Keith Phillips (B.A. Education/Languages, ‘94) is a former humanities major and foreign language college professor, turned EdTech leader and AI innovator. He’s a serial entrepreneur and is currently the Founder and CEO of realLINGUA, a language-learning platform built on an immersive approach teaching people how to really learn a language using video and natural language processing through his entrepreneurship ambitions. He can be reached at keithTphillips@gmail.com
What did you study while you were at Ball State?
Well, based on what I still think was some of the best advice I ever got from my dad: “Study what you like and what you’re good at.” I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the city’s Morgan Park neighborhood and attended high school in the Woodlawn neighborhood. My mom was teaching French at a K-8 Chicago magnet school for language study, so we had a fair amount of the French language used at home: stories read to us in French, short conversations in the language, etc. It was just a very normal part of my upbringing to have another language present and in the background. I then studied Spanish for 4 years in high school and arrived at Ball State enthusiastic and ready to jump into intermediate level language courses.
It was there that I realized I had the ability to learn other languages in much the same way that some people have the ability to understand mathematical concepts: quickly and easily. And it wasn’t that I didn’t have to try, but rather that I really enjoyed all aspects of language study. Coming from a teaching family (my dad was also a teacher), it seemed natural that I might explore that as a career option. But what really convinced me to pursue what was essentially a dual degree program in education and languages were my experiences abroad during my time at university. This led me to major in Spanish and Secondary Education. I studied abroad at the Universidad de Salamanca in Spain and then spent a summer as a student peer leader in Paris, France. I realized from both of those experiences that I wanted to help others learn second/foreign languages so that they could have similarly impactful experiences in their own lives.
What led you to your current career? What path(s) did you follow after graduation?
While at Ball State, I had some fantastic professors, and I thought that I would really do well in that type of academic environment and educator role. After brief stints in the hotel/tourism industry and the federal government (both using my language skills), I decided that where I really wanted to be was in the college classroom, on the ground and exploring the cutting edge of language pedagogy while helping adult learners with their language-learning endeavors. I got an M.A. in Education and Spanish, and I got my first exposure to post-secondary/college-level teaching at Michigan State University, where graduate teaching assistants effectively manage all of the instructional and assessment responsibilities for sections they teach. For me, it was magical and I loved it! I am one of those rare people who actually enjoy public speaking, and for a brief period of time, I even considered majoring in Theatre with the goal of becoming a trained actor. But for me, while I loved the experience of being on stage in front of an audience, it was just too one-way; in addition to being in front of an audience, I also wanted more of the back and forth that teaching afforded the professional educator.
Teaching was the perfect combination for me, right at the intersection of my interests, talents, and abilities. I was fortunate enough to be able to work full-time at the college/university level for 20 years, much of it at the community college level. During my time teaching, I had numerous opportunities to contribute to the institutions I was at in administrative roles—everything from department chair to director of study abroad. Those experiences were wonderful and very rewarding as well. I got to work with and lead teams of very talented people, adding to my skill sets in management and expertise in leadership. I loved my time teaching and serving administratively at the institutions that I worked at.
What is your career now?
In addition to a love of languages and a gift for teaching, I also have a bit of an engineering mindset. I’m a tech enthusiast, and I have had decidedly entrepreneurial inclinations from a very young age (i.e. paper route at 9 years old and lawn care service at 11 years old). So, after impacting the lives of many thousands of students as a language educator and administrator, I realized that I had the requisite skills and entrepreneurial mindset to help people with their language learning, only this time at scale. I started realLINGUA nearly a decade ago, with the goal of helping people learn how to speak a language as quickly and as efficiently as possible. As realLINGUA’s founder and CEO, I have had the immense pleasure of being able to lead a super-talented, diverse team, all the way from idea to product to revenue. To be honest, while a startup is a huge roller coaster ride, I wouldn’t trade my time doing that for anything. I basically got an on-the-job education in entrepreneurship, with a “minor” in computer science/artificial intelligence. That, in my opinion, is hard to beat.
What does a typical day and/or week in your current position look like?
I’ve found that much of the work I do as an entrepreneur is varied, day-to-day and week-to-week, but that most all of it relies on core skill sets, abilities, and expertise. For example, every day for me includes leadership and management. On the leadership side, this often times means that I’m helping drive the company’s mission forward with a presentation at a team meeting or even a quick, well-timed ping to the whole team on our Slack channel to say what a great job everyone did in meeting their deliverables goals for a recent business development project. On the management side, this means weekly meetings with those team members that report directly to me, ensuring that the mentorship cadence within that set up is a win-win-win: for the team member, for the company, and even for me.
What qualities or skills might make a Ball State humanities grad thrive in this work?
In my current line of work through an entrepreneurship lens, I rely very heavily on the communication skills that I was able to further develop while at Ball State. As an entrepreneur, you are always selling your initial ideas, the products you build, equity stakes in the company itself, etc. So, you have to bring a lot of what you learn about being a skilled communicator—speaking/writing, formal/informal—to the table every day. I would also say that humanities graduates tend to have a very good idea of how to source, synthesize, utilize, and deploy large amounts of information, very often from disparate and seemingly unrelated sources. This is an invaluable skill in putting together a startup because there is very often no clear-cut path when starting a company from scratch, especially one that you plan to grow and scale.
And why might someone not thrive in this work?
It’s exactly that ambiguity that accompanies nearly every facet of what I like to call “startupland,” which is absolutely not for everyone. Ambiguity and entrepreneurship go hand-in-hand. Not necessarily all of the time, but enough that if clearly defined pathways and workflows are necessary for you to be successful in your work, I would probably not recommend leading a startup.
What are the entry-level job titles that a recent grad might search for in order to enter this line of work?
For teaching, those types of entry-level positions are fairly well-defined and easy to find. The thing with teaching is that it is very often location bound; there may not be enough teaching positions where you want to teach to go around. If you want to get a full-time teaching position at a community college in the Boston area, for example, my guess is that the competition will be stiff and the positions in your area of domain expertise may not be plentiful. One strategy can be to take part-time or adjunct work at the university/college level or substitute teaching work at the secondary level. While this can work, but I tend to think that an even better strategy is to apply to full-time positions with the mindset that you may have to move. Teaching full-time for a few years in a perhaps less desirable location from your perspective could, in fact, help you land a full-time gig in the Boston area when something opens up.
For the budding entrepreneur, I think that an internship or full-time position with a startup will teach you volumes about what goes into entrepreneurship and how to put together a startup. The other path for the entrepreneur is to just go and do. That is, find a need (i.e. do some customer discovery), build something that meets that need (i.e. a product or service), and then get it in front of your customers (i.e. see if people will pay for what you have). If you do all of that and people pay you for it within the value exchange model, then you have a business. Continue that cycle with an aim to scale and you are getting some of the best startup experience you can get!
What are the most valuable skills you learned in your major?
I learned how to set and achieve goals, communicate well with others when working on projects, conducting research, synthesizing data, and producing actionable insights. Furthermore, I learned to work as part of a team, utilizing my skills to lead and manage, and learning to teach learned skills.
How are the skills you learned as a student relevant to your career and life today?
I use the above skills each and every day in my work and my personal life: family, friends, volunteer service, etc. In that sense, the skills and expertise that I learned, developed, and honed at Ball State University have been more than worth their weight in gold to me.
What is your advice to other Humanities students?
For this question, I’m going to come full circle and do a little hat-tip to my dad who passed away unexpectedly a few years ago: “Study what you like and what you’re good at.” – Thomas James Phillips, Ball State University supporter since 1988.