Jake Schwartz, WG’08, CEO and co-founder General Assembly
16 September, 2014
General Assembly teaches technology, design and business in a variety of formats that appeal to its enterprising adult students and to the companies that hire them. With 11 campuses worldwide and a large presence in New York City, General Assembly (GA) is growing by 20% per quarter. More than 90% of its current base of 6,000 ‘long-form
course’ alumni have secured good-paying jobs within three months of graduation, in hot industries, in the leading cities on the planet.
CEO and co-founder Jake Schwartz, WG’08, learned a ton at Wharton, loves New York City and wants GA graduates to thrive. I interviewed Jake at GA’s campus, located at 902 North Broadway in Manhattan, and then took a fun and insightful class in storytelling.
What is GA’s core value proposition?
Students invest in our 10- to 12-week courses to transform themselves. They learn skills to level up in their current positions or change the trajectory of their careers. We have a full-time staff whose only job is to build a relationship with employers and to help graduates on their journeys to find that job or career that will make them
tremendously excited. That is our core value proposition — and we invest in it accordingly.
We want students to experience an outrageous ROI on their time here, by having a successful career they love. Our philosophy is that, when students spend 12 weeks with us in a course, they are alumni for the next 50 years. Our mission is to build a global community and provide all kinds of opportunities for our alumni, for their entire lives. That’s how we think about GA.
Can you share GA’s secret sauce?
We have skilled practitioners teaching relevant subject matter. Originally, we assumed we needed professors from NYU and Columbia to obtain that imprimatur of credibility, but those professors uniformly received the worst reviews. What we backed into was that students came to us because we did not have professors. That was the “aha” moment. We became a school of practitioners — teaching subjects that did not exist 20 years ago. The education system of the 20th century created an odd environment where things that were practical in nature were eschewed by academia. The 21st century is about making things and doing things, not just thinking about them.
What was your path from Wharton?
Upon graduation in 2008, I began working at a small private equity firm. I learned so much from the principals and spent time with smart entrepreneurs in the portfolio companies, but business was at a standstill, and there just wasn’t much for me to do.
I decided to hustle for my rent money by consulting for all kinds of businesses in New York. I was lucky in that I had worked two years at the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) while at Wharton, consulting to help local Philadelphia businesses. My time at the SBDC was an incredibly rewarding experience, because I learned how to scope and sell work. I had invaluable mentors, including Leslie Mitts, WG’90, who was the SBDC Director at the time. I managed to convert my knowledge into a survival strategy by helping online grocers, ebook publishers and mobile development shops. I would say that I knew how to do anything people wanted to pay me to do, and figured it out along the way.
I loved New York City from the moment I first set foot here. There were all these people joining Meetups and talking about their startups in New York in a different way. I left one day per week open for entrepreneurial efforts, hoping to build up equity in something. In the process, I met Matthew Brimer and Brad Hargreaves, who wanted to build a community space for all their entrepreneur friends. Over the course of several weeks, we brought in another co-founder, Adam Pritzker, took on 20,000 square feet at 21st Street and Broadway, and sold out the space to entrepreneurs and startups.
It was one of those special situations wherein each of the co-founders brought very different orientations, skill sets and relationships to bear. By having these four people focused on the company, we built more value than we could have imagined out of this tiny idea. Then our job became figuring out how to harness that momentum, energy, cash flow and community, and turn it into something more. We began teaching classes for the entrepreneurs and had 60 classes in one room by the time we raised our Series A funding.
Describe your day as CEO.
As the CEO, my day is filled with meetings. I focus on hiring amazing people, making sure GA’s vision is consistent among these team members, and ensuring they are given the resources they need to be successful in their roles. GA now has 260 full-time employees, plus contractors. My job is to marshal attention to allow the organization to grow
and do more amazing stuff.
What is GA’s approach to the enterprise market? There are hundreds of corporate training companies?
Are there really? It’s the fastest growing part of our company. We teach the same fields as we do to our consumer students, leveraging our skilled practitioners, but in the corporate context.
We offer our Digital Immersion Program, in-person, which covers topics including social media, mobile and big data, with all kinds of additional modules attached. Our clients include JPMorgan Chase, American Express and GE, as well as smaller firms. They want to catch up with recent shifts in marketing and product development. Firms want to build the capability to understand and evaluate opportunities in-house, versus relying on external service providers. The corporate students range from middle managers to senior executives. What’s wonderful is that, after they complete the programs, they come back and hire our GA graduates. I do my best to help these corporate clients see our graduates for the talented resources they are.
Our corporate clients also asked us to develop an online platform to serve a larger part of their population, delivering those same modules. There has been incredible engagement and adoption at the companies where we’ve launched this program. The students who work in these corporations are the same as those who come to us from other avenues. They have the same desire — to find work that they love, that gets them excited to wake up in the morning. We want to welcome them all into our community.
You look like a reader.
I ask every GA manager to read two books. The first is Getting More: How to Negotiate to Achieve Your Goals in the Real World by Wharton professor Stuart Diamond. It teaches not only negotiations but interpersonal communication inside the company. The other is Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck — Why Some Thrive Despite Them All, the newest book by Jim Collins, which talks about the disciplines you need when you are growing this fast. My favorite author of all time is Neal Stephenson, a science fiction writer. Everything he has ever written is prescient.
Why does Wharton have such impact?
I love to meet with recent Wharton grads, to help guide them through the waters that I had to go through myself.
Wharton has a tough job because it has to be a lot of things to a lot of different people. What makes Wharton so impressive is its ability to gather that diverse group of people, with diverse ambitions, and still deliver a coherent view of the world of business.
What I personally enjoyed at Wharton was how well-thought-out the curriculum was, and how those frameworks are still meaningful to me today. There is the finance/accounting track, the game theory turning into the strategy and statistics track, and the human capital and management track. If you think of business through these three frameworks, it’s not that hard on the surface, yet there are incredible complexities underneath. My experience at Wharton was incredible. My training, however, wasn’t immediately relevant for me as I started this company. Now that we’ve become a real business, with all kinds of complicated problems to solve, those frameworks that I learned at Wharton have more application all the time. I still rely on my mentors, Leslie Mitts and Eric Clemons, Professor of Operations and Information Management, who helped me negotiate that journey from working at a firm to becoming my own person and having the confidence to manage uncertainty. That came from their mentorship.
How do you see productivity?
I think about productivity in terms of communication and context.
Working in a team, each person has a discipline. Team productivity can break down in communications, when members have different disciplines, different vocabularies and different ways of understanding the world. When you bring a breadth of knowledge along with deep expertise to a team, it increases productivity. That idea applies in most
corporate and entrepreneurial settings. The ability to speak other peoples’ languages, whether they are technical or creative or business-oriented, becomes important for you to be a member of the team and a leader of that environment.
Productivity of the individual is not the issue in modern society — it’s the productivity of the team, which comes down to communication, understanding and empathy.
What we are doing at GA, besides building skills in people to do the work needed in today’s world, is building in people a broad perspective of the other skill sets necessary to get a job done, and the ability to work together in those teams to do so. That’s what we do both for enterprises and individuals.
I’ve had my Wharton classmates taking GA classes in Web development, not necessarily because they want to be Web developers, but because they want to speak that language, and understand it for whatever role they are taking on.