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Taking You to School with MindSpark CEO Kellie Lauth

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

MindSpark CEO Kellie Lauth on Authentic Avenue podcast with Adam Conner 2021. Title Taking You to School with MindSpark CEO Kellie Lauth

This is a link you can use to find Authentic Avenue, a marketing podcast hosted by Adam Conner, on Apple Podcasts. Remember to subscribe, rate, and review!

Today, I interview MindSpark CEO Kellie Lauth, who is doing fantastic work in the world of education. Ever wanted to know how to start a school? You'll learn that here, plus what the future of continuing ed looks like within business.

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Enjoy! Full transcript below. PLUS, I have this on VIDEO!! Check out the full interview here:


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TRANSCRIPT BELOW (powered by Descript; accuracy not guaranteed):

Adam Conner: Kellie. I'm going to hope that you teach me something today. Um, just because I have tangentially learned about the world of education, simply from like the academic side, I've talked to folks like Coursera, before I talked to the CMO of Harvard business school.

That was a really cool chat. And I'm talking to you because I think that your perspectives on. Unique, obviously very powerful and a little different from what I would have assumed would come from an education brand could even call it that I'm going to get into all that in a second. Could you please, for the viewers and listeners, um, just what is MindSpark?

Can we start there and then we'll riff.

Kellie Lauth: Yeah. So hello. Yes. Nice to see you, Adam. Um, yeah, so mine spark, I think at its very essence and core is really, um, An agency that intersects industry and education in meaningful ways. I mean, that's just sums it up. I think so a lot of people don't know quite what to do at this sometimes and say, are you a non-profit?

Are you a startup? Are you a, you know, consultancy group, really? What are you? But at the core of what we do is cultivate extraordinary experiences for our clients to solve problems. That's why.

Adam Conner: Got it. Okay. So I, I find it really interesting at the start there that, that you refer to it as, as an agency, because I don't think I've heard of like an education agency and maybe there's a distinct reason for that.

And you'll tell me, I want to start before that and I want to get your recount of. How does a biochemical engineer make her way in education

Kellie Lauth: fumbles her way into this?

Adam Conner: Can you walk us through the tumbles of the

Kellie Lauth: there's no direct, direct line of sight there? Um, yeah, so all my life have loved the study of science and math.

Then. Fell into that and decided that that was going to be my path forward. And honestly, one summer kind of bored and not able to, um, because of the workload I had at school, not able to have like a full-time job. I decided to sign up and help out with some summer camps in which we were helping, uh, young students come to campus and just be immersed in science and math.

And, uh, it was particularly kind of focused on the middle school age and, and lots of girls were involved, which was really exciting. I just found out what the prospect of helping, um, kind of feed that pipeline towards something that I really loved and getting, you know, these 12, 13, 14 year old kiddos excited about the world of science and math and what was possible for them.

And many of them really didn't love it. They've kind of fallen into it themselves or were told, had to come

Adam Conner: because their parents.

Kellie Lauth: Exactly. And so it was just really, it was just really fun. A few weeks with them exploring and hearing their questions. And they were so curious and they had such great ideas and I just really fell in love with that and then found that kind of in my own way in the work that I was doing, um, there needed to be more of that.

There needed to be more of that kind of love and passion for what's possible and asking questions and being curious. And so after spending several years in the field, I just thought, you know what? I think I'm going to give the science education pathway a try and see if I can actually make it to. Um, and, and go from there.

And that's kind of what I did.

Adam Conner: And part of that, as I'm aware is starting a whole school, 2009 you're. Now this went from summer camp to full school awfully quickly. I'm probably missing a few tumbles here, but like, how do you just sit up on and be like, I'm going to start school today. Oh, the whole school.

I mean, what goes to that must have been a crazy, had you been entrepreneurial like before.

Kellie Lauth: I think coming from industry and being very, like I said, being very kind of, of, of, uh, falling in love with science and math early on, I just asked, always have always asked a lot of questions, kind of that kid. And yes, I think the way things work and the way things, um, come together and has always been a passion of mine.

And so. Spending a close to eight years at that point, maybe closer to nine years in education, both as a teacher and kind of overseeing some science pieces. I quickly saw that science just wasn't a priority for schools with so much focus on reading and math. Um, and that, that, that science was where the magic was happening, where kids were excited, why they love to come to school, you know, all of these pieces and stuff.

Myself and two other amazing and brilliant women, um, kind of just sat around, uh, we were a team at that time and we kind of sat around a table one day and said, what would it be like if you built a school where the sole focus was around science and you learned the skills of math and literacy through the lens of science and social science, what would that like, what would that look like?

And that was way before stem was something and it was cool and all those things. And so we just. Literally it's the so lame, we start building a notebook and a binder with all of our ideas and collecting some data and, um, you know, started visiting models across the country, have different learning styles and different learning modalities and different school types and just kinda start building our dream.

And then the perfect storm happened where we got a chance to pitch this idea to our superintendent and he was brave enough. And, um, I think smart enough to say yes. And so within a year, we. Opened one of the first Kate stem schools in the country that was fully public with no admissions requirement to get in and how to waitlist of over 400 kiddos after each year one.

So good

Adam Conner: Lord. Yeah, that's quite the change. Having a program where you suspected that kids were just forced by their parents to come in and you had literally waiting to do this and mind you, this is what 10, 12 years ago, at this point, as you rightly noted, stem was not such a hot button, word or acronym and, and.

Really no we're thinking about it either. And shame on me is probably cause I'm a guy and probably because it just wasn't something that it impacted me as much because, you know, I know that that today is something where, uh, where female stem education is super important. Uh, minority stem education is super important and that's just not something that I was exposed to.

Thankfully, I get stories all the time with, with great brand leaders on Authentic Avenue where I've become attuned to these sorts of things. And yeah. W well done on your part to see this a dozen years before now, where it was not so popular, you know, starting it in a notebook. That that's a great story.

I mean, you had this team of people with an idea and one probably fantastic pitch to a superintendent. I mean, that's a movie script right there, so very cool. Very, very cool. Um, my first experience with seeing a peer of mine go to, uh, I would say stem more seriously was that I was actually just within the coding world.

Really. I had never heard of a coding bootcamp seven years ago when I started my professional world post school. I, uh, there, there was a consultant in the business that I was a part of who left after a year to go to a coding bootcamp in, uh, in Denver, in Colorado. And she still live there to this day. And.

That in my mind, I was like, well, that's interesting. Is that just like an educational thing? Is that because it's going to elevate her in terms of a business? This is, is it kind of like an MBA for coding people? I didn't know. Cause I'm not a tech guy from that side. And my guess is that those sorts of journeys and the ways that brands and power, those journeys inspired at least in part MindSpot.

Cause you said at the beginning that you're doing a lot to offer experiences for brands. How did you navigate from. The spirit that inspired you to get the superintendent to open up this first public stem school to, Hey, businesses need to step up and do a lot more for those who weren't of K age. When I began this, there's a huge opportunity there.

When did that creep in

Kellie Lauth: to actually from day one? And I'll just share with you, I mean, Again, I came to education second, like as a second profession, I also came into education, incredibly naive. So coming from an industry background, I really just was like, why, why is this not happening? And I quickly saw that there was no the world's that industry and the world of education sort of have this translation from.

Where they don't really always sometimes knowing it speak the same language, but truly don't know what to do with each other schools kind of come across as we're schools. We know what we're doing. We're good. Happy to have you drop off supplies and guest speak, but we really don't need anything else. And then you have, you know, industry that's like, yeah, sure.

I love education. I want to help, but I have no idea how to do that. Um, or. Should I do that? Should I care? Should I get involved? And that was early on and I could see that there just needed to be sort of this conduit and this intermediary between the two entities and that if it was going to make a difference for, for students, it had to be in meaningful activities and experiences.

And so we started. What do, what kind of learning methodology most closely mimics? What real-world scientists, researchers, artists, creators, and ventures do. And for us, it was easy. It was problem-based learning, which is probably one of the oldest forms of learning around. And we said, if we can figure out a way to authentically intersect industry partners with problems and students who probably have some amazing kind of beginner's mindset, naive, viable solutions.

In a way that actually again, creates this academic trajectory, but also an economic one for access and opportunity. Why would we not build it? And so that's really what we set out to do. And I honestly will never forget. We put out a ton of call-outs for industry partners, thinking they're going to come like in spades to support this.

We had a room, the size of Texas and five people showed up. What do you mean to say, what are you doing? Those five people are still with us today, 12 years later. But I will say, you know, to look them also in the eye and say, You get it. You're excited about this pipeline. You also have to wait for 13 years because there are only five, there were a little hard press, but those who got it, got it.

And we quickly kind of grew our industry partner list from five to 35 to 65. And it just kept going. I mean, and now the schools we started work with over 650 partners. It's

Adam Conner: incredible. That's so crazy growth there. I have to wonder, like, what were some of those growing pains that you experienced in the shift from.

Getting a yes. To funding, to open a school, to getting a yes for a brand open its wallet for you, because my, there are two different sets of values. Maybe that's the gap that you just addressed. What were some of the things that translated well into that? And what are some of the things that you ran up against where you thought, okay, in order for me to make education better and connect brands in a better way, I need to be the one that.

Yeah. Can you elaborate on that a little bit? Cause that's, that's fascinating too.

Kellie Lauth: Yeah. I think that on the education side, it was more, I would say a little bit bureaucratic and political, right? The idea that you want to keep your students within your district, within your boundary area, and you want to provide them a quality education with.

Uh, driving force, um, you know, even if you didn't understand sort of this quote unquote stem stuff, it was kind of interesting to offer as a district or as a community, a different type of offering to families. And so I think there was sort of the storm of like, yeah, that sounds interesting. We should, we should definitely give that a try.

Um, I think also the fact that it was open to all students was also appealing on the industry side. There's a different type of value proposition and that comes from the idea that. You should really care about education because it is your honestly your upstream and downstream approach to sustainability.

Um, it is the way that you get talent and kids early on. Decide if they're good at things, they decide what they love by third and fourth grade, you can hear it in their voices. When they say I hate math, I'm not good at science. You know, I don't like to read. And so if they, if you take an industry partner, And you put them in the room with a seven or eight year old and they get to just listen to the seven and eight year old, share an idea about how to solve for pollinators or how to solve for the Wolf reintroduction in Colorado.

And they suddenly see those ideas. I've never had a partner want, not want to come back or get into. Because it's speaking to what they're already working on it, speaking to their hearts, and they're actually seeing it unfold in front of them in the terms of having, you know, this talent, this kind of raw talent, if you will, this broad ideas be shared.

And so I've literally in 12 years have never had an industry partner. If I can just get them to come and listen to ideas and sit on a, what we call a panel. Yep. They've never not come back. And so it's, it's a, it's a good use of their time. Um, and it's not, it's, we're not asking for money. I keep partnership and sponsorship incredibly separate.

I'm really just asking for their time and their talent to say, invest, invest in this group of kiddos. Right? Invest in this idea, like you care about this, your company's spending millions of dollars to solve. You know, these middle schoolers, these high schoolers, this elementary students, they also are invested in this idea.

Right. So it's pretty, it's pretty powerful. Um, and again, if I can get people in the door, they usually stay

Adam Conner: that that's an incredible part of it. And to have such strong retention for something so important is. I also think that separating partners and sponsors and making those that delineation very clear is helpful.

I don't know why maybe it's where you first to the space here, because I feel like a lot of corporate when I hear the term corporate education immediately, when I think is like training programs for our current employees, it's kind of like a top down approach. People who are already there, and this is, I don't know is grassroots.

Right word. I don't know whatever it is. It's just from the bottom of. Where were you first here? I mean like what, what do you think really made you stick? Was it that true? Like just come be a partner. No, no strings or dollars attached. Like what made it sticky and why the hell have nobody stopped to do it?

Kellie Lauth: Yeah, I mean, I think we were first in the space with little ones. We had traveled around seeing a lot of high schools trying to work with industry partners and what they were saying to us was. Because we're remediating at such a level of high school level. We're not getting these students ready for workforce at all.

So start young. So we really did hit that advice. So there were others that were already in the space and 2009 trying this out, but we did listen to them. Um, I think the, you know, the other compelling pieces, this isn't. I, I don't, this isn't a silver bullet. This isn't something magical. It's actually incredibly pragmatic and, and very logical if you, if you think that way.

And so, you know, this isn't something that's fleeting, either problem based learning has been around forever. It's not. Not new, if you will, the way that we intersect industry and education together is actually quite simple. It's just centered around problems that they both care about. And then we let educators be the education experts and we let industries be the industry experts and be the content experts.

And we don't try to make one be the other. And so it's actually a very simple model when you boil it all down. And again, it's something that can be sustained because. It's built within a system with no exceptions. So, you know, it is centered in public ed with sometimes a crappy budgets. You know, strong unions and all the bureaucracy that comes with our education system, it's just solely smacked out in the middle of that.

I did not take it out of a system and say, okay, we did a really great job outside of the system. I said, if we're going to be successful, it has to be centered in the middle of all the constraints, all the barriers and all the challenges that public school faces to show that it can be done and it can be replicated and it can be successful.

And I think that's what we've spent the last 12 years really proving and showing. Um, with our work. So, I mean, it's still going strong. So

Adam Conner: you've got this methodology. Now, you, you referenced that earlier in our conversation. I don't want to ask you to spill the secret sauce here on the show, but I do want to ask about the standards that perhaps that methodology strives for.

I say that specifically, because I I've heard this over the past, I guess like year, really in different industries. When organizations take what maybe should otherwise be considered proprietary and almost crowd or open source it for the benefit of others. I love that cause everybody rises there. So I think in the first instance that I heard about this was, it was the idea of the.

Right. But do you have certain standards in place and practices in place that allows you to accurately, effectively and efficiently balance purpose and profit? I have spoken to individual brands who have taken some of their formula and put it out for others to share as well. Um, adore me, which is fashion brand comes to mind.

They had this whole playbook about how to build a sustainability. I had a program how to build a sustainable brand. They have this sort of Bible for it that they are now preaching with and others can just take it. You have just a couple of months ago, you launched this, this decert, which for listeners who have no idea, what I just said stands for disruption certification.

This is my understanding is that it helps to use these standards to help people determine where they are on the spectrum. Are they good or are they bad? And I want to figure out what the good and bad is, or if there is the spectrum is measured in that way, what is this? And how are you creating standards for others through it?

Kellie Lauth: Yeah. I mean, the very mission of why we exist is to expand and replicate this work. So there, there is, you know, the secret sauce is actually not so secret to be quite honest, we openly share not only our methodology, but we invite people into this space and however, they are messy. You know, put together, however, you come, you come, then we, we work side by side with you to figure out where to get you to the next level.

But there's this notion that oftentimes, especially in education, that disruption is bad and that has a negative connotation. And for us, it's actually something that's really good. It's something that we embrace as an organization. We live by this idea that disruption is healthy and, you know, post pandemic, if you will, everyone's talking about the great reset and all these industries and you see industries rising to the occasion.

And I'll just be honest, education's not, we're kind of stopped and we've kind of gone back to what we were doing prior, um, and not in all cases, but in the majority. And so to, to change that in a sector that is, should be so high impact and literally is the foundation of all other sectors, um, that we know it's education has got to start embracing this idea that innovation and disruption are good.

And so. The disruption of certification is actually attempt. And I always say, like you mentioned, it could be court for education, but it's this attempt to say across four dimensions, that industry has identified as important wellbeing, inclusion, certainly workforce development, um, and innovation. How well are you faring?

As an educational entity, how, where do you fall on that spectrum of the services you're providing to your students and your educators and your community and your parents. And so, you know, it's not about good versus bad. It's about where some of the gaps and where are some of your strengths and then networking schools together with each other, but also with industry partners who are very, very good at these dimensions, um, to help.

You know, basically become thriving hubs of innovation within their communities versus being the sort of bright by-product of society that, you know, just happens because, you know, everybody takes for granted that you're you send your kid off to school that day. So I think that's, what's really important here is that we're just trying to put a really firm stake in the ground about what it means to change the landscape of what it means to teach and learn.

Um, and we're not trying to make one size doesn't fit all. We're not trying to make everyone the same. But we're saying no matter what type of school you are, where you reside, here's four dimensions that really do matter. And we've seen the matter more in the last couple years than ever before. Where are you at with that?

And then depending on what your gaps are, what are the right, you know, where do the pathways for you to get some help and support and some professional experiences to help you be better and more upskilled? Um, at these dimensions,

Adam Conner: I gotta ask because. Put this out. I'm sure of that. It's been filled out many, many, many times people trying to say, oh, I'm greater.

Am I great? And part of that questionnaire, I've looked through a part of it. It's just like, you know, make a multiple choice. Part of it's a free response. So you've probably seen some come through where you've been like, damn, these people are. They are ideal. They have, they, they, they are top of the heap.

Who should we look up to? Like who, who are a few standouts in your experience, even though this is just a few months, uh, matured, this decert like, who are the early standouts that anybody who's in this world of education, or to get another example, I can open up another tab and they're like, well, who's really doing this well.

Like who who's, uh, who's at the top of the heap right now. I'm curious.

Kellie Lauth: That's such a good question. You know, at the risk of math, like calling out specific schools, I'll just give you sort of, uh, uh, uh, to any answer. You're probably not going to like, but I would say honestly, our rural partner schools are killing it.

And I would say it's because they're more agile. I would say it's because they're like the schools that have come forward, want to do this. And I would just say, that's the. Part of what you call killing. It is a desire to be, is that a desire to do better, right? To create something that is different and maybe outside of the box for these folks.

So our rule partners who have jumped in, it's not that they're top tier across all four dimensions. It's more this idea that they're like, wow, I've learned so much about what my gaps are. I actually now know what my strengths are and I'm so excited soda. To work with MindSpark and industry partners, to co-design for the dimensions that I need some support around.

And to me that is more successful than a top tiered school that already has it all figured out. Um, because it's really hard, uh, to replicate that over and over and over. And so for me, the schools that are willing to dig in and make a difference is where I want to spend the majority of our time and resources.

Adam Conner: I want to make sure I got that right. You said really?

Kellie Lauth: Yeah. Like our rural school is small, you know, and again, all over the country. So they have embraced this and have taken the Dieser and are again, just hungry. For resources into, to dig in and figure it out. And I am so proud

Adam Conner: of that. Did that surprise you?

I mean, to me, I would think that now you get the word rural, just like you get a visual addition in your head of what that is. My guess is. Well, my guess would have been that they would have been particularly resistant to change. What is this new wave of education tech? No, I, you know, I've done it this way and this is the way I'm going to keep doing it.

And that's highly stereotypical. I understand. But like, did that surprise you at all? When like, again and again, you were saying, damn, these rural schools are. Way more progressive than maybe you would have thought is, did that come as a shock?

Kellie Lauth: I think, yes it did. But I would also say, and this is just, this is kind of Kellie's own viewpoint of this, but just working now for years with a lot of our partners in these small communities, one, there's an incredible sense of, of pride and connection through the educational entities in these communities.

And also a lot of the communities that we're serving are seeing a huge shift in industry. The giants are leaving, right? The oil and gas companies are no longer there, you know, to your point or the Cole's no longer around. I mean, there's just some things happening where in order for them to survive and their communities to thrive, they have to start looking at other ways to keep people there in a different way.

And they have to start thinking about the ways they connect to other industries in a different way. And education is a really powerful conduit for. Yeah, by itself. It's not the answer, but paired up with industry partners and others. It truly is. And so I think what's happening is you see them excited because they see it as a way to not only improve the overall health, um, and economic value of their community, but they see it as a way to center education as a way to actually attract more businesses to them.

And that to me is incredibly exciting.

Adam Conner: It's it's fascinating to me. Change is what my perspective would have, would have been. Like, I I'm, I'm proud of him too, and I'm just learning, hearing about it for the first time. So that's great actually the way in which you're talking about it, to get them to do things a little bit differently, um, is the, is the crux of my penultimate question here, and then I have another one at the end about defining a specific word, but I'll, I'll get to that in a moment.

When we talk about. Elevating students and setting up programs to help them move through. Let's say it's like move through high school, get ready for the job role. Really. I understand that and feel free to correct me if I'm wrong here, but that some of some of these programs, or at least the results of some of these programs have allowed students to transition from high school, like into the job world.

Well, and, but like for my maybe entire life and maybe it's because it's come from mostly from for-profit institutions have like, I've been drilled and drilled into my. The most conventional knowledge was and whatever you want to call it out there says, go get more education, go get your bachelor's focus on college.

That's where you got to go. Then you could jump into job world. Uh, can we talk for a second about how you're striving to change? Narrative, because most of the time I hear about like, college is an important, frankly, you hear it from like social media gurus who were like dressed, trying to sell you some vaporware.

Right? That's not the case here. Clearly. It's not the case here. Um, and maybe it ties back to those rural partners being the most disruptive because a lot of those people go straight from high school to the job role. But could you help me learn more about this? Because my experience is Roseman. So colored by that for-profit view of you must get the next degree or else dot, dot.

Kellie Lauth: Yeah. I mean, it's, it is a debate and, and I think there's strong arguments on either side. I think from my, you know, where I said, it's kind of a silly debate because I think oftentimes in education we do this, we tend to swing the pendulum really far to one side or the other and make this an or debate when really we should be thinking about it as an a.

And so our main focus and, and stance on this is that it's all good. And so if kids have a desire to seek higher education, um, and pursue a passion that they have in wanting to go to college, they actually fundamentally should do that. Whether it's two year, a four year or whatever that looks like for.

But there is nothing wrong also with wanting to and having the skills and obtain those skills early on. Like you said, in high school, even, and then being employable. Um, we hear so often from our industry partners that even students who have spent four to five years in college are still not actually employable.

Like they may have a great background and knowledge set, but there's still lack some of those employability skills that are so sought after. And so if we start early on in the pipeline and build those employability skills, whether they choose to call it a college or they actually walk themselves into industry right away, um, that's a good thing.

And so I think it's about having those options available. And, and to be honest, the majority of the students that I work with college is a barrier for them. So whether they want to go or they, or they don't, they can't access college right away. And so they have to have jobs to feed their families. And to keep their, you know, their livelihoods of their families going.

And so then if you say that, you know, college is the only way to get a high paying wage job and a family sustaining wage, then you've, you're isolating an entire pipeline of these brilliant, brilliant students that contribute so much. I mean, I just had a female student at one of our high school. Who literally is 19 years old and will become one of the youngest associates at a major tech company.

She will make $65,000 a year. It comes from one of the poorest neighborhoods in Denver because she went through high school program where they valued her skillability and helping build her as a person that can enter the workforce. I mean, that's. That's huge. That's life changing. So I don't think it's an or debate.

I think it's an, and, and we've gotta be more receptive, uh, in the sector to say, what are the right opportunities and options for the students in front of us and how do we help them get there and not

Adam Conner: be limiting? Uh, I would love to see more of that people come straight out of high school and have the skill Virta to go, to give themselves life-changing economic opportunities, job opportunities, whatever that is.

Um, Wonderful wonderfully done. Um, and I'm glad, thank, uh, you know, congrats to that person. Let me, let me round out with this. Um, because this show is called Authentic Avenue. I focused on that word a lot. Authenticity. I am trying the new thing where I'm asking people how they would define the word, because at some point I'd like to write a one word dictionary on the topic.

Just one. So, let me round out with this Kellie, through your experience of going through engineering, to opening schools, to now running mine spark, if you flipped, open your personal dictionary and got to the page that had the word authenticity in the top left corner, what would the rest of that definition read?


Kellie Lauth: so good. I think for me, uh, it means showing up as you are. Um, so again, I think that it's a sense of. Honesty, coupled with a little bit of integrity, coupled with a little bit of curiosity and wonderment about what's possible. Um, I don't think you can be authentic if you're not willing to kind of open Pandora's box box and ask the questions that you need to ask and answer that you can be authentic if you're not willing to share the answers to this.

So I think it's authenticity to me as a critical friend,

Adam Conner: perhaps to borrow some of the mindset that comes from those beginners, the students that you have helped to rise up through your career and through your ventures today. Uh, Kellie, I really appreciate learning more about MindSpark here. Um, getting in, get me this education, as I said at the very.

I, I hope that people continue to disrupt in the way that you've said and that these opportunities continue to get unlocked. I, uh, you know, I didn't have the benefit of going through a program like the one that you have now, but I imagine if, if somebody out there, uh, you know, listening to this is considering something like that, they should go for it.

Um, and listeners, go, go check out, Kellie, go check out mine spark I'll throw links to everything everywhere. This eventually goes. But, uh, for now, Kellie, thank you so much for joining me really.

Kellie Lauth: Oh, Adam, thank you so much. It's been a pleasure. So thank you.


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