The Rant

The Innovators - A Conversation with Pierre Dubuc

June 13, 2023 Eloy Ortiz Oakley/Pierre Dubuc Season 1 Episode 13
The Rant
The Innovators - A Conversation with Pierre Dubuc
Show Notes Transcript

This is the second in a series of episodes where I interview interesting innovators that I ran into at the recent ASU + GSV Summit. In this episode I talk with Pierre Dubuc, Co-Founder and CEO of OpenClassrooms.  Pierre shares his experiences in higher education, his personal journey from France to the US and he highlights the work happening at OpenClassrooms, and online post-secondary education and apprenticeship platform. 

Eloy:

Hi, I'm Eloy Ortiz Oakley, and welcome back to the Rant, the podcast where we pull back the curtain and break down the people, the policies, and the politics of our higher education system. In this episode, I'm looking back at my experiences at A S U G S V. The conference held in San Diego recently. In the following episodes, I will be talking with some interesting innovators in post-secondary education who are working to bring quality learning to more people of diverse backgrounds. Today I'm talking with Pierre Dubuque, c e o, and co-founder of Open Classrooms, on online education platform. Focus on apprenticeships. Before I welcome Pierre, I need to say that I am currently an advisor at Open Classrooms, but Pierre is not paying me to say anything that I'm about to say. So now that that's out of the way, Pierre, welcome to the rent.

Pierre:

Thank you Eli.

Eloy:

Well, it's great to have you. It was good to see you at A S U G S V. So Pierre, for. For folks who have not met you or have not heard about what you're doing in the us you, you're French from France. You've got your start there. Tell our listeners about your background, your education, your professional journey, and what led you to launch an education startup company in France, and then bring it here to the us.

Pierre:

Yeah, good question. So, I started open classrooms a while ago now. I'm 34 right now. I'm currently based in New York. But I started the bus, this business in France, with my friend and co-founder in the Southa, France when we were actually teenagers. At the age of 11 and 13, we started trading online courses

Eloy:

Did you say 11 and 13?

Pierre:

11 Indeed. Yes. middle school, and met Sure. Back then started, writing like trading courses, courses you wish he, he had found back then. That was in 1999, so more than 20 years ago, and traded first course on. Web development to, teach folks html, creating pretty simple websites. But back then, in 1999, they were not, you know, all of the courses you can find online and YouTube or anything like that. So,

Eloy:

that's all right, because when I was 11 there was no internet, so it's come a long way.

Pierre:

That's, that is, that is true. But yeah, it, it was the beginning, right? So, he, he created one of the very first courses to learn coding in French. and I started joining that adventure, this journey I created. The website itself. So it was creating content, creating the website, and we, we created together this learning community for free. As a pure hobby. It was not a business at all. Obviously we're very young and we had no idea what a business actually. Ma'am. But we started sharing that for free. really the courses we, which we had at school basically. And years after years it became actually the reference platform to learn coding in French speaking countries. So after five, 10 years doing that as a pure hobby, we did that in middle school, in high school, in college. As a, you would say a not-for-profit organization or It was not even an organization. It was just us spending our free time on that. but we figured when we were in college to study engineering, to take communications, into our, you know, master's degree. I noticed that actually some of my colleagues, um, peer students were actually using my own website, um, in instead of like going to lectures, cuz they thought it, it was more informative, it was more accessible and so on, just like better. and at the end of our studies we decided basically to make, make it our full-time job and create it. Open classrooms. So that was 10 years ago. In 2013, we created open classrooms as a public benefit corporation, a mission driven company. And the mission of open classrooms is to make education accessible and especially education leading to jobs. So it's really at the crossroad of higher education. Vocational training, apprenticeship, workforce development. The outcome first in terms of the social impact we're having as the number of students we place in the workforce, that could be first, first job that could be for promotions, our increase, uh, switching careers and so on and so forth. And then back then, we quickly became actually a state endorse college with degree awarding powers. And it was very, very new or the very first ones in, in France to provide. Online degrees. and we got degree, accreditation and we started, offering associate bachelors master's degrees leading to new jobs in tech and it, such as, you know, coding and data and AI and cyber security and so on. And then, yeah, it got started like this.

Eloy:

So when you were growing up in France and, and creating these online courses in, in high school and beyond, Were you motivated by any other companies that were doing something similar? I the mid two thousands, you know, we had Udacity popping up, we had, edX, Coursera starting to get moving in the MOOC space. Uh, were you paying attention to those companies or were you just doing your own thing and, and growing it on your own?

Pierre:

I think we were doing, our own thing until very late. And then when that MOK wave really started and we saw, you know, ko, Udacity, atx and so on, popping up. Like interesting, like online courses for free with massive numbers of users. Like that sounds familiar to us. and we thought actually until then we thought we were really doing something fairly, like unique in a good and in a bad way. You know, when you are the only one offering a service. Maybe that you're very unique and super innovative, or maybe there's no market and then you're on, on your own, right. It definitely felt like, oh, we're actually exactly on that vertical, if you will, and it is starting. so at this time, exactly at this time, we decided, okay, let's, let's,

Eloy:

Mm-hmm.

Pierre:

Let's do it full-time. Let's raise some found, let's go big ma, make it our full-time job and pivot towards this ed tech vertical. That was really start back then. So we didn't really have like the benefit of having like big brands behind us, like, you know, ideal league universities or anything like that. But we thought, yeah, let, let, let, let's try it out. You know, we're, we're already like fairly the, I would say in Europe, Straight it up. So we, we started at this time raising funds and like building open classrooms, as, as you know it

Eloy:

Wow. That's a, that's a great story. So I, I know as I've spoken to founders over the years, they're very, Sensitive in particular about the name that they gave their startup. What, what is it about the name open classrooms that, uh, that led you to use that as the name of your new company?

Pierre:

There is a good story behind it because the name of the website we started back in 1999 was not open classrooms, it was in French ci, which means, like the website for, uh, newbies, basically like where, where you learn from scratch, from zero. and at this time, so it obviously in France, and when we decided to move into like the MOK space and degrees and becoming a college and so on, at this very time, we wanted to become more global, but also we were perceived as a community to learn

Eloy:

Uhhuh.

Pierre:

and tech. so some of our community thought that we were an education. Platform and some others thought we were an IT platform, interestingly. And, and both were true in a way. so we wanted to, to make clear that our intents was education. it is a content and maybe we would get into other fields of study in the future. our true mission was around education, so we wanted to. Global and clearly on education. We had also this mindset of open source. we published everything under the same license as Wikipedia creative comments, so it's very open. So, open something in education and, and then we came up with, with this name, open Classrooms.

Eloy:

Well, I think it's stuck. Let's talk about open classrooms. H how do you see your company changing the way. Learners and employers, uh, think about, things like apprenticeships, because I know your model, some of your success has been focused on this notion of creating, pathways to jobs. you mentioned it, which are perfect for the apprenticeship model. So how, how do you see what you're doing changing the way that learners and employers think about apprenticeships?

Pierre:

so I'd say back to the mission of women classrooms making education accessible offers, in a way, it means several things. It means accessible anywhere, anytime, all ages, in a very flexible way, in terms of your scale accessible to individuals with disabilities. Obviously financially accessible. So it should be cheap or free or funded. you shouldn't be in debt, to get access to quality education. But education should also be a way to access, really impactful socioeconomic mobility. So, get a job, get a little salary inquiries, switch carriers, create your own venture. So how do you find a way to do. All of that at the same time. It's not, it's not easy. At the, you know, on the market there is also huge talent gaps, skills, gaps on pros that many needs. They don't fulfill them in a really efficient way. so we wanted to find a way to provide quality education at scale in an accessible way leading to good carriers. obviously at some point we started getting into, the apprenticeship space, which is, a walk and study program eventually. So it's really at the crossroad of, you know, college education, higher education, learning training. And walking because you are effectively already walking. You have a work contract, you are employed by an employer. You are at on the job. for example, like four days a week on the job training, one day a week, you are gonna be trained, biased by open classrooms with a mentor. so it's a learn and earn, model in which you are being paid while. You get, training. So it's really wonderful because n not only, you don't have to pay for any nutrition fees, never. You're not in debt. and you get paid, so you have wages, you know, fors. On tech jobs, it would be typically about$25 an hour on getting, you know, in increased over time as you gain more skills and after, you know, six, 12 months, you could get to 40,$50 an hour, which is pretty decent wage when you are, when you are still learning, in, in a college, uh, degree program. So, our intent first was to say a, the ideal world would be that you are employed from day one. Your training costs are covered by the employer. You learn on the job and it is recognized, academically. So you, you get courage credits and at the end you could have actually a courage degree this way. So it's what we would call degree apprenticeship. So in a way, you would have access to courage, education for free, being paid while you do

Eloy:

That sounds like a great deal. Now that you've been operating in the US for some time, you're living in New York now, you're becoming quite, uh, the American, what do you see as the main difference in the way that. People think about apprenticeships and this job training and education aspect of what you do, what's different in France versus what you have found here in the us?

Pierre:

I think there are many similarities actually, and obviously differences, but the similarities we've seen in Europe, a few years ago. are, are the same. and that means, for example, there is, there is confusion between a apprenticeship and internship or co-ops, and it's, so, it's not very clear what a apprenticeship means to employers, to families, to students. It there is still, like, it's still doubling up. I would say. It's still, it still requires some level of. explaining what a apprenticeship means. So that's one., behind a apprenticeship, there is a preconception that a apprenticeship is only for lower levels of qualification. Trade jobs, blue collar jobs. So a apprenticeship cannot make sense for, wanna become a plumber or a truck driver or carpenter. but I want to have a courage degree. I wanna be an engineer. I want to be this and that. So apprenticeship is really not for me. and we have this same conception, I would say in Europe, cuz our apprenticeship, the way a apprenticeship was initially created centuries ago. It came from trade jobs. So it makes sense that the perception is around the trade jobs and blue collar, jobs that changed over time. and I think we've seen more and more apprenticeship programs, on higher level, levels of qualifications and, and white collar jobs or, or new collar jobs. And then, The blend between apprenticeship and courage degree programs. So in a way, for example, in France, and that came fairly recently, uh, through public policy changes in 2018. Then the covid wave also, really have accelerate the access to, apprenticeship the government also, but down some stimulus package to incentivize employers to hire apprentices. And in a nutshell, in in about five years, we went from. 400,000 apprentices in the country to nearly 1 million. So more than doubling in five years in the overall processes. in comparison in, in the states right now we have less than half that number of apprentices, but the country is five times bigger, so per, per capita is about 10 times more. It's as if there were 5 million approaches in the states right now. We have only a 10th of that. So huge increase. you have now about 20, 25% of an age group that is in a partnership. At a given time in France, it's huge. So it becoming really mainstream. and what became mainstream in the perception is that you can access the best education, the best colleges through a apprenticeship. So you can graduate from, let's say Harvard or m i t

Eloy:

Mm-hmm.

Pierre:

So they completely changed the perception both by employers and also by families and parents, right? Because. If you can get an I League degree through a apprenticeship, then a apprenticeship is pretty, pretty good and it's debt free and you get paid and so on and so forth. so they really moved the needle and we're starting seeing that journey, in the states, but we, we still probably have a few years ahead of us, to, make that change completely.

Eloy:

Well, you're young so you have plenty of time.

Pierre:

Exactly in energy.

Eloy:

Now that you've been, operating in the US for, some time, what kind of, partners do you have here in the us? What, what are your typical partners

Pierre:

So first of all, in the state, we, we focus on, on

Eloy:

Mm-hmm.

Pierre:

With the US Department of Labor to have our apprenticeship programs recognized. So we call that registered. so it leads to a U S D L certificate of completion for our practices. Employers have also access to. First sale of approval in some, in some way, but also funding. so we got, uh, you know, we're eastern in several states. and then, obviously a apprenticeship is really driven by employers demand, so you need to start from the employer side. So we started walking with companies like Merck or Nestle, on their. Business needs in terms of talent,

Eloy:

Mm-hmm.

Pierre:

jobs. They struggle to hire on certain jobs like data, for example, and, and they have businesses in, in, in, in that field, in that skillset, but also a challenge in terms of diversity, and creating more diverse talent pipelines. So, we bring them in a way, a solution to. Solve those business challenges and the skills gap

Eloy:

Mm-hmm.

Pierre:

and at the same time, this diversity, gap, they, they're also face. So we started walking with employers, and then down the road, obviously we started operating apprenticeship programs. So finding a process, training them on the job. Fulfilling business needs and so on. And then more recently we started also collaborating with universities, colleges and community colleges, to help them provide, pathways, career pathways to their graduates, and operate more and more, uh, apprenticeship programs, free apprenticeship and the partnership programs locally in the local community, leveraging their. And graduates to, again, fulfill local employers needs. so it's been more recent where we started also working with, universities around credit transfer agreements. For example, UMass would, you know, credits to our students and, and graduates or processes. so really, trying to build partnerships with the ecosystem around higher education. and workforce development. So that means employers, universities, colleges, community colleges, workforce development boards as well states themselves. So it's a complex model because you need to walk with many different entities.

Eloy:

Do you find the regulatory environment, better or worse, here in the US versus, in the eu?

Pierre:

I would say there is a lot of area of improvements.

Eloy:

Well, it's nice to see that you have a political bone in you, so that was a good political answer to the question.

Pierre:

Yeah. No, I, I, I, I you know that field, better than anybody, uh, and, and clearly on a higher education, there are many challenges when, when it comes to higher education in states student debt, student outcomes to placement rates, the cost of education. all of those challenges need, absolutely need to be addressed. we, we we're seeing a decline in student enrollments in higher education for, for just a few years. And, and that decline will continue to probably accelerate cuz no, nobody can afford, college education, uh, anymore versus, you know, the ROI and, and, and the upside on your career. So. Huge challenge there. And I think, uh, a part of that, you know, lies in, in public policy, clearly in accreditation Title four and all of that on a apprenticeship. I'd say the apprenticeship market is still fairly, skewed towards trade jobs, blue collar workers. It's not growing quickly, even though there is a lot of interest. There's a lot of like conversations and public debates around a partnership, but the number of references in the country is not growing. it's kind of flat-ish. it might grow. and many institutions such as open classrooms are trying to. Push on that agenda. some governors also are pushing really harm on that, like in California. but we're still, we're, we're not there yet. the, the level of regulation and, and, public is still fairly

Eloy:

Mm-hmm.

Pierre:

It's still fairly. Scattered and it origin generic in the country, meaning that apprenticeship providers are very local and usually not for-profit organization. So it in a way, it, it's not very scalable. So you need to bring apprenticeship providers into what we call intermediary. So really making, matches between employers and, and, and the processes. you need to bring scalable models and you need a business model to, to do that. So some sort of funding that could come from employers privately funded, could come from states or workforce development bots in, in a way, or mix of all of the above. But it needs to be scalable and everywhere in Europe where we've seen a really fast growth in the number of processes. Like in France or the UK as well, in Germany and Switzerland, we've seen a challenging public policy with a scalable business model. Whenever we'll start seeing that in the states. I do think we're starting a huge growth in the number of apprentices that might happen in the f in the next few years, right now in California, where they started to introduce a more scalable business model for apprenticeship. So very curious to see, how that's gonna unfold.

Eloy:

I think the, key here is. The employers, and if they're driving this, change, if they're driving the demand for apprenticeships, I think you'll start to see public policy change. I know that's, that's been happening here in California. The conversations around apprenticeships have picked up significantly in the last five years and post covid. I think that the kinds of areas of employment that are in great demand, whether that's healthcare, farm tech, uh, it. Teaching, they're all very well aligned with the apprenticeship model. So I'm, I'm hopeful that this picks up the pace here in the next few years. Let me, ask you a couple last questions before we close. So, as a founder, operating here in the US now, the economic environment has been, you know, relatively tough. how have you been navigating this difficult economic environment, especially with the backdrop of the near collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, the shutdown of several regional banks? It seems like every week we hear more news about the challenges in the banking industry. Is that constraining you or, do you feel confident that you're gonna be able to continue to access the capital you need to grow?

Pierre:

Those are very good questions and I, I think also, generally speaking, the EdTech industry has been hit pretty badly in, you know, in the past 12 months. And, and still, you know, we we're, we're seeing, you know, last week, uh, Chegg announced that G P T is starting, you know, to. Have a ne negative impact on, on their business, their share drop by 50%. And, and there are other, tech players, like Pearson, you know, also took a hit. So, the tech environment also, you know, it's tough. and evaluations went down. The tech industry also, uh, obviously took, took a hit like you explained. So, it, it is a, it is a rough time, uh, German speaking in the industry. It was also kind of crazy good in 2020 and 2021. Probably too good. And, and there, there is obviously kind, uh, swing back and that we're, we're experiencing right now. I, I see it obviously as an opportunity because, we've seen also many, many more competitors, many more players, that's gonna clean up the market, quite frankly. So, now, how can we navigate that? Concretely I think it's challenging because our model is really skewed towards employers. B2B clients and as you said, B2B clients right now. Also, you know, more cautious, some of them in taking Australia laying off. at the very least, they're being really more cautious about, recruitments. So obviously a partnership in a ways recruitments. So, the number of recruitments. Is that definitely decreasing? So what we try to be agile and adapt our model, when there is less requirement, it's likely that you need, you still need new skills, to adapt to new challenges that your industry is facing. So that means you're gonna probably invest more in finding those skills internally.

Eloy:

Mm-hmm.

Pierre:

so meaning upscaling and rescaling existing employees. So we're seeing that. move, uh, in the past year from what I would call external apprenticeship, meaning building a new talent pipeline to hire a new talent. towards more like internal apprenticeship, meaning learning a new job on the job, and, and, and providing that to existing employees first. We have a product in both, in, in Bo Figman, but it's, it's obviously a challenge in, the way you, you sell and who you sell to. I think also large organizations have been. He, but SMBs are still like fairly dynamic actually. So convincing approach, convincing SMBs to hire our process is definitely, on the top of our agenda. It's not easy. But I think if we can start seeing SMB, smaller businesses hire more and more processes, like it is the case again in, you know, Germany, Switzerland, uk, France, and Europe, that will scale, the number res in the countries. So we're definitely pushing now.

Eloy:

Well, you've survived since age 11, so I think you're, you'll be just fine.

Pierre:

It's

Eloy:

fine. Well, let me ask you one final question. Pierre, you were recently at A S U G S V, that's where we bumped into each other. I know you've been attending, the last, few years. Did you enjoy this year's A S U G S V? And what did you get out of the experience?

Pierre:

I enjoyed it. I was very disappointed. It was raining and cold this year. what is going on there? Some Diego raining in in April, but, but yeah, obviously enjoyed it. It's been, It's always a great experience. You know, you, you, you see everybody in the industry pretty much in, in, in three days. lots of conversations around AI chat, G P T I mean, it was, on, on everybody's, panel and, top of mind pretty much anywhere. I, I saw also a lot of, I would say a lot of organizations. Kind of plateauing and kind of refocusing energies, resources and trying to reassess, okay, what is it that we need, we need to do. So, many organizations, I actually in the past few years were very bullish. I think that really changed, like we, we talked about earlier. so I didn't see a lot of, massive progress actually between. This year and last year's edition, most organizations were almost around the same stage, which is quite interesting. But I've seen also, you know, reading between the lines, also many organizations really struggling just to, get funding and, and navigating through those tough times. So it's gonna be interesting, to see in a year time, mu will survive that, tougher environment. Which type of decisions, did they, did they take, uh, good and bad and learn from, from, those, those mistakes and, and, and moves they made?

Eloy:

Well, Pierre, I really appreciate you taking time out of your busy day to join us here on the Rant. really love what you're doing, love your story. So really wish you the best of luck and thank you for being, here on the rent.

Pierre:

Thank you.

Eloy:

All right. Thanks everyone for joining me on the rant. If you enjoyed this episode, hit the like button and leave me your comments to hear more episodes. Subscribe to this YouTube channel or find us on your favorite podcast platform. Take care everybody, and we'll be back with you soon