Michael Simpson: “I just did what needed to be done”

My hope for companies both big and small is that they reassess their hiring practices to focus on what matters most — essential skills. I believe we can use this pandemic to create a better system that is fair for everyone, rather than focusing solely on candidates with traditional education and career background. As part of my […]

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My hope for companies both big and small is that they reassess their hiring practices to focus on what matters most — essential skills. I believe we can use this pandemic to create a better system that is fair for everyone, rather than focusing solely on candidates with traditional education and career background.

As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Simpson, CEO & Co-founder of PAIRIN. Michael is a son of educators, and corporate intrapreneur turned 3x entrepreneur. His passion for helping people reach their potential was fueled by his own rise from poverty to international recognition as a market strategist. He co-founded PAIRIN after over a decade as a certified coach and spent six years living in Russia coaching many at-risk young adults to successful careers. As the CEO of PAIRIN, he works to bridge the opportunity gap for future generations by personalizing career exploration, job matching, and professional development.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?

From a young age, I grew up in a multi-racial family that struggled with a lot of abuse, multiple divorces, daily financial strain, and bankruptcies. So my brother could stay in college, I had to drop out of community college to work four jobs to support 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 started PAIRIN so others wouldn’t have to go through the decade of trial and error and career uncertainty I experienced in my twenties.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

From fiction, “Wind, Sand and Stars” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry inspired my lifelong quest to help people realize their potential. At the conclusion of the book, he ponders the future of a little boy on a train that was born into poverty and says, “This is a musician’s face. This is the child Mozart. This is a life full of beautiful promise. Little princes in legends are not different from this. Protected, sheltered, cultivated, what could not this child become?

When by mutation a new rose is born in a garden, all the gardeners rejoice. They isolate the rose, tend it, foster it. But there is no gardener for men. This little Mozart will be shaped like the rest by the common stamping machine. This little Mozart will love shoddy music in the stench of night dives. This little Mozart is condemned.” Shortly thereafter I left Russia after seven years after coaching young adults to be successful in business and returned to the U.S. I soon started PAIRIN to help the gardeners make Mozarts.

Professionally, I love anything by Brene’ Brown, especially “Daring to Lead”, where I found the best definition for what I believe is a leader: “A leader is anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and has the courage to develop that potential.”

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

Carl Rogers said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Humility affects everything about learning, relationships, leadership — whatever is meaningful in this short time we have on this planet. You can be successful in the world’s eyes without it, but what’s the point if you end your days without truly knowing yourself or being known?

I found that quote after I had been shocked into humility more than once like a cold bucket of water on my head. I believe change is a choice, about as much as I believe our circumstances are often a choice. If you choose the wrong friends, your circumstances will never change. If others define your values, you’ll live their life and not create your own future. If you don’t choose growth over comfort, life will have you in a continual state of discomfort. That quote defines for me why some people get out of their circumstances and others don’t. Children often have no choices, but as an adult, outside of discrimination, you must first realize you are likely part of many of the problems you face, then learn to think for yourself and choose to act without care for the opinions of those you would not go to for advice when in serious need.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

PAIRIN is a social enterprise company with the goal of developing our workforce and removing employment barriers. Our core product, My Journey, is a workforce process management system that personalizes career exploration, job matching, and skill development. It connects people to the most relevant tools, resources, people, and information for their specific needs, desires, and stage of life that are often hidden in a sea of government acronyms and websites.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, our current clients immediately identified the utility of My Journey to serve their residents and asked us to accelerate rollouts and additional content that was COVID-specific. For example, we partnered with the State of Virginia to accelerate our rollout of the Virginia Career Works Referral Portal, a tool that connects users with career, training, and supporting resources for displaced workers. With unemployment levels rising faster than ever in history, we knew we had to act quickly to help state governments assist the influx of job-seekers to identify their strengths and areas of improvement in their professional skill set, as well as finding potential jobs that best fit these strengths. Now more than ever, people are using this time to job search and improve their skills, and PAIRIN is excited to be a part of this professional development journey.

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?

I’ve met a lot of heroes in my life, and not one was comfortable with the term as applied to them. Without exception, all true heroes say something akin to, “I just did what needed to be done.” The difference between them and other people that do good work is the choice of personal risk for the benefit of those you serve. My team chose to take a risk that could hurt our company, thus the security of their own families, to help people in need in a time of great uncertainty. We invested, hired people, and changed our roadmap instead of hunkering down and waiting for things to “get back to normal” like most companies.

People helped me so many times when they had no reason to give me a second thought. It’s my turn to pay it forward with PAIRIN.

In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.

When someone thinks too highly of their own contribution to this world or values themselves over others, you’ll rarely see anything you’d categorize as a heroic deed as a byproduct of that life. I don’t think there are five characteristics of a hero. I think there are two:

  1. A person does what needs to be done for another person or people, solely because it is the right thing to do, regardless of the risk to themselves.
  2. They feel they do not have a choice, although the majority of other people choose not to act and often believe the person that did was crazy.

Why do Marines and cops run into gunfire? Why do firemen run into burning buildings? Why do workforce professionals help people in poverty build a future that they can choose? Why do teachers work for low pay to do what most parents can’t for eight hours a day? They feel they must. They have no choice. They couldn’t live with themselves unless they act. Can you explain that? There’s no five-step plan for great character, but there are examples that inspire others. Tell those stories.

What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?

We had no choice. As a company, we made a decision years ago to help people in need by giving the “alongsider”, those who are the boots on the ground that spend their days helping the disenfranchised be better at what they already do. Unemployment in the United States is at an all-time high because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and my team quickly realized that our company is well-positioned to help those in need during this time. Government and workforce agencies in each state have an abundance of resources available for their residents, but it can be difficult for citizens to find the correct information in a timely manner, particularly in a pandemic when so many have been displaced from their jobs and demand is higher than ever. As a social enterprise company, PAIRIN is focused on helping government, education, and workforce organizations to connect job seekers, students, and working professionals with the tools they need to be successful. COVID-19 only increased the need for offerings that aid employment and education, presenting an opportunity for our team to work with more states and government entities across the country. PAIRIN already helps these agencies and organizations reach their residents, but the pandemic has given us the opportunity to connect even more organizations and individual people with the resources they need to find a job and be successful.

Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?

Have you held school for your kids at home this year, even with their teachers writing the curriculum? You’d be hard-pressed to find a parent that was energized from that. Good teachers are heroes.

Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?

I choose to not live in fear, or let our company make decisions based on fear. Fear is always of the unknown. The key is to understand what you do know, determine what risk is acceptable, and move forward. Fear creates inaction, not progress. Every situation has a smart solution. Even if you don’t prefer the eventual outcome, taken in context it can be encouraging. If you keep a clear head, you can find opportunities in almost any situation.

What concerns me most about this pandemic is the lives of the people that were displaced from work due to the massive dip in the economy. People are losing hope. Hope can sustain a person or a society through virtually anything. A simple helping hand, a listening ear, even a helpful software system can provide hope. Those who are able to help must be purveyors of hope in times like this. In particular, our state government clients have been working tirelessly to figure out the best ways to support their residents during this time. With so many resources available from a wide range of organizations, it’s extremely difficult for people to find the information they need to feel supported during the unemployment process, especially with so many Americans facing unemployment during COVID-19.

As I mentioned, the State of Virginia actually accelerated the rollout of its workforce development system, the Virginia Career Works Referral Portal, to meet the needs of its residents in a fast and flexible manner. Though this system was already in development with PAIRIN before COVID-19 hit, the state government recognized the importance of providing timely resources to Virginians to help them get back on their feet and overcome the challenges associated with the pandemic. My hope is that other government systems swiftly realize the extent of the problem at hand and act quickly to provide state residents with the tools they need to get back into the workforce. With over 40 million Americans unemployed, there is no time to waste in helping them get back on their feet.

Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain why?

Though the COVID-19 pandemic has brought devastating losses around the world, I am optimistic about the future of work and of our workforce system. This pandemic has given companies an opportunity to reevaluate their hiring practices, particularly as it relates to remote work. As jobs continue to evolve in the age of digital transformation and working remotely is more easily accessible, new skills and job roles will be needed to support these changes.

On a personal level, the pandemic has given many people the opportunity to reevaluate their life and career goals, as well as focus more of their time on personal and professional development. They’ve been able to build up their skills through training and certifications, making them more well-rounded as more jobs begin to open up. With 85 percent of job success rooted in the development of soft and people skills, it’s no surprise that the federal government is supporting this initiative with the introduction of a skills development bill. The bill would reward those who take the time to develop their essential skills during COVID-19, further diversifying and evolving the future of our workforce.

What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?

Anyone who is considering others greater than themselves and choosing to sacrifice for them just encourages me to no end. I’ve gotten to know my neighbors more than I ever would have because of this. Deep friendships are developing. Families are communicating more. Information is spreading about small businesses that are going under and with a simple social media post, they are suddenly in growth mode. Given the chance to choose to help others, most people will. That is all inspiring.

Those who prey on the misfortune of others turns my stomach. They may get a temporary benefit, but there will be a time when they regret their actions. I hope at that time someone shows them the kindness they didn’t show another and provides the example that can change their future.

Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.

No. Good people are easier to find than bad if you choose to look. They’re just quieter.

What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?

A permanent societal change that I would love to see is a major development in our workforce system to remove employment barriers. Too often, companies practice lazy hiring, which is when they create irrelevant filters to sort through the many applicants for the position and find one that fits the “mold” on paper. Typically, this means someone with a traditional, four-year degree from an esteemed university and an extensive career background. To address these inequalities in our current workforce system, companies should focus their hiring on people’s abilities, rather than their histories. In particular, it is essential (or “soft”) skills that will make the biggest impact on an organization’s hiring success, rather than technical skills that can easily be taught. By committing to hiring based on a person’s individual fit in a company, rather than by their current knowledge of hard skills, both the organization and the employee will find a higher success rate in the job role and hiring process.

My hope for companies both big and small is that they reassess their hiring practices to focus on what matters most — essential skills. I believe we can use this pandemic to create a better system that is fair for everyone, rather than focusing solely on candidates with traditional education and career background.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I read in a biography one time about a very influential man named Frank Buchman who made a huge impact after WWII. He was faced with a world in pain and chaos and came to the conclusion that “The worse the world gets, the more we must focus on the individual.” Help the person that is put in your path with the resources you’ve been given. If that is time, or a smile, or a kind word, give what you have. You will receive more than you ever give away.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Whatever influence I have in the world is only what I have been given as a gift by others. I don’t believe influence is something to be wielded like a weapon, but rather trust to be honored and an example to be followed. Influence is a gift that is more undeserved than earned. For people to trust you — listen and consider your opinion — is a serious responsibility. If I were to create a movement it would be a new political party called “The Listeners”, or maybe “The Reasonable Party”. They would listen more than speak. They would, in all things, at all times, seek understanding, empathy, and mutually beneficial action. I know that is too much to ask of most of our politicians because they have too much to lose. But, maybe we can as individuals start listening. We can each be the example we want others to follow. If listening becomes en vogue, it just might change the behaviors of our politicians. Well, if the polls say it would matter to their re-election, I guess.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

The only person that comes to mind at this moment is my mother. Unfortunately, she passed away just a couple of weeks ago. One last breakfast would be nice. She liked pancakes.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow me on Twitter (@PAIRINCEO) or add me on LinkedIn.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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