Nicole Carter is vice president of business development at 2U, the parent company of edX. She graciously agreed to answer my questions about her role, her background and some tips on finding a role within ed tech.
Q: Tell us about your role at 2U. What do you do all day long?
A: I lead conversations with nonprofit colleges and universities about how 2U can help them meet the needs of lifelong learners. I spend most of my days coordinating across our organization to gather, analyze and present to schools the information they need to make decisions about whether 2U is the right digital transformation partner. I also help school leaders brainstorm about their goals, the uniqueness of their respective programs and what success looks like for their institution and their students. As an example, just yesterday, I was working with a partner to imagine an online quantitative skills preparatory program, which would help improve student readiness and thereby diversify the M.B.A. student population.
As the “face of 2U” in many early-stage conversations with colleges and universities, I take seriously the importance of our role as our partners’ mission stewards. Many of these institutions have built their legacies upon centuries of offering a top-quality experience for their students, and we have to deliver every day on meeting and exceeding that bar. That’s a big job.
The days are sometimes long, but it’s fun work, particularly when we get to read stories of students having great experiences in our partners’ programs. That’s by far the best part of my day.
Q: Let’s talk about your background. You are a graduate of West Point. You have a master’s from Harvard Kennedy School and a J.D. from Georgetown. You were a military intelligence officer in the Army. How has your educational and military background prepared you for your leadership role at 2U?
A: I view my career path as a continuation of a theme of service, albeit very different from military service.
Both of my parents were first-generation college students, and I realize that my life and my kids’ lives are dramatically different because of the doors that higher education has opened for our family. A high school football coach convinced my dad to apply to the University of Bridgeport and drove him to his first and only college visit. My mom commuted to Hofstra University and paid her own way through school via a combination of part-time work and student loans. My mom became a teacher, and my dad ultimately continued on to medical school—defying the odds by excelling in spite of his family situation and socioeconomic status. Access to education was the key to my parents’ story and, by extension, mine.
My educational journey in law and public policy showed me that there is a role for all of us (nonprofit universities, corporations and government) in solving the access problem in education. How can we work together to remove barriers such as geography, affordability and life circumstances to unlock individual potential? I believe that affordable, high-quality online learning is one way.
Q: What professional lessons did you learn in the military that you still draw from a 2U? How might you possibly think differently about building university/ed-tech partnerships given your training and experience?
A: The biggest professional lesson I carry with me from the Army is the importance of personal integrity, which takes on a whole new meaning when soldiers are entrusting their lives to you as a 21-year-old lieutenant. But a few key principles come into play for me every day in building trust with our partners, namely:
- Do what you say you’re going to do and follow through.
- Tell the truth, even when it’s not to your advantage (especially when it’s not to your advantage; that is when real trust is built).
- Choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong.
- When you’re in a leadership position, pass credit for successes to your team and take the blame for the team’s missteps.
I remember so many of the soldiers I served with, for whom the Army was an excellent path to higher education via the GI Bill. I know soldiers who served as tank crewmen or intelligence analysts during wartime then returned home to continue their education and serve their local communities as ICU nurses and middle school teachers. Seeing these veterans continue to serve makes me excited to work with our partners offering programs in fields that are particularly important right now: physical therapy, speech-language pathology, nursing and mental health counseling, to name a few.
Q: What advice do you have for anyone who is interested in exploring a career in online education at a company like 2U? What should anyone who is currently working at a university know if they are thinking about career options at an ed-tech company?
A: First and foremost, find a place that aligns with your values. I feel fortunate that I landed in ed tech after leaving the Army and attending graduate school, because I found my new purpose in pursuing great student outcomes, and I found a group of mission-aligned people with whom to do it.
Second: If you’re at a university and considering a move into ed tech, know that you bring an invaluable understanding of how universities operate. In your conversations with prospective employers, highlight your knowledge about faculty, student trends, administration, budgeting and school decision making—these are critical perspectives that an ed-tech company will value.
Additionally (and this is generally the advice I give to all job seekers):
- Customize your professional story (150 words or less!) to clarify how you’ll bridge your professional experience at a university to achieving the company’s goals on day one. Their goals are, by and large, universities’ goals, so draw from your personal experience.
- If you’re interested in working for a publicly traded company, review financial documents (10Ks, annual reports, quarterly earnings); read recent news announcements; and listen to panels, podcasts and interviews with key leaders to understand the opportunities and challenges they’re facing. You want the interviewer to feel like they are already talking to a colleague.
- If you’re lacking directly transferable skills for your dream role at a large ed-tech firm, focus your search on early-stage companies where you can wear many hats and learn about different parts of the organization. Smaller companies place a higher value on a “utility infielder” who can roll up their sleeves and add value in different functions. These smaller companies and/or start-ups also demand ultimate comfort with change and ambiguity, so make sure you’re honest with yourself about your appetite for those peaks and valleys.
- Lastly, expand your view of “networking.” Of course, it’s important to find connections into the company and into the department where you’d like to work, but it’s equally important to talk to customers—the schools or students who partner with the company. Read the reviews (both good and bad; neither the most glowing nor the most disparaging is likely to be entirely accurate). How is the product or service used? Where is the company doing well? What could it be doing better? This 360-degree due diligence will make you a more informed interviewee and ultimately a more valuable employee once you’re hired.