Start-Up Aims to Solve Perpetual Graduation Problem: Butchered Names

Stanford University, whose students gave us the modern search engine, the modern sneaker company, and the modern method of money transfer, is finally tackling a native challenge: commencement. At graduation ceremonies over the past weekend, eight departments at the university used a web-based service that allows students to record their names before commencement for the benefit of whoever reads aloud the list of graduates.

Dubbed NameCoach, the start-up was founded last year by students at—where else?—Stanford. Universities using the service send a link to graduates, who are directed to a web page where they can record their names as they want them pronounced. Nervous deans can then review them at their leisure.

Praveen Shanbhag, who graduated from Stanford this year with a doctorate in philosophy, thought of the idea for NameCoach after a particularly brutal reading of his sister’s name at her 2010 undergraduate commencement. Mr. Shanbhag said the mangling clouded an otherwise happy day for the family. “It kind of tinged it with a sense of alienation and invisibility,” he says. He points to recent research on name mispronunciation as evidence of the psychological and societal damage such incidents can cause.

This year 42 universities and public-school systems across four continents signed up for NameCoach, which is now free, though its founders plan to eventually charge a fee. Among this year’s clients was the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, where Mr. Shanbhag’s sister graduated with an M.D. And when it came time to announce her name? “The dean got it perfectly,” Mr. Shanbhag says.

Now that Mr. Shanbhag is leaving Stanford, he and his five-person team of volunteers hope to expand NameCoach beyond the commencement stage. He envisions business leaders’ using the service at international meetings—or perhaps a class-roll sheet on which professors can click students’ pictures and hear them pronounce their own names. Someday your email signature might even link to an audio recording.

As for the university that incubated Mr. Shanbhag’s venture, he says he couldn’t have picked a better place. After all, where else besides Palo Alto, Calif., would you expect a start-up story to crop up in the actual graduation ceremony?

“It’s totally a Stanford thing to do,” he says.

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