First, we need more underrepresented STEM role models whom our children can look up to and see that it’s real.
I had the pleasure to interview Jessica Lindl. Jessica is vice president and global head of education at Unity Technologies. Jessica has spent over 15 years overseeing companies and teams that design, develop, market and distribute high impact learning offerings to the global education market. In her work at Unity Technologies, Common Sense Media, GlassLab and LRNG (now part of Southern New Hampshire University, Scientific Learning, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), she has worked to improve learning outcomes and earning potential for all learners worldwide by blending effectiveness with ground-breaking engagement. Jessica is a graduate of the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, where she received a Masters in Business Administration with a focus on entrepreneurship and education. She lives in San Francisco, CA with her husband and two young sons.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Jessica! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
Thanks to my family, education has always been a passion of mine. My mom and most of my extended family are teachers — I find they work incredibly long hours and devote their entire selves to teaching. I often wondered how I could make their lives easier, I’m not a natural teacher like they are so decided to focus on my strengths in business to make education more accessible and impactful.
I have spent nearly 20 years overseeing companies and teams that design, develop, market, and distribute high-impact learning offerings to the global education market. In my work at Unity Technologies, Common Sense Media, GlassLab, Scientific Learning, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, I have worked to improve learning outcomes and earning potential for all learners worldwide by blending effectiveness with ground-breaking engagement. I am also a graduate of the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, where I received a Masters in Business Administration with a focus on entrepreneurship and education.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I find the most interesting experiences happen when I have the chance to work more closely with the people I am serving. Specifically, I decided to take a year long break from the high-paced Silicon Valley ed-tech culture and spend a year in India and Southeast Asia focusing on increasing access and economic opportunity with education. Although I was doing relatively similar work, I was immersed with users and gaining a deep understanding of how to make authentic learning experiences that aligned with their culture. I learned that the needs of underserved Indians was similar to the needs of underserved Americans, however, there was a significant difference in the societal structure and access to economic opportunity. Most importantly, I learned that empathy, respect and humility are critical to getting my job done.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am spending time right now trying to better connect learning to earning opportunities. As we all know, there is a major shift in the global labor market — not just how and where we work, but specifically, which skills are in demand. As a result, company growth is impacted. According to a report called C-Suite Challenge 2019™, conducted by The Conference Board, CEOs cite finding and retaining talent is their greatest internal challenge. Additionally, individuals are increasingly unclear on what exactly we should focus on learning and if it will lead to greater economic opportunity. Finally, our young people are learning skills that have little relevance for future jobs.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
I rate the effort and impact of most teachers and administrators very high — the personal and professional effort that is required to teach our country’s young people is enormous. I commend our educators because they are trying to improve learning outcomes against major forces outside of their control. Despite all of these forces, we are still seeing test scores (albeit a very poor measure of “results”) increasing.
It’s helpful to more deeply understand the forces outside of our educator’s control.
- Poverty: Approximately 1/2 of US students enrolled in public schools receive free and reduced cost lunches. It is hard to teach when your learners may not have access to high quality meals on a regular basis.
- Institutional Inequality: America continues to struggle with systemic inequality in all parts of our society, this is especially prevalent in public institutions like education, whereby we are trying to provide equal access to economic opportunity to people born into dramatically different starting lines.
- Future Workforce Requirements: As previously mentioned, the future of work is becoming more complex and more demanding — access to high paying jobs is becoming increasingly out of reach. Instead, middle skill jobs are disappearing and high skill jobs are becoming more demanding than ever.
My hope is that we stop measuring success of our education systems on the imperfect metric of test scores or college graduation rates (which don’t necessarily lead to high paying jobs) and, instead, start measuring the success of our education system on placement and retention in high quality jobs.
Can you identify a few areas of the US education system that are going really great?
In addition to the majority of educators and administrators, I believe the following also deserves call out:
- Education for All: By law, we teach everyone, for free, from age 5 to age 18. Few countries have the same level of inclusion.
- Breadth: The American education system focuses on more academic subjects than other countries and also covers areas like physical fitness and health.
- Special Education: Not only do we educate all children, we also serve far more students with disabilities than most other countries, and hold ourselves accountable to their education outcomes with personal learning plans.
Can you identify a few areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
Empowering the educators — It’s one of the biggest challenges that we have right now. How do we get youth prepared for the digital revolution, let alone the fourth industrial revolution that we’re heading into, with so many educators who never grew up with a strong foundation of computational understanding? Educators around the US are held back by a lack of confidence, skills, and support. We need to empower them with the confidence to learn new technologies, the skills to be able to master them and be able to teach them, and the support to encourage them to keep going.
Technology — According to XQ Institute’s report, High School & the Future of Work, the biggest change between the workforce today and the workforce in 2030 will be the demand for advanced IT and programming skills. Even if students don’t plan on becoming a programmer, those skills will be crucial. As such, we need more emphasis on teaching coding and technology to prepare children for the future. We’re still in a world where we don’t even have computer access for every student in a classroom.
High Quality Universal Pre-K — The greatest opportunity for long-term earning impact as well as societal savings is high-quality, universal pre-K. These programs lead to long-term gains and also help dual-income families afford high quality education.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
It’s not just important for girls and women, it is critical for all underrepresented people. Without a diverse population in STEM, we will never have the right solutions for a diverse world — we can’t have a homogenous group innovating for our heterogeneous world. In addition, all underrepresented persons should have access to the economic opportunity in STEM careers. I can’t help but think of the work Fereshteh Forough is doing with her school, Code to Inspire. It is Afghanistan’s first female-only coding school. In countries such as Afghanistan where society and culture are male-dominated, women are often discouraged from actively participating in education. At Code to Inspire, students have free access to laptops and software, allowing them to focus on mastering their technological skills without worrying about harassment or intimidation from male students. Coding and having access to STEM programs can only help girls and women achieve financial independence and the confidence to pursue careers regardless of their gender.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
There is still room for improvement –
- First, we need more underrepresented STEM role models whom our children can look up to and see that it’s real.
- Second, we need to equip our teachers with the guidance, technology, and resources to help make STEM subjects commonplace in classrooms. At Unity, we recently rolled out two programs that we believe will help educators and subsequently students. These programs are Create with Code and Unity Teach. With these two new initiatives, teachers will be able to provide students with the design and development skills necessary to create as the world embraces 3D development technology. Create with Code is the first comprehensive course for educators to teach computer science using Unity, while Unity Teach is a platform and ecosystem for educators who want to teach Unity. I strongly believe in our commitment to prepare students for a real-time 3D future.
- Lastly, there are more than 4,200 education technology startups in the US, many of them built on Unity, and many of them are focused on bringing STEM subjects to the forefront, at home and in the classroom. There are various education companies today that are working with schools to incorporate STEM subjects in fun and engaging ways, such as Labster and Wonder Workshop. These resources can help promote STEM beyond school so that families can be actively involved in cultivating the interest at home as well.
As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?
No question — STEAM, with a bold A. Without the arts we lose the focus on creativity. The arts and emphasis on creativity bring the required skills for innovation — like divergent thinking, empathy, and resilience. Without the A, we may not be very different than AI driven robots in the next generation.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Showing up is 80% of life.
I don’t mean this just physically, but in my heart and mind as my whole self with all of my shortcomings and fears. I have found that this approach deepens my relationships, my curiosity, and connection to all parts of my life.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
It’s a tough call between RBG and Angela Merkel. I want to know how they have led for so many years in a “man’s world” but still maintain deep empathy and respect for others, especially those who don’t align with their belief systems.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I am @jlindl on Twitter and you can check out some of my other thoughts on Medium.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!