What’s Shaking up in Corporate Learning for AI Startups with Kevin Zhang, Principal at GSV Ventures

“The most important school in the world is the enterprise.”
– Kevin Zhang
As employers & employees continue to place an increasing focus on upskilling for the future, the role of the Chief Learning Officer emerges as crucial in shepherding organizations through this evolution. On this episode of the On Work and Revolution podcast, Debbie Goodman talks with Kevin Zhang, Principal at GSV Ventures – deep diving into the recent developments in the dynamic world of EdTech, where female founders play a significant role. The future of AI-driven learning and development is unfolding, promising transformative possibilities for the workforce.

Debbie & Kevin dig into:

✓  The data around employees valuing growth opportunities over compensation

✓ Ways CEOs/CHROs/CLOs can prepare their workforces for a future that is yet to be determined

✓ How the workplace is now the most critical school and how CEOs could prioritize learning and upskilling for their employees

About our guest Kevin

Kevin is a Principal at GSV Ventures based in San Francisco. Prior to joining the GSV team, he spent four years as a management consultant at Bain & Company, where he worked with clients in a variety of sectors, including consumer products, technology, education, non-profit, and private equity. Prior to Bain, he led a financial turnaround of The Stanford Daily Publishing Corporation as the COO and General Manager.

Kevin is a 2015 graduate of Princeton University, where he earned an A.B. in Philosophy and was a member of the water polo team.

Helpful Links:

Follow Kevin on LinkedIn

Open for Full Episode Transcript

Open for Full Episode Transcript

Debbie Goodman  00:00

Welcome to On Work and Revolution, where we talk about what’s shaking up in the world of work and Edtech. I’m your host, Debbie Goodman, and today we have as our guest, Kevin Zhang. So Kevin is principal at GSV Ventures. If you’re in the Edtech ecosystem, you’ll undoubtedly know this very prominent venture firm. But in case not, GSV is an early and growth stage fund investing in pioneering Edtech entrepreneurs globally. Here’s a fact that I did not know, the pre-k to gray education and skill sector is worth approximately $7 trillion globally, and GSV Ventures is currently and intending to continue to play a significant role in the growth and transformation of the sector. So prior to GSV, Kevin was a consultant at Bain and Company, Boston, Shanghai, San Francisco. He’s also been an operator, not a usual thing for a consultant. So he was Chief Operating Officer and General Manager at the Stanford Daily Publishing Corporation. He’s a Princeton grad and a water polo player. I think I’ve asked you this before. Do you still play water polo, Kevin?

 

Kevin Zhang  01:15

I do. I do a little bit. And I love coaching water polo.

 

Debbie Goodman  01:22

Okay great, well, welcome. Kevin and I met last year, actually during prep for the ASU GSV summit in 2022. And we are now way on the other side of the 2023 summit. And I’m looking forward to this conversation to discuss what’s shaking up in the world of Edtech right now with a specific focus on the future of learning in corporations, the workplace learning sector, which is a big area of investment for GSV Ventures and many others in the space. So a formal and informal hello, and welcome, Kevin.

 

Kevin Zhang  01:59

It’s great to be here. Thank you.

 

Debbie Goodman  02:01

It is lovely to be here. Okay. So we have spoken on numerous occasions, and I’ve heard you say this a couple of times that these days, the most important school in the world is the enterprise, the corporation. And then you’ve also said, we’ll ask the question, how do we make enterprise learning the top priority for CEOs? So that’s a great question. And my question is, why even should it be a top priority for CEOs?

 

Kevin Zhang  02:34

Yeah, well, I think, you know, I think we’re in this really interesting moment in time right now, where there’s a lot of fear in the workplace. Just given what’s happening with AI and automation, right, you know. You have the data, there’s plenty different data points and different reports, and everyone’s job really is in some way going to be impacted by this new technology. And I think when there’s fear in your people, it makes doing business hard. And obviously, every company’s most important asset really is their people. It’s an it’s increasingly becoming that. And so, you know, and I think what we see in recent data is that what people value most in a job is actually the chance to learn, grow and advance their careers. The McKinsey report recently really showed that I think COVID really was a key catalyst for that new, newer way of thinking. And so if CEOs, the best companies are going to be ones that take care of the people the best, and a core part of taking care of their people well, is really enabling them to learn, grow and reach their full potential. So you know, we’re crazy bullish at GSV on technologies that are able to unlock people’s potential from pre-k to gray, but especially in the workforce, as well. And we think that, you know, the best CEOs and next generation are really going to be ones that, that know this intimately and partner with the most innovative technology companies that are transforming workforce learning.

 

Debbie Goodman  04:11

Yeah, I can agree with that. Every piece of data that I’ve seen coming out of Microsoft, LinkedIn, all the places that have got access to huge pieces, huge numbers of data points is around how do you attract and retain really great talent, learning and ongoing opportunity for the personal development, professional development? Promotional growth is one of the biggest factors, right under good money. It’s really close there. A great boss, a good package, and then the opportunity to learn, you’ve got an employee for as long as you want them.

 

Kevin Zhang  04:49

Yeah. And actually, I think the data showed that it flipped, in which case nowadays and of course, the data is just data, but but I think more and more employees are actually valuing the growth opportunities even over compensation, right, which is, which is fascinating. And we’ll see how that kind of goes. And of course, it’s just a couple of data points here and there, but I think yet, are becoming equal, if not more important.

 

Debbie Goodman  05:12

Right? Okay, so the center of workplace learning typically, particularly in large corporations is in the learning and development department. I don’t know that that title department name has changed too much over the decades. It’s where all the training of staff happens at the leadership and management programs. But there’s been a massive change to what happens in these L&D areas. I mean, you should probably just be one person that worked on training manuals at some point. And now it’s a flourishing thriving heartbeat of many large corporations for the very reason we’ve just spoken about. And I imagine looks quite different, different now, during and post pandemic and currently grappling with AI. How do you guys at GSV, obviously trying to understand what’s happening in these areas? What are you seeing, how are L&D leaders responding to the current era of this work?

 

Kevin Zhang  06:21

Yeah, I guess, take a couple steps back a little context at GSV. Because we’re a sector focused investment firm, we just have an expansive network of different stakeholders in the education system, whether it’s, you know, principals, superintendents, higher ed administrators, etc. And in workforce, we have a lot of Chief Learning Officers and Chief People Officers, CHRO’s, who we connect with regularly. And it’s obviously been a fascinating time to be somebody in one of these roles. But I think what we’ve really seen the last few months, and we’ve been honestly impressed, many Chief Learning Officers and people leaders are leaning hard on the AI stuff. You know, I think there’s this, certainly in the past, Edtech often was a laggard in adoption technology. I think we’re seeing that be a bit different in this kind of cycle, where I think we’re seeing, you know, in the workplace, I think, fast, quick, fairly quick adoption of some of these new technologies in L&D departments or even just L&D departments thinking through how to upskill their employees. You know, we have a couple massive fortune 500 companies that we know who are working with really small startups to upskill their employees in different AI technologies. And we’ve got CLO’s and CHRO’s thinking about, you know, how do you prepare employees, if they do get disrupted for their next job or next career in very meaningful tangible ways with dollars at work at this so it’s been encouraging.

 

Debbie Goodman  08:42

Okay, so we’re already in the thick of talking about AI, and the impact on organizations, and how CEOs, CHRO’s, CLO’s, Chief Learning Officers are needing to start thinking about preparing their workforces for a future that is yet to be determined. There’s certainly a lot of excitement and trepidation, both of those things. And what I heard you say a minute ago was how some of these massive large corporations are starting to work with these, like early stage startups who can offer something impactful and new into the ecosystem. So let’s talk about this from an investment point of view. For many large organizations, they typically work with an incumbent technology, particularly if it’s an enterprise wide technology, and then they take so long to implement that the change management process to incorporate a big, a big enterprise wide solution is just expensive and long and so they just stick with it because it’s what they have until they’ve got to go through the next round of deciding if they’re going to try something new. Is this presenting opportunity for small AI enabled Edtech products and services and companies out there?

 

Kevin Zhang  10:05

Yeah, there’s many ways to answer – yes and no, to be honest. I think on the yes, you know, I’ll go a little bit into I think, what is kind of a shining example of one of these partnerships, which is Guild and Walmart. You know, Guild and Walmart, their partnership, and which has been long standing has led to Walmart being able to offer a free degree to, you know, 4 million plus employees. And Guild now is a much larger company, one of the fastest growing companies in education. It wasn’t when this partnership started. And so I think that was an incredible and I do think you’ll see more companies, more enterprises, continue to take risks on smaller companies, and partly inspired by this partnership. And I think also, AI just leads to so much urgency for companies to innovate, for enterprises to innovate, and think about doing learning or doing even work differently. Now, the challenge we’re seeing with AI startups, I mean, I think there’s a couple things that are a little bit challenging for AI startups, specifically innovating in learning. The first is, there’s so many companies trying to do the exact same thing. And so there’s a lot of copycats right now, and I think when that’s the case, it is hard for enterprises to take a company super seriously. I think there’s plenty of pilots. You know, there’s a saying, In this world, there’s death by 1 000 pilots like that, that can happen.

 

Debbie Goodman  11:46

Death by 1 000 pilots.

 

Kevin Zhang  11:47

Correct that can happen, yeah. And so we are seeing quite a bit of piloting and experimenting, but in terms of somebody actually lean in, it’s still taking, it’s going to take some time, and that’s okay. I think we’re, we’re fully aware, like, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But I do think that if you’re an enterprise in this space, it’s hard. It’s hard to really, totally figure out your AI strategy right now. There’s so many things that are moving, you know. The models are getting better, or maybe they won’t get much better, well, we’ll see. You know, the exact jobs that will be disrupted, we will see, you know. The exact company that’s gonna actually stick around and have a mature enough management team to, you know, not burn all their cash, like, that’s still kind of still early. The company that’s actually going to have the right products that actually work for an enterprise use case, which is mission critical, where you can’t have, you know, hallucinations, at a rate that ChatGPT has, like, we will see. It’s still a little unclear who those companies are going to be that are going to be reliable for an enterprise use case. So it’s a bit of the wild wild west right now. But I do think that it’s just a fascinating time. I mean, it’s a fascinating time to be in this space.

 

Debbie Goodman  13:06

It’s fascinating and must be a little overwhelming as both an investor and perhaps a corporation, looking at the myriad new startups in the space and trying to figure out like, where should their investment go. I guess that’s your job and I imagine you’ve got your rubric and criteria. As you know, any new hype, any new technology comes to the scene, but this has just been so fast and so furious, and so potentially impactful in a way that, you know, hasn’t happened really, in the space for a couple of decades. So how is everybody still sitting on the fence like wait and see, or from both an investment point of view as a venture firm, and also as a corporation? Because to start trying out, you said death by 1 000s pilots, how do you know what to do? It sounds to me like there’s still some way to go before actual decisions get made. And at the same time, in order for the technology to evolve, there needs to be an influx of money in order to support the startups to develop the technology. So yeah, who’s the chicken and who’s the egg here?

 

Kevin Zhang  14:19

We personally, I can only speak for ourselves personally, and I guess a little bit of the market, but the action is definitely happening. I mean, we’re aggressively making AI investments right now. We’ve made a number of AI investments over the last decade really, in education, companies like Photomath, Gradescope, Quilbot. And so we made a bunch of investments, and we will continue to make investments in the AI space. We have a number of ones recently, as well. And so, but I think that there is certainly questions of how the markets can evolve but that’s part of you know, the craft of venture. I will say that, you know, we look at all our investments through what we call a 5P framework, which is people, product, potential, predictability and purpose. And we, you know, I think in this is there’s always a critical emphasis put on P on people. But I think in this environment, I think there’s even a greater emphasis put on the adaptability of a founder, right? Even greater emphasis on adaptability of the founder.

 

Debbie Goodman  15:30

Okay, hold on a second. Pause there, because adaptability is something that is used in a bit of a sort of superficial way. What does it actually mean? And what are you actually looking for when you’re saying, is this founder adaptable as a key measure of potential success of an entity that we’re going to invest in? How do you determine that? 

 

Kevin Zhang  15:52

Yeah, there’s a lot of elements to it. It’s an art and a science. I mean, obviously, with folks who with you know, we backed a former AI lead at Google, that we’re thrilled about. We’ve backed people who come from big tech companies, you know, the Microsoft’s mentors of the world who just have the technical chops, have shown an ability to with the technical chops to be able to move quickly and build quickly and pivot quickly and test quickly. That’s adaptability. And that’s kind of maybe some of the science behind it. But it’s also an art form of just getting to know people and seeing how they work, how they think how they pitch an idea, the insights they have on a market. You know, so it’s, there’s no perfect way to kind of classify and we think about as a team. So we’ll have a team approach to deciding any kind of sussing this out. So it’s a great question. It’s certainly something we discussed a lot. But it’s a little bit of, certainly a mix of an art and a science.

 

Debbie Goodman  16:47

Because, I mean, I’m an entrepreneur myself, I’m immersed in the world of entrepreneurship, I’m surrounded by entrepreneurs who are partly very doggedly determined to reach their objective and very passionate about whatever their latest new idea is, and at the same time, needing to be very responsive to whatever is happening in the market and pivot and change very quickly. Particularly now, that can be torturous for their teams, who feel like every second week, there’s something, some new direction that we’re moving in, the speed at which they’re needing to operate and function is, is can be very detrimental to their overall wellbeing. And, and so that adaptability, I guess, needs to be combined with some additional resilience of both the founder and their team in order to survive this market.

 

Kevin Zhang  17:51

Yeah, for sure. Yeah, resilience is certainly critical as well. And we have founders like, like Andrew Gower, who’s been at this for 15 plus years, you know. I think about guys like David Blake, who’s been at this for over a decade, and has just been incredibly resilient, you know, and think of all the founders and what they had to go through kind of through COVID. I think, the benefit, I guess, in a weird way is that, you know, many of the founders in this space too in Edtech who’ve kind of experienced the ups and downs of COVID, there’s some built in resilience there, you know. But yes, resilience is also incredibly important in thinking through the attributes of a great founder.

 

Debbie Goodman  18:39

The products and companies that you invested in, let’s say during COVID, that because there was such a massive surge of investment happening during that time, but that now are struggling to incorporate, let’s say it’s an LMS, or related, that is struggling to incorporate an AI enablement. What’s your thinking about the future of of these organizations? That great idea, certainly went through growth when everybody went online, but now we’re no longer in Kansas anymore. And so the market changed again, the needs changed again, the competitors are, you know, the AI startups are hot on the heels of everybody. What are your thoughts about companies that aren’t either already incorporating some kind of AI or don’t intend to?

 

Kevin Zhang  19:37

Yeah, we are definitely seeing, you know, companies in our portfolio like a Learneo, which formerly was Course Hero and Coursera and some of these companies that have been around for a while, Degreed, Guild, I think be really thoughtful on how to think about incorporating AI and it’s going to be very exciting to see what they can do with their massive database of whether it’s content or learner data, or even what they can do with just the distribution, you know, which is also not something to be taken lightly as a competitive advantage, especially in b2b like Degreed has incredible distribution in the Fortune 500. So we’re very excited to see what is new and honestly, outside of our portfolio it’s interesting to see what companies like you know, Pearson, and AceNgage are doing in this space. So, adult Duolingo, obviously, would be another great example. So I do think that yeah, I mean, it leads to kind of a broader question of who’s better positioned, the incumbents or kind of newer players, it’s still a little hard to say. You know, I think Conmigo’s examples can be very close, very important to follow. Obviously, Chegg has the CheggMate coming out soon. We’re following all of these very, very closely. You know, I think it’s a little too early to tell who’s going to be really advantaged. And I think my personal opinions that you’ll see, it won’t be a clear winner. One way or the other, I think you will see great companies come out of from the incumbents who make kind of AI leaps and new startups that are really AI native and start as AI companies kind of gain great scale. So yeah, it’s again, as I mentioned earlier, it’s a really exciting time to be to be in the space, observing what happens to these players.

 

Debbie Goodman  21:31

Yeah, I always think I’d actually if I wasn’t in my job, I’d like to be in your job. Because then you get to see from a slightly different perspective, all the new cool technology and what’s right at the cutting edge, and how people are actually figuring out how to navigate and sell and, and make it work on the ground so that it impacts people, which is very, very exciting. I just, I mostly get to see things from a well, we now need a new Chief Learning Officer, or now we need a new Head of Product or Head of Sales or a Chief Revenue Officer. We get slightly on the tail end of seeing when companies are ready to hire their leaders. That’s where we get involved. But I’d certainly I’m always excited to hear about all of the growth and so many of the brands that you’ve spoken about. I watched them too and agreed, very excited to see. And this next wave of growth in the sector, because there was the COVID moment and then a little bit of a stagnation it felt like and now we’re in what feels like another massive surge and whatever race, but I’m very excited to hear you say there’s not going to be a clear winner. Hopefully, hopefully everybody gets a piece of the action, and always for the new startups. And let’s hope even more so for some female founded startups that they’ll be getting some of the piece of the pie, please. Do you guys have a focus? I know that Deborah is a massive champion, Deborah Quazzo is a massive champion of female founders. And do you have anything specific in the portfolio that focuses on that?

 

Kevin Zhang  23:11

Yeah, we have some incredible female founders. Rachel Romer from Guild would be a great example. Julia Stieglitz, who was a partner with our firm now, a then cofounded a company called CoRise, she was an early employee at Coursera. It’s also an incredible example of a bunch of other amazing female founders, like the folks at Athena. That’s Roxanne and Anne and you’ve got some other smaller companies, like Linguistic is a company we backed recently led by a woman named Victoria. Yeah, it’s amazing, you know, Edtech is actually out of all the different sub sectors of technology, one of the most diverse sub sectors, which we’re so thrilled by, and our summit, is just such a great example of that the HSCB summit, what you mentioned earlier, you know, we, we have just an incredible amount of female leaders who are who come and you can look at the panels, every panel is 50/50, male, female, usually, or even maybe more, you know, sometimes all female, sometimes they’re majority female. You’ve got our GSV, the entrepreneurship competition called the GSV Cup, which has, I forget exact numbers, but also an incredible amount of female and diverse representation. So it’s something that we you know, our Northstar is that all people deserve equal access to the future. And so that just underpins everything, everything that we do, the investing, the speakers, everything.

 

Debbie Goodman  24:40

Yeah, okay, well, I can absolutely vouch for the fact that this is not just the typical trotting out of lip service that many companies do. I know that you guys are really like fighting the fight and you have a pioneer in your leadership team who’s, who’s certainly leading the way. Kevin, this has been amazing. I was going to end off with saying what are you feeling most encouraged about but you already answered that question. So I am going to continue to watch the space. I’d love to catch up with you another time to hear what’s coming down the pipe or in the AI pipe. So we’ll pick this up another time, but it’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much.

 

Kevin Zhang  25:22

Yeah, thank you. I really appreciate it.

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