How a UI startup is bringing sports mentorship into the community

By Jessie Wang, Assistant News Editor

Illinois athletes are being connected to local community members through a growing startup. After winning University of Illinois’ Cozad New Venture Challenge, student company Top Tier Lessons received $45,000 in investments on April 20.

Top Tier Lessons is a website where individuals can book private lessons with college student-athletes.

In addition to the University’s venture competition, the platform also won the College New Venture Challenge at the University of Chicago earlier this year, receiving a $35,000 investment in the process. 

Cara Bognar, junior in Engineering and founder of Top Tier Lessons, said the team currently consists of four other University students and an alum: PJ Beigh, Brooke Michael, Taylor Michael, Allison Landis and Sathwik Reddy. 

Bognar, captain of the Illinois swim and dive team, launched the startup following the approval of the Name, Image and Likeness Policy by the NCAA in 2021. Under the policy, collegiate athletes can be compensated for using their image, resulting in what Bognar called “a new market overnight.”

Although Bognar believed that the NIL policy would be a game changer for college athletes, she soon realized that only top athletes were receiving sponsorships. 

“I thought (the policy) was something that was going to impact me and my teammates almost instantly,” Bognar said. “We quickly realized that most of the deals happening, especially early on, were between massive brands and top athletes in their sport.” 

Bognar hoped to support athletes in nonrevenue sports and said Top Tier Lessons was created as a way for student-athletes to make money “doing what they love.” The startup is designed to work around the busy schedules of student-athletes. 

The website allows athletes to select their availability and build profiles, including information about their competition experience and academic affiliation. Parents can then browse the website’s profiles and book a lesson with their chosen athlete. Top Tier Lessons facilitates the lesson by handling the venue, payment, scheduling and safety. 

“This response has been inspiring,” Bognar said. “The response from the local community, as well as current student-athletes, is the reason why we do what we do.”

Bognar said that the Top Tier Lessons coaches are more than just coaches — they also act as role models and mentors to students. The founders of the startup and their coaches give back to the community by providing free clinics to democratize access to sports mentorship. 

“By hosting free clinics, we now have the ability to make these opportunities available to anyone who wants (them),” Bognar said. 

Reflecting on Top Tier Lessons’ participation in venture challenges, Bognar noted the experiences provided valuable connections, resources and mentorship. 

“One of the biggest things to come out … was the mentorship from the head coaches and people available, a whole pool of incredible people who are willing and want to devote pieces of their time to helping student entrepreneurs,” Bognar said. 

Bognar said recent investments would allow Top Tier Lessons to scale beyond the University. The startup plans to first move into schools within the Chicagoland area and then expand geographically in the Midwest.

Bognar noted the courses provided at the University’s Technological Entrepreneurship Center helped to transform her idea from a concept into a reality. 

“I was lucky enough to be at an institution that had the resources and the people and the willingness to guide me through those early steps,” Bognar said. “Once I was ready, I could dive … into the deep end.”


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