First Lady Announces Grand Prize Winner

Today the First Lady Michelle Obama announced ThinkZone Games as the grand prize winner in the Reach Higher Career App Challenge! ThinkZone Games will receive $100,000 and additional sponsor prizes valued at $300,000 for their career exploration mobile app Hats & Ladders.

Hats & Ladders engages students from middle to high school with swipe-to-choose self-assessments, connected activities, and mini-challenges. By providing repeat exposure to a broad spectrum of careers, it enables students to draw connections between their personal attributes and multiple pathways to career success.

After their selection as a Challenge finalist, ThinkZone Games and the other 4 finalists participated in an intensive 6-week Virtual Accelerator phase to refine their business model and develop a working prototype. During this phase, they were supported by mentors with expertise in mobile design, business modeling, civic tech, and career counseling. The accelerator phase culminated with Demo Day on July 7 in Washington D.C., where ThinkZone Games presented Hats & Ladders to the Challenge judges and leaders from the private and public sector, including Megan Smith, CTO of the United States, and Eric Waldo, Executive Director of the First Lady’s Reach Higher Initiative. With their prize money, ThinkZone Games will complete development in preparation for a pilot with 50 middle schools in early 2017.

“The Challenge inspired us to create a new app that helps students begin figuring out who they are and what they want to be, in a way that’s connected to their everyday lives and takes advantage of opportunities and information already out there,” said Leah Potter, Director for Instructional Design for ThinkZone Games. “It provided us with just the assistance we needed to strengthen virtually every aspect of Hats & Ladders.”

The team behind Hats & Ladders at Demo Day in Washington, D.C.

The team behind Hats & Ladders at Demo Day in Washington, D.C.


The tools that emerged from this Challenge demonstrate the exciting potential for new technologies to help students map pathways to promising careers. All finalists will be invited to the Code for America Summit this November where they will join government innovators, civic-minded technologists, and entrepreneurs with a passion for building 21st century government.

We look forward to following ThinkZone Games and the other Challenge finalists over the next year as they finish developing their technologies.

Congratulations to all!

Demo Day Videos

Looking to see more from last month’s Reach Higher Career App Challenge Demo Day at the White House? Now you can. We are pleased to share footage of the inspiring speeches and finalist presentations.

As U.S. CTO, Megan Smith, summed up, “The essence of career coaching is reaching into each kid to discover what they love and connecting them to tools that bring that to a whole new level…[The Reach Higher Career App Challenge] seeks to bring solutions in this space the kind of network connection they deserve.”

Hear more from the Demo Day speeches from Albert Palacios, Eric Waldo, Kim Ford, and Megan Smith:

And see the finalists’ presentations:  

Each finalist had 10 minutes to present their solution followed by live Q&A with the judges.

Stay tuned for the grand prize winner announcement, coming soon!

Demo Day at the White House: the Recap

On July 7th, we welcomed government leaders, Challenge judges, sponsors, mentors, and the five finalists to the White House for the Reach Higher Career App Challenge Demo Day. With a cash prize pool of $225,000 and $300,000 in donated in-kind prizes, the Challenge brings together the top minds in education, business, tech, and design to advance career planning technology.

The day kicked off with an incredible lineup of speakers, who shared insights into how these solutions could transform students’ lives. The speakers included:

  • Megan Smith, U.S. Chief Technology Officer, Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the President
  • Kim Ford, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education, U.S. Department of Education
  • Eric Waldo, Executive Director, First Lady Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative
  • Albert Palacios, Education Program Specialist, Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education, U.S. Department of Education

The finalists then presented their refined solutions to the judges, showing how they had progressed during the Virtual Accelerator, and offered a hands-on demonstration of their prototypes.

The presented solutions demonstrated the potential for career planning tools to harness open data, cognitive computing, predictive analytics, and location-based features to transform how students evaluate their strengths and interests, explore college and career options, and ultimately accomplish their goals.

We look forward to announcing the winner of the $100,000+ grand prize soon!

Here are some highlights from the day:

Megan Smith, U.S. Chief Technology Officer, said that “career coaching is connecting students with what they love” and in the process, matching underutilized talent with high-impact, high-demand careers.


The esteemed panel of Challenge judges at Demo Day (left to right): Aarti Dhupelia, VP of Strategic Initiatives, National Louis University; Gale Halsey, CLO and Director, Global Learning and Organization Development, Ford Motor Company; Arrun Kapoor, Managing Director, SJF Ventures; Cory Notestine, Counseling and Postsecondary Coordinator, Colorado Springs School District 11; and Daniel Weitzner, Director, MIT Internet Policy Research Initiative.


Reach Higher Career Challenge Demo Day, July 7, 2016

Ryan Hoch, Co-Founder & CEO of Overgrad, started the finalist presentations to showcase Overgrad to the judges.


The finalist team from presenting Inform Journeys.


The finalist team from ThinkZone Games presenting Hats & Ladders.


John Carney from MARi walking the judges through their mobile app demo.


The finalist team from the Pinellas Education Foundation presenting Future Plans®.


Please stay tuned for the winner announcement, coming soon!

Virtual Accelerator Wraps Up with Demo Day on July 7th!

Over the past six weeks, the five finalists have completed the Virtual Accelerator phase of the Challenge in preparation for Demo Day, tomorrow Thursday, July 7th at the White House, where they’ll compete for the $100,000+ grand prize.

As the finalists iterated their solutions in preparation for Demo Day, each team worked with mentors with expertise in design, business modeling, civic tech, and career counseling.

We’d like to extend a huge thank you to our Challenge mentors, who generously participated in one-on-one sessions to help the finalists refine, test, and improve their solutions:

  • Alex Gloss, Graduate Research Fellow, National Science Foundation
  • Natalie Evans Harris, Senior Policy Advisor, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
  • Michael Koetting, Director of Corporate & Business Development, Civitas Learning
  • Sian Morson, Founder & CEO, Kollective Mobile
  • Kat Pastor, School Counselor, Flagstaff High School
  • Kim Reykdal, Career & College Counselor, Olympia High School

The finalists also participated in four fantastic learning modules, where they had access to insights and advice from fellow innovators, industry experts, future customers, and the eventual end-users: students themselves.

Highlights included sessions with founders who have deep experience building for students. Tiffany Chow and Annie Mais told the story of Roadtrip Nation, which started with an idea and a van, and today is a large-scale education business that helps students explore careers. Mark Milliron from Civitas Learning offered first-hand expertise on taking an ed tech solution from concept to business in a session that covered funding considerations, identifying your user, and how to weigh partnership options during growth. These experts provided invaluable advice and lessons learned on how to take a product to market.

The finalists also heard from experts from both the private sector and government to help guide them in integrating data into their solutions. Elise Smith and Hayley Yudelman from IBM Watson demonstrated how cognitive computing can help personalize student tools, and data experts from the U.S. Department of Education guided teams through the open data resources.

During another module, finalists focused on user empathy. Sessions brought the finalists closer to understanding the needs, fears, and dreams of their users, and helped pressure test their assumptions. They heard from experts from the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE) and participated in a live feedback session with high school students from Code/Interactive to gain a deeper understanding of how their current solution meets (or failed to meet) the expectations of their audience.

And finally, they dove deeper into how constraints can be an asset to great design. Terri Youngblood and Don Barrett introduced finalists to the concept of design for all. Through a detailed overview of accessibility features and a live demonstration, Terri and Don helped finalists understand how various user groups could be better served and how finalists could test their apps for accessibility.

It’s been a busy few months! Thank you again to all the experts who contributed to the Virtual Accelerator phase. Your experience and insights have had immeasurable impact on our ultimate goal of helping students realize their career dreams.

Want to see what happens next? Follow along during Demo Day tomorrow at @EdPrizes and stay tuned for the winner announcement later this summer!