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Ruff Dreams Big with ScribeSense
6/18/2014

For John Ruff ’12, his success can be attributed to what he calls grit, or the ability to keep moving forward when the going gets tough. Grit is what brought him to the University of St. Thomas from his hometown in Minnesota. Grit is what allowed him to suffer through the Houston heat and endure long hours of soccer training, a sport he started playing his senior year of high school. Grit is what helped him make it through the hours of grading papers as a schoolteacher with Teach for America, and grit is what helped Ruff and the ScribeSense team present and win at the Dream Big America competition this past February.

Ruff, a political science major, met the ScribeSense team through Kevin Valdez, a UST alum and former soccer teammate, with whom they shared a space while part of a startup incubator, Tech Wildcatters, in Dallas. Initially, Ruff was asked to test the product, but upon using the product he was so thrilled by it that he has been helping them for the last year and a half.

ScribeSense is a team of engineers and educators striving to make teacher and student lives better. Through the use of technology, they have put together a program that not only analyzes and grades handwritten assignments, but also aggregates and analyzes students’ progress to streamline the grading process and chart the growth of students over their academic career.

“They are some great guys who are amazing coders,” Ruff said. “They developed an algorithm that could read writing off of a page and grade it. They created all of this but were having a tough time breaking into the school market.”

That is when Ruff came into play. As a teacher with Teach for America, he was able to bridge the gap between the technology and the educational applications. He was asked to present the product to different schools and districts around the country and handle the public relations side. Still, that did not mean the work was easy. Ruff said principals are busy individuals, and it is difficult to schedule meetings. Meeting with a superintendent is 10 times more difficult.

Since the competition in February, Ruff and the ScribeSense team have stayed busy. They recently placed as a top 10 startup at SXSW EDU. With 40 schools currently using their free pilots, they are looking to expand their reach with paid subscriptions from more than a dozen schools beginning this fall.

“When we have met with superintendents and principals and have put the product in place at schools, the reception has been great,” Ruff said. “It is definitely a grassroots movement. Marketing doesn’t work on teachers, you need to let them get their hands on it, and if they like it, it will grow by word of mouth.”

Ruff credits the St. Thomas community for the support and preparation that went into his success. Mentors like Dr. Jon Taylor, professor of political science, Dr. Jean-Philippe Faletta, associate professor of political science, and Dr. Livia Bornigia, associate professor of communication, taught him to make sure that what he learns outside of the class is just as important as what he learns in it. Drew Wilson, a UST alumnus and business owner, also offered support as he mentored Ruff through college to this day.

He also received support from the principals he worked under while teaching at Gregory Lincoln Education Center in Houston. Pamela Farinas and Dr. Carlos Phillips II both encouraged Ruff to pursue his passion as he balanced time in the classroom and building ScribeSense.

“It has been great to look back at St. Thomas and say this definitely prepared me to go and take on something completely unrelated to my major,” Ruff said. “That was the biggest testament to any teacher here, that what I learned was able to be applied, but that is the liberal arts theory: what you learn can be applied to any number of things.”

Moving forward, Ruff plans to attend Johns Hopkins University, where he will pursue a Master of Education. He will continue his work with ScribeSense and plans to spend more time with his wife, Catherine, also an alumna, and daughter, Aria.

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