Lindsay Kuhn first started Wingspans while pursuing her doctorate in engineering. Working in a Providence, Rhode Island, classroom while on a National Science Foundation (NSF) fellowship, she saw students struggle to connect their learning to the larger world of work. Understanding the power of representation, Lindsay developed a platform that could help students navigate the career landscape through the stories of real people.

Increasingly focused on supporting the needs of adult learners, Wingspans entered the U.S. Department of Education’s Future Finder Challenge to reimagine career navigation for adult learners. As one of five finalists, Wingpsans is now participating in a six-month virtual accelerator to build and test its digital career navigation tool. We spoke with founder and CEO Lindsay, as well as Alex Chiclana, CTO and Lead Engineer, about why Wingspans entered the challenge and how they’re using the accelerator to further develop their digital tool.

What does a typical Wingpsans user experience look like? How does the tool work?

Lindsay: I can take you through a typical user journey, but what I like to say is we’re bringing humanity to career exploration. We have 700 real-world stories on an immersive platform for self-discovery, career exploration, and lifelong success. We have a story-driven personality assessment based on the Holland Codes, which is the first step in the user experience. And then learners are matched to their top 10 careers based on their personalities. The stories are really the heart of what we’re doing, but they’re organized by career, school, major, and employer pages. Learners go to a career page and see an aggregate of different stories and perspectives on a given field. And they’re really diverse stories in every sense of the word: experience level, gender, background. The idea is for every adult learner to see someone who looks like them on the platform. And that’s really the idea — to help students and adult learners who may not have exposure to the world of work, or may not have role models, see people who look like them and think bigger about their own futures.

There’s also a resume builder, which outputs a beautiful ATS-style resume [that can be easily parsed by applicant tracking systems], skills and interest inventories, and a shareable portfolio — and it’s all gamified. We want this to be a positive and fun experience for adult learners. One of the things we are working on this summer is increasing that interactiveness and making the platform more engaging.

Alex: We have a platform that you can scan through pretty quickly and look at a bunch of different things. But you can also take a deeper dive into various fields or people’s stories if they resonate.

How did you first hear about the Future Finder Challenge and what motivated you to enter?

Lindsay: Over the years, I’ve been getting more and more plugged into the edtech community. Jean Hammond, the venture capitalist who runs LearnLaunch, sent me an email about it. I was part of the Capital Network Female Founders Fellowship, and Jean was one of the advisors. It felt like the challenge was just written for us. We’d been working on exactly what the competition addressed for many years and gaining traction.

What do you find especially exciting about working with adult learners?

Lindsay: Adult learners have been through so much. This is an opportunity to make a meaningful difference in their lives, to help them dream big, and to provide the guidance and encouragement they may never have previously gotten.

Recently, I spoke to somebody at Bunker Hill Community College who’s been using the platform. She’s from Haiti and came to the United States when she was 15. When she came here, she didn’t know a word of English (she spoke French) and she never went to school in Haiti because her dad fundamentally didn’t believe in it. She came here with a third grade education, enrolled in and graduated from high school, and then enrolled in Bunker Hill Community College.

When I asked her who her role models were in her family, she said that she didn’t have any. That’s what Wingspans provided for her. Now she is studying international relations, inspired by one of the stories on our platform — Jennifer Bullock, who’s a diplomat — and she too wants to be a diplomat. Wingspans empowered her to see different possibilities for herself and think big.

Adult learners have been through so much. This is an opportunity to make a meaningful difference in their lives, to help them dream big, and to provide the guidance and encouragement they may never have previously gotten.

Lindsay Kuhn

What aspect of the accelerator have you found most valuable, and what are some of your priorities as you build and test Wingspans?

Lindsay: What’s been most valuable so far has been getting the lay of the adult ed landscape, and having people like Deborah Kennedy, Executive Director of the National Coalition for Literacy, and Melanie Flowers, Vice President of Industry Partnerships at Pathful, to get in touch with. We’ve really been growing pretty quickly, and we have a lot of qualitative, but not quantitative, data. We’ve also been taking advantage of the mentors in terms of incorporating learning engineering and experiments. This is really an opportunity to integrate and catalyze some of the feedback that I’ve been hearing for two years and just didn’t have the resources or support to integrate.

Alex: In the accelerator, and particularly the two days that we spent together in New York City, I’ve gotten a better idea of who our audience is and what some of their needs might be. I know that accessibility is a huge talking point, but I don’t think I realized how important it was before this.

Lindsay: One of our priorities is to address the accessibility that Alex is talking about. So just simplifying the content, adjusting the literacy levels, and making it multilingual as well. We’re also trying to make the platform more interactive. So we have points right now, and we want to tie them to badges, and then tie those badges to meaningful milestones.

And in terms of quantitative data, what we eventually want to do is integrate with Student Information Systems platforms at the schools and measure if Wingspans increases persistence rates. Does it increase completion rates? Does it potentially make learners more energized about their futures? And more short term, how are learners interacting with the platform?

What’s next for Wingspans? What are your plans for after the accelerator?

Alex: For me, I think internally it would be great to build out the team, to have a lot of people that can contribute in the same capacity that I do. We have a lot of really good ideas, but right now, I’m the main driver of development. To have a fully fleshed-out team to make these ideas come to life in a way that’s scalable — that’s what I would like.

Lindsay: We plan to scale our reach in the adult education landscape, with the ultimate goal of providing resources that give people second chances and build learning and employment opportunities.

Looking ahead: Judging and beyond

At the end of the accelerator, finalists will submit their market-ready tools and accompanying proposals, and present at a live demo day this fall. A judging panel will review the submissions against the Stage 2 criteria and recommend a slate of winners to the Department. One grand-prize winner will receive $500,000, and up to two runners-up will receive a share of at least $250,000, to be announced in fall 2023.

Beyond Stage 2, the challenge will support winners into 2024 as they deploy their solutions. To help promote further innovation, challenge resources and videos will remain available to all entrants as well as to those who did not participate in the challenge. Innovators are encouraged to continue using these resources to develop new digital tools that reimagine career navigation for adult learners.

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