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Social Impact Heroes: How Vivek Sharma of InStride is giving thousands of employees the opportunity to earn advanced degrees debt-free

I believe people recognize the barriers that stand in the way of someone earning a degree, whether it be economic, socio-economic, distance, a lack of time or a lack of resources. That’s why many of today’s leaders are discussing options to help address some of these obstacles. Ultimately, we need to understand and be willing […]


I believe people recognize the barriers that stand in the way of someone earning a degree, whether it be economic, socio-economic, distance, a lack of time or a lack of resources. That’s why many of today’s leaders are discussing options to help address some of these obstacles. Ultimately, we need to understand and be willing to re-define the importance of higher education in today’s ever-changing and technologically advancing society.

Corporations need a better way to re-skill and upskill their workforce; universities need new ways to reach and teach students; and individuals need to increase their skills in order to increase their earning potential. One statistic that resonates strongly with me is the importance of a mother who is able to earn a degree. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, since “postsecondary education is associated with higher incomes, better health and improved educational outcomes among children, increasing single mothers’ college attainment can have far-reaching, multigenerational benefits for families and communities.”

One of the biggest challenges facing our current culture is that we attend school for the first 20 years of our life and expect that education to last an entire lifetime. Unfortunately, because of the pace of change in today’s technologically advanced world, that is no longer feasible. As Arizona State University President Michael Crow professes, “It’s poorly designed, and it’s useful for the past but not useful for the future.” Every day, more employees feel overwhelmed with the fact that they may not have the appropriate knowledge to succeed. They do not have the knowledge to compete for new jobs and their old jobs are being replaced with new technologies. It is time to create a new learning system that provides educational opportunities available throughout a person’s life and accessible through a person’s employer.


As part of my series about “companies and organizations making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vivek Sharma. Vivek is the CEO & Founder of InStride, a global learning services enterprise designed to achieve significant social impact through partnerships with universities and employers, providing employees the opportunity to earn the highest-quality degrees. He also teaches business innovation to graduate data science and MBA students at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. Previously, Vivek was SVP, Digital Guest Experience & eCommerce for Disney Parks, Experiences & Products, where he led global eCommerce, physical-digital convergence and AI integration. Vivek also served as GM of Yahoo! Mail & Messenger, VP of product management for Yahoo! Search & Commerce, and as an associate partner in McKinsey & Company’s Technology practice. He graduated from Indian Institute of Technology and holds an MBA from INSEAD.


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

I have had the good fortune to work for several prominent global corporations such as McKinsey, Yahoo and Disney, as well as within two university systems, as an adjunct professor of data science at the University of Southern California and as a board member of EdPlus at Arizona State University. These two different avenues of my professional life have provided me with a unique view of a challenging issue facing companies and universities. As an educational professional, I know how much focus, rigor and time universities invest in preparing learners for the future. As a Fortune 50 corporate executive, I saw my employees trying to apply the decades-old knowledge to the fast-paced challenges of today’s business environment. Despite obvious synergies, corporations and universities rarely collaborate at scale, because they have different clock speeds, cultures and stakeholders. I saw the need for a new organization that could connect corporations with universities to better educate the millions of people who have been unable to achieve the life-changing benefit of a college education.

This insight was the inspiration behind InStride, founded in partnership with Arizona State University, ranked as the most innovative university in the United States, and The Rise Fund, a global social impact investment fund managed by TPG. Our aspiration is to lead a major shift in the way businesses and universities work together and create a lasting social impact by helping employees earn a degree, at little or no personal cost.

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

Several days after our launch, I moderated a panel on “The Future of University and Corporate Partnerships” with Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, Steve Ellis from The Rise Fund and Kevin Johnson, CEO of Starbucks. Five years ago, Starbucks and ASU created a partnership that would became the catalyst for InStride. Kevin Johnson shared that Starbucks had many employees who were “struggling under loads of student debt to finish their educations,” which prompted Starbucks to help employees “get that education that was out of reach.” There are currently more than 12,000 people enrolled in the program and almost 3,000 people have earned their degrees debt-free, thanks to the generosity of Starbucks. Talk about impact!

Our research shows that of the 36 million people in the workforce or 8 out of 10 without a degree would be interested in earning their degrees if they received assistance from their employers. Imagine the social impact we can have when other visionary employers like Starbucks begin offering educational opportunities online through the highest-quality universities at little or no cost to their employees.

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?

As a CEO, it’s important to focus first and foremost on things that only you can do — this includes articulating company vision, setting and enforcing standards, proactively shaping company culture, allocating resources and navigating investor and board management. There is no good fallback mechanism if the CEO doesn’t find time for these things, which underscores the need for hiring a strong executive team. At InStride, I feel privileged to have a highly talented and mission-oriented C-staff, who cumulatively have more than 65 years of experience spanning higher education, technology & executive leadership.

Can you describe how your organization is making a significant social impact?

InStride is a public benefit corporation (“B-Corp”) and has social impact metrics built into its DNA.

This means that along with running our business efficiently, we must demonstrate the social impact of our efforts. That impact is driven by the number of learners who can achieve their educational goals, primarily by earning a degree. Statistics show that, on average, someone who earns a college degree doubles their annual salary from $33,800 to $67,700 per year. Now, consider the additional impact on their family and what can happen if more people in a community are able to achieve that same level of income growth.

Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by this cause?

In addition to Starbucks, ASU has developed partnerships with other companies interested in providing educational opportunities to employees and their families. I was using a popular ride-sharing service and while chatting with the driver, I asked him if he was aware of a program his company had started with ASU. He proudly told me that he was specifically driving for this company because of the program it offered, which allowed him to take advantage of the educational offering or gift it to a family member. In his case, his daughter was able to enroll for a nursing program at ASU. I think about him often since most people don’t have the opportunity to work for a company like InStride that is driven by a mission to help people succeed and better themselves.

Are there things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

I believe people recognize the barriers that stand in the way of someone earning a degree, whether it be economic, socio-economic, distance, a lack of time or a lack of resources. That’s why many of today’s leaders are discussing options to help address some of these obstacles. Ultimately, we need to understand and be willing to re-define the importance of higher education in today’s ever-changing and technologically advancing society.

Corporations need a better way to re-skill and upskill their workforce; universities need new ways to reach and teach students; and individuals need to increase their skills in order to increase their earning potential. One statistic that resonates strongly with me is the importance of a mother who is able to earn a degree. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, since “postsecondary education is associated with higher incomes, better health and improved educational outcomes among children, increasing single mothers’ college attainment can have far-reaching, multigenerational benefits for families and communities.”

One of the biggest challenges facing our current culture is that we attend school for the first 20 years of our life and expect that education to last an entire lifetime. Unfortunately, because of the pace of change in today’s technologically advanced world, that is no longer feasible. As Arizona State University President Michael Crow professes, “It’s poorly designed, and it’s useful for the past but not useful for the future.” Every day, more employees feel overwhelmed with the fact that they may not have the appropriate knowledge to succeed. They do not have the knowledge to compete for new jobs and their old jobs are being replaced with new technologies. It is time to create a new learning system that provides educational opportunities available throughout a person’s life and accessible through a person’s employer.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I believe in leading by example and modeling the traits and attributes I value, such as accountability and integrity. We want our InStriders (our name for our employees) to be empowered and accountable for their work and their actions also. We all have objectives that we need to accomplish and it’s my role to ensure each of our InStriders has what they need to be successful. From a leadership perspective, I want them to envision themselves as leading the growth of our organization, by holding myself to the same high standards.

We hire for talent and cultural fit, because we want to work with others who are passionate about our company and the impact we are dedicated to achieving. I do not believe in micro-managing, but I do host 60- to 90-minute sessions with every new hire on their first day to make sure they know why the company was founded and its mission, vision and goals. I am also able to share my personal journey with them and my expectations. After that, it is my job to step back and allow them to bring their experience, knowledge and talent to the team in order for us to be successful together.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

One day, very early in my career, I was having lunch with a mentor and asked for some career tips. He talked about the increasing pace of change and emphasized that “every six months at least one out of the following — your boss, your role your, title, your company or your division — may change, and getting anchored around these things makes no professional sense.” Instead, he suggested to anchor around “Learn, Deliver, and Connect” — learning marketplace relevant skills, (over) delivering on business priorities and connecting at personal level with colleagues along the journey. Any changes that would arise on a professional level would take care of themselves if I continued to take care of those three things priorities. It was one of the most valuable pieces of advice I’ve ever received.

The other valuable lesson I have learned is the importance of optimism. Optimism is contagious, especially when coming from the top. Leaders who demonstrate an optimistic approach to every challenge and opportunity have teams who inevitably embody that trait. I model that optimism with every one of our stakeholder groups, whether that be with our InStriders, our university partners, our corporate partners or our investors. This positive mindset is not a Pollyanna-ish worldview where everything is always perfect, and everyone is always happy. Rather, it is making the most of every opportunity and finding the best possible outcomes, even when facing our greatest challenges.

You are a person of enormous 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. 🙂

As part of a panel discussion at an ASU-GSV conference, Steve Ellis, managing partner at The Rise Fund, explained that “between a third and one half of income inequality, which has expanded dramatically over the years, can be attributed to a lack of high-quality continuing education…what would it take for us to create a movement that would make this a responsibility of all corporations and organizations?” We were able to share InStride’s goal of leading an educational movement whereby corporations assist their employees in achieving high-quality university degrees and the tremendous impact that could have on our society.

The impact that companies such as Starbucks are having on their employees is remarkable. But, what would happen if other visionary corporations and other high-quality universities joined this movement with us?

Consider the amount of student debt, which is currently $1.5 trillion, disappearing. Consider the better uses of capital that was previously designated for attraction and retention. Consider the new knowledge that could be returned to our workforce through re-skilling and up-skilling. Finally, consider the positive impact in the lives of millions of employees, their families and their communities.

I’m fortunate to lead a team committed to making this future a reality.

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

I am fond of saying “the best is yet to come.” It simultaneously keeps me humble and hungry when things are going well, as well as focused and motivated when they are not. Especially in launching our new company, there can be plenty of highs and lows, due to unanticipated circumstances, so it is important that we keep that optimistic frame of mind. For us at InStride, when we think about the number of students who are currently enrolled and making their way toward earning their life-changing, career-boosting university degrees, we know the best is yet to come.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Bill Gates. Just think about the scale of the impact he’s already had! As founder and CEO of Microsoft, he was the pioneer in bringing technology into our daily lives. He believed that innovation came from collaboration and the sharing of ideas. He was also a proponent of listening to customers’ feedback in order to better understand their needs. From a philanthropic perspective, the work that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is having on healthcare in less privileged societies is deeply inspiring. The Foundation’s ability to both financially support these vital programs and also give these organizations a platform to share their needs with the world is both noble and necessary.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow InStride on Twitter @InStrideLearn and me, personally @sharmavivek10. You can also find new job opportunities for future InStriders on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/company/instride-learning .

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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