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Jeremy Johnson

For helping students get paid to learn.

Jeremy Johnson
Closing the Gap: Andela held its first tech classes in Nigeria last fall, and each of the 28 students is now working with a tech firm like Segovia or Microsoft.

The problem

Few students in sub-Saharan Africa are able to afford higher education, and those who can do so must compete for limited spots at overcrowded universities. The tuition for a U.S.–style online education program “would be insurmountable for the average family in Africa,” says Jeremy Johnson, who in 2008 cofounded the online education company 2U.

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The epiphany

While giving a talk in Africa last year, Johnson was asked a seemingly unanswerable question: How can you scale high-quality education if people can’t pay for it? He returned to the U.S. still grappling with the impossibility. Finally, a solution struck him: What if, instead of charging tuition like a traditional educational system, people were paid to learn instead?

The execution

Andela addresses a major skills gap: a shortage of qualified software developers. Its four-year program begins with six months of remote training in the basics of coding. After that, students divide their time between academic work and real-world projects with international tech companies that are desperate for talent. The tech companies pay Andela, and Andela pays the students a middle-class wage. “In some ways, it’s very new,” Johnson says. “But in other ways it looks like an apprentice model from the guilds in the Middle Ages.”

The result

Andela held its first classes in Nigeria last fall, and all of the 28 students are now working with tech firms such as Segovia or Microsoft. By the end of 2016, there will be a second Nigeria location, as well as two in other African countries.


Bonus Round

Where or how do you seek out creative inspiration?

Creativity, for me, is rarely a solitary experience. My greatest creative inspiration comes from those around me–it’s why I’m so fanatical about great people and culture. Think about it: If we see the world through the lens of our own experiences, then the lens created by a great team is almost like a superpower.

In addition to spending time with my team, I love bringing together groups of thinkers from different sectors to discuss the intersection of their worlds. For instance, I’m hosting a 20-person discussion on the future of work at my apartment next week that I’m really excited about.

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?

When I wake up, my Nigeria-based team has already been up and working for half the day. The first thing I do, therefore, is check in on them. The jolt of energy I get from seeing our students, the Andela Fellows, excelling is better than any cup of coffee.

What is one thing about your job that you think would surprise people?

There are two parts to our business–first finding and training brilliant developers, and second, placing them with companies around the world. While each of these work streams comes with its own challenges, the biggest surprise has been the difficulty of doing the little things in between, like getting lunch delivered on time to our offices in Lagos!

What’s your favorite Twitter or Instagram account and why?

I find myself drawn to brilliant but plain-spoken truth tellers who can inject wit without attacking. These are a few of my favorites:

Alec Ross, the former head of innovation for the U.S. State Department is an interesting combination of brilliance, insight, and humility–basically everything you’d hope for in someone to represent innovation for your country.

Brian Solis. It’s tough to be consistently right when making predictions about something as fluid as tech and media have been over the past decade. Brian has been.

Paul Graham is the definition of an old soul. His wisdom would be held up as canonical in any industry, and I feel blessed that he chose to plant his flag in tech.

How do you keep track of everything you have to do?

I use Trello. I was introduced to it by Alexa Scordato long before she began running marketing for another Joel Spolsky company, Stack Exchange. Everyone should have a short list of friends you’d be willing to try anything they recommend.

What are some things you do to refresh your mind when you’re in a rut?

Eat or read.

I’m sure it will catch up to me eventually, but I’m a total foodie. When visiting a new city, I’ll spend 10 seconds choosing a place to stay (HotelTonight) but at least 10 minutes researching where to eat.

We live in a time where we can stand on the shoulders of intellectual giants. Daniel Kahneman is one of my favorites, and his book, Thinking, Fast And Slow, should be required reading for entrepreneurs. At Andela, we care about aptitude and potential, so brain science is particularly interesting to me.

Who outside of your field inspires you the most and why?

I grew up in Trenton, N.J, to parents who spent most of their lives building a nonprofit community development organization, Isles. The combination of creativity and perseverance required to start and scale a nonprofit, especially in an area like Trenton, is clearly either insane or inspiring. I choose to view it as the latter. 

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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