As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Edouard Harris. Edouard is the CEO and cofounder of SharpestMinds, the world’s only marketplace for income-share agreements. SharpestMinds lets mentors train students for high-paying data science jobs for free upfront, in exchange for a percentage of the student’s first year of salary if they get hired in that job. Edouard cofounded SharpestMinds with his brother Jeremie.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Sure! A few years ago I did my PhD in Physics, and towards the end of it I started doing some machine learning on the side. Back then machine learning was just getting started.
My PhD work was on probability theory and biological systems. It was fun, but after a while I realized that the future of AI was going to be deep learning rather than the sort of stuff I was doing in my degree. I turned my attention to deep learning, and ended up falling in love with the field.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
There are so many. One common theme for us is that we keep running into glaring examples of how the job market fails: super bright people who struggle to land jobs for ridiculous reasons.
For example, just in the last couple of weeks we had one applicant who made a living for a year with an algorithm he designed to place bets on the outcomes of League of Legends games; one applicant who took apart her first computer at age seven; and one who taught himself computer science and deep learning from scratch in high school, and whose undergrad hobby is training audio models on computer clusters that run while he’s in his classes.
These are outstanding people. But they all struggled to get traction. Their resumes got thrown out the window because of their lack of formal education. That’s insane.
It seems like as a society, we’re experiencing the delusion that the only way someone can know something is if they have a piece of paper from an institution that says they know it. But that puts all the brilliant people who can’tafford $100K+ college tuition at a huge disadvantage, and we see it all the time.
Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?
Yes. SharpestMinds is a platform where aspiring data scientists find senior data scientists to help them prepare for jobs. In exchange for mentorship on technical projects and interview preparation, mentees pay back their data scientist mentors a small share of their first year of salary once they get hired.
The students don’t actually pay anything until they get a job. That makes it possible for folks from disadvantaged backgrounds to break into high-paying fields without spending tens of thousands of dollars up front on a degree.
And because each mentor’s paid only when their mentee gets hired, there’s a feeling of being in it together — of a real collaboration — that doesn’t exist anywhere else.
How do you think this will change the world?
For the first time in history, we’re making it possible for human beings to invest in each other. That means someone without a dollar to their name can get trained — and networked — by a world-class mentor in whatever field they want, at zero up front cost. That’s huge! We should expect that to massively increase the productivity of all of human civilization, forever.
Plus, it lowers the barrier to entry for everybody and helps disadvantaged groups break into high income brackets all over the globe. Like I mentioned, we’re starting with data science roles in North America, but it’s not like this idea is limited in terms of field of application or geography.
Yes, I can imagine the income share agreements, or ISAs, we use for this being misused. You wouldn’t want a situation where one person ends up owning a really big share of someone else’s salary, for example. I think it will make sense to regulate ISAs once we have an idea of how they might be abused. ISAs are an incredible way of paying for education when they’re done right, but just like anything else, it’s probably possible to use them wrong.
Luckily, ISAs are better than debt in pretty much every way. That means the worst abuses that happen with debt — for example, payday loan companies that keep you in poverty forever so that they can collect infinite interest from you — probably aren’t possible with ISAs. But that’s a hypothesis: ISAs are pretty new, so no one really knows yet if they can be misused or how that might happen.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
There was. Here’s what happened: my brother Jeremie and I started a company a few years ago to recruit data scientists. We trained and screened people, and we charged companies a placement fee to hire them.
Time after time, we’d see folks who’d graduated from a 4-year degree program, or even a Master’s degree specialized in data science, but couldn’t get hired because they didn’t have the skills or the networks they needed. In a lot of cases they were supplementing their degrees with online courses that did more to prepare them for the job market than all their time in college.
But there’s a problem with any course that’s intended for mass consumption: everyone does them, and all their grads look the same. So we saw a lot of people get typecast as “just another bootcamp grad”.
You can’t get an employer’s attention if you’re doing the same thing everyone else is doing. So we asked ourselves: can we make a personalized educational experience that will get students ready for the real world? The one-on-one attention of an experienced mentor seemed like it could work — and it did.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
It’s simple: more people need to know we exist! We grow by connecting people together to learn, so the more people connect, the more learning happens.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why.
Starting a startup is way harder than you’d expect at first, even if you’ve already been told how hard it is. The amount of uncertainty early on can be almost impossible to handle. But it’s worth it, because:
Your personality will change. And it almost always changes for the better. I’m much more open to helping out everyone I meet today than I was in the past. And that’s because I’ve learned that:
Being nice takes a long time to pay off, but when it does, it pays off hundreds of times over. The world is hard, but at least the startup world is positive sum: the more you help others, the more value you create for everyone! I’m still reaping benefits from help I offered people two years ago. That’s a strong motivation to be nice, stop, and help out.
Everything’s important, but nothing’s more important than communication. And communication doesn’t just mean talking about strategy, but about emotions and morale too. A startup is a roller coaster, and everyone’s ride is different. You need lots of touch points with your team to make sure everyone’s needs are met.
Finally, if you really make something people really want, they’ll tell you ways to make it even better.
The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?
That’s very hard. We don’t know what’s in the future, so we have no idea what jobs will or won’t exist in ten years.
The best solution I can give you is to focus on high-leverage skills that are easily transferable. High-leverage means: you can use this skill to create value for lots of people, with not that much work. Transferable means: if you switch positions or industries, this skill will probably stay useful.
Writing and coding are both transferable and high-leverage. If you do either of those things especially well, you can create value for a ton of people without having to do a ton of work.
Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?
I’d bet it on educational companies that invest in their students, rather than the other way around.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
I look for the point of highest leverage in every situation, and then I push as hard as I can on that point. The point of highest leverage is the place where you can create the most amount of value by doing the least amount of work. So if you find a high-leverage activity and you also put lots of work into it, you can create an incredible amount of value.
Another principle I follow comes from this great quote by Charlie Munger: “Show me the incentives, and I will show you the outcome.”
Leverage and incentives. When you get down to it, nothing else matters.
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
Sure. If you want to build up good habits, you should start off really small. For example, if you want to work out, you should start by doing one pushup every day. If you want to write, start by writing one sentence every day. This is something I’ve learned from Russell, our CTO, who’s constantly improving himself by building good habits.
One key habit is to become intentional about who you spend your time with. Don’t look for people you like — look for people you want to be like. There will be lots of overlap.
If you want a success mindset, remember that success and comfort are opposites. You as a person have an ultimate, maximum potential of what you can become in your lifetime. But whatever that potential is, I guarantee you it isn’t inside your current comfort zone. Many successful people are uncomfortable when you see them up close. This is why.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I’d tell them we don’t need funding at the moment, but I’m open for coffee if you’d like to chat.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow us on Twitter. I’m @neutronsNeurons and Jeremie is @jeremiecharris. And you can follow our CTO Russell at @russ_poll.
Our DMs are open!
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.
Happy to do it!