Prema Choudhury ’10 (left), with her cousin Preeti, has brought tutoring services to her Bronx neighborhood.
Photo courtesy of Prema Choudhury ’10
Every Saturday, Prema Choudhury ’10 meets her cousin Preeti Choudhury at the corner of Westchester and Zerega Avenues in the Bronx to open the doors to ScholarSpace, the tutoring- and test-preparation center they founded and launched together in July. As students file in for their weekly tutoring sessions—most of them are elementary school kids from Bangladeshi and Latinx immigrant families—Choudhury greets a group of Bangladeshi mothers from the neighborhood where she grew up and still lives. “We started ScholarSpace for the community,” she says. “So it’s important for us to engage with our students’ families.”
Education has always played an important role in Choudhury’s life. Her parents, immigrants from Bangladesh, have been tutoring students for free from their apartment in the Bronx for years. She learned at an early age that there was a deep need for services like these in their community.
“Kids here have a hard time preparing for higher education due to socioeconomic issues,” Choudhury explains. “For example, they don’t have access to expensive tutoring services to get into New York’s [elite, public] specialized high schools,” schools that send many graduates off to the Ivy Leagues.
Inspired by her parents, at the age of twelve, she began dreaming of opening a tutoring center in her community that would help bridge this gap. During her first year at Barnard, in 2006, she began a four-year tenure as the branch director of a renowned tutoring service headquartered in Queens. The founder of the company, who passed away in 2014, chose Choudhury to manage its Bronx center because of her passion and commitment to mission-driven work. Says Choudhury, “I understood the needs in my neighborhood. My roots are here, and he saw that. He believed in my vision.”
At Barnard, Choudhury availed herself of programs and courses that deepened her passion for education. She tutored high school students from Harlem as part of the Liberty Partnership Program, which matched Barnard students with those who need help preparing for college. And one of her favorite courses was Youth Voices on Lockdown, an offering through Columbia’s African American Studies Department. The class made a weekly trip to New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex to work with fourteen- to eighteen-year-old inmates. “We would teach them poetry, hip-hop, and art to help them cope with self-expression,” she says. “It was one of the coolest college experiences I had.”
Choudhury considered becoming an education major but chose economics instead, after a rewarding internship with a major financial firm. Her love for finance led to a full-time opportunity there.
Now, at twenty-nine, Choudhury operates ScholarSpace on weekends with Preeti. Both work full-time and dedicate their weekends to their business. They are among a growing number of entrepreneurs keeping regular jobs while working on their own ventures.
Currently, ScholarSpace has twenty-five students between the ages of four to eighteen enrolled in their weekend tutoring program. Compared to their competitors, ScholarSpace’s fees are bargain-basement low: A two-hour session can cost as little as $5 an hour. ScholarSpace has two main revenue streams: its tutoring and a sublease agreement with a group that offers Bangla language/culture programs. The cousins hope the business will soon run on weekday evenings. The pair also recently launched a fellowship program that gives high school students an opportunity to learn business operations and supplies free college-prep tutoring in exchange for volunteer tutoring of younger students.
To avoid burnout, the cousins created a system that allows them each to take a couple of weekends off every month. Still, Choudhury doesn’t think of ScholarSpace as work: “This is my downtime during the week,” she shares with a hint of humor.
One of the biggest lessons she has learned as an entrepreneur so far is resilience. “You have to be okay with anything that comes along [and] things not going as planned. If I waited for ScholarSpace to be perfect before launching, it would have never happened.” She credits her parents for reminding her that at the end of the day, it’s the mission, not the revenue, that matters. •