On the Rocks with Jeff Maggioncalda

By Sydney Ballard (Duke ‘23)

From fintech to edtech, Jeff Maggioncalda has played critical roles for some companies you may have heard of — namely Financial Engines Inc. and Coursera.

The story of how Jeff Maggioncalda became Coursera’s CEO is quite an inspiring one, but it may require some backstory.

Coursera was initially founded by Stanford computer scientists and (who also ) in 2012. Andrew Ng had been leading the development of Stanford University’s main Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) service. The MOOC ultimately became so inundated with users that its creators realized there was massive potential for the development of a high-quality online education platform that did not have such strict barriers of entry as universities. Essentially, Koller and Ng left Stanford to pursue building this company that has shattered our traditional expectations of what education and learning look like. You no longer have to be enrolled at Stanford (let alone go through the process of becoming a competitive applicant for a school with such a low acceptance rate that ) to attend Andrew Ng’s introductory machine learning course. In fact, all you actually need is some intellectual curiosity and a laptop.

You might be wondering, how did Jeff Maggioncalda come into the picture? That story is quite interesting in its own respect. We sat down with Jeff (virtually, of course) to learn about the trials and tribulations of his journey to becoming Coursera’s CEO.

Jeff graduated from Stanford University with two degrees: a B.A. in English and a B.A. in Quantive Economics. Maggioncalda actually credits his dad for the major that ended up being most useful in determining the course of his career. Sharing an honest conversation he had with his father to us:

“My dad said: ‘I’m not going to pay for your college if you’re just an English major.’”

That’s how he settled on economics (which became quite valuable in the long run, being that it led to his first experience as a CEO for Financial Engines). Unrelated to these academic pursuits, in college, Maggioncalda recalls using his Macintosh Plus and a newfound knack for creating vector art in PostScript to start a graphic arts business. The impetus for such an entruepeneurial intiative was his realization at the time:

“Nobody knows that you can do really great desktop publishing and not have any skills, but it still looks really good.”

At one point, he saw a job posting paying $12.50 an hour to make graphic art and jumped at the opportunity by scrambling to make a portfolio that eventually got him hired.

“I just wanted to make some money, and I thought… I’ve got an edge.”

While now it may just be a funny story about resourcefulness and good timing, it’s a story that is also clearly indicative of Maggioncalda’s character and tenacity. These qualities have undoubtedly contributed to the major success he has accomplished in business — both at Financial Engines and Coursera.

While Maggioncalda’s path to CEO is one that makes sense on paper (considering his ), arguably the most interesting part about interacting with him is realizing how humble and kind he is while serving in these high-profile business roles.

Upon meeting Maggioncalda, it was simultaneously apparent and appreciated that he cared to establish a candid, personal introduction with our team before we hopped into the questions we had for him. His kindness and charisma are clear giveaways to at least a portion of the rationale for why he makes for such a great CEO. In fact, throughout the interview I found myself realizing that his ability to so earnestly reflect on his own story (and lessons he’s derived from it) actually parallels with Coursera’s mission statement: “Learning is the source of human progress.”

coursera.org

Q & A

How does one become a CEO? What did the path look like for you?

“Theres something really valuable about doing great work and doing something that you love. People will notice.”

In 1996, Maggioncaldo was contacted by Nobel prize winning economist Bill Sharpe’s fellow Stanford professor, and tasked with writing a business plan for an idea he had for a company he was starting with Sharpe. This was all because he had made a great impression eight years prior at a consulting company he was working for. Lo and behold, this company came to be known as the investment advisory firm, Financial Engines. The company went public in 2010 and turned again in 2018 after being purchased for over in a merger-acquistion.

Maggioncalda’s approach has always been to be excellent at everything you do, and letting all the rest fall into place. He stresses the importance of having character (“I’m not a big fan of personal brand. I thinks it’s called character.”) in everything you do.

“Be honest, be smart, work hard, be dedicated to excellence, and be an enjoyable, helpful person… and you’ll do great.”

Over the course of the discussion, Maggioncalda shares he “had no experience” and “didn’t know what [he] was doing” during this period of being the founding CEO of Financial Engines. Rather than caving to the pressure of this new role, he leveraged the intellectual insecurity he experienced to become empowered to learn how to succeed and grow the company. He ultimately ended up having a successful exit from the company when it was sold in a merger-acquisition.

“You don’t want to be stuck in a rut, but there’s some value to persistence. When things get hard, that’s when you start learning things.”

Upon getting back into the business world in March of 2017 after a work-hiatus with his wife to travel for a few years, Maggioncalda decided he wanted to step back into the role of CEO. He shared a few key requirements he had for the next company he wanted to lead: he did not want to work alongside dishonest or disrespectful people, and he did not want to work at a company that made the world a worse place (he uses social media companies as an example, since they are “brain-rotting” and tbh I guess I can’t disagree). Maggioncalda also shared what he did want from a company, which was (and still is) to “learn, create, and succeed” all while creating value for the world and being creative. Plot twist: Coursera fit the bill.

“Life is too short to go through it doing something you don’t want to be doing”

In terms of making a positive impact for users, Jeff tells us he sees the as the way to go. Maggioncaldo even goes as far as to share that one of the main reasons he was so excited to join Coursera was due to the fact that they run on the PBM. The beauty of this model is that service providers can provide services to mitigate or entirely eliminate problems people did not even known existed, inevitably being tremendously beneficial to its users and clients — some well-known businesses that practice this model are Amazon and eBay.

“Coursera is poised to transform higher education”

What will change in edtech as covid phases out?

“Some things are really right for digital transformation.”

Maggioncalda stresses the key role “ease of digitization” plays in determining a company’s success during a time like covid. Education, of course, as we have learned this past year, can be effectively digitized.

Since the beneficiary of learning is the learner (and Coursera focuses on adult learning), digitization is a benefit, rather than a drawback of edtech for older students. The ease of accessibility for adult learners is crucial to empowering a new group of people that once thought their education ended in high school or college. With more people deciding to make a career shift in the or due to , edtech is in the right place at the right time to empower adult learners.

How does Coursera work to benefit under-serviced and under-priveleged groups?

Under Jeff Maggioncalda’s watch, Coursera has made major advances in promoting equity and providing access to diverse types of educational content to its users. It does help, though, that Coursera was founded from the start with the ultimate goal of enhancing accessibility of education. Given this history, it is no surpriuse that the company continues to deliver on these goals time and time again (especially in the past two years with the pandemic-forced switch to virtual learning).

Here are some exciting facts about the current user base of Coursera:

84 million users, 80% of them residing outside of the U.S. In 2020, 30 million users joined with 110% growth in India, 67% growth in LA, and 70% growth in Africa.

“We put a lot of more effort into emerging markets”

In March and April of 2020, Coursera gave free service to any college or university in the world until September via . Since starting this program at the beginning of Covid lockdowns, thirty educational institution customers had grown to 4,000+ within the span of seven months. For Coursera, this entailed empowering roughly 10 million new users who collectively completed 28 million Coursera courses all for free.

coursera.org

Outside of Coursera for Campus, the company started a government intitiative that has been free for all of 2021 in order to accomplish national workforce recovery goals for governments worldwide. The is making strides to help unemployed people get re-skilled for virtual jobs.

If these amazing efforts were not already impressive enough, in the United States as of February 2021. Such certification is frankly concrete proof of the work Coursera has done to be such a positive social-impacting force.

“Certified B Corporations are businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. B Corps are accelerating a global culture shift to redefine success in business and build a more inclusive and sustainable economy.

This is the end of the article, but Jeff gave us some pretty amazing book reviews and we HIGHLY recommend you check some out! 

Jeff’s Book Recommendations:

About science and human nature:

* Sapiens by Noah Harari (the evolution and possible future of Homo Sapiens)
* Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond (why some cultures and races overpowered others)
* Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker (why reason and sympathy are the basis of past and future of human progress)
* Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Khaneman (how we think and how we can think better)
* The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (how genes make us who we are)
* The Red Queen by Matt Ridley (the battle of the sexes from an evolutionary perspective)
* From Bacteria to Bach and Back by Daniel Dennet (the evolution of human consciousness)
* Thank You for Being Late by Thomas Friedman (how rate of change is ripping society apart and what we can do about it)
* The Big Picture by Sean Carroll (an explanation of everything by a theoretical physicist)

About business:

* The Lean Startup by Eric Ries (an early book about how to start a business using design, measurement, and iteration)
* The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni (how to build and lead a healthy organization)
* Lean In by Cheryl Sandberg (how bias affects the workplace and what we can do about it)
* Business Model Generation by Alexander Osterwalder (an excellent book about how to design and iterate to a great business model)
* The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt (a class book about operations research and efficiency)
* Platform Scale by Sandeet Choudary (how platform business models are disrupting older models)
* The Rise of Robots by Martin Ford (how technology will impact jobs)

Other:

* Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (probably by favorite fiction book)
* The Agony and The Ecstasy by Irving Stone (biography of one of the most remarkable humans, Michaelangelo)

a biweekly newsletter dedicated to providing you byte-sized tips, resources, and opportunities. made by catalyst at duke.