General Assembly’s Jake Schwartz on going global and avoiding an automated workforce

Global expansion, as we’ve discovered throughout this series, is a mammoth task for any entrepreneur. To gain insight from someone who has been there and done it, we sat down with General Assembly's Jake Schwartz to talk scaling up, the need to become fluent in data and why the future of learning will be blended…

Most entrepreneurs embark on a mission to 'disrupt a market', but few realise that dream. One person who has is Jake Schwartz, CEO and co-founder of global education company General Assembly. With 15 campuses, across four continents, GA looks to close the skills gap by 'skilling up' people in data, design, business and technology through a combination of online and in person classes. Their approach to affordable, accessible and relevant learning has breathed new life into education sector and sees them boast a global alumni of over 25,000.

You can walk into a GA campus in London, Austin, Hong Kong, Singapore and countless other locations. So, was it a challenge to get so many of these physical spaces up and running?

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Approaching global expansion

"Yes! The very first thing you need to do is not underestimate the size of the challenge. Going global increases the complexity of your business and the increase is not linear, it’s exponential. If you’re going to do it you better make sure you’re focused and taking it seriously," notes Schwartz.

"You have to commit to what you’re doing. If you’re going to start on a mission to expand globally then know that each expansion can require more time and energy than you’re used to, each time it gets bigger. Entrepreneurs need some real staying power to see things through to the other side, however if you do then the payoff can be very large."

GA is still a rather unconventional company, one that you can’t really imagine existing in any other period of time. Does Schwartz believe this is what makes it so appealing to be a part of?

Online v in person

"People are seeing education as a real investment now, they are empowered to evaluate the return on their investment. Every day we become more mainstream, to start with it was a bunch of brave early adopters trying out this new thing, now I think people see us as a viable option to launch a career or level up in their current job.

Read: Virtual reality - how and when will it change our lives?

"We started physically and frankly we always thought of the physical experience as the anchor of our brand, that formed who we were, it was our identity. Anything we built online was always meant to be an addition and compliment the physical component; we were very clear on that from the start. Having online presence alongside the in person hasn’t seen our brand dilute. But saying that, we have been bucking a lot of conventional wisdom – we have never prioritised online for just the sake of being online."

Blended learning

Yet with so many respected and long-running education establishments now choosing to offer online versions of their courses, are we not just gradually slipping into a situation where the bulk of learning will take place purely in front of a screen in your home or office?

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"No. One of the big areas that we’re investing in is something called blended learning, we believe it’s the true path for the future of education," explains Schwartz. "Online only is not going to be the future of education, people will want a blended model where you can take the best of both types of learning – physical and digital."

Data, data and more data

The constant chatter around automation and technological advances resulting in a reduced workforce is close to reaching a deafening level, with the oft-quoted piece of research by the Oxford Martin School estimating that 47 per cent of US jobs are at risk of being automated in the next 20 years. I was keen to know if this was something that Schwartz was concerned about.

"The history of the human species is technology coming in and doing the work of humans better and faster, allowing us to do other things - I don’t think that is going to be changing. What we’ve seen is that there have always been opportunities for people who are looking to push that technology forward. You shouldn’t spend time worrying about it, you’ll get left behind, it’s time to embrace the change."

And if someone did want to futureproof their career, what areas would he suggest focusing on?

"In terms of what courses are popular with us at the moment there’s three trends – data, data and data. Data fluency is probably the most valuable skill you can have right now and for the foreseeable future."

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