Shernaz Daver, the chief marketing officer for Udacity, who company founder Sebastian Thrun credits with architecting the company’s dramatic revitalization four years ago, is stepping down from her position with the company.
While Udacity has become a dominant force in online education, with more than 53,000 students enrolled in the company’s nanodegree programs, more than 18,000 graduates and thousands placed in new jobs, the company wasn’t always such a powerhouse.
When Daver came on board in 2013, the company was recovering from a failed foray into higher education alongside San Francisco State University.
“In the early days, which we don’t often talk about, we had a little bit of a fiasco,” Thrun said in an interview of the company’s fledgling attempts to grow beyond its moniker as a provider of massive open online courses (MOOCs).
Thrun famously forsook the MOOC label after bringing Daver on as the company shifted to focus on lifelong learning and an older audience for its classes.
Thrun and Daver met when the father of the autonomous vehicle movement was fundraising for his Series C round in 2013. It was a weekend pitch to Google Ventures in 2013 where the pair first met.
As an advisor to Google Ventures, Daver heard Thrun’s pitch and found it convincing enough to join the company.
Daver had come to Udacity after years advising companies ranging from Baidu, where she orchestrated the company’s marketing push to a U.S. audience ahead of its public offering in New York, to Netflix, which was, at the time, embroiled in a battle with Blockbuster for control over media distribution in the U.S.
Their first order of business was shifting the focus, Thrun said. “We invented a much more vocational style of education, which is much shorter and much more focused,” he said.
The idea was, in part, Daver’s.
“At that time [joining an education startup] was really difficult because everyone said that these MOOCs were going to come and put existing colleges out of business,” Daver recalled.
“The company was really in bad shape,” Thrun said. “She turned the company around.”
How Daver and Thrun did it was by booting out their university partners and focusing on the needs that tech giants actually had. By reaching out to the companies that would eventually hire Udacity students, the company was able to tailor its curriculum to meet the actual demands for talent that these big tech companies had.
Daver is not just credited with the company’s pivot to “lifelong learning” and Udacity’s move to the nanodegree program adoption. That alone was a big departure from what Udacity had been doing earlier — which was focused on college students. But Daver’s mandate also included developing the content and partnership agreements with the companies that would hire Udacity graduates.
Two years ago, the only company partners were AT&T and Google. Now, Udacity counts 51 companies, from Lyft to BMW, Volvo, IBM and Nvidia.
Udacity was also able to attract a somewhat older student body that was willing to pay to get trained in these new areas.
At this point, a student can proceed through an entire Udacity nanodegree program and be fairly confident that there’s a job waiting for them on the other side.
Nowhere is this more true than in the company’s autonomous vehicle program. Since it was launched last September, the program has enrolled 10,000 students from an applicant pool of 45,000, and more than 100 graduates have landed jobs at companies that include BMW, Nvidia, Lockheed Martin and Bosch.
Now, with the business thriving and that autonomous vehicle nanodegree training more students than the entire student body of Carnegie Mellon, one of the universities at the forefront of the research into autonomous robotics, Daver said it was time to move on.
“It’s a sad day for me,” says Thrun. But the Udacity founder said that Daver’s skills should be put to work at another company that could use them. “If people stay in one job they tend to have less impact,” Thrun said.