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Tips From The Top: One On One With Anant Agarwal

I spoke to Anant Agarwal. CEO of edX, the nonprofit online learning destination founded by Harvard and MIT, about his best advice

Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Anant: I have been a serial entrepreneur having started several VC-backed startups over the past 30 years as a professor at MIT. But edX is my first non-profit startup!

Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Anant: Before I began working at edX, I was fortunate enough to get an opportunity that would pave the way for everything that would come later: I became one of the first from my small town of Mangalore, India to attend the Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IIT Madras), one of the world’s most prestigious universities. But my small town schooling did not fully prepare me for the rigors of university work, and in fact, I was of only two students who failed the first Physics exam in my freshman year. I am constantly reminded of my own experience as edX tries to democratize education for learners everywhere.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Anant: I think empathy, communication, critical thinking, and teamwork are essential to effective leadership. I strongly feel that educators, and the workforce, need to put a renewed focus on developing these types of soft skills, which are better termed power skills. In a similar vein, I think being funny and being able to find the humor in things is critical to being a good leader. You can disarm people with humor even if they are going to be unhappy with a decision.

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Anant:

1) Find a mentor

I was lucky enough to find a mentor, my 9th grade math teacher in my hometown of Mangalore, who inspired me to think that I was capable of more than the life I had pictured for myself. He was the first person to suggest attending one of the IIT’s – and helped me get there. An invaluable mentor is someone who does not just set a goal for you and walk away. They should be a resource and supporter each step of the way to achieving the goal they inspired.

2) When you don’t know what to do, do a lot of experimentation rather than sitting back and hoping the right thing comes along, so the odds of hitting upon the right thing increase

The most important aspect of achieving something is also the most obvious: hard work.

When you’re trying to do something new, hard work becomes even more important, because it can make up for a lack of knowledge and experience. Hard work is also the only aspect of your journey that you have complete control over. In the absence of one clear, no-fail approach, your best bet is to do everything you can think of to achieve your goal.

3. Don’t be shy about networking

Networking can be a little uncomfortable. It still is for me.

Asking people you know – and often, people you don’t – for help isn’t always easy. But my experiences have taught me that, for the most part, people are eager to help once they understand your goal and your passion for achieving it. When others become invested in your success, doors that were previously closed begin to open.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Anant: The best advice I have ever received is to always act on your curiosity and be unafraid to take risks. Throughout my career, curiosity and risk taking have served me well. Wildly enough, it started with a visit to a family friend’s chicken farm when I was a teenager. After the visit, I was curious about chicken farming, so I started my own a small farm. It was a risky step. I did not know a lot of things up front, but I figured things out along the way. It was sort of like learning how to build a parachute after jumping off a cliff! Urgency is an incredible motivator. The farm thrived – I was able to sell eggs to neighbors and in bulk to a local restaurant. You could say I discovered B2C and B2B early! The curiosity to start and develop this endeavor, despite a lack of complete knowledge, helped lead me to create several high-tech startups later on. The importance of following your inquisitiveness and the ability to take risks has remained with me throughout my professional journey.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Anant: Be a mentor. Once you achieve a goal, or “make it” in your career, you should share your knowledge and lessons learned with others so that they can learn from your successes and failures.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

Anant: I like building and fixing things, repairing cars, tiling a bathroom, or building a treehouse. In general, improving the state of things or creating new things is a passion of mine.

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Anant: Never settle – everyone is capable of something far beyond the life they picture for themselves. It’s never too late to start a new career, initiative, or path of self-discovery. In fact, in today’s connected, digital world – it’s easier than ever before. Take advantage of the resources available to you – whether it is a family member, mentor, professor, friend, or simply the internet. Let your curiosity lead you to new heights – you won’t regret it.

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