READ ON TO DISCOVER:
- Why an entrepreneur risked everything to champion lifelong learning
- How a chance encounter saved his company
- Why he’s so optimistic about the future of education
David Blake is the co-founder and Executive Chairman of Degreed, which helps lifelong learners everywhere discover and become certified in the skills they need for the future. He recently sat down with Whitney Johnson on the Disrupt Yourself podcast to discuss life as an education entrepreneur, and why learning should continue well beyond high school and college.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to the full version, click here.
Whitney: What happened in your life that got you interested in reforming the education system?
David: I took the ACT—and I thought it sucked. I was committed to being the best student I could, and be the quintessential college applicant. As such, I knew full well the import of the ACT, and I studied hard. But when I took it, it was the first time I had ever stopped to question any of it. I was like, “This is half of the equation for what university I’ll get into, and that’s half of the equation for what jobs I’ll have available to me. Where did this thing come from? Why do we do it this way? Does no one else think this is crazy?”
So after I took the test, I found every book I could on high-stakes testing, and tried to find out where it came from. I got three or four books into reading about education and testing, and I had the slow realization that I was having this new feeling: curiosity. I had been engineered to take tests, to soak up information and spit it back out—but those books were the first thing I had ever learned that a teacher hadn’t assigned to me.
I had no interest or value in what I had been learning. It was really just to jump through the hoops to get the grades, to get to the next level, to get into the best college. While I had become a great student, I was a terrible learner. When that hit me, I aspired to become a great learner. I started to pour all of that newfound curiosity into our history of education. That snowballed, and that interest turned into a passion and, eventually, into an obsession.
Whitney: So you go to college, but you’re not really interested in becoming a teacher—you’re interested in remediating the system. So you study economics, which teaches you about systems. Can you talk to us now about how you then became an entrepreneur?
David: Yeah, the journey from being a great student to being an entrepreneur is not straightforward. As a student, you’re taught to color in the lines, but as an entrepreneur, you have to color outside the lines. In many ways, they’re opposites.
I graduated with a degree in economics, and I ended up in management consulting—but it wasn’t my passion or my interest. However, my wife had gone to high school with someone who dropped out of Princeton to start a company whose motto was, “Students are more than a test score,” so that immediately resonated. I traded a few emails with him, then flew out unannounced and knocked on his door. He, his cofounders, and I went to lunch, and by the end, I was part of the team.
Whitney: This was a high-stakes, high-risk situation, right?
David: It was. I’m newly married, my first kid is literally days old. I had the job that my parents had always wanted for me—management consulting is a very prestigious and safe career with great benefits and great pay. But I took a 55% pay cut to join this startup, with no benefits. That was below even a living salary.
“Students are more than a test score.”
So for us to do this, I had to ask my parents if I could move my young family into their basement. They weren’t especially excited for this life choice—they saw it as pretty irresponsible. But once they knew I was making this decision no matter what, they were eager to support.
Whitney: So you go to work at Zinch, and you do that for a couple of years. Then tell us about how you got the idea for Degreed, your current business.
David: So in the last decade, there’s been this wave of consumer-oriented education innovation. We saw Khan Academy come into the mainstream with Bill Gates’ TED Talk. There was the MOOC, Massive Open Online Courses, that were launched out of Harvard, MIT, and Stanford. Then there were eLearning platforms like Lynda, Udemy, and Pluralsight.
It used to be true that you would go to one or two institutions of higher education, if at all, and then you would hold maybe one or two jobs over your career. Between those three or four institutions, they were providing people a majority of the education and skills that they needed to be successful in their lives. But now, people are learning all the time across a diversity of sources—our formal education reflects a minority of what we will learn, a dramatic minority.
The thing that started Degreed was that in 2011, I started asking people, “Tell me about your education.” In asking people that question, 99 times out of 100, people will tell you what university they went to—which is crazy. If I were to ask you about your health, and you said, “Oh, I ran a marathon 20 years ago,” that would be an absurd answer to that question. And yet it’s so parallel to how we answer for our education, as if that is somehow a meaningful answer. Your health today is not a function of the marathon you ran 20 years ago. Your skills and education in this moment are no longer a function of the university experience you had 20 years ago.
“Your skills and education in this moment are no longer a function of the university experience you had 20 years ago.”
Whitney: Was there some aspect of starting Degreed that was really difficult?
David: I had just over $13,000 in my bank account when I started Degreed. At that point we were living in San Francisco—I was married with two kids, and my wife wasn’t working at the time, so I was the only source of income. But starting Degreed meant that we would lose that income, and our rent in old army housing was about $3,000. That meant we had about four months of personal runway if my family and I didn’t eat, and less if we did. So I knew I would need to seek funding pretty quickly.
I got a prototype built on my own, got a pitch deck and business plan ready, and started talking to investors. But all the time, we were slowly running out of money. So we signed up for every credit card we could—all the mailers that came to the house, we filled out the forms. We had never had any consumer debt before, so that was a big gamble.
I received interest from several investors, but they often like to wait and see if others are going to invest too. It’s a form of validation, and it also derisks the investment for them. So there’s this sort of social signaling, and you need to get someone to step out first—and no one stepped up to give me that first offer. That became a negative signal for everyone else: “Why aren’t they choosing to invest? Maybe I should rethink this…” The energy and interest I had built all fell apart on me.
Nine months into the process, I was entirely out of money and had dug a pretty enormous hole of consumer credit card debt. That was the hardest moment for my wife, for myself, just the pressure of it all and what it had done to our relationship and the sacrifices it was requiring of our family. How do you move forward from that? Giving up felt like a terrible choice—I would then be left with all of this debt, and no real pathway besides working for a salary and slowly chipping away at it. So I just felt left without any real options, and under an enormous amount of personal strain.
Whitney: What happened after that?
David: My co-founder was in Salt Lake City, and I lived in San Francisco. On one of my many flights from San Francisco to Salt Lake City, I ended up on an airplane next to someone, and we didn’t talk for the entire ride. It was only as we were walking off the plane that he saw a Canadian flag on my bag—I had lived in Canada for two years—and he made a comment about it. We got to talking, and he said, “What do you do?” I said, “Well, I’m an entrepreneur.” He said, “Well, I’m a venture capitalist.”
He, personally, would become our first angel investor. He said, “I’m going to write you a check, and it’s going to make all the difference. Often all it takes is one person, and then others are willing to follow.”
I believe Degreed is really ambitious, and you really can’t do what we’re doing without the help of others. Some of it is luck, and sometimes you make your luck with persistence and grit. But ultimately, there were many points where, without the intervention and support of others, it’s hard to imagine that we’d still be here today.
Whitney: So what does Degreed do for both consumers and businesses?
David: Degreed helps people find resources and get credit for all of their lifelong learning. We say that our mission is to jailbreak the degree, and “jailbreaking” means taking something out of its original, intended mode of operation. We’re turning your degree into a lifelong concept.
The platform looks and operates a lot like a social network, but it’s a social network for learning. Any way you can demonstrate what you’re learning, you’re able to add it to your profile—articles, videos, books, conferences, projects, events, training, full degrees, MOOCs. People are able to follow you and see what you are learning, and you’re able to follow thought leaders in different areas as well.
What that builds to is a record, a lifelong transcript of your education and skills. Much like Netflix personalizes your experience based on your viewing habits, we do the same thing. We’re indexing all of the world’s learning resources, and as we come to understand what you’re learning, on what topics, at what level, and for what purpose, we suggest learning opportunities that might help you achieve your goals.
The parallels are strong with Spotify and Netflix when the learning is fun and informal, but when you need to really retool yourself or learn something foundational, that’s hard. There I would say it’s akin to what Google Maps does while you’re driving, which is, “Where are you, where do you need to go, and what are the different routes that are going to get you there most efficiently?”
Whether you want to become a project manager or just need to learn about business operation, we connect you to people as resources and as mentors. We also connect you to the best content from across the ecosystem of providers—we have curricula, and we have syllabi.
A lot of people will get good at being casual lifelong learners, but it’s harder to be a deliberate, intentional lifelong learner, and I think Degreed helps create a scaffolding and framework to help people do that.
“A lot of people will get good at being casual lifelong learners, but it’s harder to be a deliberate, intentional lifelong learner.”
Whitney: Can you give us an example of how a company or organization used your platform to help someone become a project manager, or learn operations?
David: So one of our clients is a Fortune 20 financial services organization. With Degreed, we’re able to say, “Alright, here are the skills expected of you in the job you’re in—let’s see how you’re doing with those skills. Based on your skills now, let’s show you not only the jobs that fit beyond this job, but also the other jobs inside the organization that have similar skill requirements.” So we can show you both the formal pathways and the organic opportunities across the organization.
People are then able to see those opportunities, identify the skills they have, and see where they have skill gaps, or if there’s a discrepancy between their abilities and the requirements. If they see that they need to be working on project management, we show them all of the best resources—those internal to their company, and also beyond their company. We also show them the people inside the company who are learning about project management, so that they can connect and seek mentorship.
If they advance their project management skills, they get certified, and that gets reflected back to the organization. Then they’re able to have a conversation about, “I want to become a project manager. I needed to work on my project management skills, so here are the ways I did it. I’ve gotten certified, and I believe I’m now qualified for this next opportunity.”