"Education Is A Basic Human Right": Entrepreneur Michael Karnjanaprakorn
Education is growing to be more expensive than ever, making society increasingly stratified. That's where Michael Karnjanaprakorn comes in. In 2010 he co-founded Skillshare with the goal to make learning accessible and close the skill gap. You can find over 16,000 lessons ranging from "Introduction to HTML: Build a Portfolio Website" to "iPhone Food Photography: Capturing Coffee, Dessert, and More." Michael was featured in The New York Times, Entrepreneur Magazine and Inc.'s 2014 list of "35 Under 35 Coolest Entrepreneurs." With a busy schedule it's understandable that some of his favorite Skillshare lessons revolve around productivity and health.
In his limited free time, Michael teaches young entrepreneurs about the foundations of a good startup and helps motivated individuals find their path in the rapidly changing tech world. In fact, Michael taught me about entrepreneurship and prototyping at the Harvard Innovation Lab during my freshman year. Similar to most classes on Skillshare, it was clear, concise, and fun. The lessons Michael taught still live with me. I interviewed Michael at Skillshare's headquarters in New York City. The office resembles a familiar startup setup: no cubicles and no offices.
By George Ko
GR: When did you create Skillshare?
Michael Karnjanaprakorn: I graduated from grad school and got my dream job in London working for an ad agency. I worked on the dream brands like Nike and Nokia. I was working on a project to launch Nike basketball in China. It was just the most amazing experience you can have as your first job out of school. I was working on a project to sell a fragrance to people in Europe, then I woke up one day and I thought, “What’s the point?” I came to that conclusion because I was the youngest person in the room during a meeting. I stuck my hand up and asked them, “Are we ever going to smell the fragrance?” The response I got was that it doesn’t matter what it smells like. That’s what really opened my eyes and I questioned the point of the job. We were selling things but didn’t even know what it smells like. Around that same time Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and I had a strong calling to move to that city. I packed my bags, moved to New Orleans, and lived there for about a year. I volunteered for a year at a charter school and worked at an ad agency. The agency’s biggest client was the New Orleans Tourism Board. It was a huge driver of the economy. I felt like that was a cause worth working on while volunteering there and that opened my eyes to working on something that was extremely mission driven. From there, I moved to New York, worked at two start-ups, and cut my teeth learning as much as I could. I looked at that as getting a MBA (Master of Business Administration). When the opportunity presented itself, I started Skillshare.
GR: Can you talk about the first few months?
MK: If you have a clear vision and plow through walls to get to your goal and it doesn’t work out, at the end of the day, you know you did everything and it was out of your control. That’s how I approach my work. If you combine a really strong purpose and your work ethic, then the product is pretty powerful. It’s still the same. The only thing that has changed is that our bar is set higher. I think the path we took was not just about getting from point A to Point B. But as long as you get to point B that’s all that matters.
GR: What was the inspiration for Skillshare?
MK: My whole life I’ve been pretty curious and when I got introduced to the internet I thought it was the most amazing thing on the planet. Some of my inspiration was attributed to my personal experience of feeling duped in college. Some of it was my experience in New Orleans seeing people so passionate about turning high school dropouts to college graduates. It exposed me to grad school, which was really great for my personal learning experience and I wondered if that could be applied to every single person. If you could do that through the internet that’s even better. When I first started it, I was really upset about the college data I accrued. I was passionate about bringing that experience to other people and felt that if you could work at a tech startup that has a really strong vision, even better. The problem was everyone moved. They would come for three months, six months, three weeks, a weekend, feel great about it and go back to their job. I wanted to combine the two and that is when we started Skillshare.
GR: What is the goal of Skillshare?
MK: Skillshare’s mission has always been the same it has revolved around giving universal access. Phase one was focused on universal access to learning. Then phase two, which is what we are embarking on currently, is universal access to learning and opportunities. The old vision of the company from the last five years focused on closing the gap of professional skills. Obviously, that is a grand vision you want to happen in your lifetime. We have not achieved that by any means but we have reset our vision and our goal to create a new meritocracy within the economy. I believe if everyone has global access to the internet and puts in the effort to learn and develop any talent, then they should get as many opportunities as anyone who lives in a major city or went to a great school. That’s what we are embarking on next. There is still a lot of work we need to do on the learning side but we are starting to connect it to the opportunity side. For millennials, their notion of a job is completely different and it’s only going to get more flexible. For example, the idea of a 9 to 5 job in the city might not even exist in ten years. To know that 75% of the workforce will be millennials in the next 10-15 years is an interesting to think through. Thinking through how they learn and how they work will change the entire economy.
GR: How is Skillshare different from other companies?
MK: It doesn’t really matter who’s first: what matters is who becomes the biggest. Although Google or Facebook were not the first social networking sites, they were the ones who hit critical mass. No one has hit critical mass yet within our space. You don’t see super affordable commercials about Skillshare or any of our competitors because it just hasn’t gotten to function form yet. Our entire strategy is around taking advantage of the Internet. We really focus on accessibility, which means we are an open platform where you can teach. We have over 14,000 courses on the platform today and it has been growing to over 1,000 classes a month. We have two and a half million users on the site today and it’s only going to grow bigger and bigger. At its core, we are a Business to Consumer company as an open platform, whereas everyone in the space is either offline or what we call “publishers." If people are in school to learn, connect with others, and get opportunities, we are trying to do all three globally, online, and make it accessible and affordable with high quality.
GR: How does Skillshare compare to universities publishing courses online?
MK: We focus on the new economy— all the skills that will be relevant in the future— instead of focusing on the whole economy, which is not to say those are not valuable fields to learn. If you are a millennial, we want to teach you skills to be successful. For us, it’s all about professional knowledge. Every single person will have access to the Internet in the next 5-10 years. That is phenomenal because right now two thirds of the world’s population does not. If that’s the case then the next thing to consider is how everything will change.
Within our field of education and work, we consider it phenomenal if someone can get educated for an extremely affordable price or for free. The more free educational resources the better. I think education is a basic human right and it should be as accessible and as affordable to as many people in the world. I hope in our lifetime the whole idea of paying $50,000-75,000 just to go to school will no longer be an option. Then when I think about work, I think about how technology is accelerating so quickly. If you think about artificial intelligence, anything that is routine will become automated, which means the value of conceptual work and all the skills needed in the future, will increase. It is going to become even more valuable. There will be many people who will be displaced from their jobs. It would be phenomenal if universal basic income became a reality in our lifetime. It would allow people to have their basic needs covered so they can focus on whatever they are passionate about. What will then happen is true vision, creativity, and massive affordability. I view this whole thing as an interconnected cycle and thread. It starts with providing everyone access to free or affordable, high quality learning and creating a system where people can get discovered based on their talent and effort.
I genuinely think that is where the world will go in our lifetime because technology is moving so quickly. When I graduated UVA in 2004 Facebook just launched. I had to call people to schedule to meet me at the dining hall at 7:00 pm and if they are late. Soon, robots will be doing routine work, which means we all get to work on things that are more conceptual or creative. Creative has many meanings; it’s anything where you have to make things or start a company or code or engineer or you could totally do nothing and that’s totally fine. I do think that will happen because then we could solve a lot of the problems in our society.
You can learn anything on the Internet. That’s not just Skillshare: you can Google anything and find an answer. All you really need to do is be extremely curious. If you are curious, you can learn anything you want. If you put in the effort, the grit, and the hard work, you should get great opportunities. If the world moves even one centimeter towards that then it just becomes a fundamentally better place.
GR: What is your favorite class that you have taken on Skillshare?
MK: So many. I usually take cooking and productivity classes. I’m a huge productivity nerd on the side. I’m always looking to optimize my personal productivity, health, wellbeing. I read that LeBron James spends millions of dollars to optimize his physical abilities. He makes a hundred million dollars a year and he is trying to preserve his body. Obviously, we’re not LeBron but the brain is your core asset.
If your brain is the most important asset, the most valuable resource you have, why not optimize the hell out of it to always keep it on point. I spend a lot of my time experimenting on a lot of different shit to optimize my brain. It makes sense. If you think about the mental state of your mind, what it takes to not give up your creativity, your problem solving capabilities—it all matters to your health and to becoming your best self. Being curious and learning is so critical. If you want to exercise your brain it’s just learning. Whether you are learning a new skill or just reading a book, your brain is rapidly firing off!
GR: What would you say to your younger self?
MK: I don’t think I would change any of the decisions I made. But if I could tell my younger self anything, I don’t think my younger self would listen to my older self. At the end of the day it doesn’t even matter. The benefits of being young is your naïvety. If you take everyone’s advice to heart you won’t do anything. You will second-guess yourself since everyone is going to tell you why things aren’t going to work. You believe everything is possible when you’re younger and that mindset is great. I would tell my younger self to listen a lot more and really understand what people are trying to say whether it’s feedback advice, or criticisms. Just really listen and understand what they are trying to say. I know my younger self would not listen to anything. Even when I’m 35 or 45, I probably would listen a little bit more but I just wouldn’t understand. I’ll only understand everything when I’m 85.
GR: Where were you born and raised?
MK: I was born and raised in two different places. I was actually born in Virginia but my family moved to Asia when I was in kindergarten. I grew up in Seoul from kindergarten to fifth grade.
GR: What was the reason for the move?
MK: My parents wanted to raise us in Asia. I am actually half Korean and half Thai. My dad is Thai and my mom is Korean. They wanted to raise us in Seoul and be close to Thailand so we can meet our family. My dad was also in the U.S. army and got stationed in Seoul.
GR: Did you grow up speaking both languages?
MK: We grew up speaking English and Korean. My mom would speak in Korean and depending on my mood I would respond in Korean or English. It was challenging to grow up speaking two or three languages. You pick up the language while growing up in Seoul, and now I speak fairly well.
GR: How did you stay connected to your Korean culture?
MK: While growing up in Seoul it was obviously easy to stay connected to Korean culture. I grew up in a huge city. When we moved to Virginia, while it has a Korean population and it definitely has an Asian population, it is different. But it was not a negative experience for me. At that time, it was a huge melting pot with a lot of different cultures and different types of people with various perspectives. I grew up in the same melting pot as Pharrell, and I did not really understand white America until I left that area. I also thought that was normal— to have so many different types of people, experiences, and races. Republicans and Democrats, racists rednecks were right next to hardcore skinheads. I just saw everything and I thought that was normal.
GR: What was your experience making friends in a new community?
MK: That’s hard to say. I was so young, I was in fifth grade. I don’t even think it’s an Asian American thing. I think it is just being a kid trying to figure out your identity. You think about things that are unrelated to race, like are you into grunge or are you a skater or goth or a band geek? These are straight out of American Pie. I think my experience was less about race and more about just trying to figure shit out as a kid. You just think that’s how the rest of the world operates. I remember being in the first or second grade and not knowing anything exists outside of Korea or Thailand.
GR: Were you part of a specific clique?
MK: When I was growing up, I blended into a lot of different groups. I definitely was a nerd so I had my group of friends there. But I played sports all throughout high school so I also had a group of friends there. Obviously, skating, surfing, and snowboarding was a huge part of our culture, so I had my group of friends there. I was like a chameleon that blended in with a lot of different groups. I think that really shaped my perspective on life and people, because I was exposed to so many cultures and types of people. I developed a lot of empathy and that is a huge reason why I wanted to start this company. I saw crime and poverty first-hand and education personally changed my life, which makes it a worthwhile mission to work on.
GR: What was a culture shock moment?
MK: The first culture shock was the move back to Newport News, Virginia. Because I was born in Virginia and my dad was stationed there previously, we moved back to Virginia. When I was in the fifth grade, my family decided to move from Korea to the United States to go to school because Korean culture puts a lot of importance on education. A lot of people don’t know that Newport News, Virginia is about 60-70% black. My culture shock was transitioning from a school where everyone is Korean to a school where everyone is black. And having absolutely no clue about American culture—even though I was born in U.S. but my family moved before I was in kindergarten.
Because our family was not that well-off, cultural shock number two was when I went to college. I never really got to experience Southern culture until I went to the University of Virginia (UVA), which is in Charlottesville. Its nickname is the Harvard of the South. I had never visited below Virginia. Then I got exposed to a whole other culture where everyone was 99% Southern and white. I remember going into that environment and thinking this is really, really odd and backwards.
GR: Where did you go to college?
MK: I went to University of Virginia, majored in Economics and minored in Sociology. I graduated in 2004. To put it in context, when I was a freshman in college no one had cell phones. We actually had to call each other on your room phone or instant message each other to make a plan. By the time I graduated, we had digital subscriber loop (DSL) and Facebook, which came during my senior year. The whole notion of entrepreneurship and working in tech service did not really exist. I mean it existed, obviously Stanford and Silicon Valley have been here for a while, but UVA was a breeding ground for hiring consultants and hire bankers. I did not really want to pursue that as a career but then my sister told me about the VCU Brandcenter and I had an interview. I decided that was interesting because I did not know I would get a career in which I could still be creative. I applied and got in.
That was a really eye opening experience during those two years because it was very unconventional. I never really got grades, I never had to buy a book. Everything was project based and collaborative. It was all merit based, so the more creative the idea the better. I came to that school thinking I was the least creative person and I came out thinking I was going to be the next Steve Jobs. That really opened up my eyes to education — granted it’s traditional education. I was in grad school, I got a master’s degree, but the learning experience was so phenomenal. It really changed the way I view the world. I came out questioning everything. Why do we have to do this? Why does it have to be like that? Why can’t we change this? Why did I have to go to the school? Why couldn’t I learn this earlier? That was just a big moment for me to just question everything. You have to understand that my family moved to the U.S. literally to go to school here. Everything was about getting good grades.
When I graduated from University of Virginia it was probably the number one ranked public school of the country. I didn’t have anything after that (college) I felt was worth doing with my life. I just felt like I was duped. That is the best way I could explain this: I felt like I had worked so hard at this great school and it was a cultural shock, but I still put in a lot of hard work in, graduated and every opportunity I had was not anything I wanted to do. Not even for a minute. I just felt like, “What was the point of all this hard work? So I could go and work on something I wasn’t really passionate about?” I just felt like I was duped and jaded about the whole experience. I guess my version of rebellion was going to a creative school. But interestingly, my parents were very supportive.
GR: What was most frustrating about your education?
MK: I didn’t really find out what I was good at until I went to grad school. The only reason I did well in school was because I would memorize everything and just spit it back out on all the tests. But when I went to grad school, I realized that I was really good at something. I think I was jaded because I had to go down this forced path that did not really match up with my strengths and passions. I told myself that I would never follow a path someone else directed or laid down for me. From that moment on, I was always going to carve my path, create my own rules, figure that shit out versus having someone else tell me how to get it done.
GR: Any last thoughts?
MK: As an Asian American, I have faced challenges that any person has faced and other challenges. I remember one of my friends wrote a paper in college about the de-masculinization of Asian American men in popular culture, and I think it’s a 100% true. People like Eddie Huang and Jeremy Lin are great examples of changing the dynamic. As more people in all races and genders become more successful leaders all this shit we are talking about now might not exist in 20-30 years. A lot of what we hear is generational. Even with our generation, I’m 100% sure there is still that perspective. But I think the more successful the people become, the more they shatter stereotypes. What you guys are doing is great. Hopefully there are more success stories whether it’s an actor in a movie, an athlete, an entrepreneur, small business owner or CFO of a company. The more stories the better.
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