Founder's Five + Higher Ed + Human Capital Management
Founder’s Five: Rajay Naik, Skilled Education
Founder’s Five is a continuing series from Tyton Partners that invites education company founders to shed light on their own success and illuminate the landscape for other education entrepreneurs and investors by answering five basic questions.
Rajay founded U.K.-based Skilled Education in 2020 with a mission to become the catalyst of online education for universities, organizations, and governments.
Skilled Education designs, develops, markets, and delivers online pathways, degrees, and skills programs for range of partners that include the University of Cambridge, LSE, UWE Bristol and the U.K. National Health Service.
Skilled Education is also partnered with the British government’s flagship upskilling initiative, Help to Grow. The national initiative brings Skilled Education together with more than 50 U.K. business schools to train over one million business leaders in critical leadership and digital skills. In 2021, Skilled Education was named EdTech Provider of the Year at the Education Investor Awards.
What is your company’s origin story?
We trace our story back to the evolution of online education in Europe. When we were establishing FutureLearn in 2012, that was a response to what we saw happening with Coursera and edX. When we got the international business going at Keypath, that was a response to what we had seen happening in the United States. We started Skilled Education because we saw a clear need to unbundle the classic OPM model and wanted to help universities with very specific ambitions that they have: expanding their source markets, diversifying their balance sheets, transforming pedagogy, and helping with major priorities (such as employability, upskilling, and student satisfaction).
We were determined to make sure that we gave universities a choice. We provide flexibility by unbundling the conventional model, but we also act as a catalyst for innovation in a much broader sense. We help universities reimagine what they do and better connect their provision with the expectations of students and employers.
How will the market be changed by your company’s success?
I hope that whatever Skilled Education does, that we will always be known as a good company that does good, that acts in the interest of its partners, that acts in the interest of its primary geographic nation (the United Kingdom), that is a company that people look forward to working with, that does the right thing, and is a champion for everything that online education represents and can enable.
We don’t subscribe to the hyperbole in this space, but we do subscribe to what can be achieved when hard working, passionate, and talented people come together to extend access to education. And if we can do that in a good way – in a humble way, I’ll be very proud.
What do you know now that you wish you had known when you began?
I wish I had known that where you begin is not where you end. When I was starting out in education, I had a very naïve view of how work operates – let alone how careers operate. I never saw the entrepreneurial reality of creating something by spotting a gap and responding to that with great people, great quality, great ethics, and great answers. But also, knowing this would evolve and shift and I learned that the joy comes in that evolution. So, I wish I’d realized that a bit earlier because I think I would have been more relaxed. I would have been more aware of how these journeys operate. But I suppose that’s the joy of the whole thing: that you’re always discovering new things and learning new things. I think understanding entrepreneurialism a little bit sooner would have been wonderful, I wouldn’t want to change any part of the journey. The journey is fun and it’s what makes it worthy of that name. I’m so grateful for the lessons.
What non-intuitive insight have you gained through this work?
There is a misconception about the way that universities operate. Universities are regarded as slow, bureaucratic, monolithic organizations that lack innovation and commercial know-how and are stuck in their ways. And maybe it’s because we started Skilled Education during the pandemic, but what I’ve always encountered is great people wanting to do great things.
Of course, by the very nature of what they do, these institutions are cautious and sometimes very considered in their decision making. But one of the joys of what we do is that we get to pick and work with universities that are determined to be more dynamic. Our partners are pioneering. The greatest thing is that when they come into the room to meet with you, that’s their innovative part of the day. That’s their time where they get to create something new. Of course, there are places that are slow and bureaucratic, but in a large part, most of the institutions we work with are determined to extend access and accelerate innovation. And that goes against the grain of common orthodoxy.
Of course, there are places that are slow and bureaucratic, but in large part, most of the institutions we work with are determined to extend access and accelerate innovation. And that goes against the grain of common orthodoxy.
But it’s an important reality, which we need to do a better job of promoting because they are cathedrals of learning; and they make our cities, countries, and world a better place.
What other education company besides your own do you wish you had started?
I wouldn’t have wanted to write a different story. I genuinely feel like the luckiest and happiest guy. However, I would argue that Google is an education company, first and foremost. It’s about extending access to answers. It’s about bringing together the world’s knowledge and making that accessible to more people more of the time in ways that make a tangible difference to people’s lives. These huge companies do so much good. Yes, they have their challenges, need to be regulated, and must demonstrate that they’re acting in the public good – particularly given the size and scale in which they operate. But there is nothing better than doing game-changing things that have a positive impact on people’s lives.
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