New Platform Seeks to Help Students Navigate Career Interests and Pathways

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Flo Nicolas, left, and Matthew Guruge, right

Flo Nicolas, Get Tech Smart

Applying for college can be a complex and challenging process for students, parents, and school guidance counselors.

Awato, powered by Xello, is a personalized platform co-founded by New Hampshire-based Matthew Guruge to help students understand their career and academic interests. Further, Awato connects students with internship opportunities, apprenticeships and organizations for job shadows. The company has also partnered with the NH Department of Education to help students assess their interests, map career pathways, and connect with local employers.

Awato was recently acquired by Xello, a platform that offers career readiness and helps students with the college application process.  

Guruge stopped by Get Tech Smart’s Hudson studio to talk about how and why Awato was created and how it’s helping New Hampshire prepare students for successful career paths.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Flo Nicolas: I wanna know your story and I want people to know your story because you literally created your own company based on a necessity of your own. 

Matthew Guruge: When I went to college, I went to a small liberal arts school called Wheaton, which is in Norton, Massachusetts, kind of in between Boston and Providence. And the whole time I was there, I was like, ‘I’m gonna be a lawyer.’ So, I majored in English, which is what they tell you to do, and minored in philosophy. And I go through three years and I hit my junior year and I realize there’s no way I’m going to law school.

And so I kind of start grasping at straws and I’m getting a little concerned and I tried journalism. I actually interned at the New Hampshire Business Review in Manchester, which was a really positive experience, but I also realized journalism wasn’t for me. And so I kind of stumbled into my senior year petrified about what life after college held for me and really concerned about what I was gonna do with this English degree, how I was gonna make it all work?

No one ever sits you down and just says, just so you know, ‘you’re gonna major in English– Do you have a plan?’ 

So I ended up kind of stumbling into business, but actually what happened was one of the people we interviewed was like, ‘Hey, why don’t you come and do some work for us?’ And we ended up kind of starting a marketing company around me and my business partner’s skillset. I could write, I could do copywriting and he was a graphic designer. So we could do that. And we did a marketing company right after we graduated for a little while, but I kept coming back to this problem. And the way I always thought about it was: it was pretty clear if you really thought about what I thought a lawyer was gonna be and what you learned a lawyer is gonna be.

But the two weren’t the same, but there was never this moment kind of throughout my entire, I guess, education where someone sits and said, so do you really understand what it means to be a lawyer? Is this what’s gonna be a fit for you? And so we kept coming back to this problem and I think it was even more exacerbated because we were coming out of the Liberal Arts. And we were seeing all of these incredible, incredibly intelligent students who did all this really cool academic work, not necessarily kind of hit the ground running into the corporate world when it felt like they should have. And so we said, we, we should work on that problem. And our first thought was, well, lett’s team up with five PhDs and find out what’s happening in the world of career guidance.

And the first thing we noticed was that the interest assessment really hadn’t advanced really in a hundred years. So there’s this guy, John Holland, who invents the Holland Codes and that’s still pretty much the go to career assessment. And while it’s reasonably accurate, reasonably predictive, it just didn’t seem interesting for students. So students didn’t like taking it, right? We wanted to take a new step at that. What if career education could be fun? So our whole angle was taking kind of a new theory, which was called person object theory of interest and saying, what if we built an interest assessment that way.

Flo Nicolas: What were the typical questions of the current assessment versus of what you built? What are some of the assessment questions that weren’t really jeling?

Matthew Guruge: The standard question of a Holland Code Assessment is, ‘on a scale of one to five, would you enjoy working at a lab bench?’ You can imagine trying to ask a 16-year-old that who might not understand, and would say, ‘well, of course not. How would I know what a lab bench is right? And do it just, and it’s not engaging … We had this approach of, ‘what if we asked open ended questions.’ So, what do you enjoy doing in your free time?

So then we wrote essentially 4,000 questions. So every hobby has a question. So then we’re gonna have this question: when you’re cooking [for example], what parts of it do you enjoy? And so that  correlates to interest. And then hat prompts your next questions.

And then we ask you appropriate follow up questions. Oh. So when you’re experimenting with food, how do you like to do that? How do you approach it?  And so our assessment ends up being much shorter, but we get through something like 400 data points in 15 minutes. 

Flo Nicolas: So once the person does the assessment what type of data is it spitting out?

Matthew Guruge:

We essentially spit out, here’s all the interests we learned. So those are the named interests. And then we’re gonna run that through all the different careers we have.– so about a thousand different careers and we’re gonna match you to– here are the careers you would probably like the most, or have the highest interest in, by the way, here are also the education paths to do it. And then our last step is, here’s actually a pathway that you would enjoy the most. One of the concerns we always had is you’ll find matches where somebody has a really high career match in something, but they might not enjoy the academic work that will get them there.

Flo Nicolas: Who does though? I think that’s any career.

Matthew Guruge: Fair enough. But– and certainly across different things, like when you see careers that require –like being a doctor, many, many years of education and then you  have students reporting, they don’t want to go through that many years of education. It can be this thing where you would actually really like being a doctor, but you’re not gonna want to go there, so here’s some other careers instead. So that was the last thing we really built out, which is called pathways and kind of does all of that calculation.

Flo Nicolas: And I, I believe this is something also that the NH Department of Education uses.. Can you tell us a little bit more about that? 

Matthew Guruge: So back in, I think it was 2020, the New Hampshire Congress passed a bill called SB 276, and that was called the Drive to 65 Act. And one of the things they wanted was every student entering high school to take a career assessment. And the department of education essentially looked around different career assessments and they ended up choosing us. And one of the cool things we did was we then mapped the entire state. So every CTE [Career Technical Education] program that exists in New Hampshire, every career credential you can get, so every licensure– all of that is there in New Hampshire. And then the platform became available to  essentially all secondary students in New Hampshire.

Flo Nicolas: That is fantastic.  I think that is very essential right now. One of the things I’m noticing in tech and that I talk about a lot with my guests, is that, especially in the tech sector, there’s gonna be a lot of shortages. Like cybersecurity, for example, is one area, with everybody now working remotely, we’re now more dependent on technology. So that means we need more, IT professionals. So having kids, especially who are interested in tech, for example, but they don’t know exactly which area– because when you say tech, it is a big area. It’s like, where do you even start? So this assessment can essentially narrow down specific areas that best align with the student.

Matthew Guruge: Exactly. And I actually think you kind of nailed one of the things we really were hoping to do, which is show a student that a career pathway could fit for them that they might not have even heard of. And we look at that with all the different careers in STEM– pretty much across the board.A student who’s in the seventh grade might not even be aware that IT security analysis exists. Right? But how do you try and take something like, ‘but I like playing video games’ and show them that parts of the things they’re doing in video games actually relate to this career. And that’s what we’re trying to do: to show those students, ‘oh, the way that you interact with your hobbies is actually similar to these careers you might never have heard of. ‘And then once you can kind of create that path for them, you hopefully get them interested in moving forward. 

Flo Nicolas is a technologist, lawyer, speaker, mentor, writer, tech startup Founder/CEO of CheapCheep & Director, and Creator of Get Tech Smart, produced by Hudson Community Television. She is a dedicated professional with a passion for technology and creative innovation, intent on helping her community to become more tech-savvy and forward-thinking. Get Tech Smart is being shared with members of The Granite State News Collaborative