How Bailey Parnell - Founder of SkillsCamp - is Bringing Soft Skills Training to Modern Workplaces

by Galina Kokhan


Posted on October 1, 2018


Bailey Parnell - Founder of SkillsCamp

Our Director of Marketing Galina Kokhan sat down with Bailey Parnell to learn how she is bringing soft skills to modern workplaces

SkillsCamp is a soft skills training company, which helps businesses and educational institutions build soft skills in their staff and students.

Its founder and CEO, Bailey Parnell, was named one of Canada's Top 100 Most Powerful Women. She is an award-winning digital marketer, TEDx speaker, and businesswoman with a talent for helping people and brands tell better stories. Her work and expertise have been featured on CBC, CTV, FOX, Flare Magazine, and more. She is also currently doing her part-time Masters in Communications and Culture at Ryerson University with research looking into social media's impact on mental health.

Galina: Thank you for joining me today. My team and I would like to build a supportive community of Toronto-based startups in a variety of industries by getting to know other founders and ask them about their startup journey. I would like to congratulate you on your successful recent transition into a full-time commitment to your startup.

Bailey: Thank you.

G: Before we start I’d like to mention that I was lucky to be part of the PanAM volunteer community at the Beach Volleyball Games. [Note: Bailey helped manage & coordinate 20+ featured volunteers as part of CBC’s Chevrolet #DriveTheGames volunteer appreciation campaign during the Pan Am Games in 2015]. And I do remember a full-size Chevrolet car made of sand located in a close proximity to the court. That was unforgettable time of my life!

B: That was a great project to work on and perhaps a once in a lifetime that we will have those games in our home city. I was happy to be part of it as well.

G: It is nice to learn that we have something in common. 😉 I’d like to start off by asking what you enjoy the most about being the founder of SkillsCamp?

B: If I had to choose what I would be doing if I had all the money and time in the world I would be teaching, speaking, writing, and learning. And that’s pretty much what I get to do at SkillsCamp, which is a soft skills training company. I am an entrepreneur because of this type of a company. I did not grow up saying I wanted to be an entrepreneur. It was a very specific set of circumstances that came together and made me start this specific business. A problem arose that I felt I was a perfect person to solve. So, what I like best about being the founder of SkillsCamp is doing what I would be doing anyways and changing lives and businesses in that endeavour.

G: Do you mind if I ask about the circumstances you mentioned?

B: Sure. I worked within Student Affairs at Ryerson, which is everything outside the classroom that supports student success: the career centre, student learning support, health and wellness, housing, and student life. Students go to these places to learn about things like stress management, personal branding, interviewing, resilience, time management, and many other soft skills. The students who went through Student Affairs were much more successful, but the reality is that most students don’t because it’s not mandatory. We also, at that time, had employers, who were saying that the most important skills they were looking for were teamwork and communication skills, which are not being taught in the classroom, and are taking a back seat in traditional education. Additionally, research coming out was discussing the skills gap in our country and lack of essentially skills being one of the main reasons for it. Essentially, this problem presented itself, and I thought we were the perfect people to solve it because of our history in teaching, education, business relationships, public speaking, and so on. These were the circumstances.

G: I see. I actually watched your TEDtalks, which you gave at Ryerson. A very inspiring speech, which I absolutely loved. A very structured approach to identify our addiction to social media. It has been almost 3 months since my Instagram account got hacked, and I decided not to create a new one for now. As a result, I have never been as relieved and focused before. Besides, I noticed I have more free time, which was wasted on endless feed scrolls when I still had my account.

B: I’m happy to hear you’re happy. It’s important you know that in yourself. Mindless endless scrolling can be a time was’t, but if you are enjoying every single photo, then perhaps it is worth it. Generally though, needs to think more seriously about how social media can affect our mental health.

G: Was it your personal decision to give the talk, or you were asked to speak up on the topic of Mental Health and its correlation with Social Media?

B: Before SkillsCamp, my area of expertise was the Media, particularly Social Media Marketing. That’s where I spent the first half of my career so far.. Years ago, I was asked to do a session on how social media is affecting mental health. That interested in me, so I started doing self-guided research. Then I started my Marster’s, focusing on the effect of social media on mental health. That particular year the TEDx curation team asked me to do that talk [2017]. I am actually still in my part-time Master’s, and the funny thing is that I feel I could do a new Part 2 of that talk now. 😀

G: You should! I’d love to watch it. 😀 My next question will be about things that make SkillsCamp stand out?

B: At the beginning we were often asked: “What makes you different?”. I used to think the fact that I’m young was a threat, but it turned out to be a strength. Because we started in Higher Education our age actually worked in our favour as students could relate to us better. Very soon after, SkillsCamp started providing services to corporations as well, because this soft skills problem is an everyone problem. Mentors of mine suggested we do not go in and pitch the C-Suites, but rather pitch working with new hires and millennials. That has been working for us quite well as a way in.
Additionally, a lot of our competition is finishing their careers by training. So they’ve been managers for 40 years, and now they are going to do management/leadership training, which is absolutely a valuable form of knowledge, but sometimes, just because you are good at something does not mean you should teach it. We have backgrounds in education and pedagogy. Our particular lens includes eyes for adult learning principles and equity,diversity, and inclusion in the classrooom.
We have both direct and indirect competition. Our indirect competition is plentiful. Let’s be honest. There are a lot of leadership trainers, personal branding people, and productivity coaches out there. But what there are not a lot of is our direct competitors: companies who teach soft skills holistically.. It’s almost a one-stop shop for soft skills development. That way our clients do not have to go to 5 different trainers.

G: On your website I also found an interesting course on Intergenerational Communication & Understanding. Why is this training popular among businesses?

B: As of 2016, millennials became the majority of the workforce. There has been a lot of work done by companies to help everyone understand each other instead of just brushing off this generation as being technically illiterate or entitled or that one as being old and ignorant, which does not really help anyone. I feel my next TED talk will probably be about this idea, which is that age is actually one of your main social identifiers, and the oneoften left out of the diversity conversation. When we talk about diversity, we often talk about such things as race, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender (which is obviously critical), but age is left often. However, it’s the only indicator we will all go through.

G: I actually heard that there’s no such thing as Gen X, boomers, millennials. There’s just a huge misunderstanding between younger and older generation.

B: Conservatism bias is a reason for that. On a cognitive level people want to remain the same even in the face of new evidence. People just don’t want to change. But young people will always bring change. However, there are things which are inevitably and distinctively true about each generation: things which were happening, which were available to you when you were raised. For example, if boomers [1946 – 1964] want to learn tech or social media, they can do it the same way as you can learn another language, but they will never be native users. The skill will always be acquired. Unlike GenX, who are native users because they’ve grown up with it.
Social politics of the time, parenting, technology can also be distinctively true. For instance, Gen X [1960s-1980s] were growing up when divorce rates skyrocketed. Because of that, women had to go back to work, which led young people to take care of themselves more often.They were even nicknamed the “latchkey generation” because they had to carry their keys around their neck to get into the house. This had never happened before on a grand scale, so this generation had to just figure it out and become resourceful. You can adapt and change, but there are still things you need to empathize and understand about each generation the same way you understand about different races and genders.

G: Very educative. Thank you, Bailey. Could you please describe the moment when you decided that you should start your own company and leave you 9-to-5 career behind? Did you have any fears/doubts? Or the decision had been already well-thought by then?

B: All decisions were well thought out. It was separate times that I chose to start a company, and when I decided to go full-time. These 2 events are 2 years apart. I did not choose to open a company out of the blue. My co-founder and I were being asked to do talks on social media, storytelling, personal branding before. Requests started coming to us more and more often, and our presentations were going very well. I remember we gave a series of workshops for a non-for-profit organization, when we realized we were doing something right. That’s when we decided to turn it into something formal. At first, we thought we would be teaching life skills like social marketing. Then we thought we maybe should be a school, and invite people to learn with us. By trial-and-error method, we tested different models and narrowed in on the main problem of soft skills. It definitely didn’t happen overnight.
The decision to go full-time was also very well-thought out. In those couple of years when we were testing if people would actually pay us. At the start of 2018 I came up with a number that would give me a year’s worth of salary and overhead before I’d go full-time with SkillsCamp. And in the last couple of months, we had much more promising client leads, which significantly helped our business reach the point when quitting my job and scaling SkillsCamp became realistic. Not everyone had parents or trust fund that will pay their bills for them. It’s important that entrepreneurs understand there are many ways to getting here.

G: Did you have a FOMO (fear of missing out.. On a business opportunity) thinking you should either start right now, otherwise, the moment will be lost?

B: No, I did not have that. I guess I have a healthy dose of confidence. I think I knew I’d just do it better, faster, or cheaper. To be completely honest, the SkillsCamp business model is not a brand new model. We are just doing it better.

G: How many clients did you have at the moment when you thought to yourself: “Omg, it is working!”?

B: The way our business operates is not really based on the number of clients, but on the size of the contracts. Theoretically, you could have 1-2 clients, who could fund your entire year. But, I have still not had the “OMG this is working” moment. Ask me in 2 years.

G: What is you long-term goal for Skills Camp? Do you have a certain milestone(s), which would be a sign for you that you have made it?

B: I think that a good sign would be if I did not have to worry where next year’s income was coming from. Right now there’s not enough sustainable repeat business. And that’s ok. It is pretty much like a marketing agency. You can have a client, who you will service forever. Eventually, companies might understand they bring this in-house. I don’t get nervous about that. SkillsCamp meets its mission when no one needs us anymore.

G: What is the best advice you were ever given?

B: Hm, it usually changes per context. Maybe, hire an accountant right away? My advice for young entrepreneurs would be not to think about the startup culture, which is heavily glorified these days, as exclusively tech, unicorns, and hoodies. There are so many other ways to make it work. Small business is actually the oldest profession. There have been many people, who achieved success without angel investors. There’s many ways to make a business happen, and you do not have to follow someone else’s framework. Just understand what work for you, and what business you are trying to build.

G: Is it true that there’s no work-life balance in the startup world?

B: I don’t know.. I hear that a lot as well. I think it is possible to achieve with the help of certain soft skills like resilience and time management.Sometime people ask me how I did it, and it always starts with my calenda, budgeting my time and energy as if I’m budgeting money - reflecting my priorities.. I also worked more than most I knew. Work did not stop for me when the day job was done. Some people are ready to give up weekends, or not to go to a few events just to make time for their businesses. You might also need to consider things like who is in your life or having the have the right life partner. For example, about a year ago my partner and I had to institute “date nights” to know for sure we were going to spend meaningful time together in a week. We are both building our respective careers, but we are a priority to each other and a boost in my well-being!

G: Where do you find inspiration when life becomes too hectic?

B: I like to know things, so I find inspiration in learning from others. Sometimes if I’m not learning intentionally (which I am now, thanks to my Master’s), I have to orchestrate scenarios where I can go learn such as public lectures or talks. I often look at the world from the lense of my business, and everything gets its way back into SkillsCamp. I believe my business is the extension of myself, and what I do, and would like to learn about the world. So, I might be in a class about Race and Racism in Pop Culture, and then we will work on something, which will eventually becomes part of the Diversity and Inclusion training. Or I could do a class on Research Methods, and those methods help me develop a curriculum for SkillsCamp. That’s where I get my inspiration.

G: That’s interesting how you find ways to make everything that surrounds you help you develop SkillsCamp. Do you ever have any time left to relax?

B: How I relax would probably involve a glass of wine. I make sure I have alone time.

G: Bailey, thank you so much for such a great conversation. I’m sure our readers will learn a lot from you, and get inspired by your impressive achievements.