When we think of the cutting-edge, youth-forward, constantly changing world of tech and startups, the idea of education is usually not even in the picture. Colleges and universities are hallowed halls, grey haired professors and classical buildings covered in ivy never to be changed. Or so it seems.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Just ask Adam Enbar, co-founder and president of Flatiron School, a higher education institution that teaches Software Engineering, Data Science, and UX/UI design at campuses across the U.S. and UK as well as online. The school’s curriculum is designed to make “outcomes-focused” (i.e., aimed at getting students jobs) technical education “accessible to all, regardless of background.” The school has a 97% employment rate with an average starting salary of about $74K for job-seeking on-campus students and 94% and about $67K for job-seeking online students, according to the school’s latest Job Outcomes reports.
Here Enbar explains why he started Flatiron School, the importance of learning practical skills, what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur and how necessary it is to have something in your life that revitalizes your mind and body.
Enbar holds a bachelor's degree in policy analysis from Cornell University and a master's degree from Harvard Business School so you’d think he’d be the first person to preach the wonders of higher education. And to a point he does.
“I got an amazing education: I learned how to think about the world in new ways, how to interact with people from different backgrounds and cultures, and how to think critically about issues,” he says. “But after six years and hundreds of thousands of dollars, it seems crazy that I didn’t come out with a single, basic practical skill.”
That’s because many colleges and universities are built for a class structure that barely even exists today. “The higher education system was designed for the clergy and the aristocracy,” Enbar explains. “It was for rich and resourced people to broaden their minds. It was never designed to teach people practical skills.”
Luckily, Enbar was able to afford to pay for an education. But he understands that is not the case for a lot—if not most—of high school graduates or folks without degrees who are already in the workforce. “In as much as studying Greek literature from the 13th century is something you’re passionate about and interested in and you can afford to take it and pay off your loans, then you should be free to do that,” he says. “The problem with many liberal arts institutions is not that we shouldn’t support learning for the sake of learning; it’s that we typically charge too much for it, people go into a lot of debt to get a degree, and it doesn’t really help them get a job at the end.”
The ideas of employability and accessibility are important to Enbar, so much so that they are the cornerstone of Flatiron School, which is dedicated to providing job training-focused education to underrepresented groups in tech, including women and people without college degrees. This business model has dual benefits—it’s good for the students and good for the company, and this is something Enbar believes is key to any truly successful enterprise.
“I think great companies do well by doing good. And when we talk about giving back at Flatiron School, it’s not only because we care about it—because we do—and not only because it’s the right thing to do—which it is,” he notes. “It’s because we believe that we’ll be a bigger and better company by doing good things.”
“Take Access Labs, our deferred-tuition coding program for lower-income individuals in Brooklyn,” he adds. “In as much as we can launch a program for lower-income students that helps them get a job, it works, and it’s financially viable, then we can do that forever. And that’s what we mean by doing well by doing good.”
This idea of accessibility goes beyond students to industries because learning to code isn’t just a way to get a gig at a startup and software company—it’s a way to get a job in any field. In this way, Flatiron School and other institutions that make technical education more mainstream are showing people how to revolutionize their skillsets to keep up with the evolving employment marketplace. “It’s just as important to show people tech jobs aren’t just at Google, but across every industry,” he explains.
“As more people see and understand that, and the national conversation evolves, the more we can get better representation across software engineering, data science, UX/UI design, and beyond,” he adds. The end result will be a workforce that is trained specifically for the jobs that are available so that instead of having to figure how to revolutionize your skillset on the fly to fit the market or your job, you’ll be ready to jump in and contribute from day one.
LEARN BY DOING
With those degrees from Cornell and Harvard up on his wall, Enbar could have easily entered the workforce on day one with a sense of entitlement and forced his way into a job for which he wasn’t prepared. But while Enbar’s intelligence is evident in those diplomas, what probably set him apart even more from other recent graduates was that when he got out of school he was smart enough to understand what he didn’t know.
So instead of shooting for the top, Enbar decided to start at the bottom. “I knew that the traditional higher education model often doesn’t work for teaching people practical skills,” he remembers. “So to get those skills, after I graduated I took an entry level sales job at HubSpot because they had a great sales training program.” This position allowed Enbar to learn what was needed to succeed in the corporate world, which is a great example for anyone looking for how to revolutionize his or her skillset. That’s because you can’t transform and improve your abilities if you don’t have them to begin with.
Having absorbed everything he could from the team at HubSpot, Enbar then moved on to a venture capital firm. Whether or not he knew he would be creating his own startup in the future, Enbar paid close attention to those entrepreneurs he was working with that were or would be the most successful.
“The best entrepreneurs share three traits: they’re smart; they’re ambitious—they’re interested in changing the world, not just starting a million dollar company; and they’re relevant, meaning there is a reason this entrepreneur is going to solve this problem,” he explains. “They have a personal, intimate connection to the problem they’re trying to solve, and they care about it deeply and have been thinking about it for a long time.”
This highlights another great lesson: learn from and imitate the best. Fittingly, Enbar’s description of a successful business starter—someone who takes what they know and love and applies their unique skills to it—fits him to a tee.
For example, having seen it first hand, he understood the limitations of traditional education when it comes to preparing students for jobs—especially in the tech biz. Having taught first grade and later volunteered teaching at a prison, he was passionate about education and, finally, having worked in the tech space and as a VC, he understood the dynamics of creating a business focused on Silicon Valley. Hence, do what you love, do what you know. And that’s how Flatiron School was born.
LEARN WHEN TO RELAX
They say you never stop learning and for someone as academic and dedicated to the field of education, this is doubly true for Enbar. But even he knows the importance of shutting off the studious side of your brain for a while.
“I think everyone needs a practice; something that takes you out of the day-to-day and allows you to be fully present,” he says. “For some people that’s meditating, or working out.” For Enbar, the escape that keeps him fresh comes in form of daddy-daughter time with his two little girls. “I work hard over long hours, but I try to walk them to school every morning and be home every night by 7 to put them to bed,” he says. “That’s how I recharge.”
But, while connecting with his kids provides a daily departure from the corporate world, you can bet reading stories about brave princesses and hungry caterpillars isn’t the only form of adventure in the life of a guy who likes to takes big swings in his business life.
“I’ve been snowboarding for 20 years: that’s definitely my primary sport,” he remarks. “Recently though, with work and kids, it’s been harder to find the time. I have just discovered kiteboarding though so that might be my new obsession.” Something tells us, when it comes to picking up this unfamiliar sport, Enbar will definitely be a quick learner.