Why Jim Shelton Decided to Join 2U

Why Jim Shelton Decided to Join 2U


Editor's Note: Jim Shelton, formerly deputy secretary at the US Department of Education, said today he's joining Landover, MD-based 2U as "Chief Impact Officer." He agreed to share this private letter with EdSurge about why he made this choice. 

3 June 2015


After several months of personal reflection and discussions with a range of companies and potential partners and investors, I am excited to share that I will be joining the leadership team at 2U, Inc. as its first Chief Impact Officer.

For those not in the ed tech space, 2U is a rapidly growing provider of technology and technology-enabled services that enables leading nonprofit colleges and universities to deliver their high-quality degree programs online. Some of its partner programs include UNC’s MBA, USC’s master’s of social work, and Georgetown’s master’s of nursing program.

In the Chief Impact Officer role, I’ll work with the 2U team to build on their success to date - growing the company while continuing to provide engaging and effective learning experiences that produce great outcomes and propel students toward new and better opportunities.

Speaking with many current and former students of these programs and faculty, many of whom were initially reluctant to partner with 2U, it’s apparent this real and perceived value has been central to 2U’s incredible story to date; so, I feel confident that with focus, discipline and creativity 2U can and will be a model for producing exceptional learning and increased opportunity at global scale.

Because everyone who has learned of my decision in the last few days has asked the question – “Why 2U?”, I would love to share some of my thinking because I would like for you to know why I am so excited about this opportunity. The driving questions for me when evaluating options were in order (since as a leader you have some influence over the last two over time):

  • Is it important?
  • Is it a good business opportunity? If not, is it so important that it should be considered anyway?
  • Is it a great organization with people whom you want to spend lots of hours?
  • Is it aligned with how you want to live your life?

Is it important? – There’s a growing consensus (and I believe) that the future of this country and frankly of the world depends on our finding ways to dramatically expand access to high quality educational opportunities and that pedagogical and technological innovation will be central to doing so. However, it has remained true that most educational institutions have been slow to innovate or even adopt new solutions; and it is also true that to date that many of the online and technology enabled solutions have been sub-par. Additionally, the value of higher education whether traditional or online, to preparing and creating worthwhile new opportunities for their students and graduates has come into question. Although not focused on the highest need populations, I believe 2U is doing path-breaking work in each of these areas. They are partnering with leading institutions to leverage technology to enable effective teaching practice as well as expand access by multiples. And, they are doing so in high demand areas that lead to employment and wage growth for the students and address critical gaps in the labor market (e.g. nurses, social workers, data scientists). There are other companies doing similar work but, in my opinion, 2U’s approach to partnership and focus on impact have the potential to set the standard for the sector, especially as time and data allow more insight.

Is it a good business opportunity?At the outset, some would have claimed 2U’s business model unlikely to succeed at all let alone produce one of the few “unicorns” in the education arena. However, I think there is every reason to believe that 2U is at the front end of the long awaited transformation of the education and training sector and has begun its work in one of its most viable segments. Every thoughtful higher education leader is trying to understand how to navigate the rapidly changing higher education landscape and the impact of online offerings. The better leaders recognize that moving into this space requires not only significant technological capability but also agility, ongoing resources and experienced change management capacity. The best recognize that it also presents an opportunity to enhance their mission (e.g. serve many more and more diverse students) and reposition the university in the market place (i.e. become a better known brand, be among the remaining winners as the market continues to evolve). Some leaders and institutions will believe they can and should do this on their own; but others, especially those with strong reputations, will seek out high quality partners with the capabilities to help them with the transition. This is a global phenomenon and presents a long road of opportunity for 2U even before looking at the many adjacent market opportunities. With strong execution, there is every reason to believe 2U will be many, many times its size in the not too distant future.

Is it a great organization with great people?– I had the unusual opportunity to learn about 2U from its partners, students, current and former staff and investors before I ever thought about affiliating in any way. No organization is perfect; but effusive unsolicited praise from those stakeholder groups is a really strong sign of an organization with the right ethos and culture that is executing and delivering value. My own due diligence confirmed much of what I heard but also revealed a few important things: (1) From the board to the admissions counselor, there is an inherent belief the company’s success is inextricably tied to student success; (2) 2U is building the culture and core capabilities of a next generation learning company with emphasis on results, data, transparency, student and faculty experience and value to student and employer. (3) The underlying systems and processes are robust and have the potential to provide a sustained advantage. (4) The team loves and trusts Chip, the co-founder and CEO, and the team is much bigger and deeper than Chip. (5) An incredible percentage of people absolutely love working for and with 2U.

I had the opportunity to talk to many strong organizations with great leaders; but 2U easily emerged at a place and team that I could happily run hard and long with for some time. And, it was one of the only places I ever got comfortable with the idea of not having the top job.

Is it a good fit for you? - In my final weeks as Deputy Secretary and Executive Director of the President’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative (both culminating experiences), I reflected on my life and career to date and realized that I wanted to take time to make sure I was clear about what and who is important to me and the kind of person I want to be. This moment caused me to step back and ensure my professional choices would enable an overall high integrity life (i.e. one consistent my values and aspirations). As a result, 2U is a good fit for me because it fits my renewed priorities including:

  • Family and friends – In the end, there’s nothing more important; and time and real attention are the hard currency of relationships. That means a commitment to investing at home; and it’s also why it’s great to have good friends at work.
  • Impact and innovation – My primary motivator is making people’s lives meaningfully better by any means necessary but especially through new ideas, solutions, systems and movements that scale. That wakes me up in the morning and keeps me going at night. Money is not enough.
  • Freedom – Freedom to say and do what I think is right at all times; the freedom that comes from financial security and the ability to create and make choices; freedom from ties - at least on a daily basis; Being free has taken renewed prominence in my life’s priorities.
  • Personal health and well-being – Everything else depends on it. Everything else is better when you have it. Living life in ways that support and protect it has also been revelatory for me.

So, that’s it. That’s why 2U. For those of you who still have questions about why not the head of this foundation or why not raise a fund with these people or why not CEO of this company or why didn’t you ask this person for a few hundred million dollars, feel free to reach out. It’s probably in my spreadsheet already so no worries. ;-)



p.s. See below for the press release and other related links and articles.

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