NDTO sat down with Kaleb Dschaak and Lane Oian from Fenworks, a cutting-edge company based in Grand Forks, ND, with a mission that intercepts esports, drones, and a workforce pipeline. Dschaak, Founder, and Oian, President, both share so much passion for this company, which came to fruition in 2020.
After a third request from K-12 educators about opportunities for an esports program in only a few short weeks, a new idea took hold. Dschaak knew there was something to this request, “gaming is everywhere, it has become so prevalent, and we needed to harness this momentum instead of being scared of it.” By 2021 the inaugural season of Fenworks afterschool programming was underway, and in 2022, the first ND esport competition was complete.
The company has built a program for students to mirror traditional high school sports programs but in an esports format. The program supports students in much the same way, with opportunities for the community, shared interest, teamwork, and more, but without some of the major barriers traditional sports have, with the physicality of the game, being one of the main barriers. “Esports are the great equalizers,” Oian says, “because its tech-based, it’s an opportunity for everyone to participate together. During the state tournament, it was great to see all the parents cheering and supporting students. We knew that this level of inclusiveness was a game changer. A new community was being built right before us.” The ND state tournament hosted more than 150 competitors and 450 spectators, and there was a buzz in the air, as Oian described the feeling of inclusivity and excitement throughout the event.
The esports program is rapidly expanding across the state and throughout several others as educators see the value in engaging students early in what could be a valuable skill set for the future. It also provides students an alternative to physical sports; many kids are already playing video games, and Fenworks is bringing it into a group setting with more structure. Furthermore, many companies are looking for a pipeline into technology and drones, and this may be it, explains Dschaak. Building a program incorporating the leap into drone use is essential to getting the younger generation in the door. The industry craves more drone applications, and there is an increased demand for people interested in this field. Fenworks hopes to be the bridge to make that leap. It can be a barrier, however, to jump right into coding, creating drone applications, or even getting your hands on one to fly. With Fenworks, they hope to develop steps into those fields, so they can slowly grow interest as they meet the student’s needs and provide some significant career pathways for their future.
“Anything nerdy and STEM-y is my kind of project,” says Dschaak, going on to explain that it is a big leap to get people into the drone industry without all of these smaller steps. Video games and esports with competitions build into drone interest, which can lead to maintenance, coding, or other applications in the drone industry. But without exposure and positive experiences, these opportunities will not grow organically. And that’s where Fenworks comes in; they facilitate the program to help schools reach a different audience that craves inclusivity. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) applications are working their way into so many industries, and creating a pipeline that integrates this interest is key to growth. The Fenworks team works to demystify STEM and show how these esports do indeed integrate well into everyday applications, even in the K-12 education programs. “We’ve spoken with many school administrators who are just amazed a what a difference our program has made in GPAs and better behavior by offering this sense of belonging, competitive outlet, and activity for students,” says Oian.
The name Fenworks is derived from Fenrir, a monstrous wolf in Norse mythology who will be released at Ragnarok when dooms day is approaching to help devour the world. Dschaak explains that this is a perfect metaphor for how many people feel about technology taking over the world. Still, he believes that by embracing technology and teaching proper applications, we can harness the good and provide productive outlets to improve our lives. The team wanted an identifiable brand, as so many education products/tools are not as engaging. “Our wolf is an identifiable and exciting part of our branding to spread across the US and beyond,” says Dschaak.
And, speaking of beyond, Fenworks hopes to adapt and offer its programming globally. So many young people across the globe are ready for a program like this to engage and find community. The team at Fenworks knows there will be some learning curves when engaging international companies and different countries’ education systems, but this is a challenge they are eager to start working on. “Just because something is hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, and we need to problem solve every day,” says, Dschaak. There will be so many things to consider when expanding globally with this program, and the team at Fenworks is excited to start working on the challenges and benefits that exporting can bring to their operations.
Overall, this ND company, in just a few short years, has increased its reach enormously with a 98% return rate with its many ND schools, and they continue to seek new contracts throughout the US and beyond. The future looks bright and full of opportunities as they continue to build pathways for students into STEM fields.