Be better—twice, or just way, way better—than anyone else. That’s the mantra for so many people of color, so many women and certainly Angela Antony, co-founder and CEO of Scoutible.
Antony, a first-generation student, won her academic laurels three-times over at Harvard: as an undergrad (in psychology), as an MBA student and then as a law student. She spent six months in the National Economic Council during the Obama administration where she met serial entrepreneur and investor, Mark Cuban. When he heard her ideas, he insisted that she start a company—and that he would be her first funder. She did just that in 2015 and has since raised $5 million. Early this year, Antony and the 10-person Scoutible team orchestrated a “soft” launch of their platform for consumers. Their goal will sound familiar: helping improve by orders of magnitude, how hiring happens. Scoutible’s official launch will happen later this year, but even so, Antony reports that the platform is already being used by tens of thousands of people.
As part of this EdSurge miniseries, supported by Peak State Ventures, on the joys and challenges faced by female entrepreneurs building businesses at the intersection of learning and working, Antony explains what Scoutible is doing and what they hope to achieve.
EdSurge: Business hates uncertainty—and this year has been fraught with it! What are the challenges for your business right now—and how are you working to resolve those?
Antony: On a high level, the challenges that we are experiencing as we navigate this brave new world that none of us really expected or could have planned for are the same as every other company—what the world’s going to look like, where markets are shifting, what’s hiring going to look like, the fundraising landscape, like what the best timeline around that is, how that’s shifted and so on.
The fascinating thing for us, though, was that we were launching the first consumer-facing version of our platform and our technology right when COVID hit. It had been on our roadmap for years that we would do this in 2020. That timing turned out to be uncanny in some ways because our consumer-facing app was designed to help people understand themselves and leverage their strengths to find opportunities. It’s wild to think how the demand for an app like that skyrocketed from February 2020 to March. It was like night and day.
Suddenly there were a lot of people who definitely would have kept their jobs—whether or not they were satisfied or had a good fit—that were forced out. They started thinking: “My job is gone. My entire industry has evaporated. What can I do that I’ve never done before?” And that’s basically the question that our technology is designed to answer.
There’s this fallacy that defines someone who has a certain previous job history. Employers, and often people themselves think that’s what they’re able to do. But our technology is designed to help answer a different question—what could you be great at? That’s a question we should always be asking, not just in a crisis when whole categories of jobs disappear overnight.
How did asking those questions—‘What could I do? What am I good at?’—lead you to start Scoutible?
The whole concept behind Scoutible came from years of research that I had been doing at Harvard, trying to unpack the systemic problems causing abysmal hiring outcomes. More than half of hires fail. I thought: ‘This is a wild, staggering statistic. This is the biggest pain point for every single company.’ It’s the single-biggest crisis that faces our country from an American competitive standpoint—and the fact that we don’t talk about this boggles my mind.
There are piles of academic studies that show that the exact same resume with a black-sounding first and last name versus a white-sounding first and last name gets 50 percent fewer callbacks. It is purely because of racism.
Our platform evaluates everyone on factors that are predictive of future performance on a job—and completely uncorrelated with gender, race, age or socioeconomic background. It’s fascinating that right now there’s this huge upsurge or resurgence of intolerance for the systemic bias and entrenched systemic racism that we have been experiencing in this country for such a long time. I feel that hiring is one of the clearest places where that bias is just unconscionable, and solvable.
Your perspective on racial bias has driven the creation of Scoutible. What about your perspective as a woman entrepreneur? How does that shape what you and the company are doing?
There are certain narratives and foundational elements of how I, as a minority female founder and the daughter of immigrants, see the world. For example, my mother and my father both grew up in part of India called Kerala. My mother’s dream was to be a doctor. But in India at that time, as a female, the highest degree that you could attain was to be a nurse. So my mom got her nursing degree and became a registered nurse. Her dream then became to come to America so that her children, especially her daughters, would never experience that fundamental oppression purely because of their gender.
That outlook shaped my life view by strengthening my desire to give people the opportunity to be valued for their potential, their natural strengths and their willingness to work hard, regardless of their gender, nationality or anything like that.
It trickled down into the organization that I built. It was important to me that we create a safe environment where everyone’s voice could be heard—that we inspire a culture of diverse thought and creativity that expands our individual understanding of the world. I wanted to create a culture of excellence that was still supportive. It’s a balance of striving for excellence and achieving your potential, along with feeling like you don’t have to go it alone, that you have a community you can really rely on and trust.
How do you bring that culture and that way of thinking and operating to your interactions with the venture world, say raising funding or building a board?
That’s a great question. It starts with our founding story. The years of policy research that I led at Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School led to an opportunity to go to the White House during the Obama administration. During that time, we hosted an entrepreneurship summit at the White House. Mark Cuban was one of many entrepreneurs invited to attend.
It was one of those serendipitous life moments: Mark wanted to know everything about my research and the work I was doing. At the time, I was writing a book, trying to gel all these years of research into the pieces that people could understand and use to drive change. Mark and I ended up talking for hours and hours. By the end of our time together, he said, “Angela, you need to build this solution that you’re proposing in your research and I want to fund it.” That was really the genesis of Scoutible.
So our culture is partly a function of my upbringing, my perspective, my personality. But it’s also a function of the fact that our whole company and technology is really about recognizing and celebrating people’s individual differences.
How do you work with your investors?
I consider our investors as members of our team. When they have a resource or access to something that will help, we’re all on the same team. I try not to feel shy to say, ‘Hey, can you help us with this?’ And they’re always willing.
As a female entrepreneur, sometimes you can feel some shyness or feeling like you need to go it alone. I had to unlearn that. It used to be that if I didn’t have a close relationship with an investor, I would hesitate or it just wouldn’t occur to me to reach out to them. Then I realized that even the ones I don’t catch up with regularly are happy to help. You just have to ask.
You had a particularly unique initial investor. What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs who are seeking their first investors?
Don’t settle for people who don’t believe in what you’re trying to build. If your first investors are not the most aligned with your vision or a good personality fit, it will come back to haunt you. You’ll end up not building the thing that you set out to build.
No startup is all smooth sailing. So no matter what’s happening, you want people who believe in you. For us that’s meant that when we encounter challenges, our investors are, like, ‘Let’s problem-solve this.’ An investor who was less of a believer might just start allocating their time elsewhere.
There are lots of ways to describe Scoutible: you use games to help people find what they’re good at; you help companies recruit talent independent of bias. But lots of companies are trying to use machine learning to improve hiring. What about your approach resonates most deeply with your investors?
If you look across the U.S. economy, over 50 percent of new hires fail. That means as companies, we’re doing a worse job than if we just flipped a coin. It’s very clear that there is bad data in the system and that we are primarily using evaluation criteria that causes us to systematically select the wrong person.
So the question is: ‘If we’re using bad data, the wrong data—basically, resumes and interviews—then what’s the right data?’
The fascinating thing—and this is what we were studying at Harvard—is that we’ve actually known what the ‘right data’ is for a very long time. There’s a robust body of academic research that shows that the umbrella of things we call ‘soft skills,’ things like cognitive abilities and personality traits, are the single most predictive indicators of future performance on any job. Those attributes outperform every other evaluation criteria that we have today or that we’ve ever studied, by quite a lot. Knowing those attributes is, at a minimum, two times more predictive than interviews, three times more predictive than work experience and four times more predictive than education level.
People think they’re getting to know those attributes through interviews, but we know that that’s not the case because of the poor hiring outcomes and through research.
So if we know what the ‘right data’ is, and there are tests for it, then why isn’t every company just using that, right? Why isn’t that the gold standard of hiring across the country and globally?
The answer is that the way psychology researchers measure these attributes cannot be used in the hiring process. First, these tests are not concise. By the nature of how the tests are built, it would take hours and hours or sometimes days—hundreds or thousands of questions—to get enough data. Second: the tests ask a lot of self-reported questions, like: ‘Are you punctual?’ ‘Have you ever stolen?’ In a laboratory setting, there’s no incentive to give the wrong answer. But the second you try to transport those over into a competitive context, like hiring for a job, they’re no longer valid. Self reporting just creates inaccurate data.
What we needed was a technological solution that could measure those attributes in dramatically less time, and in a way that was not self-reported. And that’s exactly what a game is. Our ‘game’ is a technology that has reduced hours or days of psychological testing into a 20-minute experience that feels easy to do. We didn’t build a game because it was fun or a marketing gimmick. It was simply the quickest way we could get the right data.
What’s Scoutible’s business model?
We raised our first round around building a consumer application. I think it’s the only way that we significantly rewire how we hire in this country.
But when we got started, we were drowning in inbound interest from some of the biggest companies. This surprised me since I never expected them to be early adopters. So we spent a bit of time figuring out how to serve the huge enterprise market since I thought my intuition might have been incorrect. That turned out to be a very time-consuming experiment. Each time, it became a bit of a consulting project. I think that’s because there wasn’t complete buy-in across the organization about what we’re doing. So there was a lot of need to do custom requests, custom projects, custom features, and things like that that weren’t really necessary.
In other words, it’s too hard for big companies to make change?
The enterprises wanted to be early adopters. They had champions internally that understood the problem very well. But there are so many different priorities and different voices in the room that adopting something novel that could change people’s existing jobs is a difficult and scary prospect. So they tried to de-risk it through custom requests and features.
We have a very strong vision of what we’re trying to accomplish in the world. We weren’t trying to build a consulting business to help one big company at a time hire better. We’re trying to rewire the way that societally we evaluate people and create doors to opportunity.
So we decided, at a very meaningful point in time, that we were not going to pursue that strategy anymore. We shut down our enterprise pipeline. We kept on the customers that we had that we could service with pretty low marginal cost, but we decided to open up to the small and medium business (SMB) market and enable the more grassroots adoption we always envisioned.
What’s different about the needs of small or medium size companies?
The biggest pain point for SMB companies is sourcing. They don’t believe that they get all the best candidates applying for their open roles. They do a lot of outbound recruiting. They pay a lot of money to headhunters to go find talent for them.
In this move, in this shift, we knew that we both had to release our B2B platform optimized for SMB and midmarket from both a product and functionality standpoint.
The current version of your app is aimed at consumers. What does the game reveal and how does that support your business?
In the stealth version of our app, you play our game and it gives you a ‘strengths resume.’ We decided to use the paradigm of a resume so people understood that this isn’t a personality test. We wanted to convey that this is an expression of who you are that can represent you professionally.
The game unearths all these qualities about you, categorized into work, education and self. You can then add your actual work experiences, education history or specific skills you’ve learned, such as programming in Java or blogging. It’s like your resume on steroids: It’s not just your resume data but it’s the most job-relevant qualities about you, communicated credibly by a third party.
If you wrote these things on your own (traditional) resume, people wouldn’t even read it, right? They just wouldn’t believe you. Scoutible can vouch for the fact that this person has scientifically demonstrated strengths that are the most indicative of their future success in any job.
While we’re still in stealth mode, that’s where the consumer’s experience ends. They can share their Strengths Resume publicly and use it in their job search. But that’s really just the ‘MVP’ (minimally viable product) version of the experience. In the background, we've been researching and testing which benefits are most useful and compelling to consumers beyond that. We will publicly launch the full version soon. It will include a very exciting feature set that will benefit consumers and, hopefully, change their lives.
Do your Scoutible scores change over time? Can you change them with education or different experiences?
At high level, the traits that we primarily measure are what’s known as the stable traits of acumen. You can measure them when someone’s three years old, and again when they’re 23, or 33. They are known as the ‘stable traits.’
There’s a whole body of debate and discussion about growth mindset and how you can change personality. I don’t think it’s easy, but it’s definitely possible. Scoutible’s designed to describe who you are today. We’re saying, ‘There’s no need to change who you are. We’re going to find the place in the world that needs your combination of abilities now—where you are going to naturally excel and outperform and feel like a star performer today.’
One thing I always like to stress is that there’s a difference between your inherent traits and the behaviors that you exhibit in the real world. Behaviors can be easily changed and learned. We do that constantly, such as learning a new skill—like leading meetings effectively, or being professional in the workplace. How naturally those skills come to you has something to do with your natural personality and cognitive abilities, but anyone motivated can learn them.
What keeps you up at night?
Both the pandemic and anger over systemic racism are surfacing issues that have plagued our country for a long time. For us, as a startup, it’s turned up the urgency around what we can do. We even posted publicly saying: ‘This is the wave of change that we’ve been working toward for years.’ We feel really excited and blessed to be able to be part of the solution.