With Eye Toward Financial Self-Sufficiency, edX Hires Businesswoman Cebula as President and COO

EdX announced Monday that it has appointed Wendy Cebula, the former chief operating officer of VistaPrint, as its president and chief operating officer to help lead the non-profit online education platform as it expands and attempts to become financially self-supporting.

The same day, Coursera, a for-profit online education company, which competes with edX, announced that former Yale University President Richard C. Levin would become its new chief executive officer.

For edX, the decision to hire Cebula and modify its top leadership structure aims to accommodate a growing number of both users and partners, edX CEO Anant Agarwal said in a phone interview Monday afternoon.

“In order to be able to manage our growth and to continue to execute effectively on our mission, we felt it was important to bring in more bandwidth into our executive team,” Agarwal said. “Wendy will be responsible for the internal execution of the goals and mission of edX, while I’m going to be focusing a lot more on strategy, external partnerships, and our growth.”

Cebula, who worked for VistaPrint for 13 years, helped scale the online provider of marketing materials from a $1 million-dollar-a-year company to a $1-billion-dollar-a-year company in terms of global revenue, according to a press release from edX.

“Innovation in education shows no signs of slowing, and I’m excited to be a part of this movement and part of an organization that is literally changing the face of education for whole nations, businesses, universities and millions of learners around the world,” Cebula said in the press release.

As the platform continues to grow, Agarwal said that it will look to bolster its entrepreneurial spirit.

“We are a non-profit, but we also want to be self-sustaining within a few years, so that we don’t have to continue relying on philanthropy forever,” he said, referencing the $30 million funding contribution by Harvard and MIT in May 2012.

Still, Agarwal maintains that even as it develops new strategies for generating revenue, edX plans to stay committed to its goal of provided widely accessible online education in contrast to its for-profit counterparts.

“The difference is largely in the motive,” he said. “In terms of execution, in terms of what you do on a daily basis, all that stays the same. I don’t see a difference between a startup and a non-profit company like edX.”

Ray Schroeder, the associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois Springfield and an expert on online education, offered a similar reading of edX’s outlook.

“I don’t look at this as a shift in the inherent nature of edX,” Schroeder said. “It’s still learning. It’s still higher ed. But it adds an entrepreneurial aspect that I think has been missing in edX. The commercial opportunities to take this to large audiences is just huge.”

At the same time as edX is introducing an entrepreneur into its predominantly academic leadership staff, Schroeder said that Coursera, a Silicon Valley startup that has raised millions of dollars in venture capital since its 2012 launch, has embraced academic leadership in its decision to hire the former president of Yale University.

“It’s fascinating that on the same day, both edX and Coursera brought in top leadership, and particularly, for Coursera, bringing in a top academic administrator to augment their team, I think, was a very savvy move,” Schroeder said.

—Staff writer Michael V. Rothberg can be reached at mrothberg@college.harvard.edu. Follow him on Twitter @mvrothberg.

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