In the remote Alaskan town where Andrea grew up, the nearest grocery store was two miles away. Anytime she earned a few dollars to her name, she braved the moose-ridden roads on foot and walked to the store—all for a package of Andes mint-chocolate squares.
Andrea has since proven that she’s willing to brave any wild and dangerous road to obtain something precious. In 1992, she founded Career Step and went on to pioneer interactive online vocational training. At just 22 years old, she began writing an intensive program in medical transcription and researched and marketed it on her own, taking it from an idea to a company valuation of more than $55M.For her enterprising efforts at Career Step, Andrea was recognized in 2009 as a regional winner of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year. In addition, Career Step was recognized as a Utah 100 winner seven years in a row.
For Andrea the magic behind the success of her educational ventures was the success of her students and graduates. It’s exciting that more than 100,000 people have taken her courses in medical transcription and medical coding, but even better are the thousands of graduates who are working at hundreds of companies in those fields.
In 2012 she was awarded the International Hero Award from the American Red Cross for her humanitarian work in Ghana. After selling Career Step to a private equity group in 2009, Andrea has focused her efforts on furthering the world of online education.
Andrea put more than $10M from the sale of Career Step into building an online education platform with dozens of games and interactions to enhance and make accessible the learning experience for people of all ages and education levels. Her Dynactive software platform is gamified and designed with brain-based learning research behind it.
In addition, Andrea began developing vacation rental properties in Alaska in 2007—long before the explosion of Air B&B and VRBO—because she believed that was the future of family vacations. She now owns the premier Alaska property, honored by Home Away as the #1 place to stay in the State of Alaska, and considered the best place to get married in the state, with weddings being booked two years in advance.
Andrea’s determination and good taste prove that anything truly valuable is worth taking a few extra steps to obtain.
In her own words: “ I think my favorite thing that anyone has ever said to me was several years ago when I was telling my sister about what I wanted to build in Alaska. She listened to me for a while and then she said, ‘well, Andrea, you have more of an ability to turn your dreams into reality than anyone I’ve ever met.’ I felt like it was the highest compliment I could receive, because my dream was change people’s lives through education. And putting that dream into reality has given my life more meaning and purpose than I could have ever hoped.”
In Andrea’s words: Changing an industry
I was only 22 years old when I started my first company. I had been working as a medical transcriptionist at that point for six years. It was work that I truly enjoyed doing and I think I was pretty good at it. I hadn’t gone to school for medical transcription, though—any school.
So the only real slice I knew of that world was what I had been exposed to first by my mom when she taught me pathology on our IBM Selectric in Eagle River, Alaska. And then by the small hospital that I worked for in Payson, Utah, while I was going to college at Brigham Young University. It seemed like a very big world with lots of big hospitals and important people, and who was I? Nobody really, just a girl who could type pretty fast and had gotten reasonably good at medical terminology.
To this day I’m not 100% certain what audacity led me to think that I could teach other people to do this. I suppose it was sitting next to my friend Marja night after night: answering her questions, reading her reports, teaching her how to be an MT. Or maybe it was spending hours at my mom’s office testing potential MTs, answering their questions, getting to know them, filling in their “blanks” when they brought the work back, enabling them to work from home. But whatever it was that got me started, I am completely certain that it far exceeded my expectations in every way.
I knew that my mom had taught me this skill and I had been able to use it to put myself through school, and get every job I had ever applied for. So I could see that, even through my little window, there was opportunity.
When I decided to write that course, I knew one thing. I knew that I did not want to take anyone’s money, ever, and not give them something valuable in return. I wanted to teach them all those things, large and small, that I really wished someone had taught me before I sat down in front of that typewriter. My goal was simple: anyone who took my course would be able to work as a medical transcriptionist when they were finished.
At the time, there was virtually no training anywhere for that career. The way you learned it was the way that I had learned it from my mother, or the way that Marja had learned it from me. Someone would sit beside you—a mentor—to answer your questions every single day. Sometimes every single minute—as you struggled to both hear, and then understand what the doctor was mumbling into his tape recorder to such a level that you could actually produce an accurate medical report.
Most companies that hired medical transcriptionists were not super excited about doing this. It took a lot of time. And a lot of patience. And they had a backlog of work to be done that wasn’t going to transcribe itself.
The first time I went to an industry event after I started that company, I had brought all my training materials and had them on the table in front of my booth. I was pretty scared. And still pretty young. Most people came and asked questions and were kind and interested. But there was one woman—definitely older to my 27 years—but she really did seem ancient to me—who stood in front of my booth talking to another lady. She was flipping the pages of my workbook a few at a time and with considerable attitude. She said quite loudly, to be sure that I would overhear, “I wouldn’t give you two bits in hell for this sh*#.” She turned on her heel and walked away.
I was pretty devastated. I had spent years working on it and by then I had some students who had finished and they had been able to find work. But no question that it made me doubt myself and even consider giving up. It wasn’t a terribly uncommon attitude towards new people getting into the field, although it certainly felt more personal.
But I didn’t give up. I kept going. I knew that what I had created was different than anything out there. I knew that it would work. It HAD already worked, after all! So I purchased a “national phone directory” on a disc. Yes, this was pre-Internet days which really dates me! And whenever I would have a student graduate in a new area, I would call every medical transcription company within 50 miles. Sure a lot of them wouldn’t talk to me and would hang up on me. But many of them would. I would tell them about me, about my course, about my students. And then I would ask them to give my graduates a chance. No favors. No money changing hands, just a chance. They would often tell me how they had tried to give “newbies” a chance and how spectacularly hey had failed. They would say things like, “I had one woman who bragged about how she got all As in school and she left in tears after two hours—she couldn’t even type one paragraph!”
But one graduate at a time, one company at a time, they did give my graduates a chance. They gave me a chance. And when I would call back, they would tell me that they were impressed. They had not only hired that graduate, but did I have any more!?
The number these companies grew over time to an incredible 750! 750 companies that hired my graduates, and thousands of graduates that were working in their chosen field! It’s been almost 10 years since I sold that company, but just thinking about it as I write this today fills me with joy and brings tears to my eyes.
You see, I had accomplished my objective. People who took my course were able to work. It felt then, and it still feels today, a little bit like a miracle. But I never expected what else happened. It was no longer the case that you had to have a mentor or no one would hire you. Most companies still said that they required two years of experience, but now they had a caveat. You must have two years, or be a graduate of my program. I hadn’t only enabled all these amazing people to change their lives, I had changed an industry.