By Henry Doss
Continued from “How Innovation Can Lead to Life Purpose”
Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie.
Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well
This interview is the second in a two-part series with Philip Hardin, CEO of YouScience. In our first conversation, we talked at length about the science and epistemology of the YouScience approach to supporting inquiry into purpose, skills and talents. In this second part, we are focusing on the strategy of deploying online what is intrinsically a deeply personal and individualized process.
Doss: In our first interview, you and I talked about the profoundly individualized and unique process of self-discovery, of identifying and understanding personal strengths and weaknesses. With that in mind do you see the online model for YouScience as an advantage or disadvantage?
Hardin: I think developing an online approach to this process is definitely an advantage, especially for young people. It seems obvious to me that we have to reach students where they are, and this generation is incredibly adept at consuming digital content without oversight or instruction. I read a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study that found that youth eight to eighteen years old consume almost 7.5 hours of media daily. So, I think it’s safe to say that young people are comfortable with an online approach, and understand how to use it.
Doss: Well then what about the challenge of personalizing this self-discovery process to the individual? Don’t you run the risk of being “generic” in your approach?
Hardin: Not at all. In fact, I’d argue the exact opposite. We begin by gathering real — not self-reported — data about an individual’s aptitudes, based on engaging exercises. This data, combined with a versatile and interactive online platform, gives us a unique opportunity to personalize the content and deliver it in a highly interactive manner. If you go back to our discussion about the science of YouScience, you’ll remember that we help students navigate fourteen natural aptitudes and six elements of interest. This gives us well over a billion possible combinations and paths for them to explore. I think being online is a powerful way to tailor self-discovery for the individual. But in addition to reaching students where they are, and having the ability to tailor inquiry to each individual, there’s an additional advantage of being online: We solve the problem of access, which is one of our prime societal objectives.
Some students have intimate access to wonderful counselors and mentors, but most, unfortunately, do not. The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of 250 to 1, and to me, even that seems pretty thin. But many public schools in many states exceed a 500 to 1 ratio. Given their common administrative processes and caseload, it is almost impossible for these professionals to offer in-depth individual counseling. Our broadly and easily accessible online platform can provide valuable data to supplement and augment a dialogue with a counselor; but even more important, it gives students and parents the ability to take control of the self-discovery process.
Doss: Still, at its heart, the process of learning “who you are” seems extraordinarily personal. Aren’t there parts of this process that almost demand friends, family and human interaction in general, in order to be successful?
Hardin: Of course. And what we want to do is be both a source of inquiry process, and also a means of mediating inquiry “on the ground.” One of our primary objectives is to inform the dialogue between young adults and their parents, family, counselors and mentors. We do not to want to replace it. The YouScience profile adds process, language, and real data to an often subjective conversation. No online system, offline system, book or other third party learning process is going to know and understand an indiviudual’s hopes, dreams, economic circumstances, capabilities and disabilities in a way that a parent, mentor or counselor will. Our job is to make those conversations richer, more robust and more fact-based, while giving students control over their own educational and career pathway.
Doss: When you talk about YouScience, you mention “democratization” and access frequently. Why is that?
Hardin: I talk about “access” in particular because it’s critical to our societal purpose, and to our business model. Democratization, in our case, means that we have unlocked some precious power or resource, and made it broadly and generally available. We believe in a most fundamental way that individuals should be in control of their personal human development; and we want to be at the forefront of creating a new generation of tools that supports that goal . . . and we want to do that both for the purpose of creating a great business, and because it’s important to our society. Our YouScience program is comprehensive, so that a user can move from assessment to feedback to career discovery to educational pathway, all within a single framework. So, students can pursue a valid self-discovery path 24 x 7 and engage their personal support team in the privacy of their home.
Doss: That’s a pretty big goal! So, with that in mind, if I engage with YouScience as one of the tools I’ll use for self-discovery, what do I actually get? That is, what is the output that you give back to me as a result of my interaction?
Hardin: I want to answer that both generally and idealistically, as well as specifically. On the idealistic side, what you should get is insight: Insight into who you are and — most important — an expanded sense of possibility in your future. Insight yields direction, confidence and motivation. It’s really important to note that while we make recommendations, we don’t give an “answer.” Only an individual can ultimately determine his or her path. For every career, we portray how each of a user’s aptitudes and interests relate to people who are generally in that career. We base that insight on the best career data from public and private sources, so users can inform their decision-making. As a user starts to get a sense of direction, we project the potential educational investment necessary to succeed in a career, including potential majors and necessary credentials.
Doss: So, really, your “product” is engagement and inquiry, rather than a specific output or recommendation?
Hardin: It is actually both. Some of our users have an acute need to “figure it out” and set a direction. They may be facing a particular decision point, such as selecting a post-secondary path, a particular college, a major, an internship or just realizing that their current path is not right for them. For these users we have to deliver a full experience with detailed career and educational recommendations that allow them to deal with the entire decision-making process at one time. Our real hope is that YouScience can engage users during the natural lifecycle of decisions between the ages of 16-26. This is the time in their lives when most young people face critical, pressing life decisions. Their interests evolve with every new experience, and the job market continues to change with innovation and demographic shifts. We believe that the YouScience profile can be a constant resource where they can update their interests and get the latest job market information, so they can see how their opportunities are evolving and optimize their education and preparation path.
Doss: You mention that this tool wants to set a “fundamental direction,” rather than identifying job skills. Is there anything about your model/delivery system that advantages this approach over more traditional approaches? As students progress, how do they use the tool to begin gradually focusing in on the deployment of their skills in the world, after they begin to vector in on a “fundamental direction”?
Hardin: Here’s how: YouScience lays a foundation for skills development and self awareness, not the foundation for a particular career. Building a skill set for a job that pays well but is unfulfilling is not a good recipe for success. By making young adults self-aware of their natural aptitudes and interests in a very holistic manner, we can direct them to the intersection of what they do well, what they love to do and then where those two insights might intersect with certain career opportunities. With that level of insight, they can ultimately chart an informed course for their education and skills development.
Doss: How about speculating a bit on the future of YouScience and the impact you might have on education in general.
Hardin: I’m excited about our story. We started out twenty months ago with a mission, a whiteboard, some smart, passionate people and some mission-oriented investors. We spent much of that time developing, listening, tuning and evangelizing. In the course of that process we constantly affirmed our belief that everyone deserves to figure out a direction to make their post-secondary education as effective and efficient as possible, and as fulfilling as they can possibly make it. And we became firmly grounded in the notion that the goal of helping young people set valid directions for personal development is an intensely personal experience. We are only in the early stages of understanding how to engage social media in this process. Our job now is to turn that great mission and great product into a great business. We will focus on working with counselors, secondary schools, colleges and universities, foundations, students, parents and others to bring the YouScience profile to as many students as we can. With a lot of work and a little luck, we’re confident we can have an important impact on this area of student development.
Henry Doss is a venture capitalist, a volunteer in higher education, a student and a musician.
Read the original piece on Forbes.