January 30, 2020

An Unusual Path For The CEO Of An Unusual Education Company

Derek Newton, Education Contributor, Forbes
Written by:

Derek Newton, Education Contributor, Forbes

Originally posted on Forbes.com

Even in the circus of education companies, GreenFig is unusual. What they teach is different, how they do it stands out and their business model may be the way forward for a host of education providers struggling to find their place in the market.

That GreenFig is unusual may not be too surprising when you know that the CEO is too.

Sara Leoni is a first generation college graduate. Her mother worked at the phone company and her dad was a mechanic. She landed an athletic scholarship to play college softball and earned All-American honors in 1995. She’s raised five boys – two of them through college. And she struggled to break out of type-casting as an Administrative Assistant at a global company she describes as being run by, “many, many white men.”

Those experiences may equip her with outsider credibility, but Leoni has also spent a decade in the education technology market, running companies and selling products to higher education providers.

In 2009, Leoni joined BookRenter, which was the first company to rent college textbooks. “That was an opportunity to work on the challenge of the cost of education and in a disruptive space with book publishers, and Amazon coming in,” she said. “But it was important to see how we could have a significant impact on a student’s ability to stay in school and I developed a passion for providing support for education systems and students.”

That experience, she says, helped her understand the education sales cycle and the tangible pain points of students and schools – issues that trip up many education entrepreneurs who expect education institutions to act like normal businesses.

But it wasn’t Leoni’s insights on the higher education market that drew her to GreenFig, it was her kids.

“It was really interesting to watch both of my sons at college graduation not have a clue of what they want to do,” Leoni said. “One went to a great business program, was out in four years and I said, ‘what’s your plan?’ and it was really hard for him to articulate what it was.” She said her kids had internships and the advantages of technology-connected parents in the San Francisco Bay Area and still “wound up underemployed.”  

That’s where Leoni’s light went on. While there were, and still are, independent education providers in the business technology and business science areas – coding bootcamps are an example – they tended to focus on gaining deep technology skills. “Non-traditional options that focus on STEM or coding make a lot of noise,” Leoni said. “But we saw a bigger opportunity.”

That opportunity is in teaching what she identifies as technologically able but “codeless” professionals. “We see growth and education opportunities in areas like digital marketing, sales, business analytics – roles that are disrupted by technology but are not strictly technology jobs – people who can understand what is core to the business and patch those roles with existing or emerging technology,” Leoni said. “It’s not critical that students go incredibly deep in tech, but they need to build a digital mindset, to understand how CRM or analytics plays a role. More important that they get how it fits conceptually,” she said.    

GreenFig offers programs in areas such as Digital Marketing Science, Customer Success and Sales Operations, programs heavy in tech but not tech.

Like other providers, Leoni’s model is collaborative with real businesses and utilizes leading practitioners. “The way we do it, everything we design starts with real project experience with real companies,” Leoni said. “It happens in a team setting because collaboration is incredibly important to companies. And our students walk away with real work experience on real projects with real companies – it’s not theory, it’s practice.”

More importantly, Leoni is not hanging out a shingle advertising job skills training. She’s not competing with colleges, she’s powering them.

It’s a “powered by model,” in which GreenFig builds the curriculum and finds the business partners but the courses are offered by colleges, at colleges for undergraduates and in continuing education settings. From there, GreenFig builds learning cohorts across schools, not within them.  

“The cost is tuition – no extra,” Leoni said. “And there’s benefit in designing the courses with students from several universities at once. It helps the student be exposed to a more realistic work environment and optimizes our financials,” she said. On those financials, the model could be enticing. GreenFig gets a portion of the student tuition as well as revenue from the businesses that sponsor the student learning projects.

But it’s that “powered by” idea that could be a game-changer in the education business – not being an alternative to college but being part of it. There may a good deal of runway in giving colleges content and curricula they cannot or do not want to build while using their branding, community roots, infrastructure and students.  

There are signs Leoni and GreenFig may be on to something. In little more than a year, the company has signed deals with ten schools including UC Santa Cruz, Grand Valley State University and Flagler College in Florida. GreenFig also has some capital backing from Wildcat Venture Partners in California.

“Our perspective is we’re going to continue to have programs to address new technologies and how those technologies drive business strategies,” Leoni said. “Unlike where people go to a coding bootcamp and are one and done, we are going to do that over time by staying relevant to businesses and to students,” she said.

That relevance, white-label approach to teaching and learning may not sound that unusual, but it is. A CEO with an unusual path may be the one to make it work; don’t be too surprised if she does.

Follow Derek Newton on Twitter or LinkedIn.


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History Majors: You’ve Got a Future in Tech

We’ve all heard the joke: What’s the difference between a large pizza and a history degree? One can feed a family of four. For the purposes of the pun, history can be replaced with any liberal arts major. From English and art history to political science and philosophy — the notion has been that those who choose a humanities tract graduate from college with heaps of debt yet find themselves working as a barista or the checkout line at Whole Foods. But that doesn’t mean their liberal arts degree doesn’t have value — even as we transform to a digital age. Many assume that in our current (and future) tech-consumed and driven world, that math and science education — software engineering, programming, coding, and the like — is the exclusive golden ticket to career success. To be sure, we need these kinds of minds and this kind of training. But, it’s a mistake to believe that the liberal arts educated don’t have a critical role to play in the digital workforce. Because after all, who is going to do the selling, the marketing and the customer servicing of today’s technology services and products? Answer: Those who have honed critical thinking, writing and interpersonal skills, and who possess the nontechnical ability to connect with end users a la their liberal arts education. This notion is confirmed in “That ‘Useless” Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket,” a Forbes article that provides example after example of liberal arts degree holders achieving success in today’s tech world, along with stats to back up the claim that tech companies are increasingly recruiting more nontechnical talent. The article uses the analogy of the automobile industry in the 1920s, which “created enormous numbers of jobs for people who helped fit cars into everyday life: marketers, salesmen, driving instructors, road crews and so on.” A similar trend is unfolding today. The article goes on to reveal that “throughout the major U.S. tech hubs, whether Silicon Valley or Seattle, Boston or Austin, Texas, software companies are discovering that liberal arts thinking makes them stronger. Engineers may still command the biggest salaries, but at disruptive juggernauts such as Facebook and Uber, the war for talent has moved to nontechnical jobs, particularly sales and marketing. The more that audacious coders dream of changing the world, the more they need to fill their companies with social alchemists who can connect with customers — and make progress seem pleasant.” And the ability to connect is what liberal arts thinkers do best. But don’t pack your bags for Silicon Valley just yet, English majors. Yes, you’ve got great critical thinking, writing and communication skills. And yes, tech companies are hiring nontechnical people like you. But to land one of the aforementioned sales and marketing positions requires more than just a degree. While you have the right foundation, your university education did not prepare you with the up-to-date digital skills and experience required for a job-ready resume in the fast-moving, fast-changing digital age. That’s why a liberal arts degree crossed with a microdegree in applied business science from GreenFig is such a powerful combination for procuring a growth career in tech. GreenFig’s curriculum has been tailored by industry experts to help you gain these high-demand skills and master critical strategic concepts in a short period of time. And unlike traditional online courses, GreenFig’s hybrid training platform is laser-focused on experiential learning — combining live, interactive online and offline team-based instruction, all the while guaranteeing its students gain real-world, practical experience. So you can demand a higher salary in an evolving industry faster than it takes to perfect latte art. For more details on how you can transform your liberal arts resume into a tech-ready ticket in less than 10 hours a week, visit greenfig.net. Click here course schedule for September 13, 2017 term.

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