Tina Zwolinski, tackling workforce & economic development with video games

Tina Zwolinski’s dedication to workforce development has its roots in her career beginnings at the Greenville Chamber of Commerce. During her time on the marketing team, she witnessed the transition to manufacturing in South Carolina and the establishment of BMW in the Upstate. Her work in economic development exposed the importance of cultivating a sustainable workforce to meet industry’s needs, and underscored the impact workforce has on attracting new companies and in building thriving communities.

Tackling Economic Development & Workplace Challenges

skillsgapp, Tina Zwolinski, skillionaire games, startups
skillsgapp was named one of the 10 Most Exciting Startups in 2023 at the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Night at the Drive

In 1997, Tina founded ZWO, a branding and marketing firm headquartered in downtown Greenville. Tina’s focus on relationship-building, forged during her Chamber tenure, became the cornerstone of her career. The firm tackled challenges in economic development and workforce across the US and within multiple industries. ZWO also focused on marketing to youth– both nonprofit and for-profit global brands. It was the combination of this work that exposed the gap, the skills gap, where youth and industry were not communicating effectively, jobs were going unfilled and youth were unaware of the opportunities after high school graduation for postsecondary pathways or jobs right around them, specifically in underserved communities.  

Around 2018, the inspiration to address this challenge took hold, and the concept for skillsgapp began evolving after working closely with Gen Z. Faced firsthand with the challenges her adoptive son encountered while navigating the educational and career landscape as an English as a second language student in high school, Tina recognized the need for a more effective approach. After leading ZWO for 23 years and expanding the firm to three locations, including a West Coast and Central American office, Tina transitioned from ZWO to launch skillsgapp in 2020 with cofounder Cynthia Jenkins (who also worked with ZWO), driven by a determination to create a better solution for individuals facing similar challenges.

The hurdles, particularly for those with English as a second language or from underserved communities, create barriers to progress, hindering access and pushing students into low-wage job cycles after high school graduation. Recognizing that 50% of high schoolers face such challenges, skillsgapp’s Skillionaire Games aims to break this cycle while supporting industry with a more vetted pool of early career talent to recruit from to meet their unfilled job needs. 

“The skills gap challenge is not a lack of talent but rather a lack of engaging career and pathway awareness earlier and barrier-free access into the career opportunities.” – Tina Z.

Tina recognized the need to communicate with youth (ages 13-22+) on their terms, using tools and language that resonate with them. Gen Z is on their phones 7+ hours a day, 97% of Gen Z has access to smartphones and gaming is their #1 form of entertainment. Skillionaire Games’ free-to-play virtual environments mirror real-world jobs in the in-demand industries of advanced manufacturing, cybersecurity, life science, healthcare, etc., providing an engaging space for youth to explore industries, understand job requirements, and make informed career decisions without barriers or bias.

Let’s Talk Gaming

skillsgapp is a two-sided model focused on growing players and in growing their paying partnerships with companies and colleges that can promote their brands and opportunities in-game and even recruit the players to fill their seats and jobs. They are innovating early talent recruitment. Ideally, players will have learned through “hands-on virtual experiences” what their new job entails becoming a more qualified individual leading to better retention for companies. They currently have their life science, cybersecurity, soft skills, and healthcare games live with advanced manufacturing deploying Spring of 2024. Skillsgapp faces hurdles common to startups, including speed to market, player acquisition, and shifting industry mindsets. 

They’re early to the game although they have already had some big wins with receiving five global awards including Facebook Gaming’s People Choice Award in 2022 and EdTech Digest’s Top 100 Companies in Workforce and Education in 2023. Other notable traction includes the successful deployment of games into four regional markets, 25,000 players, growing revenue and renewals from paying partners, a national deployment partnership with American Student Assistance in the Fall of 2023 and the games have just begun. You can find their games on the App Store or Google Play under Skillionaire Games or at skillionairegames.com.

Unable to attend the Accelerator Showcase in person, Tina found a way to virtually present

Throughout this journey, Tina Zwolinski has drawn guidance from programs like NEXT VMS and the Accelerator cohort. The networks formed within these programs have become invaluable resources, offering diverse perspectives and expertise that contribute to skillsgapp’s ongoing growth. In January of 2024, Tina was selected to participate in the national Youth Skills First Cohort with Jobs for the Future (JFF), a national nonprofit that drives transformation of the U.S. education and workforce systems to achieve equitable economic advancement for all. After an extensive interview process, six companies were selected to participate from over 500 applicants.

As skillsgapp continues to evolve and the Skillionaire’s movement begins to grow, Tina Zwolinski envisions exciting partnerships and case studies that showcase the platform’s transformative impact on lives of players and the company and college partners. With a dedicated team with lived experience, passion for the mission, and the support of a robust network, Tina Zwolinski’s skillsgapp stands poised to nurture careers from early vision to global impact.