For Sarah-Jayne Lehtinen, it felt natural to shift from being an elementary-school teacher to her current role as the chief people officer for Prodigy, a maker of educational software. The company’s platform helps 55 million students (and one million of their teachers) learn math and English by weaving curriculum-aligned questions into entertaining games, which it personalizes to meet its young users at their level.
Just like those kids will do in the future, Lehtinen now takes what she learned in the classroom and applies it to her new career. “The aims of People and Culture are very aligned with what teachers are trying to do,” she says.
It makes sense that Lehtinen would be drawn to another vocation that involves nurturing talent; in both cases, goals are achieved by enabling the success of others. “We want people to enjoy their work, to be engaged and to understand their connection to the mission of the organization,” she says. “A lot of what we do in the corporate world is the same as what happens in the classroom.” And that includes incentives that appeal to everyone’s inner child: candy. “I’ve tossed out chocolate bars at sales meetings. We all like fast feedback loops.”
Here, Lehtinen talks about Prodigy, how the company’s mission factors into its hiring process, and how the challenges of the pandemic have helped foster new kinds of innovation.
How do you explain the Prodigy Math software to people who aren’t familiar with it?
It’s a highly engaging Pokémon-style math game that is anchored in the curriculum. Users engage in “math battles,” during which they answer curriculum-aligned questions. And then you’re able to go on this journey and collect various objects and stars, which help you in winning battles and moving up to different levels.
When you register, you get software that works for the province you’re in and the selected grade level, and it will automatically start an assessment to see if the user is actually functioning at the grade level they’ve indicated.
How does the assessment work?
If you’re answering a bunch of questions wrong, the algorithm will help figure out exactly where you’re at. Once that’s been determined, it puts you within the curriculum but at the right level where you’re comfortable. The pandemic left so many education gaps — we want kids to stay in what’s called their proximal zone of development, where they are having success and achieving that success. And so, if they are consistently answering questions incorrectly it will push them backward in the curriculum.
That’s what makes the game so unique, the fact that you can be playing in class against your classmates, and everybody is at a different point in the curriculum, and maybe even at a different grade level altogether, but it doesn’t impact how you show up and how you can interact with your peers.
And we continue to iterate on the product itself. It’s not necessarily because of COVID but there’s just been an increased focus on student privacy and online security. We made a lot of changes to ensure that we were being protective of student data and ensuring that we were adhering to the various privacy guidelines.
Your background is in teaching — how did you land at Prodigy?
I spent four years in the classroom as an elementary teacher in Michigan. I moved back to Canada and while I was waiting for my credentials to be transferred, I took an interim contract job and fell in love with the business sector. When I joined Prodigy seven years ago, I was moving back to Ontario from the East Coast and I was at a fork in the road of my career. Prodigy was looking for a lot of different skills that I had. And it was an education company that was trying to make a difference in the world of education. For the first time, I could step into a corporate world where I could be on the business side, doing what I love to do, but it was in service of this great mission, which was absolutely part of my personal passion. That values alignment for me, both personally and professionally, checked all the boxes.
Can you talk about how you incorporate that mission-oriented piece into your hiring process?
We’re constantly speaking about it; we certainly highlight our experiences with students. We ask people to play our game before they show up for an interview; we ask if they know anybody who’s played the game. And we get people to think back to their own experiences. There are so many times in the hiring process where we hear: “I wish I’d had something like this to learn math as a kid — I’m confident I would have been so much stronger.” It gets people in touch with the purpose of the product. And when they play the game, they can see the moments of delight.
How has the pandemic affected the way you do business?
There have been lots of obstacles, but the pandemic did create a surge of growth, especially early on, because teachers, schools and parents didn’t know what to do. Our game was a fantastic help during that period of chaos because it was quick and easy.
But also what we’ve learned over the last three years is that even three months can make a big difference in the reality of our world. So how do we bring in more flexibility so that we have resiliency as a business? That might mean focusing on fewer things with slightly bigger teams versus stretching the teams and focusing on more things, because at the end of the day, we want to be flexible. We want to be resilient. We want to make sure that we’re doing everything we need to do to win.
Has that approach led to new kinds of innovation?
We have a whole communications strategy around talking about what it is that we’re doing. We’re talking about department changes within departments, we’re talking about company-wide impact at the company level, and we’re making sure people understand all the different elements of their experience. We’re also taking their feedback and showing them: Look, we’re listening — and here’s how. There are those basic human needs — people want to understand how they’re being paid so that they can realize their personal dreams beyond paying their rent and mortgage, of course. But making those connections is a really exciting thing for people. Because we all want to know we’re having an impact. We all want to know that we’re being heard, and that our voice matters.
MaRS commissioned photographer Jenna Marie Wakani to photograph the thinkers, entrepreneurs and investors behind some of Canada’s most exciting companies. See the full portrait series here.
Photo credit: Jenna Marie Wakani