Growing up as a child of Indian parents in Cincinnati, Praveen Shanbhag remembers wincing those first days of the school year when teachers would try to pronounce his name. Even while at Harvard University, where he studied philosophy, and Stanford University, where he received his doctorate in the field, he would find himself coaching his professors along.
“I’ve heard Pray-veen, or P-raven,” Shanbhag said, while his last name would become “Shan-bag, Shan-bang, or She-bang.”
In fact, his name is pronounced Pruh-veen Shawn-bog.
The mistakes were annoying, but he lived with it. Then for her college graduation, Shanbhag’s sister had written out her name phonetically, but the commencement reader said something that was unrecognizable to both her and her family. “It was jarring for anyone who knew her,” he said.
It was this challenge that led Shanbhag to create NameCoach, a program that provides audio tutorials to help with the pronunciation of difficult names for business or institutional settings.
The software from the Palo Alto-based company, which raised a $1 million seed round last year, has been or will be used by over 250 universities in commencement proceedings this spring, including New York University, Columbia University, and Stanford. Schools pay an annual subscription. Pricing depends on a number of factors, but typically ranges from $1-$3/ graduating student
Brandeis University, Boston University’s business school, and Tufts University used NameCoach at graduation ceremonies this month, and Wellesley College plans to use it at commencement this week.
The process is relatively simple. Students receive an email from their school with a link to the NameCoach site. There, they can make a recording of how they say their name, and write it out phonetically (an example, from Shanbhag, can be found here). The company allows schools to sort and export the files, so each name reader can get a spreadsheet with audio files attached.
As they practice the names, readers can also listen to how they’re said, reducing the chance for error. Shanbhag said that for many people, audio cues can be more effective than phonetics. Facebook began using similar technology within its profile pages last year.
Sandra Fallon-Ludwig, an assistant registrar at Brandeis University, said the school found NameCoach to be an useful tool for its commencement readers this Sunday, particularly for professors from larger departments who may not know all their students personally. It also was helpful in cases with international students, of which there are an increasing number.
“A lot of students go by nicknames that are different than what’s on their diplomas,” she said. “It was an attempt to aid the readers and help avoid any embarrassing situations.”
And while this is certainly his company’s busiest time of year, Shanbhag said he sees applications for the tool beyond graduation season. Professors attempting to learn students’ names at the outset of the year can use it, as can businesses or event planners.
“I think it’s especially striking a chord now because of increasing diversity and international populations, and increasing focus on creating inclusive communities,” Shanbhag said. “And this is a truly concrete step they can take to be more inclusive, especially when it comes to what for many is one of the banner moments in their lives.”