Former Education Secretary Arne Duncan Joins Board Of An Ed Tech Unicorn

The former education secretary’s new role is emblematic of the migration from Obama’s White House to Silicon Valley.

Former Education Secretary Arne Duncan Joins Board Of An Ed Tech Unicorn
[Photo: Flickr user U.S. Department of Education]

Since leaving his post as U.S. education secretary, Arne Duncan has spent most of his time in his hometown of Chicago. There, as managing partner of the philanthropic organization started by Steve Jobs’s widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, Duncan is developing programs designed to help high school dropouts and former convicts find jobs.


Now he has added another role to his plate, signing on to become a member of the board at Pluralsight, a Utah-based education technology startup worth more than $1 billion. The appointment represents his first board seat since leaving Washington.

“The pace at which people need to acquire new knowledge is only going to grow,” Duncan says. Pluralsight, which develops online courses for technology professionals, is well positioned to take advantage of that new reality. For Duncan, it’s a natural fit. “I’ve talked all the time about cradle to career, this idea of folks being life-long learners,” he says. “The idea that learning stops at [age] 22, that’s a death sentence today.”

Other Obama administration officials have also been decamping for the greener grass of startup country. Jim Shelton, a former Duncan deputy at the Department of Education, announced last month that he would be leading education projects for Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan via the billionaire couple’s philanthropic organization. (Shelton previously directed education investments at the Gates Foundation.) Former White House press secretary Jay Carney works for Amazon, and former campaign manager David Plouffe has become an Uber flak.

Duncan joins the Pluralsight board alongside Adobe marketing executive Brad Rencher, finance insider Gary Crittenden, and e-commerce expert Tim Maudlin. Pluralsight cofounder and CEO Aaron Skonnard says the appointments are designed to support the company’s next phase of growth.

“We started as a B2C company,” Skonnard says. “Now we’re a full-fledged enterprise Saas company, and we’ve been looking to bring in a much deeper level of experience to our top-level leadership and board.”

In recent years, enterprise customers have embraced Pluralsight, which has excelled at recruiting instructors who balance authority with authenticity and cover topics that are top of mind for technologists at large companies, from data warehousing to security. The result is a business model that has been profitable since its founding in 2004. (Instructors have also done well: Software developer John Sonmez, for example, has made more than $1.1 million in royalties.)


“We’re speaking to one of the biggest needs these enterprise companies have directly,” Skonnard says. “They have a skills gap, and they have to figure out how to move their workforce forward at the same pace that the technology is developing. We provide a learning solution that directly serves that need.”

Skonnard’s ultimate goal, he says, is to use enterprise revenues to cover the cost of providing free or discounted subscriptions to consumers from low-income and underserved communities and backgrounds.

Duncan’s involvement, in particular, is motivated by the social impact he imagines that Pluralsight could have on communities like the ones he knows well in Chicago. “If all the affluent do is take care of their own, the nation pays a real price,” he says. “I love the energy in the Valley, I love the idealism. But if we’re not talking explicitly about more [women], more minorities, then we’re just leaving a huge part of our country on the sidelines, and that’s untenable to me. When I say scale, that’s what I mean: providing opportunities for the least, for the least wealthy.”

Innovation that happens in elite schools and institutions, he says, is “tinkering around the edges.” But at Emerson and Pluralsight, he sees a commitment to democratizing learning. “Those are the people I want to work with. The stakes are high.”

About the author

Staff writer Ainsley (O'Connell) Harris covers the business of technology with a focus on financial services and education. Follow her on Twitter at @ainsleyoc.