Known by some as the Amazon or iTunes of e-learning, Portland, Oregon–based OpenSesame offers more than 20,000 online courses on subjects such as how to develop employees’ skills, comply with regulations, and grow your business, all through its massive open online course (MOOC) platform.
Given the “preparedness gap” many feel exists between millennials and the workplace — nearly half of all business decision makers, recruiters, and college students give recent grads a “C” or lower in our PreparedU study — we wondered whether OpenSesame provided a solution. So we sat down with founder Josh Blank and marketing manager Kate Hurst to find out not just why the marketplace seems to thrive on the company’s products, but why millennial employees of the 26-employee firm do so as well.
Why is your company one of the best places for millennials to work?
Hurst: Millennials are the first generation to grow up with technology and, as a result, they work at a fast pace. We’re a younger company [with more than half of our employees under the age of 35] and millennials enjoy the speed at which we do business, our focus on getting things done. We’re also very transparent. We’re a completely open office, including our leadership. That environment really allows you to see what’s going on and allows millennials to be connected to the work that they’re doing. Additionally, we do a lot of reflection on where the company is going and why we’re choosing specific paths. Those conversations also add meaning by showing the purpose and the value and the end goal. Lastly, I think we’re attractive to millennials because we teach the entrepreneurial mindset. According to millennial expert Ryan Jenkins, 90 percent of GenY thinks being an entrepreneur means having a certain mindset, rather than actually starting your own company, and all of our staff have adopted the mindset of being agile and innovative.
Do you feel there’s a preparedness gap between millennial workers and the requirements of the workplace?
Hurst: Our customers definitely tell us about that skills gap, but I also think millennials are better suited than past generations to address that gap because they’re the first ones to be aware of it. They know that school is not the end-all, be-all when it comes to their education, they work outside of the classroom to acquire skills and to develop passions that become careers, and there are a lot more tools available to them to help them overcome that gap.
How does your company help millennials with any perceived learning curve?
Hurst: Specifically, our summer intern program. Our interns have never had any work experience, and as a result, they don’t know what it’s like to be in a work environment, let alone have the skills to make it and succeed. We start setting expectations during the interview process, that we’re an “all hands on deck” company, that we expect them to not need a lot of hand holding, that we’ll be there to answer questions but not do the work for them, and that really plays into millennials’ strengths.
Do you ever find it difficult to manage millennial employees?
Hurst: The main challenge is that work/life balance has a different meaning for millennials. Up until now, the expectation has been that you put in your 9-to-5 and you go home and forget about your workday. Millennials really think of it as a more of a fluid schedule — it’s more work/life/work/life/work/life — but a fluid work environment is not always going to work, some projects are going to require more strict hours. It’s difficult because the old mentality is always there. I read a lot of studies that say millennials like to work remotely, but I find it’s the opposite. Maybe it’s because of our open environment and culture, but our remote workers love to come in to the office and be here as often as possible.
Do you have any formal or informal mentorship programs in place?
Hurst: Our company culture naturally fosters an informal mentorship environment, and even our CEO is always ready and willing to talk to us and work with us. Mentoring happens on an ongoing basis. Our Culture Club meets bi-weekly and is a key group-mentoring option where people come and share their opinions, thoughts, and feedback, and get advice from the group as a whole. We regularly schedule networking events with other companies for interns to meet, and attend local edTech meet-ups and start-up events as well as Portland Design Week as a team. We move into industries that aren’t necessarily our own to get ideas we can bring back to the company.
Do you actively encourage or provide opportunities for your millennial employees to further their education or acquire new soft and hard skills through classes, conferences, or other opportunities?
Blank: We require every employee here to do at least 40 hours of professional development each year, encouraging them to do 80 hours, and we pay for that training up to a week’s worth of salary and equivalent amount of expenses. Night classes, conferences, buying business books to read, it’s flexible and up to the employee and their supervisor. It’s a key benefit of working here and also a challenge, but we think it’s important because it benefits the employee, they can take that knowledge with them wherever they go, and it helps our business.
Do you have a mission-driven culture? Eighty-eight percent of millennials said in the Bentley PreparedU study that it was a priority to work for companies that are socially responsible and ethical, making the world a better place.
Blank: As the saying goes, people use our service to get a job, keep a job, or stay out of jail. It might be hard to imagine that as a driving force, or keeping people’s compliance training up to date as something sexy, but it does make us passionate about what we do. We have customers write in all the time, like a woman recently who wanted to become a bank teller, and we provided her with the training she needed. She went through the courses and wrote about how thankful she was, and that was good for the team. We’re not solving world peace, but we’re improving people’s lives and livelihoods through the work that we do and that’s inspiring.
What kinds of things does your company do to help Millennials succeed in business?
Blank: Millennials are comfortable with Facebook and other consumer social networks, but we train them on improving their LinkedIn and other professional profiles for business use. We’ve seen a lot of our interns get improved positions and start their careers because of the work Kate does with them on LinkedIn. We also do a lot of networking with other local businesses, mostly in the tech/start-up world, and expose everyone to other companies and how they do thinks and learn from them. We do Brown Bag Lunches with guest speakers on topics like metrics-based marketing, or sales, once per quarter.
Melissa Massello is a freelance writer, former start-up executive, and serial entrepreneur who is passionate about supporting women’s leadership and gender equality, both in business and at home.