Montana Butsch and Spotivity: Empowering Youth With Information

Montana Butsch

We all want the best for our kids. Even if you don’t have children, it’s easy to understand that well-rounded, thriving kids make well-rounded, thriving adults. Whether you live in a huge city or a tiny town, it’s easy to see that providing children with the opportunities they need to become successful benefits everybody.

Unfortunately, the tools we currently use to pair children with opportunities are suboptimal at best. Even if your town has amazing schools or extracurriculars, even if your child has a special aptitude for something, the system as it exists today is unlikely to match them with the best opportunities to help them meet their potential. Nobody knows this better than Montana Butsch.

Montana Butsch is a scholar, a leader, and a thinker. He attended Oxford, holds an MBA from Brown University, and spent time as an Executive Scholar at the Kellogg School of Management. But he has never forgotten his roots. Growing up in Chicago, Butsch became intimately familiar with the unfortunate realities of how the world works, especially the opportunity gap between haves and have-nots. Instead of engaging in armchair activism, Butsch engaged with the problem, bringing opportunities to inner-city youth that will help them maximize their potential by leveraging opportunities to develop skills and network. 

Chicago Training Center

Butsch’s first venture into bridging the opportunity gap was the Chicago Training Center. Many of Butsch’s own opportunities in life came from his participation in the fine sport of rowing. Successfully competing in rowing requires kids to develop physical fitness, teamwork, and leadership skills. Rowing also raises kids’ profiles when they are applying for colleges or for scholarships: many high-end colleges recruit rowers. Skilled rowers can compete in national or even global competitions, like the Olympics. In addition to providing kids with an opportunity to develop their potential through athletics, Chicago Training Center (CTC) uses a personal mentoring system to help connect youths with networks of people that can help them achieve success. It’s more than a place where kids train for regattas; it’s a place where kids sharpen themselves and learn skills that will prepare them for a bright future.

Clearly, the CTC is a boon to kids in Chicago, a golden opportunity for young people to move their lives in a promising direction. But just because an opportunity exists doesn’t mean people can find it or access it. The current mechanisms for connecting kids to activities haven’t changed much in the last forty years, which is rather unfortunate as the world has changed dramatically. Butsch’s own experience speaks to the flaws in the system. As a high-schooler, Butsch’s acumen as a rower attracted the attention of ivy-league schools, who saw his potential as an athlete and as a scholar. However, his own guidance counselor was completely oblivious to the opportunities available to Butsch and pushed him hard to go to a less-desirable school. “She very much was not looking out for my best interest. She had no personal knowledge, no understanding of what I was going through, and was incapable of properly helping me. And so that’s a case where had I not used other outside means to kind of piece things together, I could have followed her advice and gone to a school and followed a pathway that did not leverage what I brought to the table,” explains Butsch. Unfortunately, his experience is not unique. Many of us can relate to the experience of being ignored, misunderstood, or even belittled by counselors who ostensibly exist to help us find our way.

A Better Way

Sometimes it seems like being let down is just part of the human experience. Human beings are imperfect machines, subject to endless cognitive bias. As Butsch describes it, “A lot of these [counselors] are, in many ways, negatively impacted by their own experiences or biases.” A counselor who had a ski accident may steer promising students away from ski programs; a counselor with a personal grudge against the financial sector might unconsciously (or maliciously) sabotage the career aspirations of a future banker. Unconscious racial biases, political bias, and even simple stereotyping – you’re tall, play basketball – can steer kids in the wrong direction.

Furthermore, simple ignorance prevents counselors from offering youth appropriate options. If they’re unaware of beneficial community programs such as CTC, they can’t possibly recommend them to students. A system rife with bias and ignorance is unlikely to effectively meet the needs of teens approaching their transition to adulthood, regardless of the good intentions of those involved.

This is a big problem, but Butsch is solving it with technology and expertise. His solution is a double-sided SaaS interface called Spotivity. Spotivity, Butsch says, will help make unknowns known to users through a process called informed matching. In other words, Spotivity is a new way that teens, parents, and schools can connect with meaningful activities and opportunities that will provide enrichment for kids. Spotivity will fill the information gap and allow teens to make informed decisions about what to do with themselves.

Unlike the relatively random selection processes that currently connect kids with opportunities, Spotivity uses a multivariable approach based on real science. Spotivity does this by feeding user inputs into a machine-learning algorithm. User inputs include things like basic demographics, interests, and emotional intelligence assessments. Grades are also fed into the algorithm; however, Butsch’s team designed their tool to take account of individual grades and not the GPA. “I don’t really care what a kids’ GPA is, because their GPA is a blunt instrument,” Butsch explains. A student’s GPA provides no specific information about their strengths and weaknesses, where course-specific grades will help Spotivity find opportunities best suited for an individual student’s particular skill set. 

Spotivity also uses something called the Personal Insight Tool to take a psychological inventory of users and match them with things that would likely be a good fit for them. While there are plenty of personality tests on the market, many of them operate on the same principles as pseudosciences like astrology: they offer vague statements that make people feel good to achieve a simulacrum of meaning. The Personal Insight Tool, on the other hand, leverages a scientifically sound five-factor inventory and machine learning to assess what kind of activities, degree programs, or training might help a particular individual thrive.

Not a Prescriptive Method

Some of you may be thinking that this all sounds a little too…mechanical. Feed your kids’ data into a machine and it spits out their perfect career; perhaps it just sounds too far-fetched or impersonal to work. A few data points cannot accurately predict the fullness and richness of human existence, right? Can an algorithm really examine a full human being and produce a meaningful recommendation? Is our existence just data points on a spreadsheet, being crunched by a processor? It’s easy to wax existential about the human condition and our relationship with technology, but in this case, the technology is actually helpful.

In fact, Butsch and his team have designed Spotivity specifically not to be prescriptive. “We’re not going to tell you that this lines up with you, and you should only do this thing. It’s going to be a range of things, then you as the inquisitive user can decide which of those things matter to you and you want to pursue. But they’re all going to be directionally correct,” says Butsch. Instead of a guidance counselor randomly picking a pamphlet or recommending a school or activity that they personally like, instead of a machine decreeing that so-and-so will be an actuary and so-and-so will be a costume designer, Spotivity provides a range of options that are likely to satisfy the user in a meaningful way. It’s about empowering kids with accurate, up-to-date information. “We will give them directionally correct information that allows them to make way more informed decisions,” explains Butsch.

Changing Preferences

Think back to what you wanted to do when you were 13 and look at what you’re doing now. For most of us, these two things are not the same. Few, if any, 13-year-olds would say that their dream was to become a mid-level manager at some faceless corporation. No kid dreams of spending their days filling out Excel spreadsheets in a fabric box or attending pointless meetings where the boss rambles on about his visions of leveraging synergies to maximize shareholder profits. And yet, many people with those kinds of jobs seem to be fulfilled, happy people. How does Spotivity account for changing preferences over time?

The answer is longitudinal data collection. As users continue to engage with the platform and provide it with more data, the algorithm learns and adjusts. Meanwhile, it presents plausible paths forward. A 13-year-old who wants to be an Astronaut might be recommended for math classes, flight school, and ROTC. If they drop out of ROTC, bomb math, or get airsick, the algorithm can adjust preferences. We don’t all get to be astronauts, but maybe that 13-year-old with a dream can become a successful Part 107 commercial drone operator – and find a meaningful, happy existence along the way. Spotivity exists to provide people with empowering information, not to actualize their deepest dreams or desires. 

What about people who get sick of their careers, or experience a life-changing event? What about a banker who has a near-death experience and decides to cash out and move to Arizona to become an organic cactus farmer? Butsch reminds us that we can’t model every possibility. No solution is perfect, and life is highly unpredictable. That said, it still makes sense to empower people with information. They may grow in an unexpected direction as time marches on, and that’s okay. Spotivity’s goal is to help people make informed choices, not to calculate the trajectory of their existence.

Spotivity also uses what Butsch calls output data. If a Spotivity user graduates college and finds work, are they happy? What worked and what didn’t? To gather this data, Butsch says that Spotivity will need to find ways to engage not just with their current market of 13-to-18-year-olds, but also with people in the 18-24 age group. Happily, there’s a positive exchange of value for people in this group. Spotivity can connect them with mentors, certifications, graduate programs, internships, volunteer opportunities, and other things that can help young adults build a strong foundation on which to grow their careers. While there are existing tools for this – think LinkedIn – few of them cater to young adults or young professionals. This is a gap that Spotivity can fill as it grows.

What About Bad Actors?

Almost everyone would agree that connecting kids with meaningful activities is good, but in our modern and litigious society, isn’t liability an issue? And aside from liability, what about the real and legitimate presence of predators among us? What if Spotivity connects a kid with a program that seems good but is filled with nefarious actors? Even high-end programs like the US Olympic Gymnastics Team can become hunting grounds for disgusting people. What’s to stop predatory people from using Spotivity to hunt for new victims?

The answer to that is a system called Safe Passage. Safe Passage is a system where any app-related communication – including push notifications, e-mails, or texts – involving a minor that is sent using Spotivity must be tethered to a guardian. Your kids’ coach or mentor can’t send them a message asking for their phone number or Snapchat handle without you seeing it. Programs that use Spotivity can mandate that their staff use it exclusively when communicating with participants, which gives them cause to fire and investigate if, say, a shady soccer coach wants to go outside the platform. Spotivity also requires all program participants to appoint a mandated reporter who is obligated to report inappropriate conduct to the relevant authorities. While truly malicious people can always find a way around the rules, Butsch reminds us that guardrails do help prevent bad outcomes. “OpenTable won’t guarantee that you won’t get food poisoning at a restaurant you book through them because they can’t,” he says. “But what they can do is require restaurants to be up to date with health and safety protocols and display certifications, which makes it far less likely for you to get food poisoning at an OpenTable restaurant.”

Montana Butsch holding cell phone
Spotivity Founder Montana Butsch holds phone with Spotivity on it / Photo courtesy of Montana Butsch

The Future of Spotivity

As of now, Spotivity is a relatively young platform. And there are still gaps that need filling: there are unknown unknowns that need to be discovered and conquered, tweaks and improvements to the algorithms, more questions to ask, more data to gather. But Butsch, tempered by experience and deep knowledge of business principles, is undaunted. He understands that success won’t come overnight. “I’m under no illusions,” he says. “It’s going to be one of those things where it’s going to be an 8- to 10-year fight for us to become an overnight success.” One of the biggest challenges that the platform faces is driving engagement. As anybody who has interacted with a teenager knows, they can be difficult to engage. Spotivity, especially, is in a predicament: it is not a game or an entertainment platform, so keeping kids engaged enough to use it in a meaningful way may be a challenge. Furthermore, teens are often immune to good advice. Their innate sense of invulnerability, inexperience, and lack of perspective can pose serious challenges.

Butsch says that one possible solution comes from the inherent value of Spotivity. The value of having a data-driven tool that can help teens thrive in and out of school will make it indispensable. Schools wishing to promote their own academic or athletic programs will find it a useful tool in attracting students; community organizations, sports leagues, volunteer organizations, colleges, and companies will also find value in Spotivity. Eventually, the strength of the value proposition will make Spotivity a presence everywhere. Just as almost every high-schooler now has their school e-mail and e-learning platforms on their devices, they will soon add Spotivity to the library.

Another possible avenue to engagement is celebrity sponsorship. While teens generally do not like to listen to the adults in their life, they often find value in the opinions of celebrities. If prominent entertainment personalities or other influencers could explain the value proposition in a meaningful way, it could drive engagement with the application. Butsch is mum on the details, but Spotivity may soon find spokespeople who can communicate directly to youths in an appealing and approachable way.

Spotivity: Better Information for Better Futures

The age of information has changed the world – at least, parts of it. Some things still remain mired in the outdated and ineffective methods of the past. Expecting teenagers to make major life decisions with incomplete and often biased information is not a recipe for success. Spotivity, with its ability to assess the strengths and interests of individual students and pair them with viable opportunities, aims to correct that shortcoming. And best of all, it’s not just aimed at students gunning for four-year colleges. Butsch recognizes that four-year degrees are not some ultimate prize that every person needs: a lot of people find deeply fulfilling, high-paying, and interesting work by going to trade school or even vocational training. If a student’s interests and talents would make them an excellent electrician or diesel-engine mechanic, Spotivity won’t push them into a four-year liberal arts degree. The end goal, as Butsch reminds us, is to empower students to make the most informed decisions that they can. And that’s a goal we can all stand behind.