From MBA to Entrepreneur Part 5: Michael Vilardo, Emile Learning
Growing up in the Midwest, Michael Vilardo noticed the lack of educational opportunity around him. He was lucky enough to leverage his superb baseball skills to attend the University of Pennsylvania, his seventh school in five years, where he was the first from his hometown to attend an Ivy League school.
Because of this upbringing, he was determined to make a difference and empower all students to get the highest quality education, no matter their socioeconomic status or zip code. So, it was no surprise when the UCLA MBA worked with his co-founder Felix Ruano to start Emile Learning, an online educational platform offering bingeable and high-quality accredited courses.
“To me, videography and cinematic art is the best way for storytelling at scale to inspire millions of people. From the start, our mission has been to impact millions of kids around the world and empower anyone with any socioeconomic background to receive an incredible education. When we call ourselves the Netflix of education, it means replicating what you see with your favorite Netflix docu-series that you can’t go to bed it’s so enjoyable. With Netflix, you want to always watch the next episode, and we want to tie that level of engagement and content quality to an academically accredited model,” said Michael.
They’ve quickly realized that taking the best of social media and Netflix and applying it to education has been a winning formula. Emile initially leveraged UCLA undergraduates to teach courses from their majors but now has in-housed all production to keep the quality extremely high and the material as interesting as possible. The company has rapidly grown to over 70 employees with over 70 schools & districts using their platform. Investors have also taken notice — Emile closed a $5.3M seed round in May of last year led by Kleiner Perkins, Owl Ventures, and Softbank.
Emile continues to grow and has big plans for the future including a greater variety of courses, more partnerships, and even international expansion. “[While we’ve had a lot of success], we understand that we have a long way to go, and we want to continue to iterate and build to help school administrators provide the best educational experience possible,” said Michael.
I sat down with Michael to hear about his journey to Emile, starting a company as a minority founder, and the impact of his MBA experience.
To start off, I’d love to hear a bit about your background and how you got started with Emile.
I’m from a small town in Illinois and I’ve played sports my whole life. I was a really passionate athlete, and both baseball & hockey were my two loves. I wanted to play professionally and ended up making it to the division one level for both sports, but I fell short of going pro. On the journey there, I went to seven schools in five years trying to make that dream happen. I was lucky enough that baseball ended up getting me into the University of Pennsylvania to get a degree. I was the first Ivy League graduate from my high school and that really spurred my passion for education. I was able to see the doors and opportunities it opened relative to my hometown friends, so I’m forever indebted to the University of Pennsylvania.
[Education] is really something that I was passionate about from the start and so once my sports dreams died, I wanted to find something with similar aspirations, and a possibility of deep societal impact that can influence a lot of great people, especially young people. To me, the only way to do that and be obsessed with my day-to-day work was to do entrepreneurship. So, after school, I went to Silicon Valley and joined a Stanford GSB start-up called Dispatcher Inc, which was the Uber for trucking. The company was led by two Stanford MBAs who were in their second year when I met them. It was an incredible journey for me, and I was the fifth full time hire. We ended up getting acqui-hired by Uber to help launch Uber Freight and I stayed at Uber for the next three years. I helped launch Uber freight and Uber NeMo, the company’s electric bikes and scooters division.
With this experience and seeing the full lifecycle of the start-up from Seed to Series G through IPO with Uber, I knew I wanted to start my own business. I also knew that I wanted to pursue my MBA largely because I saw my previous bosses [the Stanford MBAs] and admired their experience and leadership. The MBA seemed like a great path to develop a strong holistic skill set and for me, focus on leadership, management, recruiting, sales, and operations.
Having been through the full lifecycle of the start-up experience from Seed through Series G and going public with Uber, what did you learn from those experiences and how did they help you hit the ground running when founding Emile?
The big thing I would say is that speed is our trademark at Emile. That was initially a personal slogan, but now it’s a company slogan and it’s something that I learned firsthand at Uber. Uber has been absolutely the most influential piece of my career in terms of recruiting and investment. The leaders and mentors I was able to meet there have been so instrumental in my career and taught me about the speed of iteration and the speed of recruitment. When you have no capital, it’s about rapid iteration and season one was all UCLA undergraduates teaching the courses they were majoring in as AP support lessons, and they did a fantastic job.
We were able to quickly iterate that towards the model we have today, which is short from highly edited videography from subject matter experts around the country where we control and produce all the content in house. When we were able to raise our seed round in the Spring of 2021 from Kleiner Perkins, Owl Ventures, and SoftBank, we decided to continue to embody that speed of iteration and recruitment as we went from just the three co-founders and two hires to 20x the team between that moment in May and the end of calendar year 2021. We ended the year at around 60 full time employees and right now we’re a little over 70 so we really embodied speed above all else, and we’re really excited to continue to do so.
Emile has seen some impressive traction and as you mentioned, recently raised a big round from Kleiner Perkins, Owl Ventures, and Softbank, which are all remarkable investors to have on the cap table. Can you talk about what the fundraising process was like for you, especially as Latino founders?
I think the big thing is we’re really excited to use our platform to empower anyone from any socioeconomic status or zip code to receive an incredible education. Felix and I are lucky that we were able to work our way into receiving great educations and leveraging them towards careers we’re really passionate about but not everyone from our hometowns or our backgrounds have had that chance. The big barrier to us making that impact was raising capital — we couldn’t go to our family or family’s connections to raise capital.
Luckily, I was able to talk to Uber alums and UCLA & Penn alumni networks while Felix was able to leverage his connections at McKinsey and Harvard. We went through those networks and exhausted them to get enough capital to have a fighting chance. One reason why we’re able to partner with incredible venture capital firms was because we are so battle tested — we had to scratch and claw for every bit of angel money we raised. We were taking checks as small as five and ten thousand dollars and we ended up with over 100 angels. That is a ton of pitching because for every pitch you end up with quite a few nos. Both Felix and I have pitched probably over 1500 times just in terms of raising capital, let alone sales calls, and because of all that trial and error, when it came time to raise our seed round, we understood how to tell our story effectively. I think this played an instrumental part in us being able to partner with Kleiner who we’re really excited to continue to work with as well Owl and Softbank, who’ve all done an incredible job supporting us on this journey, so we’re excited about what we’re doing with the three of them.
Given all those no’s, it must have taken a toll on you to slog through the fundraising process. How did you manage to stay positive in the face of adversity?
For me, the most important thing with any company is the co-founder relationship. The trust, the loyalty, the ability to fill each other’s blind spots, and the understanding that the other person is going to work every bit as hard as you. That’s why I’m so excited and lucky to work with Felix because the two of us met as friends and we became incredible business partners because of the way we approach this relationship. In terms of skills sets and personalities, our work is very complimentary and that was the biggest part of staying positive throughout this process. One of my biggest things is turning every negative into a positive — you don’t win or lose; you win or learn. If you view everything as a learning opportunity, you become far more optimistic and positive and positive energy is infectious. It was big for Felix and me to be able to grab a 20-minute lunch together and go back to our work stronger and more unified.
To use another sports analogy, every rep gets you better and closer to mastery of a skill set. So, I understand how important positive energy is in the co-founder relationship and that’s what’s gotten us through these tough times. Entrepreneurship is a roller coaster of a road and there’s going to be days where things are really difficult so it’s important to have someone with you who can wake up and eat a bowl of grit for breakfast with you. That’s the two of us and we’re passionate about it.
Switching gears, a bit, I’ve seen you described in the news as the “Netflix of Education” and I’m just curious what you think about that description. How do you and the team make the content so bingeable, especially for children that might find these topics a little dry?
To me, videography and cinematic art is the best way for storytelling at scale to inspire millions of people. From the start, our mission has been to impact millions of kids around the world and empower anyone with any socioeconomic background to receive an incredible education. During the pandemic, we noticed that social media was crushing it while other industries were getting slaughtered. There were difficulties in the education space, and we wanted to bring the best trends from social media and technology into education and be able to lean into those strengths. When we call ourselves the Netflix of education, it means replicating what you see with your favorite Netflix docu-series that you can’t go to bed it’s so enjoyable. With Netflix, you want to always watch the next episode, and we want to tie that level of engagement and content quality to an academically accredited model. We’re accredited by WASC, Cognia, University of California A-G, College Board, and the NCAA. That means we can give actual high school credit and partner with institutions to give credit. With our quality, we’ve been able to see the impact of the product on students and they’re able to really enjoy the product as well as introduce them to subjects that they are very unlikely to be able to get otherwise. We have a course on financial literacy taught by a UPenn professor, we have a cryptocurrency & NFT course for credit, and we are going to continue to be on the frontier of education and we’re proud of that.
I’m curious about accreditation as a differentiator. How do you view accreditation with all those organizations and how does that inform your partnerships with school districts?
We are really excited to partner with schools and districts throughout the US wherever we can best fit and give their students the best educational experience possible. Whether that’s a class that they may not be able to offer, or a teacher that left the school, we want to be able to solve superintendents biggest needs and be a strong partner for them. We’re really excited with what we’ve seen so far.
Nothing is going to be the same as it was pre-pandemic and it’s important to be progressing and adapting to the new normal. We can provide students with a number of opportunities, and we see ourselves as a partner with school districts across the country. There are several incredible use cases and we’re excited to continue figuring out how we can be better partners for our schools. Currently, over 70 schools and districts are using Emile, and we’re really proud of that. We’re hoping to get to over 200 by the end of the calendar year.
That’s incredible growth. I know a lot of schools have moved back into in-person learning full time — do you see the demand for digital learning changing as the world moves into the new normal?
It all comes back to the mission. We want to be the best company possible empowering kids of all socioeconomic status and zip codes to get a quality education. This mission lends itself best to going B2B and selling to schools and districts because the schools can use public tax dollars to pay for membership. That way, the students are often getting access to the courses for free which we’re emphatic and passionate about and it makes us really excited.
There were a lot of pandemic tailwinds to how we were able to build the business and some of our immediate use cases around leveraging the platform. However, we feel confident that we’re in an even better position for the next five to ten years where kids will be even more digitally native having grown up with technology.
There’s been a really acute issue of teachers leaving schools and seeking out different jobs. That means someone is going to need to fill that gap and empower schools to best serve their students. That’s why we feel really passionate about filling in where schools need us most, which is to help students get back on track or offering courses that the school can’t provide. We see a fit with schools, even when they decide to return in person because it’s even more apparent that to give them the opportunity for self-discovery, they’re going to need to partner with a platform like ours. We feel confident in our approach and how we can help students have a better opportunity to achieve their dreams.
Thinking more broadly, do you see asynchronous learning as supplemental to the in person learning experience or is there a possibility it replaces it as the future of learning adapts to a new normal?
I see us being able to partner with schools and districts moving forward. A teacher doing the same lecture three times a day year over year is highly inefficient and it lends itself to error. The teacher may have an off day — you never know what is happening in their personal life or health. Likewise, a student may have an off day for the same reasons. The opportunity to be able to automate pieces of that journey or better yet leverage technology and media to elevate parts of that journey are limitless and we’re excited about opportunities to make teachers the stars of the show. Using our platform, those on the ground can be better utilized to help students who are falling behind or need more attention to enable their success. We very much see an opportunity for us to partner with schools and districts and become the nuts and bolts around a larger, greater ecosystem that we’ve seen evolve over the last 12–18 months.
Given the traction you’ve had, what does success look like for Emile? Is the goal to integrate into every school system in the country?
When we say the Netflix of education, we mean that anywhere there’s Netflix, there should be access to Emile. That’s how passionate we are about this and that’s our plan. We aim to be an international company and fulfill our mission in every country around the world to provide the best digital experience through education. More tangibly, we are looking at five to ten of the top 100 school districts in the US adopting Emile and scaling it out to their entire student body. We’re really focused on being able to help as many people as possible and we want to continue to improve on our experience and iterate every day. In the long-term, anywhere there’s Netflix, there should be Emile. In the short-term, we’re focused on getting as many of the big school districts in the US to adopt Emile and we’re really passionate about getting to work.
To accomplish that goal, what does the product roadmap look like for the near future?
Every day we’re building and growing as fast as possible. Right now, it’s very much about getting the best minds in academia, technology, and media to work together and build an elite team that can tackle this important problem. If we can better educate one person, they can impact all their neighbors, their partner, their friends, and the community. It’s really exciting and that’s just one person, so imagine the impact from millions, compounded into indirectly impacting 100s of millions of kids. For us, it’s about getting the most talented education obsessed people to work with us at Emile. Bringing it back to the beginning of the interview, the speed of recruiting and onboarding talented people who are obsessed with solving this problem is critical. We are obsessed with solving this important problem, which is helping people be the best, most talented version of themselves they can be.
We’re at 50 classes for credit and partnering with over 70 schools and districts. We’d like to get to over 200 schools and districts and over 100 classes for credit by the end of the calendar year. We have a lot of work to do, and we set ambitious goals because we want to push ourselves to maximize every single day.
I’d like to talk a bit about your experience at UCLA and in the MBA program. It sounds like it was extremely helpful in getting started, but I’d love for you to elaborate on what the program gave you and how you’d characterize your experience.
First, the most important thing to starting a business is finding your co-founder and while Felix wasn’t technically enrolled in the UCLA MBA program, we did meet through a UCLA based mentorship program. Without going to UCLA, I would have never met Felix and so I am forever indebted to UCLA for making that connection happen.
I came in like many MBAs, somewhat confused on what I wanted to do. On some of my applications, I even mentioned management consulting and product management. However, my pre-MBA journey at Uber, Dispatcher, and through sports always brought me back to wanting to start my own business. I quickly started a PropTech business within two weeks of starting at UCLA and was lucky enough to go through the UCLA venture accelerator program which today is still the most impactful academic support I’ve ever had throughout my entrepreneurial journey. It really thrust me into a boot camp of sorts without taking any equity and just simply mentoring me to be the best entrepreneur I could be. In addition to the venture accelerator, I found it incredibly impactful to enter entrepreneurial competitions at UCLA and around the country. It’s very difficult to replicate entrepreneurship in the classroom and it’s very difficult to replicate venture capital and the intensity, nerves and rigor that they put you through. Those competitions, which I entered at least 20–30 times over my time at UCLA and was lucky enough to place and win some capital in four or five of them, were the start of my understanding of what it took to raise money to recruit a team and tell a story. So much of entrepreneurship is storytelling and selling yourself, your teammates, and your company to investors, so to me the venture accelerator and those competitions were critical to my development as an entrepreneur.
That’s great to hear you had such an amazing experience. I know a few people I’ve talked to have strong opinions on an MBA for entrepreneurs. Given your past experiences, do you feel like an MBA is a worthwhile endeavor for an aspiring entrepreneur?
I know it’s a hot topic and it’s enjoyable to hear both sides of the coin. To me, the biggest con to an MBA is that when you have a strong backup plan and peers with high-paying jobs, it’s really hard to succeed in entrepreneurship. If the going gets tough, you often think I could get a great job in consulting, banking, or product and I’m just going to do that. Getting an MBA is a very safe, risk averse path and you’re always going to have the opportunity to make a high paying salary at a great company. To that point, I totally understand the argument about why people are against the MBA.
In terms of the skill set, and the opportunity, and the relationships, this experience is the most valuable time to experiment and try things for multiple years which has limitless potential. So, if you come into your MBA and have a very tactical understanding of what you want to accomplish and you’re not afraid of risking it all and running away from having a backup plan, an MBA is such a cheat code to becoming an incredible entrepreneur. Having that MBA and then also the peer pressure of seeing friends making high salaries at prestigious firms, makes it harder to really take that risk as an entrepreneur and be willing to live on the ramen diet for months or years, whatever necessary. When you’re investing in an entrepreneur or building with an entrepreneur who has an MBA, you need to work with someone who’s really, really gritty and enjoys risk. As long as those are the case, I think there can be a lot of value from the MBA and understanding how to use it effectively towards building a great business.
Do you have any advice for MBA students who are looking to start their own companies and are trying to set themselves up for success throughout the two years they’re in the program?
The biggest takeaway that I would have is that when you first get to campus, meeting as many great people as possible should be the absolute focus. That should be the goal no matter if you’re an entrepreneur or not, meeting great people, great friends should be the first priority and has the most exponential returns.
I would say that by the second year, if not even the second half of the first year, you need to put full focus into yourself, your personal brand, and your co-founder relationship. You need to understand that time is of the essence and that you have the first semester to experiment, but the remainder of the MBA experience is about working on the business. Compared to someone who may be going into consulting, banking or big tech where you can lock in that job and enjoy the MBA experience, if you’re really serious about entrepreneurship, those are things you should really think twice about and really put all your energy and focus into your business and your co-founder relationship. Everyone wants to have incredible memories and friendships, but entrepreneurship is an extremist path where you have to go through intense long periods of being focused on work. To me, if you’re serious about entrepreneurship and leveraging the MBA, summer and the last year must be exclusively dedicated to the business.
I also noticed that even with all this time on the start-up, you also graduated from UCLA early which is very impressive. How did you manage to accomplish that and what were the trade-offs you encountered?
It’s crazy — during my last quarter of the MBA experience I did 30 credit hours which is pretty intense and challenging, especially while starting Emile. I knew what I wanted to accomplish and what I wanted to get done, which was start a business, and that was my top priority. A lot of folks, and there’s nothing wrong with this, use the MBA as a two-year professional break to enjoy life. My approach was very much focused on building something that my future wife, kids and hopefully grandkids can be able to enjoy the merits of my experience and the work I put in. When the pandemic hit during my spring quarter of my first year of MBA, that was a shell shock that reinforced how important it was for me to be able to set myself and family up for success in the long haul. With that in mind, it became a central focus of mine to put all my energy into graduating as quickly and early as possible. I took 54 credits in back-to-back quarters which was really intense, but it would allow me to get into my business and professional endeavors more quickly. I’m really grateful that UCLA allowed me to do so, and because of some of my successes from the venture accelerator and other competitions, I made it really clear to the administration that what I was trying to accomplish would allow me to be very involved with the UCLA community for many years to come.
Given your background and time at school, is there anything you wish you had known before starting your MBA journey at UCLA?
The biggest thing I would say is the earlier you can start, the better. The earlier you can start in your career working at a fast paced, hyper growth company the better. There’s never a perfect time to start and I highly advise taking the risk as early as possible because you don’t have that much to lose until you are supporting a family, kids, or a partner. At the end of the day, you’re just supporting yourself and it’s the best time to take the risk.
One other thing I really want to hammer home is the co-founder relationship. Choosing who you build the business with is the most important decision of your career. Just like your personal life, choosing who you’re getting in a relationship with is like marriage. It is truly a business marriage and if you do not find the right person that you can have embedded trust with, it won’t work in the long haul.
Just to wrap up, what is one thing that you’re most excited for with Emile this year?
The most exciting thing for me is partnering with these large school districts because that’s really starting to accomplish our mission of impacting as many students as possible and being able to get feedback from them to make our product better. We understand that we have a long way to go, and we want to continue to iterate and build to help school administrators provide the best educational experience possible. The biggest goal is to continue to continue to drive home the mission and the only way to do that is to bring on larger school districts, so this calendar year is really about understanding and partnering with some incredible thought leaders in the industry.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.