Meet the Entrepreneurs: JFFLabs Lifts Up the Innovators at the Heart of Career Navigation

By Alex Swartsel

“Most investors and incubators will tell you when they look for a great company, they look for a great entrepreneur: passionate, smart, driven, thoughtful, and a great vision,” says Heather Terenzio, director of partnerships and entrepreneurial initiatives at Jobs for the Future (JFF). And the seven entrepreneurs at the heart of our newest impact accelerator cohort, focused on career navigation platforms, are just that.

The economic crisis of 2020 revealed that workers need to follow career paths more defined by variety and near-constant change than consistency. Founders on the leading edge of career navigation understand that many, many pathways to opportunity exist beyond the straight line from college enrollment to a four-year degree.

From creating platforms that support self-directed learning, to facilitating the transition from community college to a four-year institution, to raising awareness about new career pathways in creative fields and esports, to novel approaches to training in health care and diversity, equity, and inclusion, to expanding access to postsecondary opportunities for formerly incarcerated people, JFF’s Career Navigation accelerator, generously supported by the Cognizant Foundation, looks at the challenges and opportunities of career navigation from all angles. As Heather puts it, “Matching the person with the pathway will be the challenge of the future.”

Read on for a deeper look at each of these remarkable innovators and the companies they’re leading.

Afua Branoah “B.B.” Banful and Aneta

Afua Branoah “B.B.” Banful and Aneta

Career awareness starts as soon as we start learning about the world. Afua “B.B.” Banful remembers deciding to become an engineer at age 8, after watching a TV show that left her “determined to be what I thought an engineer was,” even though the program itself didn’t focus on the career. “Kids absorb career possibilities and are exposed to career options in their learning through ways that are sometimes not even intended. In hindsight, it’s ironic that the role of early learning as the beginning of career navigation wasn’t apparent [to me] until I started Aneta,” she reflects.

“Growing up in Ghana, learning was not something that you did in class alone–my parents made that clear and always found additional resources to enrich what we did at school,” Banful says. But when she looked for a resource that would help her children navigate and transition among learning resources online at the height of the pandemic, she found only parental content blockers and trackers–nothing that actually offered navigation support let alone helped with content discovery and age-appropriate curated content.

Amidst setting as many as nine alarms to manage her kids’ virtual schooling, “I got to thinking: We can schedule everything in our lives from dishwasher, to coffee maker, to thermostat, and yet, why can’t we schedule access to internet links for kids?” Banful says. “I started to dream of a solution that would allow even my then-3 year old to get herself where I wanted her to be, when I wanted her to be there, and for the time I wanted for her to be there.”

Aneta–named for the Greek word for “easy” and ranked №4 on Technical.ly DC’s list of the top 20 startups to watch in 2022–uses maps on which any digital location (URL) can be represented as an image along paths that are designed to be easy to follow even for children as young as 2 years old, guiding them through what, when, and how long to engage in each activity. Each digital journey allows kids to independently navigate to content aggregated from resources fragmented across the internet in various websites, apps, and learning management systems. Anetapacks, a facility to share and receive precreated digital journeys and curated selections of content (like playlists, but for URLs and apps), saves adults from having to discover and curate content themselves.

Aneta solves challenges for busy parents trying to support the increased at-home use of digital learning resources unleashed by the pandemic; for teachers seeking ways to provide differentiated learning paths for students or make resources readily accessible for students regardless of their computer literacy; for early childhood providers who want to foster “free choice” and independence for kids through engaging but educational content; and for tutors who seek to extend their help beyond the short time they are with their students.

With opportunities to serve both parents and caregivers directly as well as through schools and other institutions, Banful is sharpening Aneta’s business model, launching pilot projects across sectors and planning to raise investment capital later in 2022. Her long-term vision: for Aneta to “democratize kids’ access to rich learning opportunities regardless of the tech and content know-how or availability of their parents or caregivers.”

Banful’s advice for new entrepreneurs:

“Trust your gut and believe in yourself. The fact that you chose to solve a problem instead of continuing to remain in it or leave it to someone else to fix means you have already done something that possibly 85 percent of the rest of the population didn’t do. Give yourself some credit.”

Learn More About Aneta:

Dr. Charlene A. Brown and CNA Simulations

Dr. Charlene A. Brown and CNA Simulations

“You probably know or care about someone who has needed help to safely take a bath or get out of bed,” says board-certified physician Charlene Brown, founder of CNA Simulations. “Our nation is aging, and certified nursing assistants [CNAs] and other caregiving professionals help our nation to age with grace.”

This essential, frontline health care workforce providing care for older adults is poised for significant growth: Demand for CNAs is expected to increase by 8 percent by 2029. But the COVID-19 pandemic made clinical training for nursing assistant jobs–an entry-level health care role that can help accelerate workers’ progression into higher earning roles such as a registered nurse–much more difficult to access, as nursing facilities and other health care settings began limiting in-person clinical rotations.

Brown was surprised to learn how few virtual clinical training options there were for nursing assistant students to simulate clinical skills, even before the pandemic and despite their prevalent use in nursing and medical education. She created CNA Simulations to democratize access to advanced learning tools for frontline workers in health care, starting with CNAs.

Brown applied her depth of experience in medical education, building public health programs at scale, and her passion for serving frontline workers to create the first-of-its-kind virtual clinical training platform for nursing assistant training. The platform lets CNA students practice making clinical decisions and providing care to fictional patients in realistic, virtual clinical settings.

Virtual clinical simulation-based learning is a powerful and highly scalable training option for clinical skills. Research studies have shown that nursing students who use virtual clinical simulations made more significant improvements in knowledge and knowledge retention and achieved higher levels of learning satisfaction. The evidence shows that virtual clinical simulations improve learning outcomes among nursing students.

Brown is among the first to apply this research to nursing assistant education. Findings from a recent evaluation of CNA Simulations that found that 100 percent of instructors agreed that the simulation significantly improved student knowledge and critical thinking. Instructors described their students as more confident, while 96 percent of students agreed that the simulation was extremely helpful in understanding methods to keep themselves safe in the workplace. (Source: C. Champine, “Developing Virtual Clinical Simulations for Nursing Assistant Training: A Pilot Study,” master’s thesis, St. Joseph’s College of Maine, 2022.)

And with the pandemic severely restricting access to in-person health care settings, the International Nursing Association of Clinical Simulation and Learning and the Society for Simulation in Healthcare endorsed the use of virtual simulations to fulfill clinical hour requirements to help ensure nursing and other health care students could complete their training and enter the field. Brown sees the power of virtual simulation learning technology expanding “to serve others working on the front lines of healthcare” as more and more training programs experience the potential of this technology to offer high-quality skill development at scale. She sees a future in which nursing assistant students and others studying to work on the front lines of health care can do part of their clinical training through virtual clinical simulation.

Demand for novel, engaging training solutions for nursing assistant training programs is so significant that CNA programs in all regions of the United States have integrated the company’s simulations into their training. This includes career and technical education programs at both the high school and postsecondary levels. Some of Brown’s early clients have even begun using these simulations as an assessment or test preparation tool, a powerful application for virtual simulations that the JFF team has seen in other industries as well. “CNA Simulations represents the culmination of my experiences as a physician, entrepreneur, and advocate for economic opportunity,” Brown says.

Brown’s advice for new entrepreneurs:

“Biggest lesson: Pilot your product and listen carefully to your users. We learned so much through our pilot with NA students and instructors, and we used that learning to reinvent aspects of our product. Now, our users love it. We just keep learning from NA instructors and students around the country.”

Learn More About CTA Simulations:

Dion Walcott and MARTK’D

Dion Walcott and MARTK’D

As a social worker in Toronto, Dion Walcott found that bringing his sneaker collection in to share with students from underrepresented communities could spark deep connections–and open opportunities for impact.

“I quickly realized how much respect I could garner simply because I had certain pairs of sneakers,” he told INSPADES Magazine. Walcott found he could pivot from conversations about sneakers to “questions such as: ‘How do you plan on affording sneakers for the rest of your life?’ In that moment, the conversation makes an organic change from sneaker talk to life talk–and the kids would really open up. From then on, I would embed life skills into sessions with the premise of just hanging out and talking about sneakers.”

That lesson led to MARTK’D, a platform and creative agency that connects overlooked and underserved talent to creative and economic opportunities through the use of art as a community engagement tool. Launched in 2013, MARTK’D creates programs and partnerships such as “Art on Sneakers” competitions to help artists showcase their talents, build skills, and connect to career pathways.

Walcott sees tremendous need–and opportunity–in supporting creators to build work-ready skills and navigate careers. “The people we serve need tools to discover new career paths and opportunities. They have untapped potential but need access to knowledge and training,” he says. “There is no shortage of talent, but there are limited entry points and awareness around careers in the creative industry, especially for black and brown students and other people of color.”

MARTK’D has generated millions of dollars in revenue since its inception; partners to date include leading footwear brands such as Nike, Puma, Vans, New Balance, and Adidas; the NBA; and educational institutions such as Pensole Lewis College. Today, Walcott is continuing to build partnerships and explore opportunities to reach more deeply into overlooked communities, especially for younger learners. “The earlier access, awareness, and exposure happen, the greater the chance for change,” he says. “I feel like building MARTK’D is truly building a platform for my younger self.”

Walcott’s advice for new entrepreneurs:

“Biggest lessons: Have a clear vision for your business but also have a clear vision on the type of team you want to have to help build the vision or goal–you can’t do it on your own. Run towards all of your fears to figure [it] out–the solution is usually right beside scary. And find like-minded people to grow with, and remember: Who you started the journey with may not be who helps you get to the next level.”

Learn More About MARTK’D:

Kristina Williams and Unpacking

Kristina Williams and Unpacking

A generational shift is already on its way: By 2030, 70 percent of the workforce will be made up of Gen Z and millennials. And trends today show that Gen Z and millennials will increasingly work and shop only with brands aligned with their personal values, including antiracism, LGBTQ rights, and sustainability. “But companies are struggling to incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion training that frankly doesn’t suck into their organizational culture. We have to speak the language of the next generation if we expect to retain them as both employees and consumers,” says Kristina Ashley Williams, founder and CEO of Unpacking.

“During the summer of 2020, in the midst of the uprisings caused by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others, I saw many organizations making public statements around standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter,” Williams says. “I also saw many of their employees say, ‘No, you don’t.’ So I decided to do something about it.”

Applying her two master’s degrees in teaching and design thinking, Williams built Unpacking, a gamified learning platform for social good, to completely reimagine the future of workplace cultures. Through a hybrid of gamified interactions, unique multimedia content, and cohort-based learning to build community, Unpacking creates collaborative spaces for learners to engage with the world’s most pressing social impact issues, including inclusion and sustainability, through a series of one-week certification courses. Teams can enroll in cohorts together or individuals can join a cohort of new peers to complete the courses. Learners who complete the courses become part of Unpacking’s growing alumni community of “social futurists.” “This is not your grandma’s DEI training,” Williams says.

Unpacking was among the recipients of the 2020 Bey Good-NAACP entrepreneurship grant for Black-owned small businesses and has been featured in Forbes. Williams appeared on stage at ASU+GSV and won the SXSW Speed Pitch Competition in 2022, and has been recognized as an Aspen Institute Fellow for the 2022 Ideas Festival. Unpacking’s hundreds of alumni come from all races and ethnic backgrounds, walks of life, and levels of experience within DEI and across industries. Williams is seeing especially strong interest from women and nonbinary people.

“Seeing the ability to bring interactive learning alive for adults was really a dream come true,” she says. “One of my favorite compliments that we get is, ‘Wow, I don’t know how you made learning about antiracism fun.’”

Williams’ Advice for new entrepreneurs:

“Hiring the right team members can change your whole world. It is important to vet people during the hiring process, however. I suggest hiring everyone on a three-month contract probationary period at first; give them a quarter-length project to work on and see if the working styles flow well together during the time period. Then, once you’ve vetted their alignment with your vision for the company, provide great benefits for their full-time employment to show how much they are valued and invested in within your organizational culture.”

Learn More About Unpacking:

Manny Smith and EdVisorly

Manny Smith and EdVisorly

Community colleges play a critical role in higher education and economic inclusion in the United States. Every year, over 6 million students will attend community colleges in hopes of pursuing professional certificates, associate’s degrees, and eventually transferring to a four-year university to attain a bachelor’s degree.

Community colleges enroll over 41 percent of undergraduate students in the United States and over 80 percent of these students aspire to transfer to a university. Despite their ambition, only 15 percent of community college students successfully accomplish their goals of attaining a bachelor’s degree within six years of beginning their education. The challenges and complexity of transferring to a university are well known in the higher education community. Gaps in standardized and effective resources to support community college students as they navigate the university transfer process have left many students with course credits and no credentials to show for their effort.

A first-generation college student and U.S. Air Force Academy graduate, EdVisorly founder and CEO Manny Smith was struck by the talents, skills, and expertise of a colleague on a software development team he worked with who had been a community college transfer student. Community college learners “understand what it means to have grit and hustle. Give them the resources they need, and watch them perform,” Manny says. In addition to Smith, EdVisorly’s leadership team is joined by former transfer students Hanna Ving, Lizzie Allison, Matt Clagett, and Tejas Shah.

EdVisorly aims to revolutionize how universities and community college students connect, opening doors to equity and opportunity in higher education. The platform empowers community college students to create a recruiting profile as they explore degree programs with partner universities, plan their course transfer requirements, and track progress enroute to attending their dream university. Universities can use EdVisorly to view student profiles, recruit, and support community college students through this process. With over 35 years of transfer experience among the founding team, the platform design and functionality is user friendly and built for student success.

Universities across the United States are searching for more equitable qualification and admissions processes for student candidates. Community colleges traditionally serve large populations of socially, economically, and ethnically diverse students. In California, EdVisorly’s initial market, 69 percent of students identify as BIPOC and 35 percent are first generation to college.

EdVisorly is welcoming partnerships with community colleges and universities that are evaluating new and innovative student recruiting opportunities. Smith and his team are building deep partnerships with leaders at the Los Angeles Community College District, who he praises as “absolutely exceptional in their ability to think through, work through, and deliver innovation. They’ve seen tech solutions come and go, but they believe in this product because they were part of building it.”

He adds, “[U.S. higher education] has to maintain relevance. I embrace the changes we are seeing in the college landscape. EdVisorly is focused on uplifting the student and creating positive outcomes. If we do that, we’ll be relevant forever.”

Smith’s advice for new entrepreneurs:

“You can choose a job, a career, or a calling. Your calling is rooted in conviction, integrity, and an outcome you wish to see in the world. When times get hard, remember your calling, lead with integrity, and never quit.”

Learn More About EdVisorly:

Shaon Berry and Metro ESports

Shaon Berry and Metro ESports

Esports is considered one of the fastest growing sports categories in the world–yet, from scholarships and competition prizes to industry jobs, the economic benefits and opportunities of this multibillion-dollar industry too often don’t reach people of color.

Shaon Berry, a former college athlete himself, built a nationally televised sports program designed to develop leadership skills and academic excellence among young athletes. Berry says he “became enamored with the tremendous number of academic and tech career-based opportunities that the gaming industry had to offer.” Berry is the CEO and founder of Metro Esports, a media company that produces a series of virtual online and live gaming events and tech education opportunities intended for aspiring gaming and technology enthusiasts of every age.

Metro is adept at creating a link between esports and brands looking for creative ways to reach gamers and technologists, all while delivering messages to parents on the value and potential of gaming for academic and professional advancement. It produces high-profile esports events and broadcasts, and partners with K-12 schools and school systems to develop and deliver tailored coding, designing, and esports workshops. Its nonprofit arm, Digital Bridges, focuses on providing awareness, exposure, and STEM-based academic and professional career opportunities for communities lacking in technology-based resources, equipment, and instruction.

Recognizing the frequent lack of professional esports opportunities for gamers of color, earlier this year, Metro launched The Metro Squad, a new professional Valorant team. “Representing the city of Philadelphia, our company spent a full year scouting diverse male and female talent from around the world and, in an American Idol style competition, narrowed 250 contestants down to six finalists affectionately known as The Squad,” Berry says.

Berry and his team are urging brands interested in esports to more deeply understand the sport’s customers and participants. “If you don’t understand how gaming reaches communities of color or care if we reach a multicultural audience, that’s a bottleneck,” he says. “Gaming has a massive opportunity to reinvest back into their customers, who also make up the communities, schools, and families that need them most.”

Berry’s advice for new entrepreneurs:

“Perseverance is priceless. Being able to motivate yourself after hearing the word no, literally thousands of times, is critical when you’re trying to build and grow–especially through a pandemic.”

Learn More About Metro ESports:

Terrell Blount and the Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Network

Terrell Blount and the Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Network

“During my second year of college, I thought about the men that I had left behind who are still incarcerated,” says Terrell Blount, director of the Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Network (FICGN). “I was looking at my environment at the time, which was a college campus, and thinking: If this is changing my life, I can only imagine the impact it would have on the rest of the guys. I then began to think about how many other states across the country did not have college opportunities for people coming home from prison and wondered just how many programs existed.”

FICGN is a nonprofit organization that promotes equity, fairness, and inclusion in postsecondary education and professional employment opportunities for people directly impacted by the carceral system. Launched in 2014 as a closed Facebook group, FICGN now has over 1,000 members across the globe, including in more than 40 U.S. states. “We are on a mission to connect people with education and career opportunities that will enhance their quality of life after incarceration,” Blount says.

Blount graduated from Rutgers University after his release from incarceration and has served as the program associate for the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice. Today, he’s leading FICGN to pursue new models for growth and impact, such as through a membership model, innovative partnerships, and philanthropic investment.

“Terrell’s work has so much potential for impact because the very existence of ‘formerly incarcerated college graduates’ disrupts the dominant narratives that people with records do not have the aspiration or the aptitude for postsecondary education,” says Lucretia Murphy, associate vice president at JFF and director of the Center for Justice and Economic Advancement. “He is developing an organization that proves the counter-narrative–people with records have aspiration and talents that can contribute–and then developing the navigation and support resources so people can fulfill those talents through postsecondary education.”

“The people we serve want to work, want to change their lives, and want to prove their doubters wrong,” Blount says. “They are not who you think they are and have so much to give. You just have to give them a chance.”

Blount’s advice for new entrepreneurs:

“It’s consistency, discipline, mistakes, and the ability to bounce back from them that makes an entrepreneur successful.”

Learn More About FICGN:

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Jobs for the Future (JFF) drives transformation of the American workforce and education systems to achieve equitable economic advancement for all. www.jff.org