If anyone has seriously debated what to do with their career, it’s Lindsay Kuhn. The 43-year-old entrepreneur takes an interest in everything, and she has found success as a student, teacher, scientist, journalist, engineer and businesswoman.
The trajectory of Kuhn’s professional life has shifted dramatically over the years. She knows what it’s like to stand at a professional crossroads and think, “I wonder if I should try something completely different?”
Kuhn founded her company, Wingspans, to help solve this existential problem. Headquartered in the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) in Providence, Wingspans, at www.wingspans.com, is an online program that helps high school and college students explore different career paths.
This is no simple brochure; Wingspans is a sophisticated curriculum involving questionnaires, resume-building and video-interviews with more than 1,000 professionals across hundreds of fields. Taking cues from 1970s radio personality Studs Terkel, who collected conversations with workers in diverse fields, Kuhn wants young aspirants to know what kind of workforce they’re getting into, warts and all.
This is a critical moment for Kuhn: Her company is competing in the Future Finder Challenge, hosted by the U.S. Department of Education, which rewards a winner with $1 million in funding. Kuhn is hoping Wingspans will take at least second or third place, which will mean splitting a quarter-million-dollar prize.
But who is Lindsay Kuhn? The polymathic enterpriser can’t be easily categorized, and she likes it that way.
Here are some facts about Wingspans’ enigmatic creator:
Kuhn is from Florida
Kuhn grew up in Coral Springs, just outside of Fort Lauderdale. Both of Kuhn’s parents worked in health care, and her father was president of their Reform synagogue. She connected with her Jewish roots by traveling with Birthright and March of the Living. But Kuhn’s interests ran the gamut, from playing the violin to studying life sciences.
“My dad was an adjunct biology professor at a local university,” she says. “I saw my dad get excited about science, and it was kind of contagious. He would bring me to his class every now and then, and I remember they did a frog dissection, and I was always really interested in that.”
She studied English and engineering
Kuhn wasn’t satisfied with a mere double-major: She pursued a B.A. in English, with a concentration in creative writing, at Barnard College, while also earning a B.S. in mechanical engineering from Columbia University. Somehow, she also found time to play the violin with the Columbia klezmer band and the Columbia Orchestra for Asian Music.
“I didn’t have a lot of direction,” reflects Kuhn. “You’re 18, you don’t really know what you’re doing. I always loved writing and telling stories. But I thought mechanical engineering would be a practical counterpoint. I had all these ideas, and I thought engineering would be like a way to bring all those ideas to life.”
Studying engineering wasn’t without its challenges, particularly the gender gap: She recalls only four female students in her program, and none of them was doing a second degree in the arts.
“I like challenging stereotypes,” Kuhn says. “I liked the idea of having women in engineering. I know firsthand just how important it is to have somebody who looks like you and showing you the path and that it’s possible.”
She went to California for the creative scene; she stayed for the aerospace
It’s hard to imagine a trained mechanical engineer writing freelance articles for E! Network and The Malibu Times, but that’s exactly what Kuhn did when she arrived in Los Angeles in 2003. She moved to Southern California with the express purpose of involving herself in local media, and she spent more than a year creating content for the two publications.
Eventually, though, she turned her attention to engineering giant Boeing.
“The idea of adventure and the magic of flying drew me to aerospace,” says Kuhn.
At Boeing, Kuhn was admitted to the two-year Career Advancement Program, which rotated her between numerous departments in the company. She then worked as a mechanical systems design engineer for the C-17 Globemaster III cargo plane, and later as an engineer in the thermophysics group for the Satellite Development Center.
Kuhn earned a Ph.D. at Brown
After six years at Boeing, Kuhn decided to go back to school. She had long fostered an interest in sustainability, which led to a master’s program in mechanical science at Brown University. This is why she arrived in Providence in 2010.
“I went back to graduate school at 30, and I remember feeling very old,” Kuhn says with a characteristic giggle.
While at Brown, she earned a fellowship from the National Science Foundation. The NSF GK312 no longer exists, but at the time it enabled Kuhn to teach science part time at Nathan Bishop Middle School, in Providence. She enjoyed working with the preteen students and found a new love: teaching.
Her startup has changed names
Gradually, Kuhn started to lay the groundwork for a start-up. She loved the idea of illustrating different careers for teens and college students, using a recorded “archive of stories” as a guide.
Herons symbolize “light and self-creation,” and as someone who had worked in innovation, Kuhn came up with the name “Inventing Heron,” which she founded in 2013. This continued for several productive years, after which she decided that the name needed some work.
“People would stop listening after I said Inventing Heron,” she remembers. “They would be trying to figure out, ‘What is that? What does that mean?’ So we rebranded. Wingspans was kind of a departure from Inventing Heron, but it made more sense. And the domain name was available!”
Wingspans is taking flight
While the basic concept has existed for 10 years, Wingspans has grown exponentially in the past six months. The company received $60,000 from the U.S. Department of Education and moved into the CIC coworking space, which was partially established to incubate start-ups.
Using “game-ified” programs like Duolingo as inspiration, Wingspans is now a colorful, interactive workspace, with thematic levels and daily “quests.” The more than 10,000 pages of content has also been translated into Spanish. Wingspans has partnered with nearly 40 community colleges and reached more than 40,000 users.
“This year we expect to see a really large uptick in engagement and activity,” says Kuhn. “We’ve multiplied the number of schools we’re working with by five.”
Kuhn got married in 2021
As Kuhn settled into her post-doctorate life in Providence, she sometimes struggled socially. She found herself on many different dating apps, including the Jewish-focused JSwipe.
“Dating, I have to say, was not easy living in Providence,” she recalls. “Being single here in my thirties was not fun.”
A high school friend introduced Kuhn to Gennady Gelman, a Massachusetts-based director of medical informatics, in 2018. They didn’t actually meet for several months, since Gelman was reluctant to venture as far as Rhode Island. But when they did meet, they hit it off, courted and weathered the pandemic together. They decided to get married in November 2021. The officiant was Rabbi Barry Dolinger.
“We planned the wedding in, like, three days,” says Kuhn.
Kuhn enjoys Providence
Having lived in large, fast-paced cities, you might think Kuhn would feel underwhelmed by little old Providence, but she harbors deep affection for the city. She lives in downtown Providence with her husband and pit bull dachshund, Penny, a rescue from the Hotel for Homeless Dogs. Her morning commute to the CIC is a 15-minute walk.
“I can’t imagine myself doing anything else right now,” Kuhn says. “I just feel really lucky that I get to do this every day.”
ROBERT ISENBERG (email@example.com) is the multimedia producer for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and a writer for Jewish Rhode Island.