Stepping into the world of gaming to help the younger generation have a brighter future with more job opportunities, Zwolinski has broken the barriers of career awareness and access through innovative technology.
This post is part of The Founder Factor, where we bring you behind the scenes with South Carolina’s most impactful entrepreneurs so that you can discover the strategies, ideas, and mindsets you need to unlock your next business breakthrough.
In 1997, Tina Zwolinski launched a branding and marketing agency that she spent the next 23 years growing and expanding. While working with Millennials and then Gen Z in the marketing arena, she began to see the pressure put on youth to follow the high school to 4-year college path as the only solution to finding a career. Zwolinski saw this on a deeper scale as her nonprofit work took her to underserved youth who weren’t shown the opportunities out there. “I began to ask, ‘What can we do differently, and what would that look like? But I never would have thought the answer would mean exiting my company,” she says.
But in 2020, that’s exactly what she did. Exiting her business, Zwolinski was on a mission to connect youth to the millions of career opportunities that didn’t require the traditional 4-year degree path. This led her to form her startup company called skillsgapp, which produces Skillionaire Games™. “Foundationally, we are a workforce pipeline development company,” she explains. “But as our mission, we connect youth to life-changing careers through game-changing play.”
According to Zwolinski, students make decisions about what they “want to be” based on what they see, and in schools, they only see a select few careers like doctors, lawyers, and teachers. However, skillsgapp helps create career and pathway awareness for students through 10 different games, all of which focus on in-demand careers that are often overlooked or stigmatized. “We introduce careers to a student from entrance to exit,” she says. “They are put in environments that let them see themselves, as any gender or race, in various careers, showing them what average salaries are, what local colleges have programs for these fields, and practicing the skills needed for that career. For some students, going through a game means they are ready to sit for certification, allowing them to go straight into a job.”
While skillsgapp is a passion project for Zwolinski, she faced many new challenges in starting the company. “Being in a whole different network than with my marketing company, I had to rebuild all new relationships,” she says. “On top of that, I was doing it all during Covid, so there was the added challenge of forming connections over Zoom.”
Along with starting a company during the height of the pandemic, Zwolinski was entirely new to the world of gaming development. “We knew our competition were these huge games like Pokémon Go, Angry Birds, and Fortnite,” she claims. “So we had to create a game that was not only good but also fun.” Driven by a deeper sense of purpose, Zwolinski wasn’t backing down from the challenge.
She describes creating the product as both exhausting and exhilarating, especially as she began to hire a team to help her. “We had no idea about development and gaming ourselves but were interviewing game developers. We did our research and met in person with a few of the final developers we had selected, but from there we went completely by our gut,” she laughs as she reflects on that time. “I’m glad I didn’t stop and think about it too much then.”
Zwolinski believes the biggest piece of the puzzle was surrounding herself with supportive people who reminded her that what she was doing is meaningful. “If you have negative people around you who are questioning your decisions, that will play with your mind,” she says.
For Zwolinski, hiring good people who truly cared about the company mission not just helped herself, but was a major key to the overall success of skillsgapp. “For us, it was about finding those who cared about youth and their career journey,” she explains. “We assembled a team that had that expertise and passion for building fun games but who also cared about our mission.” This strategy clearly paid off—because during their second year, they won 2 global awards: Facebook Gaming’s People’s Choice Award and Games for Change Best Health Game. Their success continued to snowball, as in early 2023, they were named one of EdTech Digest’s Top 100 companies working in the K-12 to higher education and workforce space.
As Zwolinski looks to the future of skillsgapp and her career, she isn’t changing her mission. “Serving youth, especially the underserved, is my passion. My goals will always be awareness and access, “ she states firmly. “There are rural areas that still don’t have access to these digital programs, so for us, the next thing is getting this technology into more hands because you can get so far just from your phone.”
After all the twists and turns of her career, Zwolinski has plenty of wisdom to share with the next generation of entrepreneurs. Her biggest advice is “Don’t be afraid of calculated risks, “ she encourages. “If you are wondering if you should step away from a steady job—take a chance. Bring something new to the world.”
Designli leads clients through the design and development of complex digital products, bringing startups and entrepreneurs from “Vision to Version 1.” Ready to bring an app or web app to life? We’re here to help.
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