Kacy Qua is an entrepreneur who knows that successful business founders need to be specific about the people they serve and the problems they strive to solve. As the CEO of Qualifyor, her mission is connecting youth with employers to create a project-based learning experience and real-time feedback — a nontraditional education approach that leverages employers as teachers and gives students an alternative and cost-efficient option to higher education.
Qualifyor launched in 2012 with the support of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, who spearheads The Downtown Project, an urban revitalization initiative based in downtown Las Vegas. Qua and Hsieh conceptualized a way to connect young workers with Las Vegas’ small businesses and tech companies, where there is a lot of demand for talent.
The program gives employers the opportunity to have a direct say in the skills that they need and gives immediate feedback to the participating high school graduates, who work on graphic design, digital marketing and computer-based projects.
“Every day there’s a new technology coming out, and so as you look at the rate of exponential technology, the skills that you learned at the beginning of college or definitely the beginning of primary school are no longer the ones that are directly needed for the labor force,” Qua said.
Qua is a graduate of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations and earned an MBA from the University of California, Los Angeles. She acknowledges that while college helped accelerate her career, a four-year education — often leading to thousands of dollars of debt — is not the best option for many coming out of high school.
“Not everyone can afford it, and not everyone learns best in an academic environment, and so what we are building is an education system that can either supplement college or potentially take the place of it,” she said.
An alternative to formalized education, Qualifyor is driven by employer requirements based on real-time workforce shifts. Young adults get a chance to develop skills that traditional school curricula tend to neglect. So far, Qualifyor’s partners include MGM Resorts International, Downtown Project small businesses, and Vegas Tech Fund start-ups.
The program is selective. The inaugural group of Qualifyor candidates faced a formal application process and were asked to complete assignments related to the type of projects required by participating companies. They were also asked to submit essays, which Qualifyor used to gauge whether candidates matched the type of personality it wanted to recruit — people willing to roll up their sleeves and get to work, and those with a pay-it-forward mentality, Qua said.
Qualifyor has helped connect eight young people with training, which is built upon a co-working and co-learning approach. Participants learn from mentor professionals while working on short-term projects, and even stay on for the long-term. They receive “soft skills” training in such areas as project management, problem solving, and even professionalism.
“It’s been our intention to be small and specific because we wanted to really get clear about where the gap was in a way that we weren’t just creating a solution that didn’t really address what the actual problem was,” Qua said.
Qua brings her own entrepreneurial experience to her start-up. She helped lead the Education Prize Design for the X Prize Foundation, a nonprofit that sponsors incentive prize competitions to drive innovation in such fields as science, energy and education. While at the foundation, she helped developed a $10 million Global Literacy Prize competition.
With her unique approach to develop talent, and the support of Hsieh, who was looking to build a talent ecosystem through investing in small businesses and tech companies thorough The Downtown Project—Qualifyor was born.
Looking ahead to 2014, Qua hopes to launch Qualifyor in other cities.
“It’s not as glamorous as the top tier universities, but we think that there are populations of people that would be really well served by having the opportunity to get some hands-on work experience in technical and creative fields either prior to making the decision to go to school, or instead of it,” she said.