By Derek Newton
Reposted from Forbes, with permission.
Employers continue to shout for employees and job candidates with strong durable skills such as critical thinking, creativity, resilience and communication and presentation abilities. That demand has pulled open doors for schools, private enterprises and entrepreneurs to teach or enhance those crucial skills.
The problem has long been that most of the education activities associated with those key skills don’t scale well. Trying to teach opportunity recognition or critical thinking in an online class of 200 high school students, for example, is not a recipe for success.
Still, Nwanacho Nwana thinks he’s found a way to scale at least one essential, durable workplace skill – public speaking. After all, having a good idea or recognizing an opportunity is one thing. Being able to explain it to a team, answer questions about it, defend it, motive others to act on it – may actually be more important.
Nwana is the former class President at MIT, owner of a double major degree in quantitative analysis in business and political science and co-founder of Fund the Gap Alliance, an organization aimed at getting venture funding not only in African markets but to African founders and entrepreneurs.
Nwana is also co-founder of education start-up Valfee – a smush up of valuable feedback. Valfee, Nwana says, is a new approach to engaging learners in public communications, an approach that is both effective and scalable and, he thinks, new.
“I believe that everything about Valfee is unique and that’s what makes me so excited about this venture,” Nwana said. “We truly believe that feedback-based learning is optimal for long term growth, and that the future of student learning is gamified. Giving students the opportunity to practice any learning objective with consistent feedback and mentoring allows them to build confidence and grow their knowledge incrementally. None of this feedback will stick if the student is not engaged,” he said.
Nwana became interested and invested in teaching public speaking when he received speech coaching for his MIT commencement address.
“Getting professionally coached to speak was one of the most unique education experiences of my life. Being guided through looking through the written content to understand the emotions of the speech, getting the chance to practice and receive actionable feedback, and trying again to get more feedback and affirmation was an experience unlike anything before,” he said.
And, like any ambitious entrepreneur, Nwana turned that experience into profit. “I then went on to start my own small business coaching a few MIT professors, coaching them to give speeches to Fortune 500 executives and government leaders.”
That, in turn, led him to start Valfee, which he co-founded with successful education entrepreneur Gunjan Aggarwal.
“With Valfee,” Aggarwal said, “we hope to blend technology and the human factor to make learning how to speak effectively fun for students.”
Fun as it may be, the learning engine behind Valfee is heavy technology. Under layers of mentoring and personal coaching, the company’s AI-powered system uses a library of speaking prompts and speech pattern analysis to generate feedback for learners. That’s the key to scalability. “Using a combination of mentor-based and AI learning, we are really approaching communication education in a unique way and empowering the next generation of leaders,” Aggarwal said.
Even though Valfee is new, they have existing partnerships with more than 200 schools, many of which have asked for communications programs. With that, and strong interest from an increasing pool of global students, company leaders say they expect first year revenue in the range of $7 to $10 million.
With the pull from schools and employers, it’s easy to see why a quality, scalable public speaking program would succeed. But, Nwana says, it’s more than that.
“It is seemingly so obvious that communication is essential, but why is it not emphasized more in education?” Nwana asked. “The core reason is that speaking is so fundamental to our existence, and so few people are good at it, that most people believe you are either naturally gifted, or naturally doomed.”
The truth, Nwana says, is that speaking, like any skill, can be taught and learned. And the consequences are significant.
“Communication is a heavy success indicator at the individual level,” Nwana said. “Communication is the way we share ideas, showcase our knowledge, and advertise the value we can create. If you cannot give a presentation, you will rarely be able to obtain a high-paid leadership position, and if you cannot interview, you will struggle to obtain a position at all.”
There is rare consensus that more people should be more skilled at presenting their ideas. There is also general agreement that education providers should accept that mission.
Based on what we’re hearing from business and government leaders, there’s still much work to be done on improving public communication skills in a serious, broad way – especially in places where education opportunities may be more limited generally. In those gaps, there are deep opportunities for both impact and profit.