Donald Trump wants to restrict immigrants, especially those from Muslim countries, and especially from Iran. Well, read this Iranian entrepreneur’s story.
Sramana Mitra: Let’s start with the very beginning of your journey. Where are you from? Where were you born and in what kind of background?
Farnaz Ronaghi: I was born in Tehran, Iran. I came to the United States for graduate school. I was accepted in Stanford University for a Master’s degree in Management Science and Engineering. That is where I met my adviser and co-founder. After that, I started my Ph.D. My work was related to the intersection of computer science and social science similar to human-computer interaction but was more focused on incentives and game theory. One of the pain points that I had as part of my Ph.D. was that I never had access to the data I needed to run experiments.
I always had to negotiate with companies to give me data, and after all the haggling, it wouldn’t be the data that I wanted. I didn’t have the freedom to run experiments. I just started developing websites that would help me get users on them. That would help me run experiments and do my research. The whole goal was doing research. Then we started working on the very first version of NovoEd, my company today. It was around that time that Massive Open Online Classes (MOOCs) were taking off at Stanford. We had offered four online classes that had attracted hundreds of thousands of users. There was a lot of hype and a lot of conversation on campus about the potential of MOOCs.
When I looked at these classes, one thing that I saw missing was that these classes are mainly focused on scaling the lecture hall experience. They’re mainly about bringing access to high quality content with lots of videos and quizzes. What I liked a lot about my education at Stanford and education back in Tehran was the fact that I was exposed to very smart people. I was working with others. I was basically hearing their thoughts. I was challenged by their questions. That exposure to other people’s thoughts was actually the main thing that helped me grow, learn, and do better with my own work. I felt like that’s a big aspect of education that has been missing.
One of our faculty members in the Management Science and Engineering has a class called Technology Entrepreneurship. It’s a very popular class for engineering students on campus. He wanted to teach that online and his challenge was that he couldn’t really teach entrepreneurship through videos and quizzes. He needed people to do what we do on campus – get together, work together on ideas, and receive feedback. That was the inspiration. We thought it was a great opportunity to create a platform that brings the social, collaborative aspects of learning online.
We can try and understand whether you can scale those and whether you can really offer a class where learners are working together at massive scale and still have success – have learners master the material and at the same time, have outcomes bigger than that. That’s how this got started. We basically rolled out a platform. We had 33,000 students as soon as we launched it because it was a Technology Entrepreneurship class. There were a lot of people from all over the world who wanted to be exposed to the class. A lot of people joined the class.
We helped them find each other and form teams. Every week, there were new lectures and new challenges. The goal from this was for people to find an idea that would potentially be a viable startup and at the end, have a plan for how they want to continue this journey. From those 33,000 people, 10,000 returned their last assignment. From that first offering, I know three startups that were created in that offering. One of the founders is from India and two are from Europe. They met each other in that class.
After that, we actually saw the potential. It is possible. You can offer classes that bring the community aspect of education and scale that component. We offer five more classes on campus. We actually have a few learners who join our technology entrepreneurship classes again and again. They’re not joining for the content. They’ve seen the content before. They are joining because there’s a new group of people with new ideas now on the platform. They want to be able to network. They want to be able to get engaged and get exposed to those ideas.