As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Vivek Sharma
Vivek Sharma has extensive experience building and growing profitable businesses through the application of technology and data, with roles spanning CEO & Founder, eCommerce and product leader, Fortune 500 board director, data science professor and strategy consultant.
Vivek is the CEO of InStride, a strategic enterprise education™ company, helping employers achieve business growth through career-boosting online education to their employees, in partnership with leading global universities across the U.S., Mexico, Europe and Australia. Vivek is also an adjunct professor of data science at the University of Southern California, where he teaches business innovation to graduate students at the Marshall School of Business.
Vivek founded InStride in 2019 after five years of executive leadership at The Walt Disney Company in Los Angeles. As Senior Vice President, Digital Guest Experience & eCommerce, he led a $10 billion eCommerce business and built physical-digital guest experiences for 150 million annual guests across theme parks, resorts, cruise lines, restaurants and retail stores. Prior to Disney, he spent four years with Yahoo as General Manager for Yahoo Mail & Messenger, and Vice President of Yahoo Search products. Earlier in his career, Vivek was an Associate Partner with the technology practice of McKinsey & Company in their Chicago and Singapore offices for eight years, and a Sales Manager with the Aditya Birla group in Bangkok.
Vivek is an Independent Board Director and member of the Audit committee for Jetblue Airways (NASDAQ: JBLU). He is a member of the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD), US Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s center for education and workforce and serves on the board of ASU EdPlus. His WIREFRAMED blog covers topics such as digital innovation, corporate social impact and the future of work.
Vivek graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi and holds an MBA from INSEAD, France.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’m fortunate to have started as the CEO of InStride after gaining executive experience at The Walt Disney Company, Yahoo and McKinsey, and teaching experience as a professor of data science at the University of Southern California. I am inspired by a desire to create meaningful impact in people’s lives and I believe education is the great equalizer that opens the door to opportunity. Backed by Arizona State University (ASU) and TPG’s The Rise Fund, InStride was created as a public benefit company to extend the successful relationship created between ASU and Starbucks.
To date, more than 26,000 employee-learners from over 30 corporations have started their educational journey through a partnership with InStride and its network of high-quality universities and colleges. Together, these companies have offset $164 million in student debt. In fact, InStride was recently honored as one of Fortune magazine’s Impact 20 award winners, which recognizes venture-backed and private equity-backed established startups that are doing well by doing good.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
In the early days of InStride, we were working out of a co-working location where we only had access to one office for eight employees. We underestimated how quickly our business and team would grow and soon had to acquire additional space directly across the hall. Job interviews were being done in coffee shops, in a shared break room, during ‘short walks’ in downtown Los Angeles and via video chat. Very soon, we outgrew both of those offices and were frantically looking for larger office space. Fortunately, around that same time, space became available in downtown LA on two floors of the historic Pershing Square building. We are now proud to call that our InStride headquarters. Our biggest takeaway was to ensure we were always planning ahead for rapid growth.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I am a voracious reader and typically read at least two books a week, so it’s hard to point to just one particular book that has helped me. Two books that have influenced my career are The Essays of Warren Buffett by Lawrence Cunningham and Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Cunningham’s book is more than just a financial investment guide based on Buffet’s thinking. Instead, he shares Buffett’s philosophies about business, including the incredible value that should be placed on integrity, governance and long-term business orientation.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
As a public benefit company, InStride’s social mission is deeply ingrained in our identity. One of our main investors, TPG’s The Rise Fund, specifically invests in companies that have the ability to drive significant social impact. It is in our DNA to think about both the financial profitability of the company and the impact we are creating in the world.
One of the first things I did after starting the company was to draft a Founder’s Memo that clearly outlines our vision, mission, values, culture and purpose. We want to drive a movement where CEOs invest in strategic enterprise education for their workforce, enabling their people to earn quality degrees and credentials through partnerships with the highest-quality global academic institutions. Our main purpose is to enable enterprises and their people to continually advance through education. To this day, the Founder’s Memo is discussed with each new InStrider as part of their onboarding process.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business? Especially during the pandemic, what ideas have you used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious?
Optimism. It’s important for leaders to be realistic in the moment while projecting optimism about the future. Teams can recognize when your optimism is not genuine. You must be authentic. The most effective leaders motivate and inspire their employees, especially through the most difficult times. I strongly believe that if you’re not an optimistic person, you simply shouldn’t start a business, because there will inevitably be a lot of ups and downs.
Reframing scenarios, staying focused on growth opportunities and maintaining a positive attitude can help people make the most of any moment. There is a lot of disruption these days to our everyday lives, but there’s also great opportunity that everyone can take advantage of.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
As a husband and father of two school-aged children, I am dealing with many of the challenges that working parents are facing. Maintaining online schooling, keeping the kids engaged, sharing internet bandwidth at peak usage hours, and running a fast-growing business from home is not easy. Frequent and open communication both at home and at work have helped me maintain a healthy work-life balance.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Two key challenges come to mind: maintaining the culture of a fast-growing team as we transition to remote work, and maintaining our growth momentum.
Our vibrant culture is a key part of our identity as a company and we recognized early on that we’d need to make an extra effort to maintain and strengthen our culture in a remote work setting. We have an incredible, hard-working IT team that got our employees working remotely within 24 hours. They quickly mobilized to provide the critical equipment everyone needed to do their jobs effectively. We also quickly adjusted our hiring and onboarding processes for a virtual world.
We initially increased the frequency of our most effective meetings and communications, including our weekly all-staff standups. These now-virtual standup help us keep people informed, inspired and motivated. In these meetings, we also dedicate time for an InStrider to virtually “step forward” and share their personal story as a way to learn more about each other beyond our professional accomplishments. It humanizes our InStriders and allows our incredible talent to shine and connect on a personal level. We also launched a Work from Home Engagement initiative to help plan fun, creative ways to foster community and employee wellness. All of these efforts help facilitate continuity and bring us together even when we are physically apart.
On the growth side, we deeply empathize with the challenges our corporate partners face, which has allowed us to pivot quickly to meet their new circumstances. We’re in constant communication with them, learning about their priorities and jointly uncovering new opportunities for growth. During the pandemic, we’ve onboarded new partners like Desert Financial Credit Union, Prime Communications and Banfield Pet Hospitals as they looked to future-proof their businesses and provide life-changing career growth opportunities for their employees.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy? 10. How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
Businesses across the globe must keep up with the accelerating pace of change, and online workforce education is one of the best ways to do that. That’s why it’s so important that we make it as easy and equitable as possible for people to further their education, whether it’s earning a high school diploma, gaining a credential, or earning a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree.
During the pandemic, workforce skills gaps have become even more exposed. Our research shows 68% of business leaders believe the skills gaps within their current workforce are limiting their organization’s future growth potential. This creates an upskilling and reskilling opportunity for people who are looking to learn new skills, grow their careers or even make a career change.
Thankfully, we’re seeing barriers to quality online education diminish. One positive byproduct of the pandemic is that people are now much more comfortable with the idea of pursuing a degree online. Forward-thinking companies like Starbucks, adidas, Aramark, Uber and many others have embraced the need for quality online education programs for their workforce. They understand how it creates a strategic competitive advantage for attracting, retaining and developing the best talent.
Remote work has become more widely accepted as businesses were forced to move operations online. Many of us are likely to continue working this way for the foreseeable future, which is also subsequently impacting workforce education. As we optimistically look toward a post-COVID-19 future, employees will continue to leverage online workforce education because it is faster and more flexible — and they can get quality instruction from top research institutions around the world.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Our tagline at InStride is, “It starts with people.” It’s been a difficult time for many businesses, so it’s imperative to stay plugged into what’s happening with your customers, business partners and employees. As you do that, pay attention to where you can add value, seize new opportunities, create impact and initiate change. Recovery will take everyone working together and it’s important to look out for one another.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Without deviation from the norms, progress is not possible.” — Frank Zappa
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can visit our website at www.instride.com and you can follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter as well.