The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Edward Fitzpatrick at email@example.com.
This week’s Ocean State Innovators conversation is with Lindsay Kuhn, founder of Inventing Heron, a Rhode Island startup that helps young people learn about careers.
Q: What is Inventing Heron and when did it launch?
Kuhn: Inventing Heron is a web-based platform that helps young people learn about careers through rich, personal stories. It was inspired by Studs Terkel, the radio journalist who captured the voice of America in the workplace in the 1970s. We are trying to do that now with videos and written interviews. I created it in 2014 when I was getting a PhD in materials science from Brown University. It was a part-time effort until I defended my PhD a year ago and took the plunge.
Q: How many people have you interviewed about their work and can you give us a few of the more unusual examples of the professions you have profiled?
Kuhn: We have more than 700 stories on the site. We have over 40 mini-documentaries. I do the filmmaking and editing. The idea is to go into the workplace and ask that person about their work – how they feel about it and what motivated them to get there. We really believe that if you see it, you can be it. We have a couple of cool ones like a volcanologist, which is somebody who studies volcanoes. We have a goat herder. And we have a luthier, which is a violin maker.
Q: Who is your target audience and how many people have seen the videos so far?
Kuhn: Our videos have had a really wide reach. We have had more than 5,000 people use the site, and some of the videos have more than 12,000 views. So far, it has been mostly middle school and high school students. But now we are launching a campaign to target people who are 18 to 34 — including college students who want to figure out how a major relates to the real world. By January 2021, we will be relaunching the website with so much more functionality and a better user experience.
Q: What was the inspiration behind this idea and what is the void it is filling?
Kuhn: The idea is to help people make empowered career decisions. Most people make career decisions based on what they know, shaped by the people they meet and their experiences in life. We don’t want people to be limited. Our objective is to help people see themselves in different jobs that they might not have thought were possible. We like to say we want individuals to meet people they may never meet in careers they may never choose. We have developed curriculum and lessons around all of these stories.
Q: Why is it named Inventing Heron?
Kuhn: Heron stands for light and self-creation. I wanted the site to be differentiated, alternative, and not cookie-cutter.
Q: Where have you received your funding so far and how do you hope to secure future funding?
Kuhn: We have been mostly grant funded. Last year, we received two career exploration mini-grants from the State of Rhode Island, so we were in Chariho Middle School, in Richmond, and Calcutt Middle School, in Central Falls. We received a Career Technical Education grant, so we were in Mount Pleasant High School, in Providence. We had our first subscription from the Academy for Career Exploration high school, in Providence, which has since closed.
Two years ago, we partnered with Rhode Island PBS to develop educational content. We also have a partnership with the Providence Public Library, and we received a Summer Academy for Interactive Learning grant through the Rhode Island Department of Education. And this past summer, we were a finalist at MassChallenge.
Q: What is next for Inventing Heron?
Kuhn: On Nov. 10, we will be launching Career Launchpad Kits on Kickstarter. So far, we have been in schools, but now we are launching a new site for outside of school so that individuals can sign up. It’s going to be $59.99 per year once it launches. We have scholarships to the site, so someone can sponsor an individual. Through the Kickstarter, they can also sponsor a classroom or a school.
In the Kickstarter, we are also debuting our first hardcover book, “What is Work? 100 Delightfully Curious Quotes.” It’s 100 quotes from the 700 stories on the site. It’s the unintentional poetry that happens when you talk to real people about their experiences, challenges, and aspirations. The book is really a nod to Studs Terkel.