Reinventing Higher Education: An Interview with General Assembly

By Vinayak Kumar - Delbarton School - New Jersey

General Assembly is a start-up that offers full-time immersive programs, long-form courses, and classes and workshops on the most relevant skills of the 21st century – from web development and user experience design, to business fundamentals, to data science, to product management and digital marketing.

As a NextGenVest Chapter Leader that is interested in Computer Science, I had the opportunity to interview the Head of University Programs and Partnerships, who was one of the early employees at General Assembly.

What Does Your Day-To-Day Schedule Look Like?

I manage finances, marketing, admissions (which is working with the Salesforce platform here), as well as legal, product, and operation. I write down three really important things I want to get done the next day, and there’s always something to be done in those areas.

To give you an idea, this week I’ll be hiring an additional admissions team member, because we realized we didn’t have the capacity to accommodate all the students who were submitting applications. We’re also getting ready to launch a summer product, and another product that’ll be announced around thanksgiving, so one of my current tasks is to work with the engineering/design and creative team to ensure the product landing page can be added to our website by the deadline.

Today I finalized our marketing plan designed to promote the service to undergraduates. I touched base with the CEO to make sure the vision of where I’m going over the next year is consistent with his vision for the company. I spoke with the admissions team to brainstorm why certain people weren’t able to submit their admissions deposits. I had several calls with universities to discuss potential partnering opportunities. Most workdays are around 10-12 hours, sometimes 14 hours. Yet at the same time, some days are much shorter, and that’s one of the nice things about a startup: you get a lot of flexibility.

After graduating from Harvard, you worked at Goldman Sachs. What made you decide that working in a startup was something you would be interested in?

Goldman was an amazing place. I’m so glad that my first job was there. I really learned professionalism and how to work hard in a way that I’m not sure I would’ve learned at a startup. A lot of it has to do with the individual leaders that you work and grow with.

However, what ultimately made me make the shift was the vision. The ability to create a vision, then go out and implement that vision, is something that I wanted to do, and something that wasn’t quite possible at Goldman. I joined GA when there were 30 people, and now we’re at 600. Joining at that early point allowed me to impact the growth of the organization, and I’m enjoying every second of it. 

Has your college education in liberal arts helped you in your current job? 

I majored in Economics and East Asian studies. Economics played out a lot more in my first role at Goldman. Having an understanding of the global market and what the drivers are in that field was really important, even though finance is really different than economics.

Today, I manage a whole line of the business, and so my goals here are to make sure our products are selling, that we have happy students, have a high quality program, and are not running at a loss. Economics has helped in cementing an understanding of the basics. I specialized in behavioral economics, so you learn a lot about how individual psychology affects choice and action. Education is very heavily affected by individual psychology. Understanding that component helps me better understand how to present this specific product to our target audience.

East Asian studies was a personal interest. One of the benefits of the liberal arts curriculum is being able to dive into subjects you’re personally interested in, even if your career doesn’t end up being in the same field as the subject you studied. I thought it might also be beneficial in another way -- maybe I’d work abroad at some point, and maybe having knowledge of East Asian culture would be useful for international business. I did an internship in shanghai in college, but I haven’t worked internationally since then. I don’t use it too much in my day-to-day life, but I think it’s made me a more cultured person.

What are your personal goals and what are the company goals within the next 5 years?

I would love to see us revolutionize university-level education. Eventually one day I would like to start my own company, but that doesn’t have to happen within the next 5 years.

What does it take to transition into a coding job given no prior or experience or education in Computer Science? Do you think it requires a degree?

I don’t think getting a job in Computer science requires a degree. It’s all about your motivation and your grit. It’s about how you pick yourself up after continuous failure. Grit is a really important educational trait that employers look for when we look for in people who are transitioning between fields. Additionally, everyone doesn’t have to become a web developer.

It’s crucial to have a basic understanding of web development -- even individuals who don’t believe they’ll become web developers should take some courses in the subject. Exposure to that technical background prevents confusion by making you cognizant of the capabilities of technology, as well as ensuring you won’t get charged more for things you could’ve done yourself. Of course, there are definitely people who can learn to code online and get a full-time job out of it.

What’s the coolest thing about your job? 

I do something different everyday; I manage product, operations, finance etc., and that’s something I find really cool about my work.  The thing that excites about me about working here, is that I really believe we are fundamentally changing the way that higher education is going to be viewed over the next 20, 30, 40 years. It is so powerful to be part of that growth and revolution.

My role is head of university programs and partnerships, so my goal is to integrate skills based programs via GA into the traditional 4-year liberal arts structure. I feel very, very confident that we are going to make higher education more affordable, impactful, and ensure that more students get jobs after graduation. This kind of vision is something that I wished I had when I was going to school. There are tons of people dropping out of college because it’s not affordable. NextGenVest is working on the issue via increasing financial literacy and I’m working at it from the other end, making the education itself more valuable and impactful.

What’s one tip you have for students interested in computer science and business? 

I think it’s important to develop skillsets in data analytics, web development, marketing, etc. In other words, how do we take all the information that’s on the Internet, and how do we manipulate it in order to make better business decisions? I would advise high school students to really think about those fields, because they allow you to harness data and put your own spin on it.

Being able to manipulate and extract insights from data is an invaluable skill to have for any corporation. I also think that it’s never been easier to be an entrepreneur. To be an entrepreneur, you need to understand what makes a good product – a core amalgamation of business, economics, and design skills.  So, to reiterate, I think web development/data manipulation skills in conjunction with business entrepreneurship are important paths that students can take.  

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