We talked to Michael Simpson of PAIRIN on how the social enterprise company is making education relevant and hiring equitable.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Michael Simpson: Initially, as an introvert, when I heard “Stay away from large crowds and keep at least 6′ distance from others,” I thought, “I’ve been preparing this my whole life!”, but even I began craving human connection after a few months. The gravity of the pandemic hit pretty quickly. Several people in our family lost their jobs early on in the crisis, most for the first time in their lives. Many other family members and friends contracted the virus, but everyone got through it. My mother passed away a couple of months ago, not from COVID, but it was a difficult thing to navigate because of the issues around visiting in her last weeks.
None of these issues are unique to my family, and that actually gives me hope. For the first time in human history, there is common suffering across the entire globe. Nobody is immune to the impact of this pandemic. The hope is that we now have a common foundation for empathy – shared suffering – a common experience. If our societal culture ever comes back around to a value of searching for common ground with people of different viewpoints or life experiences, we will have something to start with. Experiences are always different, but there are only a few emotions that we all felt at one time or another throughout our lives. If we can learn to recognize, acknowledge, communicate, and value the common emotions and come to a place of empathy around the common ground we’ve experienced, this crisis will not go to waste.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded PAIRIN.
Michael Simpson: From a young age, I grew up in a multiracial family that struggled with a lot of abuse, multiple divorces, daily financial strain, and bankruptcies. I had to drop out of community college to work four jobs to support myself and help my family.
Because of my non-traditional path, I faced many challenges and lessons that have helped me grow and relate to those who are disadvantaged and facing similar hardships. Thanks to the support from mentors and role models that I met along the way, and a passion for developing my own skills, I was able to build a life for myself, rather than it being defined for me. I now have the opportunity to help others find success in the career path best suited to them. I founded PAIRIN after over a decade as a certified coach, so others wouldn’t have to go through the trial and error and career uncertainty I experienced in my twenties.
Prior to founding PAIRIN, I worked in the software industry for over 20 years, running product divisions for global companies. I was an intrapreneur in large companies and ran strategy and marketing for fast-growing, mid-sized companies. PAIRIN was my first from the ground up startup. It’s different, and in many ways, harder in those early years, but we’ve hit our stride now and are at a size that is well suited for my skill set.
How does PAIRIN innovate?
Michael Simpson: PAIRIN’s mission is to unify the workforce and education to make everyone’s journey more relevant and equitable. To support this mission, we’ve created a platform called My Journey that supports workforce, government, and education organizations of all sizes.
Traditionally, government and workforce agencies find it difficult to reach residents and provide clear pathways to the resources needed for unemployment and career exploration. These agencies’ data systems often lack integrations and are typically segmented and siloed, making it more challenging for people to get the assistance needed from a number of different, disjointed agencies. For agency employees, the limited, segmented approach to working with clients has its own slew of challenges that make processes slow and inefficient at scale. After discovering this problem, we created a solution at PAIRIN to not only solve but continue to drive innovation in the industry.
With so many challenges associated with current government systems and their technologies, it is no surprise government agencies crave an aligned approach and unified workflows. With My Journey, government and workforce agencies can offer better and easier to use solutions for citizens to access tools and resources and create a culture of life-long learning and continuously evolving career success. My Journey is driving innovation in the government, workforce, and education industries and creating a positive societal impact on those looking for support during times of unemployment or career uncertainty.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your business, and how are you coping?
Michael Simpson: From the start of the COVID-19 crisis, our first priority was the safety and well-being of PAIRIN’s employees. While the company and its people have felt the effects of the coronavirus crisis, our leadership team acted fast to implement new workflow procedures and initiatives to adjust to a remote workforce and provide the support needed for employees during this time, including a $250 stipend for any home office needs. Our team continues to issue surveys and formal “check in” processes to ensure we are meeting the health and safety needs of the full team.
Our next priority was figuring out how the company could reach and help more people through our technology at this crucial time. Unemployment rates in the U.S. spiked to over 14 percent, and with the economy struggling and many businesses closing, over 50 million Americans have found themselves jobless. Resolute in the belief that PAIRIN’s platform could help the people that lost their jobs, and just about everyone hurt by the crisis, get back on their feet, our team knew we needed to find the right partners in government and workforce agencies to extend our reach. PAIRIN has been hyper-focused on onboarding new partners during this time, committed to lowering unemployment and helping individuals navigate unemployment due to COVID-19.
This call to action also meant adjustments were needed on PAIRIN’s end. I worked with our team to hire new employees, revamp workflows, and introduce initiatives that could help support the company’s growth, so nobody was stretched too thin. I also worked closely with investors to raise the money needed to fund these initiatives and hiring during this crisis.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Michael Simpson: Oh, for sure! We changed our roadmap quite substantially to add features that would be helpful to those in need, and that delayed some revenue-generating tools we also needed to build. We even recently pursued an acquisition. It was a very risky move in tumultuous times, but we believe it will accelerate our roadmap and, in the end, make us a stronger company. Most of all, we started hiring when everyone else was laying off. One of the most important impacts of these choices was confidence in our team. Everyone was scared about their companies and jobs in March and April. We started hiring people in late April and brought on five contractors. I think it relieved some of the stress of uncertainty with our team. When everyone else was hunkering down, we were expanding. Maybe I’m a little crazy, but chaos gets me excited. All I see is a possibility when the world is spinning out of control. Yeah, that probably sounds a little crazy.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, and how do you project yourself and PAIRIN in the future?
Michael Simpson: I’m a “run into the burning building” kind of person. I was a volunteer firefighter for a time and have done a lot of extreme things in my life like rock climbing, racing, cave diving, and starting a company – which is the scariest of all. When stress and anxiety are common states that you have often chosen, you get good at managing your way through. The most difficult times for me come from people I count on not doing what they say, being irrational in their decisions, and blocking my goals. Fortunately, those situations only happen with people or organizations outside my company, but they happen.
At the moment, I first sort out if the source of my stress is about facts or fear. If it is facts, I get real logical and practical and brainstorm a plan. If it is based on fear, which is always of the unknown, I lean on my mantra, “Go with what you know.” I literally make a list of what I do know. What are the facts of the situation? What is my history and our company’s history navigating such issues? What are the relevant resources at my disposal? Who do I know that can help? What is within my control? What is not? I take the list of what is not and set it aside. Then, once I have all the facts, I address my attitude. I center my Spirit on what is most important. What would faith and hope look like in this time, and how do I get there? I had a REALLY bad day just this last Monday. Tuesday was a new day and a new attitude. The key that day was making a list of what I am grateful for in my life. That’s always an instant attitude changer. I might not always respond at the moment as the best version of myself, but I can get there pretty quickly when I need to.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Michael Simpson: PAIRIN works with customers in government, workforce, and education, so we mostly compete with old ideas and companies that have been around for decades. Frankly, the bar to impress people with software solutions in government and education is pretty low. With high standards for user-focused design, we do a good job of impressing our clients and rarely lose a deal to any competitor. In fact, many of our clients’ sole source our My Journey product – some after naming an RFP we didn’t respond to as a “no award” because nobody could do what they were asking. PAIRIN’s configurable software platform is a much-needed technology in these industries. Our partners love how easy it is to customize depending on their needs and the needs of those they serve on a daily basis. Going head to head in specific industries, we consider Geographic Solutions, Kuder, and IntoCareers to be some of our top application competitors. However, their technologies do not offer as wide of solutions as PAIRIN. More and more, we are competing against custom solutions and platforms like Salesforce that are being forced to address a client’s needs through massive customization.
To ensure PAIRIN remains a top contender in the industry, we are always looking for new ways to innovate and grow the business. Throughout the pandemic, we were able to close the first half of our Series A funding round, providing us the funds to support this rapid growth. Additionally, one area we’re particularly passionate about is being a resource for our partners and customers whenever they need us. That differentiates us from other competitors, as our team is highly invested in each of the organizations we work with and focused every day to help solve the biggest challenges they face.
Your final thoughts?
Michael Simpson: Though the COVID-19 pandemic has brought devastating losses around the world, I am optimistic about the future of work and our workforce system. The pandemic has forced the government, workforce, and education organizations to reevaluate how they provide necessary resources to the people they serve. They have a desire to become more user-focused. There is ample opportunity for these organizations to streamline their processes and help connect people with the essential tools and information that is most relevant to each person, both for those who are unemployed and those looking to explore a particular career. And when they decide to make that shift from confusing link farms, portals, and multi-decade old applications to user-focused design, we’ll be alongside them.
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