UT Alum, Current Student Team on New Startup They Hope Will Employ UT Grads

Laborup will help these skilled trade workers quickly create searchable profiles that highlight their skills, licenses, experiences and education.

April 4, 2024

Laborup, a new business venture from two University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Volunteers, is gaining attention from investors. The startup, conceived by Logan O’Neal, a senior computer science and Haslam Scholar, and Tasimba “Simba” Jonga, a 2022 UT Torchbearer who earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering with a minor in economics, aims to tackle manufacturer staffing hurdles by establishing a digital platform that facilitates connections with skilled workers.

Though not announced yet, the Laborup team has raised well over a million dollars from Silicon Valley investors behind major companies like Airbnb, Instacart, eBay, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Facebook and Workday. With these recent investments, O’Neal and Jonga are now looking to hire Haslam College of Business and Tickle College of Engineering graduates.

Fostering Entrepreneurial Connections and Spirit

Laborup’s entrepreneurial duo met in 2019 through Haslam’s Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (ACEI). They were drawn by a passion for startups, with each having separately launched ventures during their time at UT. Last November, O’Neal placed second in the growth category of ACEI’s Graves Business Plan Competition with the business plan for Laborup. ACEI Entrepreneur-in-Residence Lia Winter (HCB, ’19) mentored them on the project.

“Their dedication to solving a significant workforce challenge was immediately evident,” Winter says. “The simplicity, yet ingenuity, of Laborup caught my attention from the start.”

Matching Skills to Needs

Blue-collar workers often spend hours creating online profiles, sometimes hiring others to compile their job data. Laborup aims to change this by using AI tools to help these workers quickly create searchable profiles that highlight their skills, licenses, experiences and education.

Jonga, now a Knight-Hennessy Scholar studying AI at Stanford University, says, “LinkedIn has helped white-collar workers establish digital identities, streamlining their recruitment. However, blue-collar workers remain virtually invisible online, complicating their discovery and hiring. Our goal is to expedite their discovery and hiring process, reducing it from months to days.”

The Laborup team is collecting extensive job data in the U.S., particularly in Tennessee, to use AI for matching individuals with jobs. However, they’re not only matching people to jobs, but to opportunities for upskilling to get free certifications and training. Tony Schmitz, a professor in the college of engineering, has been advising the team on this endeavor.

Jonga and O’Neal view their platform as potentially transformative for manufacturing recruitment—they are conducting pilots already with select automotive and aerospace companies to refine the product and identify high-demand roles.

“We want to give an employer an AI copilot, where they can easily search different profiles, and can be as specific as possible,” he says. “The platform augments the recruiting process from pre-screening to sending an offer letter, saving 10 to 20 hours weekly per recruiter,” Jonga says.

O’Neal explains that developing the functionality is manageable because they are focusing on the niche vertical market of manufacturing, which makes it easier to identify the skills data that matters. Then, using Large Language Model (LLMs) similar to ChatGPT, they are building a reasoning engine.

“We’re using an algorithm the same way any search engine, like Google, would,” he says. “It’s a thing called vectorization, where we take all your information and make it where we can relate it to everything else in our database.”

Marketing Laborup with Lessons from Rocky Top

Jenga and O’Neal attribute their ability to market and sell Laborup to their connections at Haslam. Jonga enhanced his engineering background with business skills through mentorship in ACEI and his involvement with Haslam’s Professional Sales Forum.

O’Neal says they worked out the kinks in their Laborup sales presentation at the ACEI. After the Graves Business Plan Competition, the duo had enough success pitching the startup to investors to begin pilot testing it late last year.

“Our interaction at [the ACEI] shaped how we approached marketing, how we structured some of our slide decks, this sort of thing,” O’Neal says. “That was the first presentation I had done for Laborup, trying to sell it to people. It was good to practice how to do that.”

Harnessing Tennessee Talent

The team plans to hire graduates from Tickle and Haslam, familiar as they are with the talent these colleges produce, and they view Tennessee as an ideal location because of its burgeoning manufacturing sector. Jonga sees this as a perfect match of opportunity and talent, offering UT graduates the chance to help build a new venture.

“We’re trying to provide an opportunity to join a generational internet company that’s going to define how people get hired,” he says.

Laborup is currently hiring growth marketing interns and software engineers. Students who are interested can contact Jonga through LinkedIn.

“Companies like Airbnb famously made their first 1,000 team members millionaires,” Jonga adds. “We want to do that.”

O’Neal’s desire to help people made the decision to found Laborup in Tennessee an easy one.

“I am passionate about building software and tools that help people, especially people in our local community,” he says. “I feel like this is an opportunity to build something that helps people in Tennessee.”

As the duo’s mentor, Winter believes O’Neal and Jenga are on the right path, not just because of their training at Haslam, but also because of who they are.

“Beyond the innovative solution, it was Simba and Logan’s collective entrepreneurial spirit that impressed me,” she says. “Their genuine commitment to making a difference in the skilled trades sector, combined with tenacity and a clear vision, gave me every confidence in their future success and in the impact that Laborup will have on the industry.”


Scott McNutt, business writer/publicist, rmcnutt4@utk.edu