Emilie Cushman: Founder & CEO, Kira Talent

To Admissions & Beyond: How Kira Talent Is Improving The Education System Through New Technology

A chat with Kira Talent CEO, Emilie Cushman

Kira Talent is an assessment platform that makes the admissions process more efficient, effective, and fair for both admissions teams and their applicants. Since its founding in 2012, Emilie has been named the HSBC Woman Leader of Tomorrow and one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women. She has also grown Kira to become the leading assessment platform for higher education institutions, now serving 180+ clients in Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America.

One could easily miss the Kira talent office if unaware of what exactly to look for. As a successful five-year-old company and prominent Toronto startup, one could easily see Kira in a brick and beam office on King West, or a high-tech, glass-walled, open-concept space in the downtown core. Instead, the Kira Talent office can be found in a large, cozy townhouse near Yorkville that has been converted into an office space that is the perfect blend of “office” and “home.” Upon my arrival, Emilie took me downstairs to the basement, which consisted of an enormous, wall-to-wall couch, and several individual workstations. I was looking forward to asking her about the founding of her company, her core values and principles, the highs and lows of the past five years, and what she believes the future holds for Kira Talent.

BW: At a high-level, what is Kira Talent and how did it begin?

EC: Kira is a smart video-assessment software that aims to improve the school admissions process by helping institutions/universities look beyond students’ transcripts. I first realized the need for it when I was accepted to the Next 36. I felt that my video submission played a large role in my admission into the program, and I think that later on, one of the judges let slip that that was in fact the case.

The software now combines written and video assessments, as well as existing admissions requirements like test scores, essays, and references. We are also incorporating algorithms to help schools understand an applicant’s likelihood to accept their offer; a data point that until now has been very difficult to determine.

BW: Coming from health tech, I know how difficult selling into enterprise systems can be. How have you managed to implement so successfully with a software that disrupts the workflow of everyone in the recruitment office?

EC: I think it comes down to the fact that we really end up saving them time and money. You know, instead of doing fifty thirty-minute interviews, they can now spend four minutes each looking at the top fifty applicants on Kira, and narrow it down to the top few to bring in for the thirty-minute interviews.

BW: And what have the results been like, in terms of the students that have been admitted since these schools have implemented Kira?

EC: Up until now, especially for undergraduate programs, it’s basically been: “Above 90% average? No problem — you’re admitted. Below 90? Sorry.” But now what we’re seeing is that schools keep coming back to us saying that there are a number of students that came in “just under the mark,” but were admitted because of Kira, and they have since become extremely successful leaders and top performers.

BW: What are Kira’s core values? And how have they changed (if at all) over time?

EC: So now we have 5 core values: drive, simplicity, transparency, client-centric, and fun. Drive and simplicity have been there since day 1, but up until 2 years ago, all the others changed every 6 months! We thought we always had to be redefining our values as a team, and then we’d have these team changes or changes in company direction and the values stopped making sense, so we’d have to do everything all over again. We did that every 6 months for 4 years!

Finally, in early 2016, we sat down and instead of thinking about which values we wanted to have, we looked around and based our values on what we saw in each other that made us all great contributors to Kira. The values we came up with then have really stuck, and have helped get us to where we are today.

BW: Speaking of “where you are today,” you’ve definitely met with much success over the past few years, but how do you define success for yourself and for the company?

EC: For myself, it’s definitely about social impact. Next 36 really drills that into you. Like if you want a lot of money RIGHT NOW, then go into investment banking. They’re trying to foster a generation that cares more about impact, and I know that for me, personally, I want to leave this earth knowing that I’ve made a significant, positive impact in one or more industries…so let’s start with higher education. You know, you can have smart, awesome, ambitious people anywhere you look, so our goal is just to help students start their adult lives in a way that is fair and equitable.

BW: Have you had any feedback yet from students or admissions teams where they’ve actually seen the impact of Kira?

EC: Oh, we hear amazing feedback all the time. Admissions teams tell us “we admitted 45 students this year who were on the waitlist, or who fell below our grades cut-off (i.e. they didn’t score X on the SAT or GMAT) and we never would have admitted this subset of people before, but because of their Kira assessment, we saw so much more in terms of their leadership ability and motivation and now they’re our highest performing students.” So that’s like 45 students at one school, but across 200 schools, it really starts to add up. So now over 6 years, hundreds or even thousands of students may have met with success that they otherwise may not have experienced.

BW: That’s phenomenal. And what I love is that those students don’t even know they’re “Kira” students. They were just accepted on their own merits, and Kira was the vehicle to help admissions see those merits more clearly.

So where do you see the company going long-term?

EC: Well I could talk about this question for an hour. Right now, we are just 1 piece of the online application. Step 1 is: we become the full admissions application. The thing is, from the time someone decides they want to go to university to the time they set foot on campus, they’ve actually gone through four systems. Then there are 40+ systems that plug in on top of those four. It’s all very disjointed and ends up messing up a lot of the data.

So, let’s say you’re a student and you’ve decided to go to school. First the schools’ marketing automation finds you, then you end up going through their Customer Relationship Management tool (CRM), which tracks you. Then you’ll go through the common application, the online application, the payment system, the student information system, and your data is being passed along, piece-by-piece, though it is losing valuable information along the way. By the end, your data has been transferred so many times, it’s almost meaningless.

Ten years from now, there’s a huge opportunity to be the end-to-end solution, and it’s something that really needs to be fixed. There are a lot of companies trying to attack the issue right now, but we think that if we evolve one piece at a time over the next few years in an innovative way, we can become that end-to-end solution.

BW: And do schools also agree that this is a gap that needs fixing? Or do you have to convince them?

EC: Oh yeah, they really feel it because they’re the ones who are having to make decisions based on imperfect data. They’ve been asking for an end-to-end system for 15 years…it’s just very hard to sell into schools. We are six years in and we’re just starting! We’re in 200 schools and 300 programs, but it’s like selling to your aunt or your mom. You’re not sending them spam or putting them on drip campaigns. You have to show up on campus, take them to dinner, learn about their kids, their hobbies, etc. It’s a very old-fashioned way of selling, but in turn you end up building very deep and strong relationships. So yes, while this is a massive product to build out, we already have a strong foothold on the relationships piece, which is actually the hardest part. Building more product is not the hardest part. It’s been a big need for 15 years, but it’s going to take another 5–10 to bring a product like this to life. So, where we are now (the online application piece) is just Step 1.

BW: Clearly you have an extremely deep knowledge of the education industry as a whole…is the admissions gap the biggest problem in higher education?

EC: Well think about it this way: you’re 17, you just graduated high school, there’s tons of pressure on you, you have no idea what your options are or what to do. Wouldn’t it be amazing if there were a system that brought you to the school that matched your needs and skillset, got you into that program, and taught you what you needed for a career path you actually wanted? There’s so much data out there, that a system like that would be much more effective than a guidance counsellor who says “well based on the 10 other students I saw who looked like you, here’s where you should end up.” The mismatch is at both ends: students coming out of high school don’t know what their next step should be, and schools don’t know how to find the students that should be there.

From 17–30, you make a lot of key decisions about your life without a lot of information or help. And the information/help you are getting is from your parents…awesome…your guidance counsellor…great…maybe you really liked your biology teacher, so you decide you’re going to study biology and then maybe be a doctor. That 13-year lifespan (17–30) is the biggest problem that needs to be fixed.

There should be a system that, through data, helps you end up where you should be at the other end, so that it doesn’t take you ten years to find your dream job; the system could look at all your data and guide you to the right place.

BW: Couldn’t agree more. Thank you so much for your time, and I look forward to seeing Kira continue to grow and improve our education system!

To learn more about Kira Talent, click here!