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50 Smartest Companies of the Year 2021

Upkey – Helping transform tens of thousands of students into standout applicants and preparing them for the professional world


“We want to improve the odds — for everyone significantly so that deserving students across the country can fulfill their professional dreams.”

Upkey is a provider of remote career readiness and talent engagement tools for students, universities, and companies. It is comprehensive toolboxes built to fundamentally change the way students think about their careers.

Upkey was founded in 2016 and is headquartered in Chicago, Illinois.image

Amir Badr: Interview Excerpt

Q. What was the idea behind starting Upkey?

I moved to the US from the Middle East when I was 17. I landed in Chicago on a frigid winter evening in 2001. I walked off the plane with $100 in my pocket — the sum of my possessions. By chance, I met someone at the airport who kindly helped me find my way back to my new home. This person later became dedicated to my success and mentored me for many years to follow.

My first job out of college was at Exelon — a Fortune 100 company. During my time there, I captured the attention of a handful of leaders who saw potential in me. They began charting my path to success and coaching me on leadership skills, communication and helped me build the foundational blocks to becoming an entrepreneur.

Today, I’ve had the chance to embark upon a journey to fulfill my dreams, but I have come to realize that in the words of Dr. King, “too many dreams remain deferred.” So many critical life-changing events will never happen or are left to luck. And that’s why we started Upkey. We want to improve the odds — for everyone significantly so that deserving students across the country can fulfill their professional dreams, similar to how I did.

We believe that access, opportunity, and knowledge must be democratized. By delivering valuable content in an accessible and straightforward format, we can level the playing field and give everyone the shot they deserve.

Q. What makes Upkey different from others in the space?

Upkey is a career-readiness and talent discovery platform that equips students with the 21st-century skills to be successful professionals while creating a marketplace for companies to engage and discover high-quality candidates often overlooked by traditional recruiting channels.

Unlike every other platform in the space, we have created tools and services that are fun, engaging, and accessible by every deserving student. Typical professional development tools serving Gen-Z are boring and antiquated, but Upkey makes it easy for every student to become a successful professional.

Q. Why are your solutions relevant in today’s age? Could you give us some context?

Covid has accelerated the need for anytime / anywhere professional development tools that directly serve students. With 63 percent of Gen-Z’s preferring a fully self-directed and anytime/anywhere approach to learning, Upkey services are well-positioned to help every high-school and college student with their transition to the professional world.

Q. Tell us about your full range of offerings?

At the heart of this innovation lies Upkey’s interactive AI-powered dashboard where students input personal profile data to create a personalized professional Journey Map. The Journey map features gamified goals and milestones that help students develop their career and personal brand through self-directed, anytime, anywhere digital learning tools.

As students complete more steps in the process—becoming resume-ready, interview-certified, and pitch-perfect—they earn badges to boost their professional rank. The higher the rank they achieve, the more opportunities and experiences they unlock. And the more they stand out in a sea of applicants.

Upkey’s on-demand skill-building platform also features virtual programs that connect students worldwide with top leaders and companies through online learning, projects, and internships. Students get real-world experience at companies including Google, Nicor, ADP, Guardian Life, Constellation, and McKinsey & Company while building their professional network. Companies gain access to a diverse pipeline of talent and potential, unlimited by location or time zone.

Q. Tell us about your internships and programs to help students achieve goals.?

Upkey’s Virtual Programs mainly focus on,

  • Teaching students 21st-century skills
  • Connecting students with top companies
  • Expanding student’s professional network

During Upkey’s virtual programs, students learn valuable skills from professionals who connect with top companies and take on projects from different industries.image

Q. Could you tell us about some of your success stories? Could you share with us some statistics that demonstrate the success of the Upkey platform?

In the past year alone, we have served more than 100,000 students from 70 different countries. Approximately 87 percent of students have completed a capstone project with a company. 96 percent of the students loved their experience with us and have referred our company to their pals. Besides, a cent percent of students have qualified to receive three college credits. With us, students expanded their network up to 400 percent within six weeks.

We work with almost 500+ universities and 1000+ schools, among which we serve 61 percent women, 64 percent minority, and 52 percent first-gen students to fulfill their professional dreams.

Q. How important are partnerships to your company?

Partnerships allow us to continue investing in the future of our workforce. These partnerships provide capstone projects and career-defining content to underserved students.

Q. What are the challenges of being in the E-Learning segment?

Upkey is the only platform that is directly serving the students and does not rely on gatekeepers. Our approach is Gen-Z and innovation, as in the old-fashioned ed-tech world with lots of bureaucracy, adoption can be slow.

Q. Tell us about the company’s work culture. How do you provide value to your employees at the workplace?

Our work culture is around “mission first.” Everyone at Upkey is here to make a difference and help level the playing field. We are extremely passionate about our work and committed to our mission.

Q. How have you innovated during in these times COVID-19 pandemic? How has the pandemic affected the company?

It has increased the need for remote tools. It has significantly increased the need for opportunities (as much internship has been canceled.)

Q. What can we expect from Upkey in the near future?

We will continue to serve a million students and continue to grow.image

The Visionary Leader Upfront

Amir Badr, founder & CEO

When he was 17, Amir Badr fled Iran and came to the United States where he worked as a server in a restaurant, earned degrees from the University of Illinois and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business before leading diversity and inclusion efforts at a Fortune 500. Spending several years leading HR initiatives Amir became well-versed in the corporate landscape and gained insight into the underlying issues challenging talent assessment and hiring. Upkey is a product of Amir’s personal and professional journey. The digital learning platform provides engaging modules and tools to help strengthen students’ transition into the professional world. Amir’s goal for Upkey was to create equal opportunities and empower underrepresented students with the necessary tools and knowledge to become successful in their career paths. Upkey has been named one of LinkedIn’s top 50 startups and Amir has recently been included on Forbes Next 1000.

“Upkey’s on-demand skill-building platform features virtual programs that connect students around the world with top leaders and companies through online learning, projects and internships.”