January 30, 2020

An Unusual Path For The CEO Of An Unusual Education Company

Derek Newton, Education Contributor, Forbes
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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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