The futurist and serial entrepreneur discusses her latest project, a digital network of community colleges to connect working learners and employers
Parminder Jassal, Ph.D. has worked on design and development teams for Fortune 500 companies including Ford, Atlantic Richfield Oil Company and Lucent Technologies, in addition to co-founding several startups. She then moved into the nonprofit sector, working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the ACT Foundation and the Institute for the Future. This fall she will launch Unmudl, a digital marketplace connecting working learners, community colleges, and employers. Base 11 recently caught up with her, remotely, to ask a few questions.
Q. How did beginning your higher education at a community college prepare you for success?
I was born in London and attended elementary school in the U.S. and high school in India. When I came back to the states, I couldn’t go to a university because I had not taken the SATs. So I went to Southwestern Community College in Creston, Iowa, a little town of less than 10,000. What I really loved was the one-on-one attention at the community college. All of my professors were amazing, and would spend time advising and mentoring their students. I wanted to be a commercial airline pilot or a race car driver, but my dad said no. So I ended up in market research and fiber optics, and that’s what launched me to a bachelor’s at the University of Northern Iowa and eventually on to a doctorate at the University of Louisville.
Q. How did you become interested in public-private partnerships to support workforce training?
After working in successful startups, it was time for me to give back. I made my way into the nonprofit sector, first at Greater Louisville Inc., an economic development organization. As the director of workforce development there, it was so interesting because the health sector thought their talent needs were so different from the tech sector and others. But really every business just wanted the same thing: the best talent, for the lowest price, and who could hit the ground running. That’s where I became really interested in public-private partnerships because the power of public infrastructure and public investment, synergistically and ethically coupled with private investment, can be much more sustainable and definitely more equitable.
Q. Why are community colleges more important now than ever, and how do you see their role growing in the years ahead?
Since inception, community colleges have always been crucial to the economic growth of America. I think what community colleges have to do now is reinvent themselves for the future — and they have done this in the past. To reflect our 7×24 global economy, community colleges need to work together to fulfill the role of a lifelong learning partner for learners and businesses. And, we need to stop talking about graduation and this notion of, “When do you finish or complete?” because it’s in direct contradiction to what we really need, which is lifelong learning.
Working learners are the way of the future, and the lines between working and learning are quickly dissolving. We are all working learners who have to consider ourselves to be in a continuous cycle of learn, work, learn, work. Community colleges can be the lifelong learning partners for both working learners and employers.
Q. Can you tell us about Umudl, your current project?
Unmudl is a course-to-job marketplace driven by community colleges to connect the 64.5 million working learners in the U.S. to the 30 million businesses nationwide. What’s really cool about Unmudl is that it’s founded in collaboration with community colleges that want to control their future and be a part of the solution. We unbundle community colleges into courses, credentials, services and space, and the colleges can sell all four via Unmudl, to anybody in the world while leaning on each other for support.
Imagine a working learner enrolled at three or four community colleges at any one time, and they’re picking up skills and opportunities in this online and in-person marketplace. They pick up skills, through work build their competencies and capabilities, one class here and one class there, online or in person, and then they redeem all of it toward a certificate or degree at the community college of their choice when they’re ready.
Q. You’ve done some interesting work with the Institute for the Future as founder of the Work + Futures Lab. How has the pandemic changed your thinking about the future?
From a futures perspective, the pandemic was a given. Our futures methodology is hindsight, foresight, insight, action, so you are always looking back to look forward. Pandemics have happened before, just not in the recent past.
I do think the current pandemic has accelerated our shifts into the future, especially when you look at the blending of our physical and digital worlds where humans and machines are working more closely together. The reality of what we’re going through has really grounded all of us into thinking in a much more futuristic way where our minds are open to more possibilities than ever before. I think we are all realizing more and more that instead of being victims of the future, we can harness the future of possibilities to control our own futures.