Want to Do Business With Higher Ed? Hire These 7 Types of People
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Want to Do Business With Higher Ed? Hire These 7 Types of People

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Every edtech company, be they startup or established player, would be wise to internalize Bridget Burns' “The Tough-Love Advice Edtech Needs to Hear” into its cultural DNA.

As every tech company knows, it is not only the quality of the technology (the platform or service) that determines success. The history of technology companies, edtech companies included, is littered with superb-but-now-dead software and hardware solutions. Underinvest in the people selling your edtech solutions and you will fail in the marketplace. This is particularly true in higher education, where sales cycles are long and relationship-based.

Building on Burns’ wisdom, we'd like to offer seven recommendations on whom edtech companies should hire as they build their sales, marketing and "customer success" teams.

1. Hire More Women.

There is a noticeable mismatch between the people who come to call on our campuses to spread the good word about all the wonderful new technologies and platforms now available, and the people on the teams that will implement these technologies. The edtech industry has not gotten the memo that academic technology is well represented, and increasingly run, by brilliant, experienced and accomplished women. The larger world of technology may still resemble a cross between a fraternity and the cast of HBO's Silicon Valley, but the world of academic educational technology is decidedly more female.

This is not to say that every edtech marketing manager and sales lead should be a woman. But it would be a good idea to have a gender mix of your company's sales and marketing team that at least looks more like the general population, if not the academic technology units that will be the critical decision-makers in choosing whether to adopt your platform or service.

2. Hire More of Our Graduates.

Want to know a tech company meeting that we will never turn down? A call or email from one of our graduates—particularly a relatively recent graduate—is one we will take. An invitation to a demo from someone we knew as a student is a demo that we will attend.

Hiring our graduates might not seem like a scalable solution. After all, you can't hire recent graduates from every school with which you hope to do business. But you can hire more. And you can hire them from the same range of institutions as your target market. Recent learners on your staff should also provide unique insights for better product designs.

Once you hire these young people, push them out front. A newly minted graduate can articulate the value of your product for modern learning better than anyone. We like our graduates best, but second choice is someone who reminds us of our graduates.

3. Hire More Healthy Skeptics.

Higher-ed people are, by nature and design, contrarian. We are skeptical of hype and suspicious of fads. Higher-ed people are critical of everything—but mostly we’re critical of higher ed. It often comes across as snarky or pedantic, but behind that skepticism is a fundamental practice in critical inquiry. It’s what makes educators good at their jobs.

The edtech sales/marketing/outreach people whom we respond to best are as snarky and skeptical as we are. Any corporate employee willing to make fun of his or her own company—to talk about it objectively—is likely thinking critically and is someone we will see as a kindred spirit. Employees who don’t take their company, or their industry, too seriously are people we will take seriously. Send us the skeptics, the cranks, the people uncomfortable with the status quo. We will meet with, listen to and buy from these people.

4. Hire More People From Higher Ed.

It seems obvious that if you want to sell to higher ed, people from higher ed should do the selling. Obvious, but rare. Too few of the professionals charged with building relationships with academic technologists come from academic technology. Too few of the providers of edtech platforms have cut their teeth implementing these platforms on our campuses.

The advantages of hiring people with higher-ed experience are numerous. People from our world will have experienced—and not just observed—the challenges of funding, implementing and running technology on campus. They will be able to speak with credibility about their experiences. This credibility is enhanced if the technology solution that they are helping to sell was one that they used back when they worked in higher ed.

5. Hire More First-Generation College Graduates.

Those of us who have chosen a life in higher ed have done so because we see a college education as an engine for social mobility. We believe in the power of postsecondary education as a creator of opportunity. Some of our most gratifying work comes when we can help create conditions and opportunities for the first-generation students who attend our institutions to thrive.

Hiring first-generation graduates sends strong signals that our values are aligned. A first-generation graduate can speak with authority about higher education as a ladder to a better life, and can connect that narrative with the platforms that his or her company has to offer.

6. Hire More Underrepresented Minorities.

We value diversity in higher ed because it results in better learning. A racially and socioeconomically representative group asks deeper questions by bringing wider perspectives to bear on complex problems. If your company is designing products for learning, they are designing for complexity. The imperative for diversity and inclusion within the companies that we do business with is driven as much by smart social physics as it is by the demographics of our own students.

Within the next few years the majority of high school graduates will be nonwhite. Already, the student body at many of our campuses (particularly in the Southwest and West) are minority-majority. To put it simply, your technology company employees need to start to look more like our students. Your company needs to understand the challenges and opportunities of a diverse student body, and part of that understanding is a commitment to inclusive hiring and leadership development.

7. Hire More People Willing to Join the Conversation.

If you want the value proposition of your technology company to rise above the noise then you are going to have to hire more people who are willing to participate in our conversations. The thing about the academic technology profession is that we all know each other. Our world is small. And we constantly talk to one another. If we are going to look at your platform, product or service it’s because we heard about you from our network. Advertising does not work. Press releases do not work. A fancy website doesn't work. We make decisions through conversation.

Are your employees willing to join the conversation? Do they come to this conversation first as themselves, and only secondly as company employees? Do they have credibility and opinions outside of the platforms and services that their company sells? Are they seen as peers and colleagues, or as vendors? There are more opportunities than ever for educators who happen to work at companies to contribute to our conversation on innovation and change. We gather in social media and at conferences and events. We gather to argue, debate and disagree with each other. If people from your company are not joining our conversations, and in doing so taking the risk of making some people upset with their views, then they will not be seen as partners and colleagues.

Kristen Eshleman ( @kreshleman) is Director of Digital Learning Research & Design at Davidson College. 

Joshua Kim ( @joshmkim) is is Director of Digital Learning Initiatives at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning Initiatives.

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