Emilie Cushman

Founder and CEO | Kira Talent

Education Technology

Toronto, Canada

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CSQ Q1 2020, Required Reading and Viewing

Emilie Cushman: The CEO of a Leading College Admissions Software Company Explains the Impact of School Closures on the Tech Industry

Kira Talent is a leading tech company in the higher-education space founded by 29-year-old Emilie Cushman when she herself was a college student. The company aims to help admissions teams identify the students who will succeed in their programs through an application process that goes beyond test scores, GPAs, and essays. Implemented by more than 400 leading institutions—including Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Oxford—in more than 25 countries, the video-based platform aggregates data on competencies such as leadership potential, motivation, critical thinking, and empathy.

What are your biggest business concerns surrounding COVID-19?

For context, at Kira Talent, we sell admissions software to universities to help schools be more holistic in their online application. Usually they ask for grades and test scores and we help them add things like timed video and timed written assessments, essays, and portfolio as part of their online application to help better admit students.

Because of COVID many schools are scrambling to bring their entire workflow online, everything from admissions to classroom and exams. Part of this happens to fit in with our current product offering since we help make admissions more digital and streamlined. On the other hand, just because we have a solution that can help right now doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is great. Schools are super overwhelmed, so when we talk to them we are either getting the message “yes! Please sign us up asap” or “go away, we have bigger fires right now we can’t even think about admissions.”

To date though, we have still been largely unaffected overall by the pandemic from a results perspective. We are growing profitably and have had our best Q1 in the company’s history. That being said, here are some challenges:

  • Now that we are a 100% remote workforce (a switch that we made March 13th), we are noticing a pretty big productivity hit on our team. As a collaborative team, it’s much harder to get things done when you aren’t sitting next to someone and cannot turn your screen. Now you must message them on Slack, wait for a response, then set up a Zoom call etc. Because of this, we find that we are all just working way more hours than we were previously, and days aren’t always very efficient. Straight meetings are usually now from 9am-8pm.
  • Even though we are getting many new clients because of the pandemic, there is still an issue in that a lot of schools are now all working remotely as well. This means things like getting contracts signed and processing checks are taking a bit longer than usual which impacts business. So, we have to be extra careful with how we are managing things.
  • If schools are unable to charge the same tuition rates for online class as they would for on-campus schooling, this could potentially have an impact on us if they decide to cut spending on vendors and technology. Now again, we also help schools be more online so its unsure how much this would impact us. Still, it’s something to consider.
  • Students might opt for more local campuses rather than going to school internationally in the fall, which could have an impact on the schools we work with.
  • The much bigger concern is that the pandemic lasts longer than expected and schools shut down completely. That would be hugely detrimental not only to us as vendors, but everyone (profs, students, the university as a whole).

What is your current business strategy for dealing with the situation? 

Right now, we are monitoring things day by day. Ever since we went entirely remote our plans aren’t changing as much day by day. We are constantly reading articles to try and inform ourselves on what is to come. It’s still a bit too early to predict where we will all be in September and if schools will re-open class.

We continue to try our best to close new business and for new schools signing on right now in a panic, we have re-allocated resources so that we are able to get them up and running in a matter of hours and days, not weeks.

We continue to be a remote workforce and are constantly adjusting to make the best of the situation. We’ve altered our communication patterns to be more effective. We try to do fun remote things to keep up team spirit during this time. For example, we’ve adapted our TGIF on Fridays to be remote, we’ve adapted lunch hangouts to be virtual.

Emilie Cushman, Founder and CEO, Kira Talent

How do you think things will look in your industry a year from now?

Some programs might offer deferred admissions in the fall if this is still going. Schools might reduce tuition for the incoming class given that classes may start out online for the first semester, or longer. I think regardless of how long COVID-19 takes to clear, schools will have figured out a way to turn “online learning” off and on with the flick of a switch for many of their programs.

I also think schools will invest much more heavily in online/remote solutions for programs in general, and many schools will start making decisions now about next year expecting that there might be a second wave of COVID-19 next winter.

The biggest thing I’ve learned from past times is the importance of over-communicating, reassuring people that we are in a good spot, or letting them know that there are uncharted waters ahead and that we will be keeping them posted daily.

What have you learned from other difficult times in the past?

Fortunately, I was still in high school back when “2008″ was happening, so as a business owner this is the first global crisis I’ve ever worked through. That being said, we’ve had our fair share of growing pains in the past 8 years as a business to learn from. So far, we have also been in the fortunate position where we have not needed to lay anyone off. Usually that’s one of the most difficult things to work though.

The biggest thing I’ve learned from past times is the importance of over-communicating, reassuring people that we are in a good spot, or letting them know that there are uncharted waters ahead and that we will be keeping them posted daily. One of our core values is transparency and we are adhering to that now more than ever.

Even though we aren’t doing any layoffs, I have learned from past experience that if you are a company that needs to do layoffs…do them all at once! Do NOT stagger them over many days.

One of the most important things is finding ways to extend runway and conserve cash. In these times, you really have no idea what’s going to happen. Even though we’ve been relatively unaffected thus far, you can be assured that we are finding a million and a half ways to save money and build lots of financial buffer for ourselves should things go south.

Another learning from past times is that as the CEO, in war times you need to lean into your strengths, not spend your time improving your weaknesses. Also, it’s easy for the CEO in these times to also start taking on a bunch of menial or trivial things saying things like, “you know what, just let me do this I can do it faster” because of panic or fear etc. Really in this time, as the person in charge you should be doing the exact opposite, delegating what can be delegated so you can focus on strategic direction, bigger picture things and most importantly, playing to your strengths. For me, playing to my strengths means motivating the team on a daily basis, staying informed on what is going on in the market, and making sure we have money in the bank—or finding more ways to save.

Cushman’s home office views.

Safe–and entertained–at Home: What business leaders are doing with their downtime 


Morning routine?

I start my day with fiction reading in bed. It sets my mind on an adventure before the day begins. Then, I settle into my workday at my desk by the window. We are on the 40th floor in Toronto so I have a nice view of the city and the lake, which keeps me energized, especially when there is sun.

Around noon I take my first break to eat lunch and hangout with my boyfriend who lives with me. Around 3pm I take a break to play piano. At 6pm I do my daily workout followed by dinner, then pick up work again around 8pm followed by a nice evening relaxing.

Currently binging?

Tiger King, Dare Me (do not recommend, its cringy), and I’m about to start Ozark. I’m also re-watching Gossip Girl for probably the 8th time, and I’ve recently discovered Disney+ and have been reliving all my favorite childhood shows like Lizzie McGuire and Recess. For no apparent reason, I’ve been watching a lot of old movies: Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Currently reading?

I just finished Such a Fun Age by Kiley Read (although I don’t recommend, it was super boring) and I just started the Beautiful and Damned (which is a classic) and the Proposal (another Reese Witherspoon book club pick).

Occasionally I’ll read one of the Medium articles that pops into my inbox every morning, although they have been mostly COVID-19 related lately and I’m trying to limit my intake of COVID-19-related reads since my head is already buried in the news all day.

I have been doing an embarrassing amount of Buzzfeed quizzes, which I don’t normally do, but alas Instagram/Facebook have found that I am an easy target…And of course, not reading material, but classical music is playing 24/7 on my Bose headphones all day to keep me from going literally insane.

What are you doing to spend quality time with those you’re sheltering with?

Me and my boyfriend play Yahtzee while binge-watching Netflix, we like hanging out on our balcony, especially when it’s raining. He’s very good at making cocktails so once or twice a week we’ll do a fancy cocktail night.

What are you doing to stay healthy mentally and physically?

Working out every day. We are both doing Insanity with Sean T, although I will still mix in the odd 21 Day Fix workout with Autumn. We try go either go for a walk or a drive every day, or even step out on the balcony to get fresh air. When living in a condo, this is critical.

Playing piano is something I do every day for at least an hour. So soothing.

And lots of FaceTime with friends and family. I feel more caught up with everyone now than I ever did before ironically enough

Where are you dreaming of visiting once things are back to normal?

I had a beautiful trip to California and Las Vegas planned before this whole thing happened, which I ended up cancelling, so I’m looking forward to rebooking that. We were going to start in Las Vegas visiting my friend who lives there, then head over to LA and stay at the Beverly Wilshire for a week.

I had also planned a trip to New York at the Palace hotel for my birthday in May, which has also been cancelled so that will be rebooked eventually.

We also had a trip to Mexico booked in April, which was cancelled. We try to go 1-2 a year so that will now be pushed to next year! In terms of bigger trips, we were hoping to do a ski trip to the Swiss Alps this coming Christmas, but that was predicated on the fact that we would do a couple trips here in Canada first at Mount Tremblant for some practice. 

In terms of restaurants, I have been missing the stracciatella honey bread and prosciutto pasta from Eataly the most. I discovered it two weeks before quarantine and it’s so devastating to live without!