Investing Where Others Have Given Up: Announcing TAP (Training All People)

Sep 24, 2022
(Co-authored with TAP CEO Jason Spyres)‍

Sep 24, 2022

We are excited to introduce TAP, the newest company to emerge from 8VC’s Build program. Read on to learn how TAP is partnering with industry leaders to teach the skills needed to thrive in the 21st century economy, while helping underserved communities to create opportunities and mentorship networks close to home.

At a glance, the differences are vast. One of us grew up in a stable, suburban home, was valedictorian of his high school, and by 21 was working for a multi-billion dollar hedge fund while co-founding a software company. One of us grew up shuttling between parents, both drug users, and by 21 was serving a 30 year prison sentence for nonviolent cannabis dealing. Yet we have much in common as well: a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo, a belief that technology can be a force for positive change, and computer science degrees from Stanford.

My colleague Jason Spyres’ story could fill multiple books, but the Cliff’s Notes version is both an inspirational saga of overcoming long odds, and a sobering account of how bad policy and incentives made the odds much longer than necessary. While in prison, Jason applied to go to school - only to be told the state of Illinois considered him unteachable and beyond rehabilitation. Undeterred, he began independent studies, borrowing college textbooks through the prison library and reading Khan Academy transcripts mailed by his mother. Jason learned physics, calculus, organic chemistry, and economics on his own, doing the calculations by hand. After his release, Jason enrolled in community college before transferring to Stanford, where he earned a degree in computer science with an AI concentration and was hired by one of the most selective software companies in the industry.

I’ve often described my philosophy - whether around entrepreneurship, policy, or philanthropy - as applying functional solutions to dysfunctional areas. You could also describe it as “investing where others have given up”, and this is an impulse that Jason and I immediately recognized in one another. Not content to break the vicious cycles in his own life, Jason served a fellowship with the Prison Scholar Fund while at Stanford, advising formerly incarcerated people on the motivational and practical aspects of pursuing a college education. As an entrepreneur, he is now pursuing a solution to another difficulty plaguing millions throughout our society: how to make the leap from low-wage work to long-term membership in the middle class. This is both a technical and educational challenge, and also, profoundly, a community challenge.

Certain forms of high tech have had undeniably negative societal consequences. Take social media: there is seemingly no limit to how distracted and polarized the participant can become. Then there is the incalculable opportunity cost of talented people working on non-valuable (and in some cases value-destroying) technology. Economic headwinds have exposed some of the more frivolous companies, but others remain highly profitable based on the pernicious incentive to vacuum up attention. At the same time, we’ve already seen inspiring examples of what  technology can do to catalyze untapped human curiosity, impart much-needed skills and knowledge, and ultimately promote fulfillment and prosperity -, Khan Academy, and Piazza are just a few that come to mind. In prison, Jason did it the hard way, making furious use of edtech, minus most of the tech. For every Jason, there are millions more for whom the right educational technology could be transformative.

The dysfunction in post-secondary education is well documented - in part. The groupthink, credentialism, and monoculture that have pervaded our universities led me and a small group of iconoclasts to found the University of Austin (UATX), and we are looking to instill entrepreneurial ethics in tomorrow’s leaders as well as liberate intellectual inquiry. However, while universities have been failing both in their intellectual mission and in preparing students for professional life, there’s another educational mission that's been grossly under-resourced and largely ignored in mainstream discourse: setting the millions of people who don’t go to college up for economic mobility, continued learning, and participation in the emerging industries of the 21st century.

Meanwhile, American industry is desperate for skilled workers, and this will continue to be true even as advances in computer vision, robotics, et cetera continue to increase output per worker. Due to growing demand and an imminent wave of retirements, four million job openings are projected in US manufacturing alone from 2020-2030. Over half are expected to go unfilled due to skills gaps. As newer industries such as biomanufacturing ramp up, many will also require advanced technicians. Yet, for countless potentially viable candidates, vocational schools are too costly and time-consuming, if they’re on the radar at all. Companies can provide some on-the-job training and upskilling, but aren’t equipped to do so on a mass scale, and are often limited to training candidates already on their payrolls. 

We created our new company, TAP (Training All People), for all of the reasons above. We’ve positioned TAP as a talent identification and community support company in the long term, with modern, tech-enabled vocational training as its initial offering. TAP is based on four core components, each subject to continuous measurement and optimization:

  1. An accelerated curriculum that can quickly establish interest and aptitude, and take participants from novice to work-ready.
  2. Simulation-based exercises that can replicate costly and dangerous real-world environments and equipment, and capture behavioral data to inform eventual AI-guided learning experiences (as early investors in Oculus, we have seen the past decade of VR advances up close, and couldn’t be more excited about its potential to improve lives).
  3. A forum for talent identification - both for the student initially seeking direction, and the employer who will be drawing from this talent pool months later.
  4. Mentors who have undergone similar career progression and can serve as professional role models, while coaching participants from application to placement.

Mentorship, enhanced by technology, is the final component whose addition will transform the first three from necessary to sufficient. No one knows how to succeed in difficult circumstances like those who have overcome the same odds. TAP compensates successful individuals to go back and reinvest in their communities, while using technology to rigorously match mentors to mentees, fine-tune the mode and frequency of mentor interactions, and measure and improve the efficacy of interview preparation and coaching. Mentorship may not “scale” in the typical sense, yet technology can be an incredible means of instilling it, free from physical limitations. 

The result is a complete educational offering emphasizing both discrete skills and the wisdom of experience. That offering is in the extremely capable hands of Jason’s and my TAP co-founder Tim Raftis, a product manager and startup operator with an unparalleled ability to turn raw data and user requirements into industry-standard software (as he did at two prior companies I co-founded, Palantir and Affinity).

TAP advisor Jodi Anderson (L) lesson planning with Chief Learning Officer Warren Mercer (R). Photo Credit Jason Spyres.

The value of building advanced skills goes far deeper than getting a better job the next time around (which is itself life-changing, and taken for granted by too many in the professional class). On an individual level, the dignity of performing difficult, skilled work is hard to overstate, as is the confidence instilled by closing the gap between one’s potential and degree of self-actualization. The result is an identity that is earned, not labeled, and is thus truly one’s own. On a societal level, skilled work defines our standard of living, and will determine whether we rise to the challenge in areas as diverse and consequential as energy, life sciences, and healthcare. 

Utopian proposals to create economic mobility have failed because they’ve focused on zero-sum equations and attempted to create effects without causes. Even more insidiously, they’ve decoupled static indicators from the real individuals these programs are supposed to serve. Few would consciously deny the human capacity to uplift ourselves - in the words of William Faulkner, “a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.” Why, then, aren’t more people talking about new paths to prosperity rather than redistribution schemes?

In considering the task before us, I like to reflect on the wisdom of leaders from Ronald Reagan, who quipped that “the best social program is a job”, to FDR, who cautioned that “no country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources". TAP emphasizes both responsibility and aspiration, using a model that is practical, sustainable, and commonsense. Yet it is also radical - in its rejection of pessimism and the status quo, and its belief that anyone can make it in America. 

In this next chapter, TAP is focused on piloting our first training programs with industry partners, and we recently conducted our first, for a major high-tech manufacturer. We will be learning and iterating intensively, with the goals of 1) facilitating transformational learning and 2) scaling from hundreds, to thousands and eventually millions of participants. Crucially, it is the participants who will be changing their own lives, through hard work and advancing skills, and those of others in their communities, as successful graduates reinvest their knowledge through mentorship. While no one else can walk the path for them, it will be an honor to provide our fellow citizens with a few critical signposts as they take their place in advanced industries.

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