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A North Star to Guide Your Journey

My 3 Year Journey at Coursera

According to NASA, it takes three years to travel to Mars and back. Last week marked my third year at Coursera, and looking back at it this has been one of the most transformative journeys of my career. When I joined in 2017, I was the only person working full time on Latin America at a time when we only had 2.7 million learners, no enterprise customers, 200 courses, and no degrees in Spanish in the region. Today, we have more than 10 million learners, there are eleven Courserians working with our 13 University partners, 20 companies, and 5 governments, to offer over 400 courses, 42 specializations, and 2 degrees.

While the journey continues, I would like to share a few learnings gathered along the way: 1) the importance of finding your North Star, 2) becoming friends with your crew, and 3) identifying a clear purpose along the way.

Finding Your North Star

Call it luck or destiny, but I discovered my North Star during my first week at work. While walking in the company quad, I bumped into Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller. I jumped on the opportunity to ask her what advice she had for new Courserians. “Find and follow your North Star” she replied, by which she meant the star (Polaris) that helps travelers on their journeys.

In a world where everything moves quickly and instant gratification has become the norm, this star turns into a long-term guide – a tool to reach far away goals. As a Colombian, I knew the immense impact that Coursera could have on my country and the region. As I looked at Coursera’s vision engraved in the main hall, I realized that I had found my North Star: “To bring education to anyone, anywhere in Latin America.”

Witnessing my first solar eclipse on August 21, 2017

Why is finding your North Star so important?  

Just like a sailor a few centuries ago, it allows you to:

  • Have a direction, which will help guide your journey
  • Keep the long term in mind, as the journey might be long
  • Find a sense of purpose, to keep you afloat when the seas get rough

Becoming friends with your crew

Never Eat Alone

While I had found my North Star, I was still new to the company and did not know how to advance toward it. Over lunch, Giovanni Dubois, who was my first manager at Coursera, told me (just like my grandfather Eduardo had advised me as a kid) to:

“Make friends and to never eat alone.”

I set up a series of meetings over coffee and walks, and a few days later I was having 1:1’s with multiple Courserians across the company. I still follow this advice today, and it has allowed me to build a network that has become one of my most valued assets.

The Best Ideas Win

In one of these 1:1’s, I remember taking a walk with my now former colleague Sabah Baxamossa who was at that time already an experienced Courserian.

“At Coursera, the best ideas win,” Sabah told me.

She went on to share stories of how some of the most popular products at Coursera (such as Specializations, Degrees, or Coursera for Business) were ideas of Courserians from different roles and levels at the company. She described how Coursera’s entrepreneurial culture provided an environment where anyone could bring new ideas to the table, and encouraged me to share my ideas (backed with good data) and to be persistent to bring them to reality.

The table is set for Latin America to be a big source of growth

In December 2017, I was lucky to travel with our CEO Jeff Maggioncalda on his first Coursera trip to Mexico. There, we met with Provosts, Deans, and University Partners who shared our view of Latin America’s potential for e-learning. I distinctly remember a breakfast we had with Pablo Navas (former President of UniAndes, a major university in Colombia), who shared that “the next big disruption in education was collaboration.” This quote inspired La Triada, the largest collaboration between 3 Universities at Coursera, and inspired the creation of the Coursera for Campus platform, a major global initiative that is currently helping hundreds of universities around the world.

 

We celebrated Coursera in Spanish’s third year anniversary during a second trip to Mexico with Jeff in 2018, where most of our University Partners joined us to announce the launch of over 100 new courses and 20 new specializations.

At the end of the event, Jeff declared, “The table is set for Latin America to be a big source of growth.”

By becoming friends with my crew (of Courserians), we were able to establish a growing team of now eleven who share the dream of bringing the best education to Latin America.

Coursera 3rd Anniversary, Mexico City, October 2018

Why is becoming friends with your crew so important?

Just like a traveler who knows their destination but not how to get there, making friends along the way allows you to:

  • Be vulnerable during stressful times
  • Get closer to having a shared North Star by giving us a sense of belonging
  • Have fun along the way

Purpose

Purpose is essential. It not only helps us to find and do things that add meaning to our lives, but it also helps us navigate rough waters when things go wrong. My North Star of bringing education to anyone, anywhere in Latin America has given me a direction for my journey, but my sense of purpose has come from our learners.

Our learners inspire me to find the energy to keep going despite challenges I may encounter. When I feel disappointed or when things don’t go as expected, I read some of the positive comments learners leave on our courses. These posts serve as a good reminder of the “why” I do what I do, and they energize me to put the extra effort to serve these learners as best I can. If I was somehow able to help a learner improve their life, that’s all that really matters.

Meeting with President of Colombia, Ivan Duque, September 2019

Why is identifying your purpose so important?

No matter the journey, having a clear purpose helps to:

  • Find clarity on what’s important vs unimportant
  • Make the day to day even more fun
  • Fuel a constant drive and passion towards your North Star

Conclusion

Now more than ever, Latin America and the world need Coursera. As of today, we have reached 10 million learners in a continent of 600M+ people - and there are a lot more people we need to help. With 400 million jobs expected to be displaced due to automation in the world and technological advancements in the coming years, Latin America needs a reskilling revolution. COVID-19, with its set of challenges, has brought e-learning to the forefront of this reskilling revolution. Today, we urgently need to collaborate with governments, organizations, and educators to create a new normal where people can learn new skills and thrive.

Before Coursera, I worked for a couple of years as a “Happiness Activist” where I aimed to make organizations and individuals aware of the importance of prioritizing happiness. I am very grateful to Coursera for allowing me to work on my North Star, for celebrating my authentic self, and for giving me the opportunity to live well by doing good.

So go ahead - find your North Star, make friends, and identify the purpose or “why” you’re embarking on this journey. These will help you navigate any challenge you will encounter.

International Day of Happiness, Coursera, March 20, 2018
Launch event of our First Degree in Spanish by UniAndes, Bogota, September 2019
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