August 29, 2017

Taking the typical hiring approach to an experiential level: CFO Abby Cheesman and CEO Elena Valentine of Skill Scout

Abby Cheesman (left) and Elena Valentine (right) co-founded Skill Scout, whose mission is to transform conventional recruiting into a less opaque and paint-by-numbers process by way of “experiential hiring” as they coined it. Here, Elena elaborates on her and Abby’s ambitions for their company to become an energizing force in the human resources industry.

Upon discovering Skill Scout in 2014 (Congratulations on three years!), my reaction: A very different take on hiring. Does this initial impression mean that your company is the first of its kind in the staffing space?

I’d hate to say we’re the 1st. But, we certainly represent a small subset of pioneers who are redefining how companies communicate their jobs and company culture through video.

You shared that the idea for Skill Scout was sparked from “a project to connect young people with employment.” Was this the workforce development project “” backed by the Kellogg Foundation? Can you tell more about it? Project’s objectives? Duration? Who originated it? Who attended? When? Where? Did the project’s results evolve into something else?

Skill Scout was indeed inspired by project work with the W. K. Kellogg Foundation when Abby and I were design researchers at Gravitytank. This 3-year project aimed to tackle the national challenge of 7-million young people not in school or in the workforce, and how might we connect them to more meaningful pathways to employment. was the platform our team prototyped after immersing ourselves among companies, workforce organizations and young people—all struggling to connect on employment. What’s missing is exposure—you cannot be what you cannot see. So we set out to build a better way to expose candidates to jobs they may never have considered.

The results of this work prompted us to start our own company, grounded in a new vision—a new way to hire. One that we call experiential hiring to change how candidates experience companies, and how companies experience candidates.

What were some of the first things you did in transforming Skill Scout from an idea to a reality?

One of the first things we did to transform Skill Scout from an idea to a reality was to actually get someone hired via this new approach. We dropped the technology, raised our sleeves and designed an in-person experience that brought companies and candidates together. Think of it as a job fair turned on it’s head. Rather than job descriptions, candidates watched a video about a job. Rather than résumés, we designed a job fair experience that assessed candidate skills, like food inventory and basic knife skills. Candidates could see the jobs, and companies could see the candidates in action and make more informed decisions outside of a résumé alone. When that first candidate got hired, we knew we were onto something special.

Storytelling is one of your major methods. Can you elaborate on what this means to you and your work at Skill Scout?

Storytelling is at the heart of Skill Scout. Why? Because stories have the power to move and influence people. A good story enables us to relate and empathize with one another. Stories have the power to humanize companies. Who wouldn’t want a more human-hiring process? Imagine the power an employee could have on prospective candidates when they share how they grew with the company. Or the way a group of team members came to an employee’s aid after their house was wiped out from a flood. We have the honor of capturing and sharing these kinds of stories all the time.

Who/what are your storytelling inspirations and how do they influence you?

Oh man! Our team is comprised primarily of rock-star impact documentary filmmakers. The world of social good inspires us and the people who capture it.

If I had to choose some inspirations I’m currently geeking out on, I would definitely say the Vice Channel as a whole. The producers immerse themselves without expectations or judgment and enable their subjects to showcase their most authentic voice. Skill Scout thrives on empathy and authenticity so I’m always inspired when I see other storytellers who treat their subjects similarly.

Additionally, point-of-view shots, and more immersive techniques like 360-video inspire us, and we’re prototyping both of these things now with select companies.

How did you find each other toward becoming Co-Founders of Skill Scout? At Gravitytank? What qualities help make you get along and achieve that beautiful thing called teamwork?

I love this question. Abby and I found each other at Gravitytank. We bonded based on our mutual life’s purpose to transform the employment landscape. This purpose inevitably brought us closer not just as co-founders but as best friends. We have a special relationship and that becomes quite obvious to anyone who sees us interact. We’re half serious when both of us admit that we can handle each other better than our husbands. There’s no egos or “playing office” between us. We’re raw, honest and, above all, ridiculously respectful of the other. We have just the right level of complementary skills, that when combined, make us a dangerous duo.

Is your team a distributed workforce? How did you find these people?

Yes! While we do have an office space—36Squared in Bridgeport! See a POV video office tour we created. We don’t make office hours mandatory. A distributed workforce has its challenges, but for the most part, I think it’s made us a more effective, and frankly, a more desirable company for candidates interested in that kind of flexibility. We are of the firm belief that this is about outcomes not about the amount of time put in. More importantly, as a company committed to building a strong team of women AND mothers, taking a pro-stance toward a remote workforce is key.

As a small company, we’ve found our people through referrals and investing in organizations that are valuable talent pipelines for us. I’m a strong supporter and member of Let’s Vibe, an organization that supports young diverse professional women in Chicago. It’s important, as part of our commitment to diversity, to be intentional about the communities we align ourselves with. They have been an incredible resource for us.

What feels raw (besides your video footage), and this doesn’t mean bad nor good, from when you started Skill Scout?

Two things:
  1. I’ve never felt so vulnerable as a person or leader. During the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey, a mentor told me that you should be so passionate about what you do that your emotions move you to tears every day. There is not a day that goes by that I am not reminded what an honor and privilege it is to do this work. So yes, this is an entrepreneur who lets her crying flag fly and she’s not ashamed to show it!
  2. Abby and I are former design researchers. It is in our nature to present and test solutions that we know aren’t perfect. What’s more, we encourage everyone of our team members to do the same. Clients appreciate this unpolished part of us, because they feel they can bring something of their own to it. Nothing will ever be perfect. Let it go. 
Your business reminds me of the exhibition and book “Work, Life, Tools” (1997) created by Milton Glaser and Steelcase Design. What is the one tool that helps make your work more accomplished and pleasant, as a result, making your life good?

Oh man. Our cameras of course. Nikon, Canons … but wait, you wanted just one. Well, I’m in love with my Google Pixel smartphone. I got it specifically because it takes the best smartphone photos and videos on the market. I use it every day to capture Skill Scout’s everyday moments. Gotta eat our own dog food, right?

Couple of examples:

What is your go-to information diet to help keep up with stories/topics central to Skill Scout?

Recruiting DailyVimeo—exploring new videos and techniques, Facebook groups—e.g. The Employment Branding ForumInc.Fast CompanyForbes.

In running Skill Scout, what are some true “best practices” in working well—in working as best as possible?

Don’t play office or titles—Everyone has something to contribute.

Provide folks with enough guidance to succeed—But enough rope to give them ownership.

Give a shit about the world around you—And enable others to do the same in and outside of your organization.

What does independence mean to you? As it relates to creativity, making, working.

The ability to prototype fast and early without the red tape and long timelines. We wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for constant iterations and giving ourselves permission to put things out into the world that still have flaws.

What is your definition of growth? As it relates to Skill Scout.

We’re not here to build a business to sell. We’re here to build a business to last. That means that while our growth may be slower, it will always be intentional.

How do you get the word out on Skill Scout, build awareness and attract customers?

Reputation. Period. We’re committed to being authentically helpful to the HR community. That manifests itself through our content, presentations and simply being part of the conversation. While it’s a long game, it’s inevitably been the most successful.

Who/what keeps you going in keeping Skill Scout going?

Besides Abby? Ha! The spouses who stand behind us every step of the way. My husband, Emilio, is a natural skeptic. Three years in, he has completely transformed to become my biggest cheerleader and advisor.

But in terms of what keeps us going, it’s that tug of feeling that there can and is a better way to hire. Anytime I’m feeling discouraged, I think back on those moments in 2012 at Living Classrooms, our nonprofit partner on the employment-focused project with the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, connecting with some of the most talented and resilient young people I’d ever met. Those moments completely transformed my worldview and my purpose.

What total effect do you strive to achieve with Skill Scout?

We envision a world where job descriptions and résumés become obsolete. Where companies and candidates alike are making more meaningful connections through the power of individual stories. To know that we could have a hand in moving that needle is a crazy but necessary kind of audacious goal.

• • •

All images courtesy of Skill Scout.

• • •

Read more from Design Feast Series of 380+ Interviews with people who love making things.

❤️ Donating = Appreciating: Help keep Design Feast going!

Lots of hours are put into making Design Feast—because it’s a labor of love to provide creative culture for everyone through hundreds of interviews, including event write-ups. Please consider becoming a supporting Patron with a recurring monthly donation.

Visit my Patreon page where you can view my goals and reward tiers—starting at $1 per month. Starting your patronage today matters—it’ll help Design Feast remain available, even grow.