The Build #41: Transition

A Philadelphia high school teacher working with autistic students realized that, with the right approach, she could help her students learn crucial work skills, get good jobs and gain their independence. Michele McKeone has created a business that helps educators prepare neuro-diverse students for a technology-driven, highly social workforce.

Michele joins me today to discuss the proven success and promising future of her forward-thinking, legislative-supported company. She has refined her own skill set of marketing and fundraising and is expanding the reach of her company across the country and around the world. It’s the story of Digitability on The Build.

More about today’s guest:

Key Takeaways

[1:15] How Digitability prepares people with cognitive and behavioral needs for the workplace.
[2:33] Transitioning from technology student to educator to entrepreneur.
[6:12] Scaling from a classroom idea to a nationwide business model.
[8:45] Turning teacher feedback into a greater product.
[10:36] Designing an implementation model that fits with both students and customers.
[13:32] How Digitability enables the cultural and legislative shift of embracing diversity in the workplace.
[18:38] Changing the product pitch for teachers versus for investors.
[21:51] Financial success and scaling Digitability for future growth.


Announcer (00:02):
From 2820 Radio in Philadelphia, It's The Build. Conversations with entrepreneurs and innovators about their dreams, their triumphs, and their challenges.

Joe Taylor Jr. (00:14):
Transition. In the summer of 2012, a teacher working with autistic students at South Philadelphia High School realized that with the right approach she could help her class develope the kind of crucial skills necessary to earn good jobs and transition to independence. Michelle McKeone turned her discoveries into a business that helps other educators prepare students with neuordiverse needs for roles in our technology driven, highly social workforce. Along the way, Michelle's discovered how to transition her own skillset, marketing and fundraising. She prepares to expand the reach of her company across the country and even around the world. It's the story of Digitabilty coming up next on The Build.

Announcer (00:58):
The Build is made possible with support from 2820 Press. Providing business consulting and content strategy services to customer obsessed companies nationwide. More information at

Joe Taylor Jr. (01:16):
It's The Build. I'm Joe Taylor Jr, joined by phone today by Michele McKeone who is the founder of Digitability. Welcome.

M McKeone (01:25):
Thank you. I'm so excited to be here.

Joe Taylor Jr. (01:27):
Likewise. Give us a rundown of what Digitability does and what you're solving for a pretty diverse array of folks that you work with.

M McKeone (01:40):
Digitability is a work ready program that prepares people with a wide range of cognitive and behavioral needs for the workplace. So we based our program on the idea that more than 75 percent of all jobs require some degree of technological literacy. Also our workplaces are highly social in a way that often intuitive for people who are typically developing, but for individuals who have these unique needs - a lot of this content on workplace behavior or digital literacy needs to be delivered in a really systematic way and in an explicit way because of their need for a highly synthesized approach to their education and their learning.

Joe Taylor Jr. (02:33):
And you came to this point in your career from a background in education. In fact, our production team brought you to my attention because on youtube you've got one of the best explanations for the sandwich method of providing feedback that I've ever seen. Tell me about the transition from educator to entrepreneur. What was the point at which you said, I feel like I can do more with this mission if I turn this into a business?

M McKeone (03:07):
It's actually interesting because, even before becoming a teacher I was at art school and the things I was studying at the time - we were designing our social network for our university. During misadventure of learning about all the emerging technology, I really felt empowered and motivated the media literacy education. When I became a teacher, you kind of have the same goal. You find working with students that have unique needs, if it was an autistic classroom or another type of special education classroom, I still saw technology being an outlet or even an outlet as a way to help them express themselves and identify some of their future goals. But also a way to, sort of, help them develop a portfolio so that they were better positioned for when they were ready to pursue their independence. So it really kind of started with the same mission, but who the audience of this mission really changed once I was actually an educator in the trenches working with students here in Philadelphia. The transition from being in a classroom, I would say the turning point was when my students entered a regional computer fair. And I always say this was a special Olympics of computer fairs.

M McKeone (04:56):
This was very rigorous. And we were the only special education classroom, let alone an intensive classroom- a classroom with students with intensive needs to participate. Not only did we participate but we ended up placing third in the multimedia category. So it was a huge achievement for the students. But it was also a clear demonstration of what's possible when you level the playing field. And it was at that point that certain school district officials sort of took notice and I started doing more teacher training. I started presenting at conferences. And the more I presented on this model that I had developed as a teacher, the more feedback I would get about there being a need. So I would keep in touch with my old dean at University of the Arts, Neil Kleinman. And he told me that he was spearheading this program called The Corzo Center for the Creative Economy and that I could pitch my idea, which was to scale the model I created in the classroom that seemed to have a really great impact and I could win $10,000. So I did. And that was really the start of this entrepreneurial journey.

Joe Taylor Jr. (06:19):
And so, thinking about scaling from an idea and a platform to a business, what's the biggest thing that you would say you've learned about making this approach accessible to folks all over, especially moving out of Philadelphia and into a nationwide model? What are some of the challenges you're running into as you're scaling this business?

M McKeone (06:42):
So being able to scale what I was implementing in my classroom, I had a number of challenges. The first challenge that was presented was, when you're designing a technology for a population of significant needs, you can't make the same assumptions that you might make when developing a product for typically developing people. There had to be certain rules to interacting with the interface.

M McKeone (07:19):
So I have a background in applied behavior analysis and we used a lot of those principles in how students would move through the program itself. And to help me design that, I worked with another University of the Arts student who also had a sister that was diagnosed with autism. So we had some personal insight about the behaviors or the nuances that his sister would present with. So we were really able to design something, not making the same assumption that other designers might. So really just having a clear understanding of who we were designing this product for was really important. When designing the software, we really wanted to first build something that could stand alone and that was the first step. Thereafter we started to understand the needs of teachers. I myself as a teacher, as a special education teacher, you're very busy. You don't want one more thing on your plate. So we had to expand on what we had developed to make sure that we were filling all the needs of the teacher, not making your life more complicated, but understanding exactly what their needs were in the classroom and how that would translate to having a meaningful impact for the students that we're receiving the intervention of Digitability.

Joe Taylor Jr. (08:49):
In which ways did some of that teacher feedback shape or challenge some of the assumptions that you had made when you started this process?

M McKeone (08:58):
The assumptions that I had about what teachers would be prepared to do included not so much the time, I knew that we never have enough time. But their ability to feel comfotable enough to do the leg work around developing digital literacy for their students. So for example, we have a library of 500 or more video lessons that cover a lot of topic around digital literacy.

M McKeone (09:34):
Early on in our product development, we didn't give them the framework by which they would deliver the video modules. And what we realized was there was incredible opportunity to not only support the process of teaching digital literacy to their students but by also helping them deliver behavior modification practices that would then help students be prepared with skills they need to operate in the workplace from an angle of understanding workplace behavior, communication, collaboration. So kind of understanding some of those barriers really created an opportunity for us to expand our offering in a way that really increased the efficacy of our program overall because, again, understanding that fidelity is so important and that's it's a key factor in having those outcomes. Really seeing that the efficacy of the program is doing what it is designed to do.

Joe Taylor Jr. (10:43):
Now coming back a little bit to the second part of the question that I asked earlier; as you are shifting gears over time from delivering this content in to creating a product around it, what are the things that you've had to learn or do a little bit differently to make the program effectively when you're delivering it in a substantially different way.

M McKeone (11:07):
Yeah, that's a great question. So a lof of what we did was use the same principle of evidence based practices. We use the same principles that we use in our program and in the development of the content that we delivered to students to design the implementation model for the teacher. A lof of that is content using these formulas around behavior modification. It also is understanding what special education classrooms actually look like

M McKeone (11:52):
You can't make a lot of assumptions about how organized classroom might be based on student need. You can walk into a classroom and you will have students with so many different names on a lot of different levels, whether it's their verbal ability, their receptive language ability, their self regulation capacity. So if you're a teacher and you have, let's say ten students, all with so many significantly different needs it can be really challenging to even implement a single lesson where every single student can participate. Our program understood that, and understood it very intimately based on my experience, but also going into other classrooms and working with teachers. So yeah, we're really unique in that we understand the gammot in special education classrooms and we have something that meets the needs of every student. So you'll hear a teacher describe her classroom and she might say, okay, I have one student who is in ninth grade but he's on a twelfth grade reading level, but he really struggles with anxiety or you know, social emotional capacity or self regulation. And at the same time I have another student I'm with limited expressive and receptive language, who points to his answers and Digitability will have resources to support and accommodate the needs of both of those students to make them work ready

Joe Taylor Jr. (13:35):
Now I want to come back to that concept of work ready because a lot of entrepreneurs I to talk about the talent gap that so many of us face right now and it sounds like you're making great strides in solving a lot of that by helping a lot of folks consider populations that may have not been fully prepared or prepared. Not for the kinds of jobs that we're trying to staff in especially in STEM, technology, but I want to think coming back to something else I heard you say earlier in the earlier iterations of the program where you are being approached by school district officials. Have you observed that there's still a flow of folks that are approaching you? Or have you had to go out and create demand for a program like this?

M McKeone (14:30):
So it's an exciting place to be. I started this journey - we can take it back in 2011, but really it started in college. It's exciting that we're in a time where the culture is really shifting and neurodiversity is being increasingly embraced in the workplace. So we are at a point where we are so unique in what we do that people are really seeking us out. At the state level, whether it's education or Department of Labor, we're in a really unique and exciting position to help individuals with neurodiverse needs at scale. So if you look at the current statistics around unemployment with cognitive disabilities, more than I think 70 to 80 percent experience unemployment. Our first graduating cohort or said more than 70 percent of our first graduating cohort became employed as a result of their training. So our goal is really, one to prepare more people with diverse needs for the workplace. And for modern workplace. There's a lot of the work ready program that are really outdated or they set the bar low.

M McKeone (15:55):
There's a term called the Three F's, which is Food, Flour and Filth. And these are sort of the jobs that people go to when considering next steps for people with disabilities. And we have a very different lens in terms of the types of jobs that exist now, that are in demand now, and the skills that you need to become employed in any of those jobs. One of the other really exciting trends for Fortune 500 companies in the workplace. They found that for 45 companies they studied that were championing disability inclusion in the workplace, on average they experienced 28 percent higher revenue, twice the net income and a 30 percent better performance on economic profit margin. And then there's a whole other list of benefits when you have neuro diversity in the workplace. There's characteristics of people with neuro diverse needs that make them ideal candidates. So again, we've been a little bit ahead of this cultural shifts, legislative shifts. So we're just in a great position to really be a thought leader in this transformation. And also help shape the conversation moving forward and dispel some of the myths and continue to advocate.

Joe Taylor Jr. (17:30):
We talk a lot about entrepreneurs on the show, and in my own career I speak with a lot of folks in a variety of recruiting capacities. Do you find that there's still a fear? Do you find, what do you think that employers may be afraid of when they start to consider neuro diverse candidates?

M McKeone (17:56):
I think most people have a subtle fear about things they're not comfortable with or they don't understand. I think in our culture, disability is taboo. Even mental health isn't a topic of conversation. We're not educated on understanding what we feel and how to communicate it or how to self regulate things that we're processing. In special education, you're very intentional in teaching these things and you're bringing a greater awareness to these kind of automatic and instinctive processes. People with disabilities are not special quote, unquote.

Joe Taylor Jr. (18:44):
So knowing that different communities, especially when stakeholders are involved, are often in silos and they talked about these things in very different ways. Tell me a little bit about what you've learned about how you have to change the way that you speak about this program and your outcomes when you're dealing with different audiences. For instance, the difference between delivering a program or enticing a teacher or an educator versus pitching for funding.

M McKeone (19:20):
Yes, that is such a great question and great insight about this whole process. I'm a huge fan of linguists. And there is a linguist, Michael __ who talks about language blueprint for your culture and therefore your consciousness. With language and math, you can really understand where people are at and what their world view or the lens they look through. It's the same when I have conversations with different people in these different silos, education, government, corporate. Listening is really important. It's really important to understand the language that they use because their language will tell you really where they're at and where they're at in, sort of,, the cultural shift of understanding disability or behavior or cognition.

Joe Taylor Jr. (20:14):

M McKeone (20:14):
What their biases are sometimes are very clear. So when you, when you listen carefully enough and you kind of understand where people are or you hear the questions that they're asking, you can almost interpret the real question the question behind the question. It's the same thing with investors, although that was very intimidating and challenging for me in the beginning because I didn't have any of the language. I was intimidated by the fact that I didn't have the language. So while I might have knows the answers, I didn't really know how to express it and I didn't really know how to feel confident about what I did express. In a lot of ways that feeling is kind of symbolic to the experience of a person with a disability like autism. You're learning to navigate a world, navigate these new experiences but you may not know the rules yet or you may not have the language that everybody else is using, or the corporate language for that matter. So, I'm a huge fan of really listening and thinking critically about where people are, meeting them where they're at, and then see if you can kind of push a little bit or see how far they're willing to go out of their comfort zone to change or to make progress.

Joe Taylor Jr. (21:54):
I think one way to make investors feel comfortable is to show some specific financial results. So tell me a little bit about how you've framed up what success looks like for your company on the financial side. What does your growth curve look like and how big do you think this can get?

M McKeone (22:08):
So we're at a really exciting place because recent legislation has really changed the landscape of creating a system that better prepares people who have been traditionally marginalized from the workforce. So with both federal legislation and then state also updating their policies with an increased focus on individuals with disabilities. Digitability is positioned in a very unique way in the market. We have a beautiful product that has already demonstrated success. And we spent a lot of time listening to our stakeholders and really understanding the message that we wanted to send and really having the right stories to share. So now that we've built that everything is really falling into place and, you know, as I talked about before people are reaching out to us at the state level from different government departments. We also have a lot of international interest.

Joe Taylor Jr. (23:15):

M McKeone (23:15):
Whenever people see Digitability products or we give a demo we always get some of the same response. Oh wow- our staff could use this training or everybody needs type of training. So it's true. Fundamentally the skills that we all require to be independent are similar. How we get there, that process to really mastering those skills will vary. The experiences that we have will dictate how strong we strengthen those skills. I think with the current shifts in the landscape, both legislatively and culturally, Digitability is a unique program with a really valuable offering. So it's exciting to be in this place. We worked a really long time to get here and I'm excited for what the future holds.

Joe Taylor Jr. (24:16):
I think that's a perfect place for us to draw it into a conclusion. Thank you so much, Michelle, for joining us on The Build today.

M McKeone (24:24):
Thank you so much. It was a pleasure to be here.

Speaker 1 (24:28):
Thanks again for listening to this episode of The Build. Our producer is Katie Cohen Zahniser. Our production coordinator is Nicole Hubbard. Our production team for this episode included Amelia Lohmann and April Smith. Podfly Productions manages our postproduction and our theme music is performed by Arrows and Sound. I'm Joe Taylor, Jr.

Announcer (24:53):
Thanks for listening to this episode of The Build.

Joe Taylor Jr. has produced stories about media, technology, entertainment, and personal finance for over 25 years. His work has been featured on NPR, CNBC, Financial Times Television, and ABC News. After launching one of public radio's first successful digital platforms, Joe helped dozens of client companies launch or migrate their online content libraries. Today, Joe serves as a user experience consultant for a variety of Fortune 500 and Inc. 5000 businesses. Twitter | Facebook | Instagram

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