Lauren Fitzpatrick Shanks, Founder & CEO of KeepWOL – Interview Series
Lauren Fitzpatrick Shanks is the founder and CEO of KeepWOL and an award-winning engineer and tech leader, who spent fourteen years working at five Fortune 500 companies, holding various leadership roles in design, system testing, product creation, staffing, software program management, and operations. Lauren is the first Black woman to graduate from The University of Kansas' Aerospace Engineering Department and the first Black woman to win the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) international design competition.
KeepWOL is a game-centric talent development platform that combines live multiplayer games, AI technology, and end-to-end learning integration to deeply understand how employees think and what influences their decisions.
Could you discuss how you chose engineering as a career path, and even pursued a bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering, all while realizing that it was not the best match for you?
I wouldn’t say that engineering wasn’t a perfect match for me. By nature, I’m curious and analytical. I have an uncanny ability to visualize processes and objects before they are even prototyped or in motion. I have great mechanical aptitude too. All these personality traits are characteristic of many engineers. What I would say is that women, especially Black women, have not had a strong presence in this field. While I wasn’t intimidated or put off by this reality, I did go through some dark times especially while attending school.
Because neither the students nor the teachers understood me and my life experiences, I felt misplaced. Relationships were challenging to build, my mental health was terrible, and I constantly questioned changing my major. Can you imagine feeling the need to change your entire trajectory because you don’t feel like you belong? I stuck with it though and my perseverance led me to become the first Black woman to graduate from The University of Kansas' Aerospace Engineering Department and the first Black woman to win the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) international design competition. I’ve taken everything I’ve learned along the way and poured these lessons into the founding of KeepWOL.
You worked at multiple Fortune 500 companies and made some strategic career decisions to wind up in software engineering. What were some of these choices and how did you eventually discover you were passionate about software?
In my 14 years at Fortune 500 companies, I discovered that their diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging programs (DEIB) were more for vanity metrics. It was this discovery that led me down the path of creating a software-based solution to this problem. The possibilities of software to solve some of life’s greatest challenges is limitless. And with today’s technology, such as AI and machine learning, we’re pushing the boundaries even further.
As far as career decisions, for me, it’s been about taking chances and recognizing that I can be the one limiting myself. So that means taking risks and I do take a lot of risks – more than I ever imagined myself taking. I always tell people to apply for the jobs they’re not qualified for on paper. I wasn’t qualified to be an entrepreneur when I launched my business. Not according to my resume.
Because I’ve taken so many risks, I’ve also made a lot of mistakes. But if I hadn’t made those mistakes, I wouldn’t have learned from them and I wouldn’t be where I am today. Throughout my career and as I was going through corporate America, I was initially focused on climbing the corporate ladder. While I progressed and made more money, I also wanted to be in a place where the environment and culture felt good to me. Unfortunately, I experienced the opposite and was constantly hitting a wall – feeling like I was on the outside looking in.
All my positions had been in engineering and tech. Since I am an engineer, I began to think, how can I solve this ‘feeling like an outsider' problem? Corporate America has had a problem with how they go about talent development and how they make teams and people feel included and like they belong. None of the programs they had in place were geared around retention or ensuring the success of diverse hires. What was worse, is that managers received no training on managing, leading, motivating, and communicating with people from all walks of life. I watched employees either suffer and provide less than optimal output or get fed up and leave. I recognized that I could not fix this problem from within the company I was in. I had to come out to build the solution.
With KeepWOL, I’m building a B2B learning and development tech company. My background is in aerospace engineering, and I have an MBA in operations management. I do not have any experience in B2B sales, and I have no degrees in organizational development. What I did have is my lived experiences and what I have been through.
What were some of these moments when you really felt like you were a non-belonger or outsider?
Being the “only” or the “first” often led to feeling lonely and not understood. But it also inspired me to push for change from both a scholastic and workplace perspective. Some of my darkest moments involved watching colleagues and coworkers give up on their dreams or exit a company because they felt like they didn’t belong.
One of my greatest strengths is my ability to get people to break down their vulnerability walls through my interest in really getting to know someone as a person before anything else. My gift allowed me to build genuine connections with people that I had nothing in common with from the surface level. So, to watch great people leave a field of study or job they loved just because they felt like an outsider really hurt on a deep level.
I'll be vulnerable with you and share a situation that took me over a decade to receive closure and ensure no one else experienced it. During my senior year in my aerospace engineering program, I had a class meant to “prepare” me for the workforce. Wow, did it ever prepare me to feel like I wasn't welcomed or valued. One of the assignments in this class was to list the top three people in the class we would like to work with in industry and the top three people we'd absolutely not like to work with and provide this without explanation. When the results came back, zero people wanted to work with me, and twelve people said they would not like to work with me. My senior graduating class was a class of twelve.
I spent hours drafting an email letting my professor know how I felt about that assignment, and I never hit send. I went into his office the next day, and instead, I asked him, “What should I do about the fact that the whole class would never want to work with me?” His response to me was, “You don't have to worry about that because you're, you know, African American and a woman. You'll have no problem finding a job.”
This was my preparation for being an “outsider” in corporate America. My merits, high GPA, and numerous internships had no sense of value to him. I was a check in the box, a quota filler.
In 2021 I met with two Black (one woman and one man) recent aerospace grads, and they told me this assignment was still happening and, to my shock, with a new professor! I went to the associate Dean of DEI and made them aware of this assignment and how it affected me, other women, and other people of color. This one conversation was enough for the new associate Dean to ensure that this tradition was put to an end. However, it is unfortunate that I had to carry that experience unresolved for eleven years.
For businesses that are controlled by white men who fail to instinctively understand the importance of inclusion, belonging, and diversity, how do you explain how detrimental it is for employees to feel this way?
Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging are major buzzwords in the business world these days, and for good reason. Study after study shows that valuing employees for their differences and including different perspectives in your workforce drives progress both in your organization and beyond. Let’s look at statistics before we look at the human element:
- S. corporations spend $177 billion annually on talent development. But, with labor competition intensifying amid the Great Resignation, expectations are growing.
- Employees are now demanding more diverse opportunities and have become outspoken about what will fuel their motivations and loyalty. Items of high importance include training and progressive DEIB solutions.
- According to a recent study, 85 percent of women and 74 percent of men seek employers with diversity and inclusion
- Companies that are more inclusive are 7 times more likely to be leaders in innovation. Researchers say that’s due to the varying perspectives, mindsets, and experiences that come with a diverse workforce.
- When diversity extends to the executive team, organizations are 25% more likely to have higher-than-average profitability, too.
Beyond statistics, having an engaged workforce is a morale injection. Engagement plays into team dynamics and innovation, directly impacting job satisfaction, which is what retains employees and lowers turnover, saving companies lots of money. When all employees feel seen, heard, and respected by each other, that’s when creativity and productivity thrive.
As for individuals, a lack of diversity causes detriments to educational outcomes, physical and mental health, lifetime achievement and earnings, and wealth passed down across generations. DEIB needs to be a strategic priority across a company, with leadership buy-in and participation.
How does KeepWOL gamify guided immersive experiences to help teams to express themselves?
Again, working in engineering and tech my entire career, I experienced how tough it is to be vulnerable in this space. However, I recognized that my teams were most productive when authentic connections and friendships were built from regular open, honest, and deep communication, which requires vulnerability. This doesn't come easily for most workplaces, and traditional team-building activities don't provide frequent, meaningful interactions. That's why I created KeepWOL, which is first and foremost a proven communication system that builds tight-knit inclusive teams across borders, generations, cultures, and backgrounds.
When playing games, we all start on equal footing. Each of us has an opportunity to win, and as humans, we all have a desire to win. Games and gamification tap into the brain's reward center and typically require quick thinking, disarming you, although some are more competitive than others. Games are also about the luck of the draw. They allow us to be free while still having an element of control. Randomization, not being able to prepare, and the ambiguity of games bring out authenticity within players.
KeepWOL’s purpose is to provide context details into the person behind the employee, parent, partner, or any other “label” placed upon us and allow others to grow from those learnings. Every one of our games allow for self-expression, even the ones that have a clear focus on productivity and development. For example, our game called Forming focuses on the forming-stage of team development. The forming stage involves a period of orientation and getting acquainted. Uncertainty is high during this stage and often team members aren't sure what questions they should be asking. Teams also don’t know each other well or have a foundation of trust built to fully express their thoughts, ideas, or needs. This game helps teams ask the right questions to set a solid foundation for understanding and fast growth.
What are the benefits to businesses and staff to have this level of expression?
When attempting to instill DEIB into the workforce, many organizations rely on methods like lectures, panels, surveys, and pre-recorded videos. These might be helpful in disseminating information, but these strategies fall short when it comes to changing employee behavior, mainly because they occur as one-offs and don't focus on the ins-and-outs of everyday work life. And they are not customized for the way an individual employee learns and grows.
Interpersonal skills such as communication, listening, vulnerability, empathy, and compassion must be practiced. By using KeepWOL with (remote and onsite) teams on a recurring basis, organizations will see a more engaged workforce, better team dynamics, the ability for employees to seamlessly move from one group to another, increased retention, a boost in collaboration and innovation, and a positive impact on the company's bottom line.
In what ways are machine learning or AI used with KeepWOL?
Our game-centric talent development platform for teams uses live multiplayer games, AI technology, and end-to-end learning integration to maximize cultural intelligence in the workplace. The platform hosts a digital library of psychology-based games that use storytelling to subtly uncover connections and overcome vulnerability to really nurture inclusion and team bonding.
KeepWOL's natural language processing (NLP) AI technology uses gameplay outcomes to deliver educational content based on user-specific goals and preferred learning styles. Searching through millions of training courses to find the right one will be a thing of the past. KeepWOL gives content suggestions that meet users' needs without a single search by connecting to educational content databases.
Our platform is powered by software but driven by humans. Because we are innovating so fast, and doing so by listening to our customers, we’re focused on providing solutions immediately, as soon as our customers say they need them. We’re doing a lot of building with no-code solutions in conjunction with custom coding. This enables us to be extremely agile with a very lean team and allows us to move fast during these active pilots we have going on.
We stay forward thinking when it comes to the Metaverse, VR, AR, and XR. While these are novel and exciting, we don’t want to lose focus on the human element that drives our software and meets our customer needs. Our goal is always to make our customers’ lives easier, remove their pain points, and keep people and good working relationships at the forefront of any solution we provide.
AI companies are often some of the worst offenders when it comes to having a diverse workforce, why is it important specifically for AI companies to consider using KeepWOL?
With growing emphasis on ethical AI, researchers and developers are rushing to build unbiased, fair software systems to solve real-world problems that don’t disenfranchise large swaths of society. Yet, at their very core, they are not doing enough within their own organizations to foster inclusivity and diversity. When recruiting and hiring, diversity and inclusion are too often checklist items. Unfortunately, too many companies, including AI companies, have engineered “quotas” to make it appear as if they are making the effort to include people in underrepresented groups. This is known as tokenism, which Webster defines as “the practice of doing something (such as hiring a person who belongs to a minority group) only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly.”
KeepWOL can help AI companies build a more inclusive and diverse workforce. Our platform helps teams increase their innovation and creativity. Diversity of thought, upbringing, abilities, and experience play a huge factor in the lengths one's imagination can go. When you bring together individuals with a more comprehensive perspective of the world, you are much more likely to find common problems that affect multiple communities and provide a solution that meets each of their needs. KeepWOL enables teams to bring information to the surface. In fact, 80 percent of our users say KeepWOL allows conversations and insights to come to light that otherwise wouldn’t surface.
When you're able to think outside the proverbial box of what diversity means, you're able to tap into talent pools that provide diamonds in the rough ready to transform the trajectory of your product, marketing, and sales efforts with novel ways of approaching new customer segments. Because people don't buy what they can't relate to.
When employees, at all company levels, look like the communities they are servicing, the company is less likely to make easily avoidable mistakes that cause lawsuits or PR nightmares. Having diverse personnel not only increases revenue but saves companies money and goodwill.
Is there anything else that you would like to share about KeepWOL?
We have been working with some of the biggest players in the healthcare and tech industries and collecting a lot of insightful data across various fields. We are excited about the results KeepWOL is providing to employees by maximizing cultural intelligence and measurably improving job satisfaction.
Thank you for the great interview, this is a great concept and I look forward to following your progress. Readers who wish to learn more should visit KeepWOL.
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