. Louis, Villanova—setting up a booth and attending sessions. And they are meeting directly with schools, for now independent, but with a plan to go into public schools in the coming year.

“We finally have the product to a point where it is solving a real problem,” Dhir says. “People see it as a need, and they are paying for the product.”

The President’s Innovation Prize and other Penn awards fuel and accelerate their plans, they say. “It’s rewarding to end our four years at Penn on this high where we’ve got funding from such great organizations,” Dhir says. “Everything we are has come from Penn, from the ground up.”