The life story of Shaan Akbar, AM ’13, MBA ’13, reads more like a logline of a Hollywood blockbuster than the CV of a budding entrepreneur. In only the past two decades, Akbar has had tea with a dictator, been questioned by the CIA, worked as a successful gaming executive for two of the biggest media companies on the planet, and scraped narrowly past death once, if not twice. And none of this even factors in all that Akbar has accomplished in the past two years—which, in itself, would be a fascinating dinner-party topic.

But before we can come to understand what Akbar is doing now, we need to rewind a couple of years. It’s 2019, and Akbar is at NBCUniversal, where he is serving as vice president of games publishing. Including his three-plus-year stint at the Walt Disney Company—where he rose from strategy associate to digital portfolio leader—Akbar had been immersed in the gaming industry for nearly seven years and counting. 

And though Akbar grew up a gamer, he was no longer satisfied in his career path. He was experiencing a moment of clarity: it was time to leave the gaming industry.

It wasn’t an easy decision to pursue another path, especially considering how valued he’d become in the gaming space. At Disney, Akbar helped drive product strategy for Disney Infinity, a $1 billion dollar video game franchise that paired real-life toys with digital play. An entrepreneur at heart, Akbar would go on to take initiative to grow a forgotten digital portfolio of storied Star Wars games including titles such as Knights of the Old Republic, Battlefront II, and X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, into a $40 million-a-year operation. 

“It is so rare in a large media company to be able to do everything,” Akbar says. “But, with that business, I was able to negotiate new content distribution deals, run marketing campaigns, set merchandising strategy, and lead tech teams. With our success, I was able to build out a small team and triple the size of the business grossing over $100 million during my tenure there.”

Later, Akbar was recruited by NBCUniversal to take that entrepreneurial spirit and build out a modern mobile games publishing operation from the ground up by leveraging the company’s massive intellectual property franchises including Fast & Furious and Jurassic World. There, his purview spanned everything from platform relations and product management to user acquisition. Among his team’s notable successes was the location-based, augmented-reality game Jurassic World Alive, which has generated tens of millions of downloads and more than $100 million in consumer spending.

“Talk about building an airplane while flying it! Those were some big challenges,” Akbar says of his time at NBCUniversal. “It was an organization that was in hyper growth. I feel like I lived six years in the three I was there.”

Akbar was in bad shape. His work-life balance was nonexistent. He had put on 50 pounds, and his mental health was suffering as he struggled with the ethics of the video gaming industry’s future and contemplated whether it aligned with his values system. 

“Mobile games were feeling increasingly predatory,” Akbar says. “They’re designed to take advantage of people’s impulses with compulsion loops. It’s the same way that social media operates—those small dopamine drips.” And that’s not all—he was also charged up by a new outlook that made him want to step away from the corporate space.

“After a very long stint in corporate America, I’d really been galvanized by widening income and racial disparities in our country,” he says. “It was time for me to live my values.”

Which brings us to the end of 2019: Akbar, a father to two young boys, had been seeing tons of online ads for Kumon, an after-school math and reading program intended for kids from nursery school through high school. “I’d been working in mobile games and I’d built a mobile-games business for NBCUniversal,” Akbar recalls. “I know kids are on their phones all the time, and they’re helping drive mobile growth. Why not meet the kids where they are?” He felt sure that there had to be a solution for a tutoring program that didn’t require parents to rush their kids to and from a physical location. 

The first seed of Tutored by Teachers had been planted.

Shaan Akbar headshot

I’d really been galvanized by widening income and racial disparities in our country. It was time for me to live my values.

— Shaan Akbar

A High-Action Life Story

Akbar’s history before gaming seems ripped from the pages of a novel. For one thing, he’s scraped through some sticky situations, including narrowly dodging death. And yet he recounts them all with a vivid sense of humor.

While a sophomore at Rutgers University, the Pakistan-born Akbar was invited to have tea with then Pakistan president General Pervez Musharraf on December 31, 2003. He was invited by an advisor to the president who had been impressed by Akbar’s insight into the region’s affairs. He met the military leader and had an hourlong conversation with him—although Musharraf, shaky from recent assassination attempts, seemed bemused by who exactly the brainy 20 year old was.

Just five weeks later, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Akbar was jumped by a group of guys with knives—they beat him up and demanded “his cocaine.” All they got was $13 and two train tickets.

“I think I was confused with a dealer,” he says. “Not a glorious night for a college sophomore, but all jokes aside, it had me shaken.”

In spring 2006, now a senior in his final semester, Akbar began to have terrible neck pain. After getting dismissive shrugs from a few doctors on what might be causing the issue, he finally consulted a rheumatologist, who was quick to suggest Akbar go straight to the hospital: he was suffering from some kind of severe infection, which had penetrated bone and inched near his heart.

“They had to excavate it,” Akbar says. “I had a two-inch hole in my chest. I still have a scar.” One of the infectious-disease physicians told him that his story belonged on the medical TV drama House—because they had no idea how he had gotten the infection in the first place. The best guess was Akbar had somehow contracted it on spring break in Mexico, but they never determined the cause for sure.

Despite missing all his finals because of the surgery, Akbar maintained strong enough grades that he was still able to graduate on time with the rest of his classmates. 

While at Rutgers, he had accepted two job offers—one to be a financial analyst at Merrill Lynch and another to be a targeting analyst with the US Central Intelligence Agency. “I was really passionate about political analysis,” Akbar says. “I also happened to speak Urdu, and I took Farsi in college.” He would work at Merrill while he underwent a long security clearance process with the agency. The process featured a visit to headquarters at Langley and an interview while hooked up to a lie detector. Ultimately, Akbar didn’t receive security clearance, and his hopes for his dream job had been crushed.  

Undeterred, Akbar launched a blog, The Insider Brief, featuring analysis of the AfPak region and South Asia during the height of the War on Terror. Akbar’s readership grew quickly among policy circles, including readership at NATO, the State Department, and think tanks. He started making appearances in the mainstream media, including Reuters, BBC World, and Fox News.  

Akbar feels that his work with his blog had a meaningful influence that he couldn’t have anticipated after losing the chance to work with the CIA. “Sometimes the positions we want limit our capacity to influence and inform the world around us in balanced, meaningful ways,” says Akbar. 

After two years at Merrill Lynch and another two as a senior business planner at Disney Theatrical Group, Akbar decided it was time to return to the classroom. He wanted to hone his entrepreneurial skills, and was also looking for a really strong international relations program. He came to the University of Chicago and Chicago Booth and earned a joint MBA/Master of Arts in International Relations.

“Booth just really fit the bill,” Akbar says. “I loved the academic rigor—the legacy of all those Nobel laureates. The folks who wrote my poli-sci and finance textbooks at Rutgers were at Chicago. Not to mention the burgeoning startup ecosystem at Booth.”

Akbar still has those books—including The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001), written by John Mearsheimer, R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago—and he keeps a document on his laptop of all the things he learned while at Booth, including lessons from courses such as Building a New Venture taught by adjunct professor of entrepreneurship Waverly Deutsch, Entrepreneurial Selling taught by former clinical professor of entreprenurship Craig Wortmann, and Cases in Financial Management taught by former clinical professor of finance Kevin Rock, AM ’80, MBA ’80, PhD ’82.

Many of those lessons have come into play as he tries to navigate the sometimes rough terrain of primary and secondary education. “At its heart, Booth is a finance school,” he says. “It taught me a lot of valuable lessons around how to manage a business and how to think about financing your business as you grow it.

“Even seemingly mundane stuff like, ‘Never finance long-term assets with short-term debt’ or ‘Long-term trends turn into long-term prices,’” he says. “Those lessons have really taught me to take the long view and not chase after short-term, quarterly, unsustainable approaches.”

His thoughtful, strategic, Booth-inspired worldview has influenced his home life as well. “I make very intentional decisions to block off my calendar in the morning to work out, and to spend time with my wife and kids,” Akbar says. 

Akbar got married in 2011 to Chicago-reared social worker Katie McHugh. “If you couldn’t guess by her name, she’s Irish Catholic,” Akbar, himself a Muslim, jokes. They have two children together. Raising kids in an interfaith family has its challenges, so much so that the Akbars decided to create an online community designed for similar couples who celebrate both Christmas and Eid al-Fitr. It’s grown to more than a thousand members. There, Akbar says, “people can talk about their challenges and share their experiences in a loving, supportive community.”

And while (spoiler alert) Akbar did leave the video-game industry, he hasn’t entirely given up gaming. In his rare free time, you might find him online assuming the role of Guardian in the first-person shooter game Destiny. 

We looked at each other and said, we need to move fast. We were missing out on an opportunity to support kids when they needed it the most.

— Shaan Akbar

On the Move

Rocketing back to 2019, where Akbar is thinking about how to bring tutoring into a mobile space, a good friend of Akbar’s, Rahul Kalita, an edtech executive, turns out to be plotting his own exit from the corporate world. Kalita had been a director of global business operations at Discovery, and, like Akbar, lived in the New York tristate area. The two had known each other since fifth grade, were best men in each other’s weddings, and even attended business school at the same time in Chicago—Kalita was at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management while Akbar was attending Booth.

“We just started spitballing,” Akbar remembers. The two MBA graduates started brainstorming where gaps existed in the tutoring space. “We know that teachers aren’t paid well. We also know that teachers are our best instructors—empirically they drive the best outcomes. Why don’t we create a platform for online tutoring with teachers? This way we can improve outcomes for students and for teachers alike.” 

The two were still iterating their concept when COVID-19 made its presence known and the United States went into lockdown. At this point, many companies—existing or burgeoning—hit the brakes, fearful of how the pandemic might impact business. But for Akbar and Kalita, it was a sign to step on the gas. 

“We looked at each other and said, we need to move fast. We were missing out on an opportunity to support kids when they needed it the most,” Akbar says. They both realized quickly that not only would remote learning be appealing to kids and parents, but it was about to become the only way kids would be able to learn for the foreseeable future.

Akbar and Kalita launched a website and began growing a network in the education community. They were able to attract Teach for America alumni to be their teachers, and then they started marketing directly to parents. In a matter of months, Tutored by Teachers was born.

It took a little time for Tutored by Teachers to learn to walk, but once it did, it started to sprint. Working with affluent parents who could afford hours of tutoring a month helped to drive improved incomes for teachers, and allowed Tutored by Teachers to donate tutoring hours to students in high-need communities. 

In fall 2020, they secured two contracts with charter schools in Brooklyn and realized they could get tutoring directly to the kids that needed it the most, at scale. They pivoted the company to serve schools directly and get help to high-need students in historically underserved communities through small group, teacher-led virtual instruction. In early 2021, just as the second semester of the school year was beginning, all of Akbar and Kalita’s iteration and outreach started to pay dividends.

“This experience really opened my eyes to the notion of product market fit,” he says. “We just have a really strong market fit, and investors saw that.” In a matter of weeks, Tutored by Teachers was able to raise $500,000 in seed money.

“We were clear-eyed around our philosophy. The hot thing to do right now is to go raise big from VC. I have a friend—she’s a partner at a venture capital firm. She said, ‘You’re in a hot space right now. You’ve got to go raise $10 million at big valuation.’” But Akbar knew better—that wasn’t the right move for Tutored by Teachers. “We’re wholly committed to improved outcomes,” he says. “There’s generally misalignment with venture capitalists who ultimately want you to grow as fast as you can.” Tutored by Teachers wants to close the opportunity gap, and that requires thoughtful investment over rapid expansion.

“We’re trying to make sure we deliver good experiences for the kids and the teachers, and that we’re improving outcomes for everyone,” Akbar says. “That resonated with our investors—that this is an opportunity to do well by doing good.”

The solution presented by Tutored by Teachers was so promising that they also received an unrestricted grant from New Schools Venture Fund, a venture philanthropy nonprofit.

Tutored by Teachers began granting free or subsidized pilots to Title 1 school districts, or in other words, low-income, high-need communities. The startup is based in New Jersey, and Tutored by Teachers began close to home, joining forces with schools in New York and New Jersey, before contracting with districts across the country in California, Mississippi, and Alabama. 

Tutored by Teachers offers a model that allows for fair wages for the teachers involved. Teacher-tutors are distributed all across the United States. Three-fourths of teachers have at least five years of experience, and the teachers are majority Black, Indigenous, or people of color. The teachers meet remotely with K–12 students, often during school-sanctioned intervention blocks.  

Thanks to the Common Core curriculum, students—regardless of the state in which they reside—are aligned on studies. But Tutored by Teachers also attains notes from the schools and conducts its own standards-based assessments to fine-tune lesson planning. Anywhere from one to five students will meet with a teacher-tutor virtually for one to two hours per week, during or after the school day. Tutored by Teachers recommends serving interventions during the school day when possible, while the kids are most engaged.

These changes from COVID-19 will be long-standing. The same way we’re never fully going back to the office, the way we deliver K–12 education has been changed forever.

— Shaan Akbar

One of their most notable success stories was in Phoenix City, Alabama. Tutored by Teachers served 10 percent of the district’s eighth graders in most need of extra help with four weeks of high-dosage tutoring in English and Math. Prior to Tutored by Teachers’ debut, the selected students were failing all their classes. After the intervention, 72 percent of students served were passing at least one subject, Math or English, with 50 percent passing in both. The potential impact of this change can’t be overstated.

“When you think about the cost of having to repeat a grade for the district, or the greater cost of falling prey to the school-to-prison pipeline, the empirical evidence says that the potential cost of flunking out of eighth grade is very high,” Akbar says. 

Over the summer, Tutored by Teachers served approximately 500 students with its inaugural Summer Academy, with the company on track to serve 10 times that for the 2021–22 school year, inclusive of more than a dozen school districts. And, by next summer, Akbar anticipates Tutored by Teachers will be serving as many as 10,000 students.

Because of the uncertainties surrounding COVID-19, the nationwide teacher shortage, and a massive federal stimulus, Tutored by Teachers is in a strong position to grow at a brisk pace. The company has already contracted over $1 million of school engagements in less than 6 months. 

“That’s the trajectory we’re expecting,” Akbar says. “These changes from COVID-19 will be long-standing. The same way we’re never fully going back to the office, the way we deliver K-12 education has been changed forever.”

Tutored by Teachers has completely overhauled Akbar’s quality of life. “That’s part of the reason I walked away from it all,” Akbar says. “Working in corporate America, I definitely fell prey to hustle culture. Startup life is still long hours. But we’re also doing really impactful work alongside mission-driven people that we like. It’s fun.”

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