Yolanda Payne, founder of Tech Talent Prep, smiles besides an image of a student with headphones on while he's playing on a professional gaming system.

Yolanda Payne, former Jim Pope Fellow in Georgia Tech’s VentureLab, created a startup to help students and those seeking to change their careers, particularly teachers, get certified in fields with applicant shortages, including tech, film, and gaming. Her startup, Tech Talent Prep, guides them through the certification process via coaching and in-person and virtual classes.

The fellowship spans three semesters, providing selected faculty members an opportunity to build entrepreneurship into their course curriculum and research. During VentureLab’s Startup Launch summer program, Payne worked full-time, managed summer camps and other job duties, and completed 50 interviews with customers while working with her mentors. Most workdays started at 3 a.m. and didn’t end until 10 p.m.

Payne has a bachelor’s in elementary education; a master’s in educational technology; two education specialist degrees; and a certificate in diversity, equity, and inclusion. She has taught for 25 years and worked as a librarian, a STEM coordinator, a media specialist, and, at Georgia Tech, as a research associate in the College of Computing.

Why do you think extra support is needed for students and career-changers to get certified?

You might as well say, “Go learn a new language and a new way of thinking, in addition to your daily responsibilities, all at once and by yourself.” While you may find some students who are intrinsically motivated to do this, there are countless others who, with the right support system, could find themselves along a career path suited to their interests and increasing their earning potential.

What encouraged you to believe you were on the right path with your startup?

My mentor, Roberto Casas, really believed in what I was doing. He said, “People need options. You're telling me that I can actually do that? Oh, OK.” When they say the model is instilling entrepreneurial confidence, it really is. It started with saying I could. That's where the confidence came from. I'm not in this by myself. I can do this. Some of the problems we want to fix can actually be businesses.

How was the fellowship program?

You come in with an idea, and they tell you not to be surprised that it changes. You can't be so married to the idea. I don't remember what my first idea was. Every week you would get up and present how many interviews you did. Every week I had to be on top. It was more fun than work. This is a whole new level of hard, but it's equal parts exhilarating.

What did you discover through the fellowship process?

Just as you think you're helping teachers, they're helping you. Teachers are the most underutilized resource. You'd be surprised how many communities these teachers are plugged into.

What advice do you have for students interested in entrepreneurship?

You're at Tech. While you may have come for the degree, there is this whole entrepreneurial system available. Just knowing the business skills can open up a whole world.

Any final thoughts?

I get to teach you and you get to expand on it. That is what leaving a legacy does, and I am so glad that I was afforded this opportunity during my time at Tech. I believe that this opportunity will allow me to help others thrive.

Payne completed her pilot teacher trainings during the program. It was so successful that those clients recommended her company across their networks. From there, Payne has worked with the Georgia Economic Development Creative Communities Project and with corporations. Now, she has enough contracts to work on her company full-time.

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