February 22, 2022

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EnGen Founder and Chief Education Officer Katie Brown talks about how she got to where she is and where her company is headed

Katie Brown, CEO EnGen

Katie Brown, CEO EnGen

Kicking off our Women in Tech Series, Kenning Partner Cathy Boeckmann welcomes Katie Brown, Founder and Chief Education Officer of EnGen.  Katie charts her course from academia, to EdTech startup, and now to a public benefit corporation. Katie describes the dire need for high-quality English Language Learning for immigrants to the U.S. She explains how EnGen’s pedagogy, founded on real English language examples, can aid learners in achieving a level of English proficiency that enables employment and offers the potential for economic mobility. Katie goes on to note how EnGen’s technology allows for a true “flipped classroom,” in which out-of-class individualized language activities can support in-class learning.

Katie and Cathy discuss Katie’s own journey:  How she learned to adapt her academic communication capabilities to business needs.  And they dig into both what it takes to be a “B Corporation” as well as  the fundraising landscape for women founders. Finally, Katie paints a picture of where she would like EnGen to be within 5 years’ time.



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Cathy Boeckmann: I’m Cathy Boeckmann, partner at Kenning associates and I’m here today with Katie Brown.

Katie Brown: Thanks for having me, Cathy. 

Cathy: Katie is the founder and chief education officer at EnGen, a company in the ed-tech sector.And we’re very excited to have her here with us as part of our women in tech podcast series. The way I came to know Katie was we were introduced when Katie was shopping around for a coach. She was looking for somebody who could help her work on communications, and managerial and leadership, and those sorts of topics. So I am thrilled to be able to talk to Katie now, years later, to see where all of this has taken her, Katie, why don’t you start out by telling us a little bit about this company you founded?

Katie: Sure. So EnGen is a public benefit company, and our mission is to remove English as a barrier for immigrants, refugees, and speakers of other languages. I’m not sure if you know this, but the United States has a huge population of language learners and we meet the needs of only 4% of them. Which means that 96% of the English learning adults in our country just don’t have access to instruction. And EnGen’s mission is to work with schools, libraries, community colleges, community based organizations and employers to help get access to English skills to that population of learners so that they can access careers with the potential for economic mobility. 

Cathy: So it’s really about building English language skills for people who don’t speak English as a first language, but are here in the US? 

Katie: Yes. And it’s specifically to get them the English language skills that they need for integration, which means the English language skills they need for work, or for helping their kids, and for helping their families.

Cathy: So how does the technology part come in? 

Katie: So the technology part is how we’re actually able to do that. You can imagine if we have millions of immigrants here and we’re helping 4% of them in order to add capacity, we’re not going to just be able to make the programs that we have handle a few more students. We need something that really solves the problems of adults who need to access instruction but can’t get to a classroom. So it’s a web and mobile application. And what makes it different is that it’s offering sector specific English. 

So learners aren’t just learning the names of the days of the week or the colors of the color wheel. People who want to get into a career in allied health care are getting healthcare terminology. They’re learning from training videos preparing people to be nursing assistants or medical assistants. People who want to work in manufacturing are learning about advanced manufacturing techniques, they’re learning about workplace safety. So nothing is scripted. Nothing is designed for language learners. Everything comes from authentic examples of people using English in a real life context. And then it’s adapted and tailored to learners’ needs. 

Cathy: That sounds fantastic. It’s very different from the way language was taught for those of us who think back to the language instruction that we got as part of our schooling. Is that intentional?

Katie: It is. And actually that’s still how language is taught. Something I say all the time is the way we approach language in the United States is broken. And that’s why most Americans will tell you that they took five years of Spanish and they can’t say anything. It’s because we taught you about how the language works. We taught you to conjugate verbs. We taught you some fake scripted dialogues, but we didn’t teach you how to use the language to do anything. Learning a language is actually learning a skill. Language is a tool that we use to do something. And adults, especially, pay attention much better when what they’re learning is interesting to them, relevant to them. And when they can do something with it. 

So like lecturing people in a podcast is actually the worst way to teach someone something because they’ll stop paying attention the minute it’s not interesting. But if they’re trying to, for example, watch a video about hospital procedures, and they want to get a job in a hospital, or for 2 million immigrants in the United States who are either unemployed or underemployed because they can’t take advantage of the career credentials or professional degree they had before they came to the U S. because they don’t have English skills. They’re much more likely to pay attention to that content. 

Cathy: So talk a little bit about why this mission feels like it matters so much to you. 

Katie: So the mission matters to me because this is all I’ve done my entire life, like I started working with Mexican migrant workers on an apple orchard as a volunteer undergraduate student. And that was 25 years ago and I have worked with English language learners and language learners in one capacity ever since then. Mostly because what I realized then was that a system that relies on volunteer college students to teach people is a bad system and that we should have professionals doing things like this. 

And so I spent a long time getting a degree and another degree and learning how language learning works and what we know about how it works and learning about technology. And then I put it all together to do this. So for me, it’s important because this has always been important to me. And because I feel like I finally have a tool that can actually solve this problem in a meaningful way at scale.

Cathy: And why is this mission important now? 

Katie: By the year 2030, every single Baby Boomer’s going to retire and 97% of net workforce growth will be immigrants and their children. And we are having a crisis right now where we have more jobs than we have people who are qualified to fill them. And we don’t have a good system for preparing people for the jobs of the future. And, at the same time, we’re having sort of a national reckoning with diversity, equity, and inclusion and we’re leaving immigrants out of those conversations. They don’t speak English, they can’t advocate for themselves. So they’re not part of initiatives for upskilling in workforce development. 

So all of those things have come together to make right now the perfect moment for this, because employers are scrambling for workers, and they’re starting to realize that they can work on recruiting an entirely new talent pool if they take the time to help them learn English skills so that they can then get other jobs skills and work in some of those open roles that no one can fill.

Cathy: I find that answer really compelling because I think what you’re doing is you’re weaving together the semi -crisis moment that we have right now, where we have a lot of open jobs that there’s just a whole bunch of people who could fill them if English language skills weren’t the barrier. And then you add that in with the desire to make our workforce more inclusive and equitable, and this really does feel like the moment to do something like this. And then I think that the third thing that really jumps out at me is that you’re trying to do this at scale. In a way that you couldn’t do if you were relying on classrooms, volunteers.

Katie: I actually think COVID has accelerated our willingness to think about technology mediated, instructional options. I’ve been working in this field of now it’s called ed-tech and before it was called ed-tech it was computer assisted language learning for me and it was different things in different fields. It was always sort of a fringe thing. 

People were like wait what, you do distance learning? You do online teaching? You can’t teach languages online. That’s not going to work. And then wait, what?  You want to help immigrants get English skills? That’s not going to work. They don’t even have email addresses. And it was so annoying to explain every single time. Actually you’re right. The national skills coalition reports that 40% of limited English proficiency adults don’t have technology skills, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use technology to teach them, it just means we need to start a step further back and help them get email addresses. 

But when everything went online, everyone now is sort of like, oh wait, everyone can learn things using the computer. We can use technology. And so that’s like an extra layer to the question you asked before about why now, now is because people are starting to realize that you can use technology and it does deliver outcomes.

Cathy: So Katie, tell me the origin story for EnGen. 

Katie: EnGen has a very interesting origin story when you’re thinking about ed-tech, because after I finished my PhD I was working in higher ed and I was recruited by a brand new language learning startup to be their chief education officer and build and design their technology. And so for eight years I worked as the chief education officer at Voxy where I designed and built and patented the technology that we use to teach English to learners all over the world. And about three years ago I founded what’s now EnGen because what I really wanted to do was make that technology available to immigrants, refugees, and speakers of other languages in the US. So I incubated EnGen inside of Voxy. 

Cathy: And then you decided to go the route of establishing a public benefit corporation. Tell us about that decision. 

Katie: Last October, I carved it out as a separate standalone public benefit company. And having it be a public benefit company was important to me because I wanted the social mission of the organization to be at the forefront of what we were doing. It was separated from Voxy because our mission was different and because the learners we serve are different and because their needs are different. 

So I sought out new social impact investors. I found a new business partner and I started a completely separate organization with a real focus on making sure that we offer not just the language learning, but also the wraparound supports and services and the professional development to the organizations that sponsor our usage to make sure that it actually works. Because you can’t just take a historically under-resourced group of learners and say here’s some technology, go learn a language. Like people might need help getting email addresses, they might need to understand that learning language is really hard and it might take some time. 

And so I want to make sure that that’s part of what we do. That’s why our mission is to remove barriers, not just teach English because we need to help with the whole entire picture. 

Cathy: So can you talk a little bit more about the B corporation?

Katie EnGen is a B corporation, which means that it’s a public benefit company, which means that in our articles of incorporation we are officially a PBC, which is a public benefit company. And it means that our social mission is part of our organization and at a minimum once per year we need to issue an impact report. And the impact part of what we’re doing is important to our stakeholders. So it’s sometimes called a double bottom line corporation because it’s not just that we need to make our stakeholders have a return on their investment monetarily, but there should be evidence of the social impact that we’re making. 

That’s a public benefit corporation. To become a certified B Corp, you need to go through B Lab’s certification process, which means filling out a huge questionnaire and then going through it with their analysts to make sure that all the answers you’ve provided are accurate, because you’re measured on your environmental impact, your social impact and the extent to which your organization is set up to have an impact either environmentally or socially. 

And actually, we’re in the process of finalizing our B-Corp application, but it’s not finished yet. It was important to me to have EnGen be a B Corp, because I want it to be clear that the social mission of what we’re doing is important to us, it’s important to our stakeholders, it’s important to our investors. I think there’ve been many examples of educational technology companies over the years that haven’t necessarily delivered outcomes and not delivered the outcomes they’ve promised. And so measuring our impact and measuring our outcomes is central to what we do and I want that to be clear all the way through the organization.

Cathy: So as you navigated this spinoff, essentially, and went out and found funding and thought about what kind of company you wanted to be, I’m just kind of curious. How many other women did you find out there as you were going through all this? 

Katie: Very few. I mean, it’s funny having worked at a venture funded ed-tech company for a long time, I was often the only woman at the table or one of two women. I will say that the impact investors that I sought out, I was working with two of the new investors that I found were women. And, one of them is a principal in her own fund. And another one is a principal in a different fund. I always like to look for women if I can, because I think we all need to lift each other up. But you don’t see so many of them, there are still lots and lots of meetings that are only men.

Cathy: Do you have any observations or thoughts on some of the dynamics that are created around women in tech, women, founders? 

Katie: Yes. When I mentioned that we’re at a moment where we’re talking about diversity, equity and inclusion, I think people know that they’re not supposed to say bad things about women founders, and they’re supposed to try to encourage them. And so I’ve never faced anything other than positivity. I’ve never been looked at as somebody who shouldn’t be trying to raise money or found a company. I will say that earlier in my career in meetings, I felt some of the same things that other women I’ve talked to have felt, you know, your voice isn’t encouraged and you’re spoken over and people would mansplain things to you. 

And I would say I’ve seen this less and less. And I actually think Zoom is kind of democratizing because I think people pay less attention to your gender when you are a box on a screen, like no one’s taking up more presence in the room and we have to take turns. It’s harder to speak over someone. So I think it’s been really good for leveling the playing field for everyone actually in general.

Cathy: I think that’s really interesting. And I take heart in many of the things that you’re saying, You have a pretty non-traditional path into being a tech entrepreneur. You want to talk a little bit about the journey that you’ve been on? 

Katie: It’s definitely non-traditional. So honestly it all started because I wanted to solve the problem of why there was so much bad language teaching. As someone who had been a language learner and was supposed to be a language teacher and was hopelessly unqualified, I really wanted to understand the science behind it, which is why I spent a long time in higher ed and I got a PhD in second language acquisition. I was very curious about what the science says about how language learning works. 

But then I got frustrated by academia. I like to move quickly. I like to solve practical problems. I like talking to other human beings and many of those things are incompatible with the life as a scholar, where you’re supposed to spend all your time contributing something completely original to the world, but there’s not so much emphasis on whether that original thing actually makes a difference. So once I felt like I’d sort figured out how language learning worked, I wanted to try to help people learn languages better. 

And so, I spent a lot of my time doing research looking at commercially available language learning platforms, because that’s where consumers were going to look for language learning solutions. And I was, I was horrified actually at how none of them seem to take into consideration any of the research about how language learning works. So when I had the opportunity to leave academia and work at a startup and try to use all of the things I learned to build a better product, I jumped at it not having any idea what I was doing. 

And then I spent eight years figuring it out and learning how to work as a researcher in a commercial setting, trying to stay true to what I learned as a researcher and also to what makes sense when you’re building a business product. And I was fascinated by it. And I don’t think I would have told you that I would have wanted to found my own company until it became really clear to me that that was the only way to do what I wanted to do, which was to take the technology I designed and find a way to deliver it at scale to the population that needs it the most.

Cathy: I like that answer, because there’s so many levels here, right? That you have devoted a lot of your energy to figuring out how people learn and really facilitating that process. But you yourself had to learn a lot in order to get to where you are now. 

Katie: Yes. Yes I did. And I’ve made plenty of mistakes.And I don’t know that I knew what I was doing the whole time. Like I often didn’t have a plan beyond the next thing I was trying to figure out. Like I just did the next thing. I think a lot of entrepreneurs will tell you that they have a one-year plan and a two-year plan and a five-year plan, and they’re visualizing what they’re going to do. And I’ve never been entirely sure what’s going to happen next, but I’ve worked really hard to make what I’m doing now successful and that seems to have worked out. At some point I have to look a little bit further ahead. 

Cathy: I would imagine as you made that transition from one very distinct culture, the academic culture to another very distinct culture, the business culture, you were both fascinated by the differences, and I imagine frustrated. What do you think are some of the things that academics need to know if they are looking to make that transition? 

Katie: I think they need to know they should write shorter emails. I remember leaving academia and thinking, because I’d come from a world where I often worked by myself and where I was judged on the length and quality of the explanations I gave for what I had been working on. And that’s not how the world works and nobody wants to read your very long email. So that was a lesson that I learned early on. 

Also, you’re encouraged as an academic to work by yourself and only get help when you are reaching an emergency point. Like you should not ask a question unless you’ve tried to answer yourself 50 times, you’ve come up with some answers, you’ve made sure the answers you’ve come up with are reasonable, you vetted them. And then, and only then do you go and ask someone for help. That’s also not how the business world works. Working in a more collaborative way is something that academics should actually probably practice before they find themselves in a collaborative business environment. 

It’s funny because I needed to seek out a coach at one point when I was managing a lot of people because I was not doing a good job of developing them. I was coming at it from an academic perspective which is sort of like, well I’ll tell you what you need to do and then you should go do it. And if you have a problem you can come ask me, but only come ask me if it’s a good question. And that’s really not a best practice for developing junior team members. So I needed to do a lot of work to figure out where I was coming from and how to get people better management. And what’s important when you’re managing people. And I learned a lot of things and one of them is that I actually prefer to be a leader and not a manager. 

Cathy: So I remember when we were working together that at the time I would have said the two things that I felt like clicked for you the most were the communication approach in business. Getting to the point faster. Instead of sharing all your information just sharing the pieces of information that supported the story that you needed to tell for that audience. The second thing was around the difference between managing and leading. Just making that distinction really clearly for yourself. And so do you want to talk a little more about that? 

Katie: So definitely the communication work that I did with you was important. It was important for me to learn how to give myself a good edit and only say what is the most important thing. And I think that’s a process that I still work on. And I also think that understanding what people want to know in a business context. So when you’re an academic, you’ve spent many many years establishing yourself as an expert. So if you’re going to have a conversation it’s accepted from someone, one of your colleagues that you actually know what you’re talking about, you don’t need to go back and give all the background information. 

If you’re just sitting down to have a conversation with someone, they assume that because somebody gave you a PhD and you’ve written X number of articles that you are an expert on that topic. Whereas in a business context, they often want you to go over the background information and explain why you’re qualified and why you have this opinion, and that was unusual for me. Like I wanted to get right to the point and not explain that I’d done all this thinking that backed up what I was about to say. 

So it’s a combination of two things. One was to say less, but also at the beginning explain why what you’re saying is what you’re saying, which I tended to gloss over. And then the managing versus leading. I think I learned to be a better manager once I understood what it meant to be a good manager, but I discovered that what I prefer to do is lead companies and teams, which is why the founder role works so well for me, because I can help guide the direction of our company, but I’m not responsible for helping people figure out their individual objectives and making sure that they stick to them. Like I’m happy to jump in and roll up my sleeves and help with anything that needs to be done with, whether it’s helping a client, or a learner, or helping figure out what our 2022 strategy is. But as you taught me, Cathy, it’s best when I am not on the critical path to somebody getting their day to day tasks accomplished. And so I’ve tried to set my work up in a way that that doesn’t need to happen. 

Cathy: As I recollected, it was really kind of a getting to know yourself experience. Like it wasn’t that you couldn’t do that, but the energy you needed to muster to do that felt really different to you than the energy to lead.

Katie: Exactly. 

Cathy: Building off of that, do you have a sense of the kind of leader that you’re trying to be now? 

Katie: I’m trying to be an empathetic leader who can help her team and organization grow in a way that makes sense for everyone. Which means doing a lot of listening to what my team members need, to what the clients need, to what the learners need, to what our country needs and stitching together all of those things so that we can move forward working to solve the problem we’re trying to solve while making sure that we as a team feel supported. 

One thing that’s important to me is hiring new Americans whenever I can. So whenever we can hire immigrants, we want to because our whole mission is to help immigrants get jobs with the potential for economic mobility. Another thing that’s really important to me as a founder is having a completely distributed team. 

I’ve spent most of my career working in distance learning and technology, mediated learning. I believe that we don’t need people to come together and sit in a physical office to do tasks if our work and our mission don’t require that people be in the same physical space. I go out of my way to hire people and cultivate a team that wants to work in that way because I think that it leads to better work-life balance and it helps actually solve more problems for people when you can have them scattered all over the country in different time zones.

Cathy: Since you have such a strong attraction to your own mission, believe in it so passionately, and setting a vision is the space where you really I think get a lot of your energy as a leader. Where would you like to see EnGen in five years? 

Katie: I’d like to see us working with more big employers, helping them develop their workforce that doesn’t speak English so that they can be promoted to jobs within the same organization. I think that’s an excellent part of what we do. 

And I’d like to help us help more practitioners understand the value of our approach. We’re not trying to get rid of teachers. We’re trying to help language learning be more efficient and effective. And a lot of that is helping teachers understand that learners can work outside of class, whether that class is virtual or in-person on individualized language learning work and then come back to class and work on collaborative activities with a teacher or coach that build their language skills. 

We know from a lot of research and this is how people learn best. It’s how adults learn best. It’s the true flipped classroom model. So being able to use our platform to help more teachers understand that will help more people get the language skills they need for integration purposes. I’d like to us to actually start working with younger learners. I’m tackling the adult English language learner problem right now, but there is a huge problem to be solved with K through 12 English language learners. And I’m hoping that in the next five years, we’re in a position to do some work on that as well.

Cathy: I hear you kind of working through almost like an ecosystem approach, right? So that you need to make other people who are working on second language instruction part of the solution. And then the learners who are adults go home and the kids are also part of the solution and everybody’s getting a coherent learning experience.

Katie: Exactly. And it’s funny because educators sometimes tend to be very set in their ways. So I’ve been doing a lot of work talking to community colleges and adult learning systems, and we work with dozens of adult learning organizations and community colleges across the country and they are often much slower than an employer. An employer will see, hey I have thousands of workers and they can’t speak English and I can’t communicate with them. And they aren’t understanding what to do here, and they’re not talking to the rest of my workforce. And if I help them get English skills I’ll solve all those problems and nothing else has ever worked. So sure, this lady says she has a way to do it. Let’s see if it works. So they’re much more receptive. 

Cathy: Yeah. I think they’re likely to see you as solving a problem. Whereas other parts of the language learning ecosystem might see you as a, I don’t know, a threat

Katie: Or yeah, causing a problem. So you need to work on all of the parts.

Cathy: Do you have any advice for other women who are interested, or navigating the waters of making a mark in technology. 

Katie: Yes, which is that don’t give up, you have to have a lot of meetings in order to find people who are willing to believe that your idea is worth funding. You will get down the track with somebody that you think is going to be one of your investors, and then you’ll realize that they were just sort of leading you on, or it didn’t fit, or you misread what was happening. You need to not give up and keep trying and seek out mentors, especially women mentors who can help you when you have questions about what to do. Because I think the advice that you’ll get from a woman who has navigated this experience will be different from the advice that you will get from a man.

Cathy: So you have now worked in the academic setting. You’ve worked in a for-profit startup, and now you are working in a public benefit corporation setting, just thinking across how work life feels different in those organizations. Does anything in particular jump out as being a better fit for you or you know, just an observation about how these cultures differ?

Katie: An academic setting is completely different from any sort of commercial industry, for profit or B Corp setting, just because the way you do your work is organized by an academic calendar. Your research projects are often funded by grants that are held by external entities that come with a whole bunch of ridiculous requirements for how you report your work, and you spend a lot of your time documenting things that you’ve done. And so that’s not happening in a startup or in a public benefit company. 

I’ll say that working in an educational startup, I always approached everything with an eye towards impacts and outcomes because I’m an educator, and I’m an educator who wants to demonstrate that what we’re doing works. Because if it doesn’t I want to figure out how to fix it so that it does work. And that often felt like an afterthought that was bolted on to what I was doing when I worked at a technology company. At a public benefit company with a social mission, impact is something that we talk about every single day. We have a monthly update to our board that includes impact. We have two annual impact reports. 

I have someone right now collecting survey data, sending it out to 15,000 learners who use the platform in the U S this year, asking them questions about, did it help you in your job? How? Did it help you with your kids? How? Can you let us know what worked, what didn’t work? And then we take all that data and analyze it to figure out what we’re doing and how to do it better. I’m talking to external researchers about how to build an ROI calculator so that employers can see the benefit of investing in what we’re doing. So the answer to your question is what I’m doing right now. The impact and outcomes piece feels very central to my work every day, which fills me with joy. 

Cathy: Katie. I am so glad to hear that from you and thank you so much for being here with us today.