Coursera CEO on merits of online learning combined with remote working

Topics coursera | Online education | EdTech

Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO, Coursera | Illustration: Binay Sinha
It took a call from Nobel prize-winning economist and Stanford professor William (Bill) J Sharpe to change Jeff Maggioncalda’s destiny. An English and quantitative economics major from Stanford and an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, he was about to join McKinsey when Sharpe called to say he was starting a company that would provide investment education and financial knowledge. Would Maggioncalda write the business plan for it? And if the plan turned out good enough and brought in funds, he could steer the company and be its founding CEO.

I am connecting with Maggioncalda in Palo Alto, California, on Zoom after he read my articles with edX CEO Anant Agrawal, Coursera’s only rival globally in the online learning space. I had asked for a morning slot and learn to my dismay that it’s 10.20 pm for him, but he says he doesn’t mind. He has a large mug of coffee next to him, while I am going with water. Behind him is an eye-catching visual: pictures of thousands of professors and instructors of Coursera. It distracts me from time to time through the chat with its large Coursera logo, leaving me in no doubt about whom I’m in conversation with. I learn it’s just a screen he’s created as a backdrop as he’s not in office, but at home.

Jeff was all of 27 at the time, but he had a wife and two daughters by then (he’d become a father at 23) — more responsibility than one would expect at this age. He’d never written any kind of business plan and McKinsey was a safe, steady option. It was his wife who said that working with Sharpe would be an opportunity of a lifetime, one he shouldn’t pass.

So, throwing caution to the wind, he became the first — and only employee — of Financial Engines, and after several revisions of the business idea, raised $4.3 billion in March 1997. “We tried at least five different models before we finally had something the investors would buy into,” he says. Financial Engines took almost 13 years from the word go to “hit our stride” and listed successfully in March 2010, leaving several investors, and Jeff himself, a lot richer. He also had the distinction of being one of the youngest and longest serving CEOs of a publicly listed entity. “Turns out that when you are 27 and the only employee, you get to call yourself the CEO,” he laughs. By the time he was done with Financial Engines, he’d been CEO for 18 years.

That’s when his wife suggested they take a break to see the world. They’d hardly travelled since they married and had children early (they have three girls), had been consumed by their careers and had very little money to spare for travel (he’d had stock in the company but not much cash to spare till then).

During those travels, while he and his wife were at a ryokan in Kyoto, a headhunter known well to him sent him an email saying he’d found Jeff’s next job: To succeed Coursera CEO Rick Levin (former president of Yale University). Though he was still on the board of the Silicon Valley bank, Jeff had mentally said goodbye to the fintech sector — “been there, done that” — and was clear his next step would be in the education or health space, the former being, in his view, one of the world’s most transformative institutions. The headhunter had his attention.

I interrupt to ask how they (the founders) managed to rope him into something that was still largely an unknown, untested animal: Even in 2016, online learning and degrees were alien to most. He says it was quite the opposite, with him “almost begging them for the job”. While he’d heard of Coursera, his wife and kids had done courses on it and were big fans. When he joined in June 2017, he found most of the pieces already well in place and the team felt like a “graduate school class” — young, smart, passionate.

With his experience of building a growth company, Jeff fine-tuned the structure, put in place new compensation policies, rejigged the team a bit and defined what they wanted to pursue and what they didn’t more sharply. 

This led to a sharpening of the focus on “Coursera for Business”, a vertical that helps businesses use the Coursera content and platform to reskill and upskill their employees, and also individuals looking to advance their careers. The company also accelerated its emphasis on full university degrees online, while adding a more flexible, modular approach to earning the degrees through a programme called Master Tracks.

Recently, in June 2020, Coursera bought a company in Sofia, Bulgaria, that allows instructors to demonstrate a project live using Python, R or some other language or tools. Over 500 projects are available on Coursera Labs for students to imbibe a practical application of theoretical learning. This, he says, has especially caught the attention of Indian college students who form a large percentage of the one million enrollments.

India is now the second largest and fastest growing country for Coursera that has 70 million learners globally. From 5 million, Indian learners have jumped 100 per cent in the last one year. Overall, learners grew by 160 per cent during the pandemic, and revenue increased 50 per cent year-on-year.

The pandemic, he says, has made the world realise that you can “learn from anywhere and work from anywhere”. Combined, this can be a great leveller for societies that lack either great learning or job opportunities.

Coursera itself is targeting 40 per cent of its workforce working remotely. “We don’t need people to come into Mountain View or Toronto or London,” explains Jeff. So, their talent pool for recruitment has grown larger. 

But even prior to the pandemic, Coursera had almost 1,000 employees. Since it launched in 2012 (it doesn't reveal revenues), the growth has been phenomenal and revenues brisk enough to ensure that it is sitting on over $300 million of cash with strong investor backing. It is, however, still in “growth phase” with a lot of capital raised being reinvested.

How is Coursera so much bigger than, say, a Duolingo in terms of employee numbers, I ask. That’s because Coursera is working through institutions (Duolingo primarily targets individuals) and that requires a larger sales force, he explains. “Many individuals prefer to learn in the context of an institution — be it at the behest of their employer, government or college,” he says. This realisation has been a game changer for Coursera, as selling directly to individuals can only “take one so far”.

I cannot wrap up without asking him about his other interests. Does he even get the time for those? That he’s a devoted father is evident — he mentions his girls many times during our chat. Turns out he also composes music, writes songs and plays the piano, an instrument he finds very versatile. And he loves travelling. His travels are what made him fully appreciate the magnificence of the Taj Mahal, which he says is by far the “greatest structure humans have built”. That's music to my Indian ears, even without the chords of the piano striking.

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