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

Gita Johar

Gita Johar


Indeed, the online model has also enabled instructors to stretch their boundaries in what Malefakis describes as a “collaborative, co-creative process.” Gita Johar, a professor at Columbia Business School, will be teaching a future course in creativity and innovation with EMERITUS. And she found talking directly into a camera to be the biggest transition. “At first, it is very disconcerting because you’re speaking into the camera and you don’t naturally use your body. But to be animated and engaging, you do need to use your arms even though you’re stuck standing in one place.

The medium also required Johar to adjust her approach. “I did a lot of exercises so there would be five minute – at most – video content. And then there would be engagement, like an assessment exercise. I did more exercises here than I might do in a classroom. But I used the same material that I use in the classroom and the same slides for the most part.”

Johar herself runs the school’s faculty-directed online initiative. And she was drawn to the “experimental” nature of EMERITUS’ platforms and distribution. And such benefits tap into the faculty’s creative juices says Malefakis. “We have five faculty involved with starting this program. One is a vice dean. Another is a former vice dean. All are highly engaged, young faculty. Several have won awards teaching. They’re not fanatics about online, but people who are willing to experiment because they think there might be something there and they’re excited to see what they can learn from this process as well.”


Of course, the proverbial elephant in the room is whether EMERITUS could pose a threat to the traditional business school. Malefakis concedes that it would be foolish not to worry about that. But he also cites an old Jack Welch quote, “It is better to disrupt yourself than have someone disrupt you.” In this case, he doesn’t view the risk as substantial. “We’re privileged – the three schools that are partnering in this,” Malefakis explains. “We’re not schools that have to worry about really scrambling for those enrollments [in MBA and non-degree executive education programs].”

In fact, business is relatively robust in this niche, which Malefakis attributes to a growing market instead of a stagnant one that’s ripe to be carved up. “We have a couple of proof points at Columbia where we do offer a SPOC version [of a course] for $2000 that is equivalent to a $6000 in-person price and it has not eroded the enrollment for the in-person at all. It’s an old analogy now, but people will download songs for $1.49 and albums for $10, but they’ll still shell out $250 to see a live performance of a band they really want to see. So I think they’re really different channels, different markets.”

In his experience, Malefakis can see a unique advantage to the online SPOC model being popularized by EMERITUS. He points to custom courses where overseas executives would come to United States for a week. “The reality of a lot of week-long trainings is that people have a huge number of insights and they take them and go back to doing work as they had done it in the past,” Malefakis observes.

He contrasts that to a 12-week online SPOC that Columbia is running that integrates similar content. “They had much more impact because people were embedding it into the work they were doing. Instead of separating themselves and taking a sabbatical to study, they were studying while they were working. The sponsors of this program were talking about how they were seeing behavioral changes, students incorporating the tools and techniques by week eight. And by week 12, it had really been embedded into the culture.”


Beyond access and impact, what are EMERITUS’ ultimate goals? Right now, the firm is focused on its launch. Its first course, “Leading Innovation Using the 3-Box Solution,” starts in March and has already signed up 80 people. Another course, Columbia’s “Leadership: People, Teams and Organization,” comes out in April. Overall, they are developing 20-to-25 courses.

In the near future, however, Damera is looking to achieve three metrics for success. The first is reaching 100,000 working professionals worldwide in the next two years. The second would be if 75% of these learners came from outside the United States. The third is a bit tougher to measure: Making a difference in students’ leadership potential. “One proxy for that would be 90% or higher course completion rates,” Damera observes. “Are they motivated enough to go through the course? It means they found value in it and they are learning from each other.”

And value is EMERITUS’ big play, especially in the corporate market. “They have large numbers of employees and talent in the high potential pool. They now have an opportunity to upgrade those peoples’ skills without seeing them leave the job. For example, if they are learning customer-centric marketing, all of their project work can be applied to their business unit. That is great ROI for companies in a program. And it’s easy access and affordability absolutely works for companies.”