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

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IDEA STARTED FROM DAMERA’S NEED TO DEVELOP HIS OWN EMPLOYEES

For Damera, EMERITUS stems from his recognition that a top flight business education is only accessible to a select few worldwide. He clicks off the stats, noting that you may only find 15,000 to 20,000 students at the top business schools. Aside from the long academic and financial odds of being accepted into one of those programs, a person’s career track is another factor handcuffing potential students. “Most people can’t take two years away from their job, let alone afford $150,000 in tuition and accommodation,” Damera argues.

And Damera witnessed this dilemma early on. After graduating from Harvard Business School, he launched Travelguru, an online portal for booking hotels and vacation packages. However, there was a dichotomy that stunted the growth prospects of both his company and his employees. “I realized that very few people – and we had 350 employees – could come to the U.S. and go to a top business school,” he shares. “Yet, the majority needed to acquire that kind of learning if they were to advance in their career in the next five-to ten years.”

Eventually, Travelguru was acquired by Travelocity and Damera turned his attention to ERIDITUS, an education firm he started in 2010. Here, he partnered with institutions like INSEAD, Wharton, MIT Sloan, Columbia, and Dartmouth Tuck to provide executive courses in markets that were not easily accessible to such schools, including India, China, and the Middle East.

“Schools realized that they needed to be a little more global in their footprint,” Damera explains. “And one of the ways to do that is to collaborate with local partners [like us], who had the network and relationships [with working professionals], but also have an understanding of student mindset in those companies.”

A PIVOT TO AN ONLINE MODEL TO SCALE

It was a successful venture, he says, with demand exceeding availability. Even more, Damera was excited by the impact of his program, with students telling him that the ERIDITUS program had made them better managers (and people). As a result, he began looking at ways to scale his operation – specifically at leveraging online and meeting technologies.

“Schools were looking at digital much more than [they were] five years ago,” Damera notes. “Previously, you could do 50-60 students in a classroom, but you can do 200-300 online and then you can run it many, many times. That was the genesis for EMERITUS. We’ve seen the need and we have the relationship with the programs over the last five years. And then combining those two with technology, we realized that we could take this to a much larger audience.”

To build EMERITUS, Damera sought out academic institutions that shared his mission of making a global impact and also offered something unique – and MIT Sloan, Dartmouth Tuck and Columbia Business School each fit the bill in different ways.

“The schools complement each other very well,” Damera detais. “MIT is very strong in digital education technology and action learning. Another element of MIT is [their philosophy] of making leaders ready for the future. How we communicated 10 years ago is very different than how we will communicate 10 years from now – and MIT will teach you how to communicate in a virtual world. At the same time, Columbia is very strong in global business and finance, and Dartmouth really believes that learning is personal and is very successful in small group and peer-to-peer learning. So each of them offers [something different].”

SCHOOLS BENEFIT BY GAINING ACCESS TO NEW MARKETS

Damera admits that the faculty at the founding schools do the “heavy lifting up front” in creating the syllabus, assessments, and grading (while EMERITUS handles technology and distribution). However, the schools enjoy several benefits by partnering with EMERITUS, explains Michael Malefakis, associate dean of executive education at Columbia Business School. “The primary benefit is access to executives who have aspirations to come to Columbia, (or MIT and Tuck), who, for a number of reasons can’t make it.”

Michael Malefakis

Michael Malefakis

And that’s particularly true of the overseas market, where Columbia is looking to expand its reach. Right now in executive education, our split of domestic and international is almost 50/50,” Malefakis explains. “There is a lot of demand overseas for not only Columbia, but leading American business school thought leadership. And accessibility is key. At Columbia, we certainly do executive education programs in Asia, Europe, Latin America, but the maximum for the traditional way of face-to-face is a couple hundred people. But when you start to think about the ability to reach 2,000 instead of 200, that really leverages the thought leadership.”

Beyond access, Malefakis was also attracted to EMERITUS’ technology and methodology. “Ashwin and his group, we think, have something in the model they’re using. It’s not MOOC-like. There are grades. There is a high level of interactivity that’s required by the learner. It raises the bar on what a lot of people think of as online learning, which can be pretty passive. We think the EMERITUS platform – and the way the programs are designed – will evoke as much learner participation and pure learning as possible.”

While the schools get a cut of the revenue generated by EMERITUS, another attraction is having a strong voice in the operation. The consortium includes an academic steering committee that includes Damera, Halperin, Malefakis, Peter Hirst (associate dean at MIT), and Clark Callahan (executive director of Tuck Executive Education).  Here, the group works closely to create new courses, insure quality of content, teaching, and delivery, and map out how the organization will move forward in terms of its larger mission.

And this sense of shared mission and mutual respect has created a strong bond between vendor and school. “[There’s] a nice balance between really respecting the faculty vision to giving the faculty insights and highlights as to how this different medium can work to their advantage and what tweaks and edits can be made to how they teach,” Malefakis adds.