Upkey, a Chicago-based startup that offers students free online career readiness tools, recently announced its closing of $2.6 million in seed funding. The company also announced Purdue University, SNHU and Guardian Life as customers for its platform, which helps prepare traditionally underserved high school and college students for successful professional careers.

Upkey has already earned national recognition for its early success. In September of last year, the company was included in “LinkedIn Top Startups 2020: The 50 U.S. companies on the rise.” It will use the seed funding to grow and upscale its operations nationally to serve more students and increase the flow of diverse talent into the pipeline of post-COVID job opportunities.

As part of its expansion, Upkey will open a second office in Austin. The company also recently launched Dashboard, a customized career map tailored to students’ individual needs and goals. Dashboard features interactive, gamified modules that allow students to earn ranks and badges, providing support and encouragement along the way.

Amir Badr, Upkey founder and CEO

“Over the past year, nearly 100,000 students have benefitted from Upkey career preparation tools,” said Amir Badr, the company’s founder and CEO. “Our mission is to level the playing field so that every student has the opportunity for support and training to reach their goals, while giving organizations access to qualified candidates who are ready to take on new and varied challenges.”

Upkey offers an arsenal of free professional development navigation tools that provide students with individualized, self-paced support. These tools include resumé-building, pitch development and interview prep, as well as virtual classes and internships with leading universities and companies. Previously, these resources were available only to students in elite educational institutions.

Currently, 70 percent of Upkey users are minority and first-generation students. According to recent surveys, 96 percent of those who completed one of Upkey’s professional development tracks said they felt more confident pursuing their career goals.

Bronze Valley is among the investors in Upkey’s seed round, which was led by S3 Ventures. Based in Austin, S3 is one of the largest venture capital firms in Texas, and focuses on addressing social inequities through such services as community and maternal health, early-childhood education, criminal justice reform and inclusive neighborhood development. Other investors include Tensility Venture Partners, Lofty Ventures and several angels.

Charlie Plauche, partner, S3 Ventures

“There has not been an effective remote professional development service focused on the needs of students, particularly those in underrepresented communities,” said Charlie Plauche, a partner at S3 Ventures who is joining Upkey’s board of directors. “This has become especially important during the past year, when many thousands of students stuck at home have lacked easy access to career counselors, mentors and internships.

“Upkey is already helping to meet those needs, and we want to position them to continue and expand on that,” Plauche added. “Upkey’s services help students begin their professional journey with confidence, regardless of their age, background or experience, and its use of gamified learning modules makes the process fun and engaging. We’re proud to support Upkey in its growth.”

In addition to its student-facing benefits, Upkey’s tools and approach also allow enterprises to invest in their future workforce through multiple touchpoints and build a diverse pipeline of job-ready candidates. One example is Upkey’s virtual summer internship program, VIP, an eight-week “master class” where students work with professionals in various areas to complete projects for college credits. Already, the program has received interest from students in more than 70 countries.

“Gen Z candidates represent a vast pool of talent and potential that is critical to our growth and success,” said Caitlin Pemble, director for agency growth & development at Upkey customer Guardian Life.

“Our top priorities have always included investing in our future workforce, with a deep commitment to diversity.

Neill S. Wright, President & CEO of Bronze Valley

“Upkey is changing the way companies and students connect and engage with each other. We’re thrilled to be on the leading edge of businesses that work with them to develop the next generation of accomplished professionals.

For Bronze Valley, partnering with Upkey is “a real opportunity,” said Bronze Valley President & CEO Neill S. Wright.

“This is an investment in the future of learning,” Wright said. “That’s a perfect fit with our mission of creating an education-to-opportunity-to-outcome pipeline for underrepresented communities to obtain and excel in the jobs of the future.

“We are excited to expand our footprint,” Wright added. “Most importantly, we’re excited about continuing to expand the Bronze Valley network. In turn, that enhances our ability to have continued positive impacts on economic opportunity in Birmingham, throughout Alabama and beyond.”