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What Makes You So Smart, Jeremy Johnson?

Noah Davis talks to one of the co-founders of 2U about "disrupting" education, being really bad at things, and being really, really good at things.
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Jeremy Johnson is helping to change the face of education in the United States. After winning a business plan competition while at Princeton University, he embarked down a path that eventually saw him co-found 2U, an education technology company that partners with elite universities, such as Georgetown and the University of Southern California. He is currently the chief strategy officer at the five-year-old venture. We talked about education—his own and his company's—and intelligence while drinking green iced teas at a spot on the west side of Manhattan as a tornado threatened the city.

Was there a moment when you realized how smart you were?
I certainly didn't start off as the smartest person in the room. They tried to hold me back in kindergarten because I struggled to read effectively. My kindergarten teacher thought another year was important but my mom said: “Thanks but no thanks. We think he'll figure it out.” A couple months into first grade, somehow it clicked. I decided I really liked reading and very quickly became more than proficient for my grade level.

I also spent the first half of my K-12 education in the Trenton public school system at Joyce Kilmer Elementary School. After a short stint at a tiny other school in Trenton, I transferred to Princeton Day School, which could not have been a more disparate experience. I went from a place where 90 percent of the students were on free or reduced lunches to a school where only a couple of us were on financial aid for the $25,000 tuition. I felt pretty behind in seventh and eighth grade as well. One of the reasons my parents wanted to move my two brothers and I was because they realized around fifth and sixth grade that we weren't getting any homework. They thought that might be some reason for concern.

By high school, once I had acclimated I hit my stride again in an academic sense. More than anything, what has connected those pieces has been the ability to tap into intellectual curiosity. While I would consider myself smart, I think it's mostly just being deeply curious about things and how the world works. As a result of that, I have developed a proficiency in connecting the dots.

Are you more of a math and sciences guy or a humanities guy?
It has been all mixed up throughout for me. On the humanities side, psychology is deeply interesting but at the same time, statistics and understanding how systems arrange themselves has always been fascinating. The confluence of all that has always been human/computer interaction and how people engage with software programs that allow them to do more essentially. To increase the power of the human brain but also the power of the machine to affect change in humanity has always been a cross section for me.

Were you impressed by the intelligence of your fellow students at Princeton? Did you notice the smartness in the room?
Princeton was a fascinating experience but not because of the raw intelligence. I actually met a number of people there who, on most metrics, I don't think people would consider all that bright. That being said, I also met some of the most profoundly brilliant people I've come across. What was really unique about Princeton for me was that it was entirely filled with really interesting people. It was less about their raw processing power. Everyone cared deeply about something and had dedicated at a very young age, as Malcolm Gladwell might say, their 10,000 hours. They had become incredibly proficient. As opposed to being blown away by their raw intellect, it was much more, “Wow, you really spent that much time to win the College Bowl your junior and senior year,” as my freshman roommate did. It was that sort of passion for something.

Did you feel the need to do that, too? One of your first major successes was winning a business plan competition there.
I actually started my first company before that, although I didn't think of it as a company. I was 15 and a little bit dorky. As a form of bonding, my brothers and I had taken up a series of games, mostly these online, immersive games that one could build a world around. I realized at some point that people were spending real money buying and selling virtual currency, and that I had access to a lot of it. Why wouldn't I build an intermediary? There wasn't anyone established in the space. I had a strange experience as a 15- to 17-year-old where I started a company buying and selling virtual currency and created a marketplace for it across these different worlds. Not because I wanted to start a company but because I could and it was really fun. I hired a couple people in North Carolina who had no idea how old I was and had people spending thousands of dollars on a weekly basis on things that didn't actually exist. It really created a deep interest in technology as a means of connecting people and creating economies. As a result, I think psychology and economics both became areas of curiosity for me, which I think has largely defined my intellectual growth.

My parents spent their lives building a non-profit in central New Jersey called Isles that does urban redevelopment, low-income housing, and job training. I cared a lot about making an impact but also recognized how hard it was to scale a non-profit, and I thought that politics might be an interesting route. I ended up interning for the New Jersey governor and the New Jersey Environmental Protection Agency and then getting involved in student government at Princeton. Then, I interned for Princeton in D.C., basically for their lobbying arm. I spent the summer surrounded by really smart, well-intentioned people who spent most days beating their heads against the wall trying to effect any real change. I decided that probably wasn't a great way to go about impacting the world, either. Not that you can't do it, but rather that there are structural roadblocks that prevent you from being able to do that at a young age.

I started thinking about doing things I really cared about and making an impact. I realized that I had a pretty unique experience seeing my friends at Trenton High who I went to elementary school with going through the college admissions process a year-and-a-half before. They had one guidance counselor for 900 students. On the other hand, because of my good fortune to get a scholarship to this tiny private school in Princeton, I had three guidance counselors who literally wouldn't let you fail if you tried. They held your hand through the process. You start to realize that the admissions process and understanding education—and higher education particularly—in this country is an incredibly complex issue. Absent someone to help guide them through it, most young people aren't capable of figuring it out on their own. In 2006, as MySpace was gaining real popularity and Facebook was just getting started, I felt that if you were to apply that type of logic—letting young people create a profile for themselves to interact with other students and college admissions officers—you might be able to cut through some of that.

I spent the summer when I was down in D.C. working on a business plan instead of listening to Senate hearings. I ended up applying for, and winning, the Princeton undergrad business plan competition. We brought together a handful of students and won the Princeton graduate business plan competition, which is open to all alumni as well. We received an offer of funding, contingent on me taking some time off to pursue it. Me and a few other students set out to build that, and it became my first movement into education.

"I am much more of a problem solver who is really good at a number of things but is by no means good at everything. In fact, I'm really profoundly bad at many things."

In interviews, you talk about how education is the last industry to be disrupted by the Internet. Is that something you knew early on or have you come to that realization later?
My thinking wasn't that sophisticated in college. It was much more, “I think there's a real problem here, and I feel like there's a solution that leverages basic tenets of psychology and technology. Why not give it a try?” I think it was later as we were getting the notion of 2U together that we started thinking about how fundamentally delayed education was in terms of the adoption of technology and how to improve it.

What does a chief strategy officer do?
I've worn a number of different hats over the past five-and-a-half years. Initially chief technology officer, although James Kenigsberg started shortly thereafter as our CIO and has always been the lead person on tech and is phenomenal at it. But I did that for a year-and-a-half. Then I was our chief marketing officer for two years. I spent about eight months getting Semester Online, our undergraduate initiative, up and running.

I had a pretty introspective past year-and-a-half or two years. Part of that was the realization that I am not actually classically trained in anything. I am much more of a problem solver who is really good at a number of things but is by no means good at everything. In fact, I'm really profoundly bad at many things. One of the things that does tend to work well is the ability to put together these disparate data points into a cohesive view of industries and how they are evolving. In the case of education, there are profound changes taking place right now. I have been spending more of my time helping our team think through how this industry continues to evolve. If it's true that what we've built is actually a fundamentally better and more efficient way to teach and educate, which we've now seen across a number of programs at scale, then what does that mean for us and for the world? How do we really look to magnify the impacts of that in a thoughtful way?

Is that a big picture thing?
What that allows me to do is work directly with people in different areas across the company. They are all innovating in their own ways, but they are inherently busy and focused on innovation within their own specific area. I'm helping to tie some of those things together when it comes to being more data-driven as a company or understanding the forces that are going to have widespread impact across different areas of the company.

What do you read?
Everything I can. Not nearly as much fiction as I'd like to. There's very little I find more luxurious than getting lost in a book, but that hasn't really been something I have been able to do much for the past few years just because we've been so heads down as a company. It's a strange experience going from three to nearly 600 people in five years. It's been pretty all-consuming. In a wonderful way, but all-consuming.

I'd probably break my reading into two parts. One is stuff that's relevant to my industry like Inside Higher Ed, Chronicle of Higher Education, and the ed-tech newsletter “EdSurge,” which is a more recent entrant but really well written. On a broader scale, when I need to decompress I'll pop onto Google News to get a sense of what stories are trending.

I don't do as much international as I should and as I would like to. The more I look at it, the more I realize how different reporting and news are inside the U.S. and out. I've been trying to actually get more involved with the U.N. in part because of what I've learned over the past few years about how different that type of reporting is, and the way that we as a country insulate ourselves from what's actually happening. It's what people are going to click on, and publications tend to err on the side of what's going to generate viewers.

Do you have a mentor or mentors?
I realized early on that reaching out to people to ask for advice is, far more often than you think, a reasonable strategy. I have developed a number of relationships in my life, both with business partners and professional acquaintances because I wanted to meet them. I've had a series of mentors who I think in large part were willing to talk to me and even enjoyed it because of my audacity. Recently, I got to know the former mayor of D.C., Adrian Fenty, because a friend introduced us, and I had a lot of respect for the way he handled a number of really challenging situations around education while in office. The random outreach around areas of interest has been something that I have never been shy about and has served me really, really well.

I would imagine you are frequently the youngest person in the room. Do you ever feel the need to show off intellectually?
Through my early 20s I purposely grew facial hair to look older, and that was my strategy. It's become less of a challenge as I've both gotten older and as the company has grown and had a bigger impact in different areas. At the moment, it's less of a concern. With 2U, I had the extraordinary fortune to have a couple of co-founders who were both older and wiser. They were able to open doors and frame conversations in a way that would have been challenging for a 24-year-old to do. That also helped me learn a lot through the first few years of the experience.

Who should I talk to next?
Brent Beshore. He's totally off the beaten track but he's brilliant, a really great person, and a wonderful entrepreneur.

What Makes You So Smart? is an ongoing Q&A series.