How to Graduate From a Failing School System and Still Be Brilliant

A 26-year-old entreprenuer ensures gifted students worldwide receive the kind of education they need.
Brilliant's CEO Sue Khim believes all kids with an intellectual aptitude should be given a chance to develop it. (Photo: Moxie/Getty Images)
May 7, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

Growing up in a poor neighborhood in Chicago, Sue Khim saw some of her brightest classmates languish in a public school system that failed to engage or develop their natural aptitudes.

But when she moved to a new school district fortunate enough to have a gifted program, Khim’s own academic career took a fortuitous turn. “It changed my life,” she tells TakePart. “I was around peers who were truly intellectually motivated, the class covered really interesting and thought-provoking material—it was at a much higher level than what we were doing at the school in the regular classes.”

That event would later turn out to be the inspiration for Brilliant, a startup the young entrepreneur founded with partners Silas Hundt and Sam Solomon.

With Khim as its CEO, Brilliant aims to identify and develop high-aptitude students from around the world who may be bored with their current classes and provides them with a more challenging curriculum.

The company’s namesake website focuses on building students’ mastery in science, math and engineering by presenting them with high-level concepts and problems.

Its software is designed to identify a student’s starting level and then build upon it, with equations that over time, increase in their degree of difficulty. Participants can also engage in group problem-solving sessions, working with like-minded kids who offer feedback and support in resolving stumbling blocks.

The profiles the students create on the site become calling cards, forming a database for top-tier universities to pour through in order to find the world’s brightest young minds. For those who are especially advanced, Brilliant can facilitate mentorship and scholarship opportunities.

Khim explains, “We were excited by the prospect of helping to create a world in which smart, driven people could be found and nurtured on a more meritocratic basis, irrespective of their geography or socioeconomic background...We wanted to create a company to help these people reach their full potential...”

Though saw its official launch in October of 2012, it’s already attracted 75,000 users worldwide, and made a difference in the lives of some very impressive students.

Among them is Dylan Toh, a 12-year-old from Singapore who found Brilliant when he was searching the Internet looking for advanced math problems. His abilities were so astounding, Brilliant facilitated a mentorship program for Toh that allowed him to study abstract linear algebra and positioned him for scholarship offers at top-tier American universities.

Fifteen-year-old Phoebe Cai also ranks among Brilliant’s brightest. She was already performing data analysis at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, but has also earned herself a series of national math prizes, including the bronze medal at the Math Prize for Girls Olympiad.

Khim reports that so far, girls make up less than half of the users active on Brilliant, but her hope is that as the site encourages more students in general to embrace hard sciences, more female students will find their way into it.

In the meantime, what’s arguably most inspiring about the company’s work is that it allows the students themselves a say in the course of their education. Whereas before they were simply at the mercy of others’ decisions—their parents, their school systems, their local economy—Brilliant offers them the means to challenge themselves and grow in ways that may not have been possible before.

What other sorts of changes could benefit our educational system? Let us know in the Comments.