Can This Startup Bring Ivy League MBA Education To The Masses?

Peer to peer learning circles are translated online with EMERITUS

Peer to peer learning circles are translated online with EMERITUS

Think back three years. Remember how MOOCs were supposed to replace traditional business education? Free courses taught by star professors from gold-plated MBA programs, available anytime from the comfort of your laptop? Who wouldn’t buy into that hype?

MOOCs, however, were just the first wave of online innovation. To early adopters, their flaws became readily apparent. Unlike a traditional MBA program, most MOOCs lacked remedial support from professors and TAs – not to mention the camaraderie inherent to the cohort experience. Without being tethered by relationships or consequences, students washed out of MOOCs at an 85% rate on average.


Now, the EMERITUS Institute of Management, a Singapore-based startup launched by Ashwin Damera, a 2005 Harvard MBA, has turned student support and cohort learning into the foundations of its advanced online business courses. Using a model called SPOCs (Small private online courses), EMERITUS has partnered with three top business schools – MIT’s Sloan School of Management, Columbia Business School, and Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business – to harness these MBA programs’ intensive curriculum and award-winning faculty to achieve an ambitious mission.

“Our mission is to open the doors for many thousands of working professionals across the world so they can have access to an affordable Ivy League business education like I had many years ago,” Damera tells Poets&Quants. In creating this access, Damera hopes education can produce a larger impact, both in the companies where his students work and the communities where they live. “We believe that great leaders make the world a better place,” the EMERITUS motto reads. “Our purpose is to make you a better leader.”

Bob Halperin

Bob Halperin

Poised to launch this month, EMERITUS is set to compete with fabled players like HBX, Harvard Business School’s online initiative that racked up $5 million in revenue in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2015, and Wharton’s Coursera-based MBA courses, which are expected to bring in nearly $10 million in revenue this year. Those initiatives are big bets by big schools. The MIT-Columbia-Dartmouth partnership with EMERITUS is more of an attempt to bet smaller yet still play in the game.

While just a startup, EMERITUS’ leadership ranks is already packed with academic firepower. Besides Damera, who has successfully launched two startups, the company’s senior team includes Bob Halperin (academic director and former managing director of custom executive education at Harvard Business School); Ashley Chiampo (learning director and long-time consultant and executive coach), and Gabriel Lee (executive director and former CEO of the SMF Institute of Higher Learning). Between them, they’ve founded five companies and hold MBAs from Harvard Business School, MIT Sloan, and the University of Manchester.


Thus far, EMERITUS is accepting students for seven courses, which are slated to launch from March through July. Each course runs six-to-eight weeks, with students devoting, on average, three-to-four hours per week to coursework. Students also complete proctored exams and receive grades. Thus far, EMERITUS’ catalog includes courses in Leadership, Marketing, and Corporate Finance from Columbia; Innovation and Design Thinking, Leading Organizations and Change, and Negotiation and Influence from MIT Sloan; and Leading Innovation from Dartmouth Tuck. The courses are also taught by heavyweight faculty, including Columbia’s Kathy Phillips, Tuck’s Vijay Govindarajan, and Sloan’s Jared Curhan.

Individually, the courses cost $750, much more than a Wharton course which could be taken for free or for just $95, with a certificate, or even a Wharton specialization of five courses, which can be had for only $595. It’s also considerably more pricey than Harvard’s $1,600 HBX CORe (Credential of Readiness) program, which consists of three business basics courses and imposes an admissions process and grades as well. The startup also will soon launch one-year programs running $4,000. While EMERITUS does not offer a degree program, the school does require entrance criteria and gives evaluations, so they are able to give a graduate diploma in the commonwealth, which is higher than a certificate. To generate revenue, EMERITUS has already established business development operations in several markets and is actively pitching its model to companies and consumers.


On the surface, EMERITUS’ courses share some similarities to MOOCs. Both are taught online using video lectures. However, the resemblance between a standard MOOC and an EMERITUS SPOC stops there. For one, EMERITUS has a selective admissions process.

As part of the admissions criteria, prospective students must possess three years or more work experience and furnish two references. They take a half-hour entrance test designed to measure their logical reasoning and quantitative skills. Since classes are taught in English, they are evaluated on basic English proficiency. In addition, they must answer two essay questions: 1) “We believe that leaders make the world a better place. How will you, as a leader, make the world a better place?” and 2) “How will this program help you do this?”

Damera concedes that EMERITUS isn’t seeking lofty GMAT scores in its admissions. Instead, the institute is focused on finding students who are looking to make an impact over the next five-to-ten years. “This is not going to be as difficult as getting into a Columbia or an MIT,” Damera says. “At the same time, the reason we have an admissions process is a lot of the learning is peer-to-peer. Who you learn with is very important to the overall learning experience. We want to make sure students have similar rich experiences professionally, and they are using this as an opportunity to springboard to do something of importance in their lives. If you can get such motivated people together, we really think it can have impact.”