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Launched when founder Emilie Cushman was in university herself, Kira Talent customizes the college and university admissions processes

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How Kira Talent helps higher education admissions become more equitableBrody White/The Globe and Mail

Emilie Cushman started her business by accident. When she was a student at the University of Windsor, she thought she was entering a business plan competition, but she was actually pitching an accelerator program to secure funding to launch a real business.

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“I misread the fine print,” Cushman says. “I went through a pretty exhaustive interview process to get in, made it into the program, and then [learned], ‘No, you’re starting a tech company.’”

At just 21, Cushman became an entrepreneur—and the idea she pitched became Kira Talent, software aimed at higher education institutions that want to reduce bias in their admissions processes. Kira Talent accomplishes this by customizing those processes using timed video assessments, competency-based evaluations that measure things like leadership potential and critical thinking, and timed written tasks that are checked for plagiarism, a must in the age of the internet.

The idea was born out of Cushman’s realization that most admission processes to universities and colleges were one-dimensional and not very personal—and that video and interactive assessments could help. What’s more, many qualified students miss out on higher education opportunities because of their transcripts or test scores, even though they are actually very qualified candidates.

Emilie’s best advice for entrepreneurs

Be goal-oriented

When you’re faced with hardships, keep focused on your end goal. “I just always try to think, ‘What am I working towards?’” Cushman says. If your end goal is still motivating and fulfilling, you know you’re heading in the right direction.

Be patient

It’s rare to find success right away, or even within the first few years of launching a business. Cushman says too many founders give up too soon, because they forget that success and growth take time. “People will do it for two or three years, and if their company is not raising $50 million from the top VCs, they give up and think it wasn't successful,” she says. “There were at least a 100 times where I wanted to walk away because I thought we weren’t growing fast enough.”

Surround yourself with the right people

They will keep you going through the hard times. “I have five or six amazing people who are working with me side by side every day, and they're so motivated,” Cushman says.

“We’re trying to replace and complement things like standardized test scores — which literally make people just a number — by humanizing the admissions processes,” Cushman says.

There’s evidence to support a more holistic admission process. Education experts and researchers say that not every prospective student shines with standardized testing. And even for faculties that have specific entry requirements more geared towards the program, bias — unconscious or otherwise — and privilege can play a role in admissions.

The positive reception Cushman and her Kira Talent colleagues receive keep them assured they are making a valuable product. Since launching in 2012, Cushman has secured $8.8-million in funding and Kira Talent has processed one million applicants and worked with more than 750 school programs around the world.

While the asynchronous timed video interview software was Kira Talent’s first product, the company has since launched five products. Cushman follows the “Lean Startup” process, a methodology based on the build-measure-learn feedback loop, and a core principle of the celebrated entrepreneur book, The Lean Startup.

“You release a small part of the product, you get iterative feedback from your customers, and then you add more... instead of just going heads-down for three months and building something, and then showing it to your customers,” Cushman explains.

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How Kira Talent helps higher education admissions become more equitableBrody White/The Globe and Mail

Speaking to end users is not only how Cushman stays innovative, but it’s also how she keeps motivated. There have been times where she’s faced challenges in her business, but whenever Cushman felt like giving up, she kept coming back to one thing: the people — especially the students.

“We make the admissions process more holistic and less biased, which means every day I do this is another day that people get admitted to school who would have otherwise been overlooked, and therefore they can live out their dreams,” she says.

Cushman’s colleagues also keep her energized. The pandemic has been challenging for everyone, but the founder surrounds herself with people who share her vision of improving higher education. The right people, Cushman says, are key to ensuring any company’s success, as a few bad actors can throw off culture — especially when a business is just starting out.

That’s not something she learned in business school, where the focus is often on how to hire and retain talent with perks. Cushman believes there’s a gap in understanding people and what they really need to succeed, but she says learning the different ways people work and how they respond to management styles has helped her retain the same employees for years.

While starting a business, managing talent and scaling up is a daunting process for most people. Between raising funds and growing a client base, there’s plenty of reasons to doubt yourself. Cushman’s advice to the entrepreneurial “#GoldGetters” of Canada is to push past the fear and jump in with two feet because there is never a perfect time to start.

Now is the best time to start,” she says.

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Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.

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