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WNC Business

Startup partners with local university to boost social mobility

Mar 09, 2024 07:13AM ● By Courtney Kelly

Backrs, a tech startup with a presence in downtown Asheville's Hatch Innovation Hub, has just launched its first partnership with a college–Mars Hill University. MHU is a premier private, liberal arts institution located just 20 minutes north of Asheville. It offers over 30 baccalaureate degrees, as well as master's degrees in criminal justice, elementary education, teaching, and management. 

ASHEVILLE - Backrs is onboarding a cohort of MHU's undergrads onto its social mobility platform, providing them access to college and career guidance from professionals across the country. "We're thrilled to be empowering young people alongside MHU," commented Backrs' co-founder Andy Bobowski. 

Designed to serve high-performing, under-resourced students in tandem with academic institutions, Backrs connects young people who need social and financial capital with adults who can share it. "A good education is an advantage, but it's not the only thing undergrads need to pursue fulfilling careers," said James Heinl, Executive Director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at Mars Hill University, "They need people who can open doors for them and industry-specific mentorship. Alone, our school can't offer this to every student, but together with Backrs, we can." 

Research out of Harvard University shows that the single biggest predictor of social mobility in the US is cross-class relationships. While economic segregation means those relationships are hard to come by in the outside world, Backrs leverages the convenience of mobile technology to help students cultivate them online. "Our platform enables young people to build dynamic networks composed of people with a diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and identities," explained Bobowski.

On the Backrs app, new college students can connect with graduates who are able to share invaluable post-secondary insights. Students who are interested in medicine but don't know anyone in the field can reach out to doctors, nurses, physician assistants, and more. The same goes for more than 70 (and counting) career paths. Beyond concrete advice on topics like time management or resume writing, young people also receive encouragement and emotional support from the adults on the Backrs app.

"A sense of belonging is crucial to collegiate success. But for many undergrads, especially first-generation college students, that doesn't come automatically. Having adults in their corner who can assure them they belong–that's another invaluable way the app supports young people," commented Heinl. It's also why the adults on the app are called backrs. They don't just answer questions; they champion aspirations.

The impact of the partnership between MHU and Backrs extends beyond individual students into their communities. "When young people feel connected here, they're more likely to stay. So if we can embed them in a supportive ecosystem that includes Western North Carolina's world of work, we not only unlock opportunities for them, but we also encourage them to share their talents with employers in the region," said Sabrina Delk, Director of Mars Hill University's Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership. To promote this end, Bobowski and his team are intentionally connecting MHU student users with WNC-based backrs that will, over time, also include university alumni.

Heinl, Delk, and Bobowski hope this pilot partnership sets a precedent for other businesses and colleges. By working together, post-secondary institutions and employers can bridge the opportunity gap that keeps millions of bright, driven students from realizing their potential in the workforce. This is a win for young people, who deserve the chance to succeed no matter their birth circumstance. And it's a win for local economies. As Heinl explained, "The more diverse and engaged WNC's community of young professionals is, the more innovative and prosperous this region's industries will become."

If you’d like to get involved, you can sign up to empower young people on the Backrs app. The platform’s built-in tools make it easy and rewarding to share knowledge, connections, or funds with high-performing, under-resourced students. Learn more at