Student Profiles

Startup Profile: Key Learning

Reskilling Refugees with Key Learning

“She’s just like us…”

It was a feeling Autumn Gupta just couldn’t shake. The Co-Founder of Key Learning, and a member of the Spring 2021 Blackstone LaunchPad Fellowship, Gupta had just returned from her second visit to the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece as part of her capstone course at the University of Southern California. During this visit, Gupta’s Professor Daniel Druhora encouraged her to sit down with a 17-year-old Iranian refugee named Leila.

Little did she know, this conversation was about to change everything.

The two immediately hit it off. For 45 minutes, Leila opened up about her journey, and shared her hopes and dreams with the group. Specifically, she discussed her dream of one day opening up a fashion company. Gupta couldn’t believe just how determined, poised, and incredibly brave Leila was, and how Leila and her peers in the camp were not all that different than her own friends back on the USC campus nearly 7,000 miles away.

This thought haunted Gupta throughout the remainder of her trip. And by the time she returned to campus, she knew exactly what she needed to do to help all the Leila’s of the world.

Solving Wicked Problems

Originally hailing from Kansas City, Autumn Gupta left home in 2015 to pursue her degree in Environmental Studies and Geo Design at the University of Southern California. As she approached her Senior year, she was encouraged to take the University’s Capstone Course – a program where students dedicate themselves to solving one of the world’s “wicked problems”.

Gupta and her classmates were tasked with working together to address pain points of the European refugee crisis. By that point, well over 5 million refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and other war and persecution-torn countries had reached Europe’s shores, with many thousands more dying along the way. Those who did survive the journey were stuck in overcrowded camps with little supplies and confusing asylum processes.

Gupta and her classmates took two separate trips during their program to see the camps up close, and to better understand the problems facing these refugees. Not only did these trips provide her with the fateful encounter with Leila, but it also opened Gupta’s eyes to some of the secondary problems facing these refugees.

One of the biggest? How do 5 million refugees find work in a strange new land?

New Skills for New Jobs

Gupta and her classmates realized that, once the refugees’ basic food, water, and shelter needs were covered, the next big hurdle was finding work. Many had arrived in Greece with skills and deep work experience in their home countries, but applying these skills in a new land was exceedingly difficult. And unlike Gupta and her classmates, they didn’t have the time or financial resources to dedicate four years towards getting a new degree. They needed work, and they needed it now.

Gupta and her classmates started thinking about how to quickly reskill refugees so that they could immediately begin work in their new countries. Unfortunately, infrastructure in refugee camps made traditional classes difficult. But Gupta had noticed that most refugees had a cell phone. In fact, many were already using their phones to learn new language skills by watching YouTube videos with subtitles.

Gupta and her teammates wondered: could this same style of learning be applied to other skills that could help the refugees find work?

As it turns out, it could. And with that realization, Key Learning was born.

Pandemic Pivot and the Blackstone LaunchPad Fellowship

With their problem identified, Gupta’s team got to work building Key Learning, a mobile-based learning tool to help refugees quickly develop new skills that could land them jobs. The company began curating a collection of easy-to-follow video lessons that focused on skills such as cooking, painting, sewing, and more.

Momentum was building for Key Learning. But then, the world came to a stop.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Key Learning was put in a very difficult position, as they were no longer able to travel to the European refugee camps. Seemingly overnight, everything that they were working towards came to a standstill.

It was during this time that Gupta joined the Spring 2021 cohort of the Blackstone LaunchPad Fellowship. She knew Key Learning could work well beyond the camps of Europe, and hoped the support and guidance offered by the program could help her navigate an extensive pivot.

Sure enough, during the Fellowship Gupta was able to identify a new domestic population of refugees that could benefit from the same fast-paced reskilling the company was offering in the European camps: Syrian and Afghani refugees located in Southern California. Gupta also used what she learned in the program to refine Key Learning’s core offerings, shifting more to an SMS-based text messaging system as opposed to video. This would allow refugees without steady wi-fi access to still learn the valuable skills they needed to quickly find work in America.

What’s Next for Key Learning

After completing their capstone course and graduating from USC in 2020, several of Gupta’s teammates opted to move on to other opportunities. Gupta herself moved back to Kansas City to become an 8th grade science teacher, but is using this first-hand education experience to continue improving Key Learning.

The company has begun exploring partnerships with large California employers, with the hopes of developing role and company-specific training programs that can help employ large swaths of refugees in positions such as Customer Service Representatives. Long-term, Gupta’s vision is to eliminate the number of unemployed and underemployed refugees in the U.S. and across Europe.

As for her friendship with Leila, the two still communicate regularly through WhatsApp and Instagram. Now 18-years-old, Leila was granted asylum status in Germany, where she now lives and is in search of work and continuing her education.

And with the help of Key Learning, that process might just become a little bit easier.