This mom left her day job while pregnant to help launch a YC-backed startup. Now, her team has an ambitious plan to make K-5 learning 'pods' more affordable for children of all backgrounds

  • Elizabeth Adams was three months pregnant and had a 6-year-old daughter when she started making weekly trips from Washington, DC, to Silicon Valley to participate in Y Combinator and launch her startup Trustle.
  • Her team initially developed an app that allowed child care experts to connect over video calls with families who wanted support for everyday parenting challenges, like picky eating.
  • Now, they're pivoting to offer affordable learning pods for students K-5, and they're reinvesting 80% of the profits into scholarships so low-income students can participate as well.

Elizabeth Adams was three months pregnant when she flew from her Washington, DC, home to Silicon Valley to interview for a coveted spot in the startup accelerator program Y Combinator last October. 

"I didn't know what Y Combinator was," the clinical psychologist, mom, and Trustle co-founder told Business Insider.

Adams, who serves as Trustle's chief clinical officer, and her co-founders, CEO Tom Sayer and CTO Catalin Voss, had pitched YC the idea for an app that allows child care experts to connect over video calls with families who want support for everyday parenting challenges, like picky eating and sleep training. 

In the days before the Y Combinator interview, Adams found herself bogged down with parental challenges. She recalled preparing an "elaborate princess unicorn" Halloween costume for her 6-year-old daughter.

"My daughter was not happy because I missed her trick-or-treating while interviewing," she said, acknowledging the challenges working mothers face.

On interview day in Mountain View, California, almost 3,000 miles away from her daughter, the Trustle team discovered they'd been accepted to the startup accelerator. And that meant Adams had to leave her clinical psychologist job and start making weekly trips to California.

"I would get up at 4 a.m. on Monday, get to the airport, and land in California around 9 a.m. and fly back on Wednesday," she explained. 

The program ran from the first week of January to the second week of March, when Y Combinator's program ground to a halt because of the coronavirus.

"My daughter's school shut down," she said, "and at that point, I was six months pregnant." 

Adams, who acknowledged she was lucky to have support from her husband and parents, spent about four hours a day helping her daughter with distance learning.

"It was like a part-time job," she said. "I would work until midnight from March until June, until school was out." 

In June, two weeks before she delivered her son, Adams sensed Trustle needed to pivot from supporting everyday parent challenges to something more ambitious. While some of her friends were betting that schools would re-open, Adams wasn't holding her breath.

"I can't tell you how many parents cried on the phone with me," she said, referring to her work calls. 

So she started interviewing teachers to see how Trustle could best support distance learners in grades K-5. 

Some teachers told her that most students weren't even logging on to Zoom, while other educators said they were advising second graders who were home alone how to make lunch, not solve fractions.

When Adams started noticing education pods that were charging thousands a week, she liked the idea, but said her team didn't want to launch a program that exacerbated education inequalities and neglected the public school system. "Pods" are where small groups of local families pool together and hire private tutors or teachers. 

Now, Trustle plans to hire tutors, camp counselors, and other community educators to lead pods of about five children in grades K-5. The students will enroll in public schools, she explained, but the community educators "will be the leaders of the pod and help the kids implement the distance learning program." That way, teachers will be in charge of the curriculum. 

Joining a Trustle pod costs $1,300-$1,650 per month, depending on location, and includes 6 hours of childcare, 5 days a week. Families willing to host the pod receive a discount. The price is much lower than some pods, which reportedly cost up to $125,000 per year. 

Adams said Trustle will reinvest 80% of the profits to offer full and partial scholarships "to create diverse pods both from a racial standpoint and a socioeconomic standpoint."

"We spent a lot of time putting equity, affordability, and diversity at the center of our model," she said. 

To start, they're launching in two counties in Virginia, Prince William and Fairfax, as well as Silicon Valley's own Redwood City.

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