Lexi Zarecky: “Encourage people to make an impact through their work”

I would love to inspire a movement that encourages people to make an impact through their work. I am a big believer in market-based solutions and building organizations that are sustainable — whether they are for-profit or non-profit organizations. I have worked with many non-profits and NGOs and have seen the importance of having a […]

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I would love to inspire a movement that encourages people to make an impact through their work. I am a big believer in market-based solutions and building organizations that are sustainable — whether they are for-profit or non-profit organizations. I have worked with many non-profits and NGOs and have seen the importance of having a financially sustainable organization to have a sustained impact. After working with a microfinance NGO that was struggling to maintain its operations after government funding significantly decreased, I realized the importance of building organizations that can remain independent of donors through earned income.

As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lexi Zarecky.

Lexi Zarecky is the Managing Director of EmergingEd, an education technology startup seeking to solve the global skills gap by offering expert-driven online courses in tech-forward disciplines including cybersecurity, blockchain and data science. She is passionate about leveraging technology to scale impact, and has experience in the FinTech, EdTech and Healthcare sectors. Previously, Lexi was the Director of Operations at Everspring, a leading online program management company, where she developed scalable business solutions and processes for a rapidly growing organization. During business school, she interned with the Vaccine Delivery team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation where she supported the development of the team’s investment strategy to train the global immunization workforce through innovative technology and business solutions. Lexi started her career with Deloitte’s Strategy & Operations consulting practice, where she worked across a range of clients from local hospital systems to Fortune 500 companies to support business model transformations, perform in-depth market analyses and translate data into strategic insights. In her spare time, she volunteers as an Executive Board member with Dreams for Kids, a 30-year-old Chicago non-profit focused on replacing charity with opportunity for youth through mentorship in social entrepreneurship.

Lexi received her MBA with Honors from The University of Chicago Booth School of Business and graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude from Vanderbilt University with a B.A. in Economics and Political Science.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Thank you so much for having me — it is exciting to be part of this initiative! I started my career in consulting but spent a lot of time volunteering on the side with non-profits in the education space. I quickly saw the gap in access to quality education throughout the Chicago area, and noticed how support to close knowledge and skills gaps were lacking once students reached a certain age. Specifically, although there are a lot of youth mentor-ship programs focused on supporting students through high school and college, there was still a lot of room to grow on the workforce development side to support young adults and individuals in their careers as the economy continues to evolve. I am a big believer in building sustainable solutions and decided to explore opportunities in education technology to learn how to build accessible and scalable educational products. I learned a lot about how technology is transforming higher education at Everspring and was able to bring best practices in how to prototype, develop and scale technology solutions for workforce development to the Gates Foundation as an intern. I was extremely lucky to see how a leading foundation approaches impact, and my experience focusing on leveraging technology to support skill development solidified my passion and desire to return to the startup space — and led me to EmergingEd, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Everspring.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Upon returning to the edtech space and Everspring to launch EmergingEd, I was extremely excited to help sign and launch our first corporate partner. At Everspring, we had only worked with and partnered with universities, so it was great but nerve racking to lead implementation of the first company partnership for both Everspring and EmergingEd. It was quickly apparent up front how much faster we would be able to move without the typical bureaucracy in higher education, and I was able to grow the relationship early on from developing one course to multiple courses in a couple months of our partnership. EmergingEd has been extremely lucky that our first corporate partner is FireEye, a leading cyber-security company, and that their team has been great partners for us. Every time we have made a recommendation for a new marketing tactic or potential adjustment to the course structure, they have been open minded and willing to be flexible.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Definitely! We launched EmergingEd in mid-March, and a lot of work went into getting our website, courses, and processes up and running. Right before launch, I worked with my team to develop some initial dashboards so we could track progress and initial demand. I thought that we had everything tied off and had tested it with some fake data to confirm. When our first course started, I went to see how many students were in the course and realized that we needed to make a couple adjustments. We quickly discussed the changes in the dashboards we would need to make, and the following day I went to double check and realized that our numbers were still off! I quickly realized that I had misspoke during our meeting and asked for the wrong change — making it harder on myself to be able to see how we were progressing. This highlighted the need for clear communication to me in a rapidly changing environment, and I’ve now (especially with everyone working from home) been working to get better at having clear meeting follow ups via email to make sure everyone is on the same page. This has definitely helped, because we can clarify any questions and ensure that the right next step will take place!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

EmergingEd’s mission is to provide working professionals with the commercially relevant knowledge and skills they need to excel in their careers and stay ahead of the curve on emerging technologies. With course content developed in partnership with leading industry experts, direct access to experienced practitioners currently working in the field, and downloadable, high-impact resources that learners can immediately use on the job, EmergingEd provides a differentiated online experience and works to address the current skills gaps in the workforce. When we were first piloting our courses, I had a friend from business school take our Block chain Foundations and Frameworks course to give me feedback. She had taken a block chain course at Booth, and I was curious to hear how ours compared. It was extremely rewarding when she let me know that the course was extremely clear and that she enjoyed the engaging structure — she even said it was better than what she was taught during business school!

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes, we have a few in motion! Given the current climate, we are focusing heavily on developing courses in the healthcare space to meet changing market needs and teach how technology and data can be leveraged in the field. We are also exploring how we can support training at an enterprise level to facilitate the rapid need for employee skills development — specifically, reskilling and upskilling — by companies. Finally, we are kicking off a couple new courses with our corporate content partner, FireEye, with a plan to build a new cybersecurity certification to support workers transitioning into the field through the training we will offer together.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

I am continuously learning and developing my leadership skillset, but I have a few “guidelines” that I work to follow that have helped me in my time with EmergingEd so far. One of the biggest pieces of advice that I would give other female leaders is to learn how to communicate clearly and build a culture of trust and transparency in your organization. I believe that it is extremely important for team members to understand the direction the company is going, what we will do to get there, and how their work will be a part of it. This also helps to ensure that everyone’s ideas can be heard, and ensures you put things into perspective: things can go wrong, but if you recognize that everyone is human and have built a culture of trust, you at least know that if mistakes are made, everyone is still working toward the end goal and that they can course correct as needed. The other piece of advice I would give is to build thick skin: you need to be confident in the direction you are taking as an organization. Criticism can easily come along the way, but if you have built a strong foundation and have a clear strategic direction, you can be confident in moving forward.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

In order to manage a large team, I have found that it is important to create a culture where everyone’s input is valued and where they are a part of the collective business. Everyone should know their work has an impact on the business and understand how their work fits into the bigger picture. I manage my team by giving clear direction to team members and ensure that each individual has ownership over an initiative. This makes it easy to set goals and deadlines against, track progress, and enable team members to see their contributions to the business. It also makes it easier to provide support and guidance to team members.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have been lucky throughout my career to have developed strong working relationships that have turned into mentorships, and one of the biggest supporters in my career has been Beth Hollenberg, who is the President of Everspring. While pursuing my MBA, Beth consistently provided me with advice and was a great sounding board to help me navigate my career. I was unsure of what I wanted to do post-MBA but was curious about exploring the healthcare sector through consulting — she was an avid supporter for me to explore my options, and even sent over the names of some interesting healthcare organizations she had been following. A few months into my first job post MBA, I reconnected with Beth and learned about a new business Everspring was launching. She mentioned that there was an opportunity for me to come back to help run it, and I jumped at the chance — I was grateful that she trusted me enough to bring me back for this important role, and couldn’t have been more excited to help launch EmergingEd!

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I am a big believer in giving back and have been focused on sharing knowledge with others and supporting others in their career paths. I would not be where I am today without the mentorship and support of many individuals, and I want to be able to pay it forward. During business school, I was deeply involved in the social impact community, and served as a Career Advisor to help others navigate landing a job with meaning. I also helped develop Booth’s first student-run impact investing fund and began multiple career workshops to support my peers. Outside of work, I am currently on the Executive Board of Dreams for Kids, a long-running Chicago non-profit that is shifting its mission to mentoring youth in social entrepreneurship. My hope is to support individuals, both youth and my peers, in realizing that they can have an impact and pursuing opportunities where they can drive meaningful impact in the world.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Learn to be understanding as things go wrong: In a startup, things can and will go wrong. It is helpful to take a step back and remember that everyone is human, and we all make mistakes. When we first launched, we realized that our systems were not syncing properly, but our tech team jumped in and created a manual workaround until they could get everything up and running again. This made me realize that through things can go wrong, everyone is working toward the same goal, and that it is better to be prepared for things to potentially break or not fully work right so you can get a plan in place instead of focusing on criticizing what went wrong in the first place.
  2. Ask for Help: It is helpful to remember that you are not alone and have a team supporting you. Early on, I was hesitant to ask for help because I wanted to show that I could successfully launch a new business. When we hired our customer support specialist, I started trying to build a training program from scratch and figure out how to teach her a new sales process. I quickly realized that I was stretching myself thin and making things unnecessarily difficult: I decided to ask for help from our broader admissions team, who were extremely helpful and supportive. I realized that asking others for help and support is ok, and that you need to be comfortable with not having all the answers.
  3. Be the leader: If you want to do something, you have to do it and follow through — you cannot just assume someone else will step in to pick up an initiative. Early on, I thought it would be a great idea to host a webinar with one of our course authors to talk about cybersecurity given the rapid shift to companies working from home. I mentioned it to our team, and we were all on board. However, since it was EmergingEd’s first webinar, we were trying to understand the right way to host one — and had a short timeframe of a week to figure it out. I waited a couple days and realized that if I did not drive it forward, it likely would not happen on time, so I stepped in to figure out the logistics and steps we needed to take to make it happen. It ended up turning out great!
  4. Take the time to teach others: When launching a new business, you can definitely run into time constraints and needing to get things done quickly. I tend to just dive into a project to get it done, but I realized that I needed to leverage my team more instead of trying to own a ton of initiatives at once. One example of this is EmergingEd’s course roadmap: we are consistently working to identify potential new courses, and I had some specific ideas in mind of how I would go about it. I realized that to make the process scalable, I needed to bring other team members in and help them understand how I would approach the identification process so they could take ownership of it.
  5. Learn how to focus your efforts: When launching a new business, there is a plethora of things that need to get done and potential opportunities to grow the business. It is important to focus on the main initiatives that are going to drive the business forward and to not get distracted by other opportunities. We currently sell our courses both direct to consumer and through universities, and we saw a potential opportunity for global expansion. We started to do some research and put time behind global expansion, but quickly realized that it was a distraction from building and launching our product. It was an important lesson in realizing that we needed to better focus our efforts.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to inspire a movement that encourages people to make an impact through their work. I am a big believer in market-based solutions and building organizations that are sustainable — whether they are for-profit or non-profit organizations. I have worked with many non-profits and NGOs and have seen the importance of having a financially sustainable organization to have a sustained impact. After working with a microfinance NGO that was struggling to maintain its operations after government funding significantly decreased, I realized the importance of building organizations that can remain independent of donors through earned income.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life lesson quote is “be comfortable with being uncomfortable.” I have constantly been learning new things and figuring out how to quickly adapt while launching EmergingEd and have gotten used to being in situations where I might not know the answer right away but can figure out how to get there. I have always been someone who likes to constantly push myself, build new skills and keep learning — and I cannot think of a better way to continue to grow than launching a new business.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would love to be able to meet with Bill Gates. Having interned at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I found some of their grant making processes fascinating and am curious to speak to him about how they drive outcomes and sustainable impact through their funding mechanisms to non-profits. I am very curious to speak to him about his goals for the foundation, and how he sees non-profits evolving over time away from traditional grant-making to more sustainable organizations.

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