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Inside Track: Tech startup founder provides workforce solutions – Grand Rapids Business Journal

Katie Hall credits the pandemic for giving her startup, Claira, room to grow. Courtesy Claira

Katie Hall is on a mission to make work more efficient.

Hall is the founder and CEO of the Grand Rapids-based tech startup Claira, a talent-optimization platform designed to help organizations and business leaders better understand their workforce capabilities.

Hall knew from a young age she had a passion for logic and order.

“Ever since I was little, I remember hating when things didn’t work right or weren’t optimized,” Hall said. “There’s a funny story about how one day I started directing the other kids around in kindergarten — like this is the way we’re going to do this because it’s going to be more efficient.”

A native of Holland, Hall graduated from West Ottawa High School and attended Hope College. She decided to study political science to tackle inefficiency and broken systems.

Hall also played volleyball and basketball at Hope and credits her athletic abilities as a key part of the person she is today.

“I loved being competitive and being part of a team,” she said. “I saw a study that said 70 or 80% of female founders have an athletic background, which I thought was insane but also makes a lot of sense. We know how to handle failure and we learned to take risks.”

Position: Founder and CEO
Age: 40
Birthplace: Holland, MI
Residence: Grand Rapids
Community Involvement: Various entrepreneurship groups statewide, mentoring students at local high schools and colleges. Red Cross, animal shelter work, food kitchen volunteer, member of First United Methodist Church
Biggest Career Break: “Probably attending MIT for MBA and Google Accelerator for Women Founders.”

During her time at Hope, her adviser encouraged her to apply for an internship at the White House. Hall said she was doubtful about getting the internship but applied anyway, and she ended up as an intern in the Office of Global Communications from December 2003 to June 2004 during the George W. Bush administration.

“It was an incredible opportunity,” said Hall, who spent her time writing communications briefs about Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom during the Iraq War. At the time, she thought she would stay in D.C. and work for the federal government in some capacity as her long-term career path.

After graduating from Hope, Hall pivoted to pursue a professional volleyball opportunity in Europe. Health problems within her family brought her back to Michigan where she worked as a legal assistant at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Grand Rapids.

During that time, the other side of the state caught her attention.

“I sort of watched the economic downturn of Detroit, and a lot of people were leaving Detroit and leaving the state of Michigan,” Hall said. “And I remember thinking, ‘I have to do something else to make an impact on this.’”

Hall decided to obtain a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Michigan and focused on economic development. After doing some work with the city of Detroit and working for a workforce development nonprofit, Hall said she witnessed various issues related to the labor market and the future of work.

Specifically, Hall noticed a gap in using competencies, or demonstrable characteristics and skills that help a person be successful in a job. Her work with the nonprofit enabled her to make connections with others in South America and in Europe where she said competencies were better utilized.

“The rest of the world is very good at using competencies,” she said. “Europe has these qualification frameworks that people use to manage work — basically meant to link education to work. So, you go and get this schooling and then you can get this job after that.”

Hall said competencies help businesses understand their employees at a much deeper level while also promoting inclusivity.

“When you only care about what someone can do, it doesn’t matter who they are,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where they’ve gone to school, (or) if they’ve gone to school. It doesn’t matter what color their skin is, what their ZIP code is. It’s a more equitable, more efficient way to run a business.”

Hall had an idea to create software to help implement competencies and a better talent optimization process in the U.S. She enrolled in the Master of Business Administration program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), traveling to Boston every two weeks for classes on top of working her full-time job at the nonprofit.

While Hall said the experience was intense, she received the training she needed at MIT to transition to a new sector and start her business — something that culminated from years of frustration.

“If you find something that makes you angry, it’s worth starting a business,” she said. “If it makes you angry, that means it’s making other people angry.”

Today, Claira is on track to be the solution Hall was looking for. The engine uses machine learning to map capabilities and compare talents to business needs.

During the client onboarding process, Claira will obtain employee and company data including resumes and job descriptions. The competency engine analyzes the data and highlights key insights before producing a competency map identifying strengths, weaknesses, gaps and growth opportunities. 

Since Claira’s launch in 2020, more than 10,000 users have added competencies to their profiles. The dynamic platform also provides company leaders with continuous value as the dataset improves over time.

Despite launching in the same year as a global pandemic, Hall credits the pandemic as a boost for Claira’s recent growth.

“I think if the pandemic hadn’t happened, I’m not even sure we’d be a business right now,” Hall said. “I think the pandemic allowed us to become a company because everybody is paying attention to the labor market and people are realizing what a mess it is, how outdated it is.”

The pandemic also helped with the process of raising venture capital, which Hall noted would normally involve flying to California or New York prior to COVID-19. Instead, she engaged in close to 90 meetings via Zoom for the company’s first round of seed funding.

This May, Hall and her team closed another round of $3.5 million led by Ohio-based Heartland Ventures. The funds are going toward the advancement of the machines learning technology as well as rollout to more customers.

Looking ahead, Hall said she hopes her vision will reach the entire workforce market and continue to positively impact the future of work.

“The whole system of basically plugging people into work is outdated,” Hall said. “I think that everything people can do that would generate value in the economy should be online somewhere. There should be this big digital archive of what everybody can contribute, and it should be updated almost in real time and include everybody. And that’s it — that’s what we’re building.”