The Catalyze podcast: Learn to Win and the rise of e-coaching, with Andrew Powell ’15 and Sasha Seymore ’15
Andrew Powell ’15 and Sasha Seymore ’15 (as well as UNC alumnus and former football player Tommy Hatton) are the co-founders of Learn to Win, a mobile learning platform that uses a content creation engine and data analytics suite to build and deliver training materials for instructors, coaches, and teachers of all kinds. The two alumni worked on building the startup as undergrads at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and later as graduate students at Stanford.
Learn to Win has collaborated with multiple athletic departments at Carolina, as well as at the University of Michigan, University of Texas, and University of Notre Dame, among other universities, sports organizations (including the Carolina Panthers), and government and enterprise clients. The company is also partnering with Special Olympics USA to train athletes for the 2022 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Kazan, Russia. The organization will use the platform to improve coaching instruction and competition preparation of athletes.
Andrew Powell is an MBA candidate at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and was previously a learning experience designer for the African Leadership University, a network of tertiary institutions with operations in Mauritius and Rwanda. At Carolina, he served as student body president, where he worked on building an educational platform to promote a blended learning model. Andrew received his bachelor’s in economics and entrepreneurship.
Before launching Learn to Win, Sasha was a reserve intelligence officer for the U.S. Navy. Sasha earned his MBA this year from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business as a Knight-Hennessy Scholar (the alumnus was one of 50 scholars selected for the inaugural cohort in 2018). He also studied at Queen’s University Belfast as a George J. Mitchell Scholar, earning a master’s in conflict transformation and social justice. He received his bachelor’s in economics and international studies from Carolina. As an undergrad, he served as senior class president and a member of the men’s varsity basketball team.
Summer Internships at Learn to Win
Over the summer, Learn to Win hosted nine Morehead-Cain Scholars as interns: Olivia Bell ’22, Naomi Burns ’23, Luke Buxton ’21, Alexandria Chadwick ’21, Varun Jain ’21, Helen Johnston ’22 (who interned as part of a Women in Sports Tech fellowship), Krupa Patel ’22, Olivia Romine ’22, and Jackson Stone ’23. The current Learn to Win team includes Luke, a member of the marketing and design team, and Olivia (Romine), a strategic projects analyst. In May of this year, Learn to Win hired Morgan Howell ’17 as the director of engineering and Jack Turner ’20 as a product manager and the People Operations Lead.
Olivia Romine, who helped drive Learn to Win’s partnership with Special Olympics USA, said the continued internship has helped her and other scholars stay meaningfully engaged throughout a usual summer and fall and despite a continued pandemic.
“Though I never expected to work in a tech startup, it’s been my favorite professional experience by far, and I’m fortunate to be part of exciting projects with other scholars and alumni,” said the Global Studies and Hispanic Linguistics double major and business administration minor.
Alexandria said partnering with Krupa over the summer to develop a strategic and design plan for a new business model allowed her to both creatively apply prior knowledge and acquire new skills.
“Working with a group of people as intelligent, hilarious, and mission driven as the Learn to Win team was a gift,” said the public policy major with minors in business administration and statistics and analytics. “Andrew and Sasha’s strong leadership allowed for us to be immersed in the company culture even through a screen, resulting in a great experience personally and professionally.”
Catalyze is hosted and produced by Sarah O’Carroll for the Morehead-Cain Foundation, home of the first merit scholarship program in the United States and located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You can let us know what you thought of the episode by finding us on Twitter or Instagram at @moreheadcain or you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The music for this episode is by scholar Scott Hallyburton ’22, guitarist of the band South of the Soul.
To first get an understanding of the technology itself, for anyone unfamiliar with Learn to Win, would one of you share an overview of what exactly the technology does for both players and coaches?
Sure. So we built Learn to Win to be a mobile learning platform focused on high performance settings. We felt that traditional learning solutions didn’t really cut it for teachers or for learners of whatever type. And a few of those examples are in sports and in military settings. You’ve got these really high intensity settings where everyone needs to know exactly their role, their responsibility, and the success or failure of the team really depends on how quickly they can get people to perform at a super high level.
My background was in education technology; Sasha’s was in sports. We saw an opportunity to combine those two fields and build what we think of as the premier high-performance training platform. So it’s really simple: a coach goes into our web application, builds interactive mobile learning lessons, or a playbook, or a large force exercise for fighter squadrons, or whatever the topic is that they’re training on. We’ve got a mobile app where players or pilots go in and learn, in these three-to-five-minute micro learning lessons, everything they need to know.
And then there’s a data dashboard that identifies misunderstandings and can help coaches make better decisions about teaching and learning within their organization. And that’s all tied together in the Learn to Win platform.
Very cool. Now, Learn to Win has partnered with a wide variety of programs, as well as with the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy. Is there a sector you’re planning to focus on in the year ahead? And also, what would you say makes the platform so adaptable for such a wide range of clients?
Yeah, it’s a great question. We do see really wide applicability of this technology because at its core, we’re trying to improve the ways that people teach and learn and to build tools that make anyone a fast learner, make anyone an expert instructor. And so there’s tons of applicability to it. We do find the most value in these high performance settings, so sports and defense have been our two primary markets so far, and those will continue to be places we focus on a lot for the next year, I would say, as we refine our product and really establish the strong foundation for the company.
But there’s eventual applications, we think, across almost any sector of the economy. A lot of stuff in healthcare that’s really interesting, in construction, and the trades, in manufacturing, in commercial aviation. The list is pretty endless for where we think this type of technology will be useful.
And of course, Learn to Win was existent before the coronavirus hit but now, we’re seeing a lot of sports organizations and otherwise radically shift their digital strategies. Is there anything you all have refined as a result of the pandemic or thought about changing amidst all this industry disruption?
Yeah, what we’ve seen is not necessarily different in the way that we’re thinking about the technology but we’ve seen just a dramatic difference in the way that others think about our technology. So we were just really quite fortunate that the thing that we had built and been working on for close to two years suddenly went from being this tool that was a really great benefit to suddenly being an absolute necessity because there was no other way for people to teach and train.
And we’ve seen that across the different verticals that we’ve worked in, whether it’s a football coach, say, at the University of North Carolina, who suddenly was trying to prepare his team via in-person team meetings and suddenly can’t do that anymore, and started using Learn to Win to push them lessons before they’re meeting, send out little quizzes after the Zoom meeting, and make the sort of limited time that they have on the Zoom call much more effective, and really train somebody from a remote and safe distance. Or for an Air Force instruction academy that we work with that is really trying to get the same throughput of pilots or other students through this sort of Air Force school, but can’t do it in person and need Learn to Win to supplement that kind of training.
And Sasha, you were a walk-on for the men’s basketball team at UNC. Do you still reflect a lot on those experiences and the kinds of challenges you faced, and if so, how does that inform your work today with the startup?
Absolutely, I think part of the underlying thesis for why we developed the platform in the first place was an experience that I had in walking on to the University of North Carolina men’s basketball program and suddenly being hit from all different directions with this new information, and really searching for and needing and thinking about a better way to potentially teach it.
There’s kind of a funny story of how I was sitting in my dorm room during my senior year, trying to memorize this new play that coach had put in, and Andrew, our student body president at the time, coming by and saying, “You know what, if we could teach this a better way, what if we could do this using some of these high structured, active learning techniques that I’ve been working on in my research, as student body president, and really apply that to this high performance use case in athletics?” And that was sort of the kernel of the idea that grew over time from our dorm room up and until what it is today.
And so I still reflect back on that experience as an athlete, and sort of struggling with learning my playbook and then wishing we had a tool like this, and then building it and seeing that it really does provide value for athletes who are in a similar position to where I was, but also in our military use cases as well. Part of the initial thinking for going into the Air Force, and for going into the Navy itself, was my experience as a as a naval reservist, and going through a similar experience of really wishing I had a tool that could help me learn this material and realizing that Learn to Win was a great fit for it.
And Andrew, when you were a student body president, as Sasha mentioned, you were working on an educational platform to promote a blended-learning model, would you mind sharing about that project and how that may have helped in developing Learn to Win’s technology?
Yeah, a big part of my experience at UNC was the privilege of working with a bunch of different instructors, professors who were incredible educators, people like Rita Balaban or Kelly Hogan or Mike Crimmins and Jeremy Petranka, and just people who were incredible at their craft of taking big, complex ideas and then distilling it into this really engaging, interactive learning experience in the classroom. And I think it was first year that I got just so inspired by how technology could transform the ways that we teach and learn within a university setting and began working with some of these professors to learn more about what they were doing and kind of evangelized for these techniques and ended up doing some research and found that across a lot of different classes, there’s a common finding that you can really improve student learning outcomes, in particular for students who previously were struggling.
So everyone does better, but in particular, those who need a little bit of extra support do disproportionately better if you teach in this high structure active learning way was a really interesting finding because what that means is it’s really more about how somebody teaches rather than who the teacher is. What that means is you can then turn almost anyone into a really effective instructor by using the right principles around teaching and learning principles that are proven in thousands of studies to work.
And so the thing I kind of ran for as student body president was, what if we made these teaching principles the new normal? What if every class at UNC was taught in this research backed high structure, active learning method? What would that mean for graduation rates? What would that mean for the amount that people learn and how impactful that degree could be for them and their capabilities? And there’s also some really profound equity impacts where Kelly Hogan has research showing that she was able to close the achievement gap for first generation college students by teaching in this more active, high structure way.
And so I thought there’s also kind of an ethical implication. It’s like this is a better way to teach, it works better for everyone, and in particular, it works for the students who most need it. And so that was the inspiration behind Learn to Win, in a lot of ways, in could we turn those principles into a product that then anybody can apply in any setting? You don’t have to be a Ph.D. with extensive years of teaching experience to use the high structure, active learning method, and that those same principles that make learning outcomes better in a biology class could also apply to a football locker room. It could apply to an Air Force squadron or could apply to a construction organization. And we thought it would really make the world a better place if we could build a product that brings those principles to bear.
But, yeah, it all started with a handful of collaborations with professors at UNC to uncover these principles, and then ran for student body president to try and make those the norm at the University, and have loved how much since my graduation in 2015, UNC has really continued to be an innovator and a leader in the space around creating more engaging, impactful learning experiences for all students.
We’ll be right back.
This week, we’re launching our fall SEVEN Speaker Series starting on Wednesday, September 16, with Fred Wherry ’96.
Fred is a professor of sociology at Princeton University and the director of the Dignity and Debt Network. The online event starts at 4:00 P.M. EDT. You can register on the MCN.
So when you both were Morehead-Cain Scholars, I heard you spent some time at the Foundation to work on building the startup. Is there anything you’d want to share about what it was like to brainstorm together as undergrads at Carolina and how it grew from a good idea to product conception?
So, it’s funny, Andrew and I actually met because of the Morehead-Cain Program. We met Final Selection Weekend before we actually came, and then he and I were roommates together, our junior and senior year at Chapel Hill. As I kind of referenced before, the original kernel of the idea of building a company out of this, Andrew had his research and his exploration of high structure, active learning, and I had my sports background for a very, very long time, but the idea to bring the two of them together started our senior year while we were both Morehead-Cain Scholars.
Andrew and I then kind of went our separate ways. I was on a [George J.] Mitchell Scholarship for a year in Northern Ireland, then went to go work for McKinsey & Company while Andrew went to go work for the African Leadership University in Mauritius. But we kind of still kept the idea going. We’ve been very, very good friends for a long time and we would sort of have catch up calls or we would talk about this idea that we really thought had legs and had potential. But we were sort of occupied with other things at the time.
And then in summer of 2018, well, right before then, both Andrew and I were accepted into the Stanford Graduate School of Business and we decided to become roommates again, to go back to Stanford for our MBAs. And that summer beforehand we said, “You know what, we really think this has something. Let’s actually go after it.” I booked a flight back up to Chapel Hill and had a meeting with Coach [Larry] Fedora, the head football coach at the time, and basically explained to him this idea of what we wanted to go build.
And he said, “Absolutely, if you guys are interested in this and you think it could work, I would love if you guys ran an initial pilot with my team in my program,” there in the summer of 2018. And so I moved back up to Chapel Hill, both Andrew and I did, and for the summer before we started the business school, we actually built the first version of the product in Chapel Hill working in three different locations: we were sitting in the Dean Smith Center and getting insights from the men’s basketball team, we were sitting in Kenan Stadium and getting insights from the football team, or we were sitting in the Morehead-Cain offices, where the Morehead-Cain team was sort of our home base and the place where we could sort of sit and focus and get work done. And so we’re immensely grateful for the Morehead-Cain team and their ability to provide free office space for a company that at the time had negative income and really was an incubator for our first summer at least.
Well, we are thankful for you two as well in opening up so many opportunities for current scholars. There were nine with the Learn to Win team over the summer. What are some of the projects they worked on together?
Yeah, we had a phenomenal summer with all the interns. We feel so fortunate to have had them join us for the summer, both because it’s just an incredible group of people that drove amazing value for the company and people that I feel really thankful to be able to know and work with. It’s also cool to be able to give back a little bit to a Program that’s meant so much to Sasha and to me, specifically. This summer I think was unique in the fact that obviously, a lot of scholars go abroad for the summers, and travel clearly was canceled for many.
And so I remember I got a call from David Greer saying, “Hey, man, we’ve had a lot of interns or scholars that have had their internships cancelled. Is there any chance you guys could open up applications for a few more?” And I told him, “Send me as many as will come.” I have so much admiration for the scholarship program and just know it’s a very high caliber group of people. So if any of them want to come to Learn to Win, we’d love to have them.
And so we ended up interviewing a bunch, and as you mentioned, we had nine with us for the summer, which was just a phenomenal experience, and they really transformed the company in a lot of ways. I mean, they doubled the size of the company overnight and they created our entire marketing approach, a team that hadn’t really existed before the summer, and suddenly it was a fully staffed team. We’ve driven partnerships with groups like Special Olympics USA and opened up our entire lacrosse business, have folks involved in our DOD work, in strategy, and operations and finance, and just every part of the business. They had a substantial impact in product, so it was a terrific group that we’re really grateful to have had, and then also feel just pleased to be able to give back to the Program in a small way.
Yeah, I’m just going to follow on that real quick. Andrew and I were actually catching up the other day and we were talking about what a competitive advantage it is for us as a business to have been a part of the Morehead-Cain community because there’s so many people, not just current scholars, who we can reach out to for help and advice, but also previous Morehead-Cains who are also always so willing to give their time and energy and effort to help us, whether it’s advice or a recommendation or, “Oh, I’ve been here before. Here’s how I can help.” It’s been a great recruiting tool as well. We’ve hired two additional Morehead-Cain Scholars under the team, Morgan Howell, who leads our engineering team, and Jack Turner, who is a recent graduate this year and a previous intern for our company.
It’s a phenomenal way for us to feel like we can give back to a Program that meant so, so much for both Andrew and I. But also a thing that we see as a real competitive advantage for our organization and a thing we’re very thankful to be a part of.
In mentioning the partnership with Special Olympics USA, how will that collaboration look like in training athletes for 2022 with the Winter Games in Russia?
It’s really exciting, and we’ve actually got one Morehead-Cain Scholar, Olivia Romine, who has done a really, really great job helping to drive that partnership for us. But basically, what they’re using Learn to Win for is they’ve got this experience or got this problem where they have athletes all around the country. So you may have an athlete in California or Michigan or North Carolina, but the best coach for them is not necessarily in California or Michigan or North Carolina. And even if there were, during coronavirus, they wouldn’t really be able to teach or train them in the way that they normally would.
And so, they’re using Learn to Win in getting ready for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Russia as any of our athletes would or any of our coaches would. They’re basically building trainings to help them get ready and get prepared. And we are really, really excited about the partnership. We were just able to publicly announce it last week and see it just as another example of how what we’re doing can be applied across so many different use cases.
And I think personally, as an organization, we’re so very much behind the idea of using sports for inclusivity and are very thankful that our technology can be a small part of helping their mission.
Sasha and Andrew, thank you so much. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Yeah, go Heels.
Well appreciate your time, and please stay safe and healthy.
Thanks so much, Sarah.
*This episode has been edited slightly for clarity.