Kacy Qua Wants You to Get to Work

Can an against-the-grain thinker change the way we train for careers?

Photo by Jon Estrada

Photo by Jon Estrada

Kacy Qua has a problem With “The SYSTEM.” Most systems, really.

She’s long been that way: Qua, now 33, got fed up with her daily school schedule in the eighth grade and finished high school through correspondence. She left her small-town home in rural New York and took a series of odd jobs, including one as a construction demolition worker. While swinging a sledgehammer in a house, she started a conversation with the owner about a Carl Jung book and ended up networking her way into an internship at an investment firm in New York City.

Neither construction nor finance turned out to be her thing, but the work solidified her sense that hierarchical, bureaucratic education and employment traditions need to be shattered and replaced with new paths. Mind you, she went ahead and picked up two degrees—a bachelor’s from Cornell and an MBA from UCLA. But as the leader of a 1-year-old work-apprenticeship program called Qualifyor, she knows that there are many paths to success. “Sure, I see value in a liberal arts education,” she says. “But it’s not for everyone.”

She’s not alone. A recent New York Times article about the young “technorati” ponders whether some tech-savvy young adults are better off getting to work than grinding out years of higher ed. Some teens—and even preteens—have app-building, game-design and social-media skills that businesses need right now. Qua is working on a work-placement business in Las Vegas that will connect such young people with companies in need of those texting-since-birth skills.

So far, Qualifyor—which is underwritten by Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project—has hooked up one apprentice with a full-time job doing social media for MGM Resorts International, and it’s connected more than a dozen others with project work for smaller businesses and startups. The challenge, Qua says, is making the connection between techno-youth and businesses somehow profitable for Qualifyor. Right now, the company is operating more like a non-profit, with Qua and her three cohorts working out of a cool space in Container Park, also funded by the Downtown Project.

“I have infinite faith in this generation,” Qua says. “Once they’ve proven their skills to us, we offer advice and guidance and access to a career network.”

To that end, Qualifyor has invited young people, ages 17-23, including some students from the Clark County School District’s Career and Technical Academies, to participate in a graphic design, web development, social media and marketing competition.

Her vision for incentivizing and attracting talent draws on her experience working for the X Prize Foundation—a competition-based business-incentive model founded by Peter Diamandis to inspire private production of spacecraft. In 2004, the X Prize Foundation awarded $10 million to the winner of the spacecraft competition, Scaled Composites. Since then, the foundation has begun addressing everything from oil cleanup to genomics with benefactor-sponsored prize competitions. Qua led the design of the Global Literacy X Prize, which is expected to launch by 2015.

Qua says Las Vegas tech education benefits from similar models. Companies receive an injection of “millennial consultants”—tech-savvy, enthusiastic workers—while precocious young people connect to job opportunities without spending so much time and money on college.

It’s an interesting set of system-busting ideas, particularly in a city that has long been challenged by the chicken-and-egg dilemma of education and jobs: Would Las Vegas get more industry if it had better-educated workers? Or would more diversified industries foster better education? Now, perhaps, the question can be viewed differently: Can we grow a segment of tech workers who don’t need a formal education and will generate immediate tech growth?

Qua is determined to find out. Even in her corporate jobs—she did a stint with Lockheed Martin Space Systems— she still had that urge to rethink the system: “It was the same experience I had in public schools,” she says. “The stuff they [leaders in traditional educational systems] are teaching isn’t what makes people successful in life.”