As learning and development practices rapidly fuse with emerging technologies, one Silicon Valley e-learning company, SweetRush, is banking on Costa Rica to develop the next generation of innovative training options.
SweetRush recently acquired a small Costa Rican company specialized in virtual reality and augmented reality in order to develop game-changing VR training solutions that are set to disrupt how corporations approach learning and development.
“One of our most innovative projects is allowing executives to virtually experience the work of lower-level employees,” said Ernesto Uribe, the company’s director of Costa Rica operations (pictured above, left).
“It’s very difficult for high-level people to have empathy for their employees, so this project addresses that by allowing them to perform the physical actions of their staff. Even virtually, they can see how much attention and care they have to give to their work, which is highly illuminating.”
For now, the company is focusing on clients that are willing to take a risk on VR, which is still a fairly new tech for learning and development.
“L&D departments may not have large budgets, so you can’t just decide to do VR on the fly, or adapt all your training to higher level interactivity, simply because it costs more,” said Arturo Schwartzberg, SweetRush co-founder (pictured above, right). “In a portfolio of training deliverables, clients may opt for next-gen platforms like VR to help with a single aspect of an overall package, so right now it’s more like one training tool in a larger box.”
Why Costa Rica?
SweetRush was founded in 2001 by Schwartzberg and Andrei Hedstrom, the company’s President and CEO. A lifelong entrepreneur, Schwartzberg initially began working with Bank of America on a simple e-learning conversion, taking content from a classroom format to an online format, which led to a stream of similar projects from the bank.
“At the time, we had more of a digital marketing business model, but these projects motivated us to take a deeper look at the world of learning and development, performance improvement, and e-learning, which at that point was just taking off,” said Schwartzberg. “We preferred the idea of teaching people to improve performance, as opposed to focusing on marketing; it just felt right.”
Sweetrush has grown from the two founders to a team of around 150 people scattered across the globe. Most of these are in the United States, with around 40 core employees and a large team of contractors. The second biggest team is in Costa Rica, again with 40 core employees, but just 15-20 freelancers.
The company also employs remote workers in places like Chile, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Colombia, El Salvador, Thailand, Philippines, and Ukraine. Almost all of its clients are in the US or Europe,
In Costa Rica, SweetRush primarily employs graphic designers, artists, marketing and human resources professionals, as well as the programmers who have have been vital for the company to launch its new division in emerging technologies – named Spark.
“There’s an upside and a downside to Costa Rica: the downside is the relatively small population, but the upside is they are very educated and have a high literacy rate,” said Schwartzberg. “There are lots of young people coming out of college that are technologically and digitally literate, so there is a fertile bed of highly talented, capable people here.”
Remote E-Learning Business Model
With over 60 recognizable clients around the world, SweetRush doesn’t focus its e-learning services exclusively on a particular industry or subject matter, working with companies in pharmaceuticals, retail, finance, technology, customer service, hospitality, and other sectors.
The company has a talent solutions division that provides talent to clients when needed. The bulk of these employees are called “instructional designers”, whom are primarily writers that focus on the theory of learning and how to apply it. This is an academically rigorous field, with most instructional designers having a Masters or above, according to Schwartzberg.
“Most of the work we do for clients requires a full team with various disciplines – instructional designers, creative directors, or graphic designers – but they often just ask for a skilled individual for a set period of time,” he said. “Mirroring our approach to hiring, clients also have less of a need to employ full-timers, but they do need particular skills sets, and this has become standard practice now in the corporate world – contractors are really part of the team, just with a different status.”
Instructional designers are often hired based on their previous industry knowledge and experience, enabling them to work on a specific project for a specific vertical.
“When our instructional designers start jumping into the project, they will engage with the original stakeholders and the subject matter experts to find out the best practices, so it’s important that they are credible and already understand the industry they are dealing with,” said Uribe.
Specialized Talent & Culture
When it comes to Costa Rica, the company has no instructional designers, because, they say, it’s not an enterprise that has been cultivated through the school system, which is where it all starts.
Even so, with the company’s focus firmly locked onto VR and AR training solutions, their established technical team in Costa Rica is preparing them for the future of next-gen learning, while also influencing how they operate globally.
“I can’t speak highly enough about the Costa Rican culture; there isn’t a nicer group of sophisticated, educated people out there. They treat people respectively and kindly, so adding that mindset into the mix has enriched our culture dramatically,” concluded Schwartzberg.