Sports has a lot more to offer to higher education than we give it credit for. That is what Athleta-Ed proves as it leverages its partnerships with top-ranked business schools and sports leaders and athletes to create business courses to address the demand for leaders and prime movers in the global sports industry. In this episode, Warren Whitlock chats with its Founder and CEO, Hany Syed. Starting as a project within a broader venture capital educational platform, Athleta-Ed quickly evolved its own independent existence. Listen and learn about how the platform is coping with the changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and why the ground is fertile for it to continue to excel in what it does in the future.
Listen to the podcast here:
Powerful Academic Partnerships Through Sports With Hany Syed Of Athleta-Ed
I’m here with Hany Syed of Athleta-Ed. Welcome to the show.
Thank you. I appreciate it.
I know you were a venture capitalist and now you’re in a sports-related venture. How did that happen?
My background has been in education, private equity, and venture capital and with the focus on the education sector. I was in Dubai for a few years and that’s what I developed in my background in the space. I came back to the US in ‘15 when I started having kids. I was going to basically create a cross-border education platform with school education and leveraging the relationships that I have in international markets with large schools and investors. Basically, it’s to co-invest alongside the fact that we feel Silicon Valley VCs and their portfolio companies that can benefit from my international access. The basic thesis was to invest early in companies and to bring them to international markets leveraging the education sector. Athleta-Ed was a project within that platform. In 2018, we finalized our first academic partnership with UCLA Anderson School of Management. Quickly then things mushroomed from there. I wound up deciding to drop everything and focus on this as a founder. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last several months or so.
That trajectory and story is usually a good sign that the company has something you were willing to give up quite a bit to join that. It wasn’t good money chasing bad.
As a finance guy, I hope that’s the messaging that people take with it.
I’m sure the good money chasing bad happens on occasion too. What’s happening in the marketplace? How does this fit in?
I’m a sports fan. Initially, the model with creating the executive MBA in Sports. A few years ago, Kobe, God rest his soul, retires. Literally, a couple of weeks later, he starts his fund. LeBron is active in his VC, everyone knows about Kevin Durant and others. A lot of sports team ownership has met over the last several years, hedge fund guys, VCs have come into that space. I knew there was an interesting opportunity to leverage sports and venture. In fact a little bit of us has invest in venture. Everyone talks about access to deal flow and athletes have access to deal flow that no one has. This is a bit of a backdrop in terms of the sports.
Now, Montana has a VC fund. Aaron Rodgers wants to fund. There’s a lot of venture capital activity from the athletes. For that reason, near the goal and say, “We’re basically an investor from Silicon Valley.” The thinking was to create a core business curriculum with examples from sports, to teach core business. It’s not a sports management program. This is entrepreneurship with pay the investment and Postmates as an example. All of this that we did was from my background in education where I realized what’s critical is content and driving learning outcomes. If you teach a subject matter with more engaging content, you’ll drive greater learning outcomes. That was the first a-ha moment.
The second one was I realized that we could leverage sports to drive academic partnerships, meaning that how I dropped everything was I went to my business school professor and who was associate dean for a few years. I talked to him this idea of doing this and we’re both Berkeley people. Basically, what I realized was that it was sports. Berkeley has undergraduate business school. Only eleven of the top business schools do. The ones that do were Oakley, Michigan, SC, whatever. They’re hard to get into. What I realized that it didn’t matter that as an undergrad that Hany said you couldn’t get into undergrad. What matters is that Jared Goff, Aaron Rodgers, and Marshawn Lynch couldn’t take relevant courses. Early on, we realized we could use sports to create value to the academic partner in an area in an unusual way. The more academic institutions, the more the athlete is challenged and to put it politely. That’s the background.
What do you see as the future of this is that a bit of pandemic happening? The world of higher education is going to change. You can’t hold a large venue type of an experience for any of this. Does the money change? Is the world going to change? College team’s going to play?
We have a product and a solution that’s addressing two large industries that are shut down. A few months ago, the approach was to focus on courses that we thought that tier one business schools wouldn’t have a problem with offering a personal finance course. A name, image, and likeness course that’s not a traditional business school course we’re creating. We initially went in thinking that was the opportunity to get in, but we have an ability to create courses at a much lower cost than almost anybody including the university partner themselves. We’re having conversations on a much broader scope with the university.
As it relates to the situation, tier-one schools are run online at the undergrad level. UCLA and Athleta-Ed were the first top business school to offer an online undergraduate credited course in 2019. That was true up until a few months ago. Now, everyone’s had to create courses online, but they’re doing it like this. I’m not sure if you have friends or family who are in college now, but this is a horrible way to learn and everyone knows it. You can’t teach Chemistry 1 this way. You could imagine someone at Berkeley, UCLA, or wherever is wanting to go to medical school, this is a disaster. I’m not naming those schools. I’m saying that across the board, higher education has a real challenge because they weren’t set up to create online courses. I’m talking about the top 20, top 50 schools.
If the world went to online courses, has that put a wrench in your plans?
Going to online courses, you’re a facilitator of that. We certainly would benefit or be well-positioned to deal with that shift. I don’t think it’s going to go to that level at high-ranked schools. I think a lot of other schools are going to have to do that because people have gone online now for the last few months. They’re going to start this fall again. A lot of students are seeing some of the benefits of it as well. My world view, there’s a middle ground. I’m more interested in having 2,000 people in undergrad or Marshall School of Business instead of one of the people that get in every year. I see the power of online is creating more opportunities for students to study something.
I don’t see much doubt. I’ve been saying that this is a trend where it’s going for decades now. I was thinking about this. Was it a good experience? Was it a bad experience? What do I remember? I met my mentor in college and he taught me a few things. Some of the thinking around that changed my life drastically. I had another class where I won’t tell the long version of the story, but basically it was a class where I got the Wall Street Journal. Reading the Wall Street Journal has been a big difference in my life, even though I’m not on Wall Street or don’t read the newspaper for many years now. Those habits and learning those couple of things, are those the things I paid all that money to go to college for? It’s hard to say.Athleta-Ed leverages sports to drive powerful academic partnerships. Click To Tweet
That being said, the socialization that happens by being able to meet up with people especially in a post-Facebook world where I left school thinking, “That’s it, I’m on to other things. Don’t keep track of the people that were friends and the connections and networking.” I watched that completely change in the last many years where you do keep up lifelong connections with a lot more people than you were able to in the old day. I remember making a few long-distance phone calls to try to keep in touch with some of those contacts. The industry I’m in, what I was doing back then, maybe I didn’t need the connections. Now, I preach all day long you need the connections.
I agree with you completely on that. I do think education is one of those areas where you go to school influences those connections. I think there’s both good and bad to that.
Who you meet and the clout you get from having gone to school there. Do we need to charge the prices needed to be able to stick an Ivy League credential on your resume? That value is not quite the same.
I think there’s an absolute push against that. Morally that’s correct that you don’t need to charge that much money. I’ve been in education for as long as I have on the business side of it. It’s also a place for people to separate themselves from the other. I see that as a real problem. However, that’s why I’m interested in creating more access to that, but I’m a bit rational in that all of us who’ve gone to these schools, we have a vested interest in maintaining the weakness. Everyone else in the world who’s trying to create disruptive models, that’s great. We certainly look at it that way, but also I don’t see it happening. It’s a bit overstated that people are going to stop going to Harvard or MIT. There’s a great paper in The New Yorker about this idea.
It’s going to take more than one pandemic to wipe out hundreds of years of these institutions. At the same time, it’s accelerating the trend. A hundred years from now, will it matter if you went to Harvard? I don’t know. I’m going to say yes, it’s going to matter. Is it going to matter that somebody many years from now went? It’s hard to say. Is it going to matter that the people who did? I know in this study that I’m doing and I’m definitely a lifelong learner. I read and study more now than I did a few years ago, let alone when I was in college. It’s much more concentrated and thank you, internet, that everything’s available. While I’ll sit and read a book, I’ll also watch. I was not feeling like picking up the next book to read and said, “I’m going to take a day off and learn in front of the TV.”
I won’t get into what I was learning because I could go for hours on the thoughts, ideas, and learning things that I don’t know about. One of the things I picked up from learning in my 60s is that there are many little things that I always took for granted that I’m reassessing. There’s a big one going on in society, but little ones are personal grooming habits. The smallest of things. When I shut a door, do I slam it or try to be quiet? Why do I do that? The little things I can examine because I’ve done everything else. It’s time to get to these other things. Maybe that was brought on by a Warren Buffett quote. It wasn’t a quote. It was about him. How much money he had at 36, 56, and 86? He’s substantially more from 36 to 80. He’s like, “I’ve got a lot more to do and earn, but more or less learn.” There’s much there to learn.
One of the things about the college experience is we dump people in there. They go for four years, they come out educated and then don’t want to pick up a book. Unless they enlist, they’re stuck for lifelong. One of the interviews I saw was a smart guy, but it was about history. It was Civil War history. What this guy knows, I’m going like, “How did he learn?” He spent ten years in academic institutions and he was teaching. The question to him by the interviewers was, “Why didn’t you stay there?” Almost insinuating like, “There’s something wrong with an academic deciding to go out and affect the real world.” He said, “I thought I could reach a lot more people outside the institution.” That’s what you’re getting at here. If you’ve got a good course, especially if it can have a label as being a top tier school associated with it, that kind of branding, I can help out an awful lot of people. There are many people that get nowhere near a college. I think we ought to take that and push it out to a wider audience in more than just a YouTube documentary.
The last thing I would say is it’s not that everyone should go to college. It’s just that everybody who wants to go to college should go to college. People shouldn’t limit themselves into thinking that at 26 years of age they can go to college and start. You’re talking about four years. This happened to one of my friends is his son now and in his mid-twenties got into Cal and that’s amazing. We called it, transferred in. He’s had a whole set of life experiences that he even went to I think gone and probably wasn’t ready to go to college at eighteen years of age, the typical Berkeley University would be.
That’s always been somewhat so. I know when I went through community college, I started going when I was still in high school. I graduated early and took more classes. I was eating it up that way. At the time, there were a lot of Vietnam-era vets coming home and using the VA money. Back then, you could live nice if you went to a free college in California and had a little bit of income coming in. I thought, “Why are these old guys bothering to go to college?” I went and checked, even back in the ‘70s, the stats on the average age of community college, we called it junior college back then, was shocking. It was much higher than I thought. I don’t remember the number. Later, I did look it up and found out it was 29. It continues though.
When my kids went to a community college, they came home talking about how they were the youngest people in the class. They had waited. It was a night school class and he’d been out of high school for a couple of years. I guess what I’m saying is that maybe we ought to rethink a future where somebody at 35, 55, or 47 decides that they want to change something in their life. They take more than a course. They take a run at college and not just to get the BA like the Phoenix College pitch, but the job, career type of thing. It’s because they want to get good at something or enhance a career. It might be a six-month. It might be a sabbatical.
I think as the future of work is going to be, we’re going to have a lot more freedom in what we do and we can plan things so we have a short period of time. Maybe when you become an empty nester, it’s a great time to reevaluate what you’re doing and take another run at college. Come to me as I looked at what traditionally was called retirement age and said, “I am trying to take care of myself and look at our science. I’ve got to say I’m middle-aged, but that means I’ve got a long time left. I could have a career where I studied for five years, become an expert at it, and maybe a world leader in twenty years. I would be in my 80s if my health is good enough for that. Why not?”
That’s exactly how I feel. Every day you’re pursuing that goal whether you’re fortunate to live into your 80s or not, you’re still doing something that you feel strongly about.
I want it to be a tragedy. We didn’t know he was sick. He died young. When I do pass on, whether or not that 82, 92, or 122. One of the big revelations for me was a book called Lifespan by David Sinclair that talks he’s the resveratrol guy. He talked about some other supplements, which I am on, that they’re studying in higher dosage with rat and mouse studies, extends the healthy lifestyle so that you do live like you’re 30 years old your entire life. The one thing that he wasn’t able to address was what do you do with 120? It was a big wake-up call for me because I ignored that I’m middle-aged. I’m getting up there, but that’s okay. It gives me more experience. Not knowing what my lifespan was and then read this and go like, “You’re at 120. I was 63. I was middle-aged. I was on the downside already.”
That was the biggest wake-up call for me was that you can’t keep going on. I know I was getting a tinge of this and everything. I looked in the mirror and I’m not a spring chicken. I’d be reading a book and I’m going, “Why am I learning this?” I’ve changed things. I have a goal to learn Python. I asked my Twitter audience, “Mandarin or Python?” The Twitter audience came back overwhelmingly Python and I got thinking, “Universal translator can take care of the Mandarin.” I don’t intend to program, I just want to learn it. I want to flex the brain where it’s something new. Regardless of that future, are you ready to pivot into whatever it is and take Athleta-Ed with it?
We’re well-positioned as the company, given the situation we’re in and then the validation and the early successes that we’ve had. We set out to do this from the beginning was to try to find a middle ground approach, to create more access to initially top schools and then to create more access to compelling content at schools that are outside of the top 100. There are 4,000 universities and colleges in the country. I do think there will be a contraction. I don’t think that the market size itself of sixteen million-plus students are going to go down. People will debate me on this and we’ll see. There’s nothing wrong if you can afford to spend four years in way of home.
The question is, is that the age to do it? Doing the math of anyone over eighteen being an adult, all of college and universities and everything else we call adult education is a growing market. There’s no doubt about that. There are going to be more of us in that age group. I don’t need to worry about under eighteen, there are more or less people being born. The total number of adults continues to go up. If the institutions were to go away, that unlocks a huge amount of capital and resources that are there. That’s not going to kill the market. That’s going to be a positive thing.There is a much broader market of people affected by the business side of sports. Click To Tweet
You brought up an interesting point about somebody in their 50s deciding to start an entirely new career. We haven’t modeled out our business around that, but that’s right. In your 50s, if you decided, “I want to get a job in the sports world,” that’s something I want to do, you’re right. You could do that for a few years and get an internship. It’s because it hasn’t happened that way, but why not? Why not a 50-year-old intern or a 50-year-old analyst at the Dodgers or the Lakers or one of the leads?
I’ve talked to my brother two significant times in the last many years about his career. He was a public school teacher. He’s still a teacher. He didn’t care to move into any administration. He has some disability. He said he could retire early, but why bother when he was 51? Now at 62, I asked him the same question. He said, “I’m not going to retire because I would be bored. What else would I do?” I told him what I shared with you that he could do anything he wants. The interesting thing is if I was to describe my brother, it would be a teacher that loves the Dodgers. While he won’t be playing sports, I give you the idea of a career doing something with that. He’s got that wide open, and not to suggest what my brother should do, but as an example of what is feasible.
There was a great book on this subject I read, I don’t think I was even 50 when I read it, about people 55 and older coming up with another career. They called it silver as gold being time to retire. They didn’t want to say middle-aged. I never did like the phrase. They came up with a bunch of terms to describe it. None of them were any good or have caught on. Story after story of somebody that decided to retire early because they’d done well, got bored, got helping at a soup kitchen. Because of the skills, the talent, and the experience they had, they ended up running the soup kitchen or the nationwide organization running the soup kitchens, whatever.
The same with a nurse. There’s a head of Girl Scouts, a woman just retired, that started at 52. These aren’t outliers anymore. We heard the Colonel Sanders’ story of, “We developed a chicken recipe late in life.” Those were the old days, the outliers. Now, anybody can do this in any way they find meaningful. A lot more of us are going to find out we get bored. It’s a huge upside for what you’re doing and why not in sports. If sports is going to continue to be around, we know education well. Someday, if our governors let us out of the house, we’re going to go back and want to see more sports. That’s another interesting thing but it could be a whole other show discussing whether or not sports would be better if the salaries and money went way down. We’re back to playing sports because we liked it or a few people like to watch and play. We don’t need global coverage to make the sport work.
The only thing I’ll comment on that is me. I’m a rabid sports fan, but I’ve thought little about sports over the last several months as a fan. In this country when I was two, it’s the first time I truly felt American. Although this is the only country I’ve ever known other than my international time I was working, was when I started playing sports. To me, sports is the greatest driver of social change, certainly this last century across race, gender, orientation, religion. It’s a powerful tool. We see that every day. Sports has been playing out and now shut down. I’m surprised at how much of top of mind it is. What’s going to happen in the bubble in Orlando? How is baseball going to be played out? There’s a much broader market of people who are affected by sports, the business of it.
What’s ESPN going to air, Tiddlywinks competitions? That takes more than one person. I’ve always thought of sport as something you can be totally passionate about but it doesn’t matter. No matter who wins the Super Bowl, Monday you’re back at work probably talking about it, but you go back to your regular life. It’s not going to affect your paycheck either way, depending on how much you bet on it. It matters for those two teams. On the day while the competition is being played, it mattered. I’m thinking about eSports. I’m not an obsessed fan, but I was laughing at why you want to watch somebody else play. As I see it progress and find myself watching a Twitch channel, I feel like there’s a lot to be said. It could be somebody sitting in their basement and still producing something. The history has been they produced it in bigger and bigger arenas, but with or without the arenas, there are a lot of ways to monetize to do that. I’m not going to even try to compare it to the gambling revenue of all that.
You’re talking about eSports, I’ll tell you a funny anecdote that I went into a studio. There was a whole section of the studio they were building a theater in. I said, “What’s that?” This was several years ago. He looked at me and he said, “That’s our eSports theater.” I said, “For what?” “To watch the people play.” “Watch what?” She looked at me like I was a moron, “You’re a VC?” People watch someone else play a video game. I was stunned. I came home to my house and I said, “This is horrible. I’m never going to let my son play it. This is insane. I’m disgusted.” What’s all the social activity of people?
She looked at me and she says, “You’re upset that people spend three hours watching someone else play a sport?” “Yes.” She says, “What do you do on Sundays in the football season?” That’s right. The funny thing is though, you see the power of sports is getting people together whether it’s eSports or traditional sports, that’s still there and it’s a human need. One way or the other, what we’re dealing with, you can see these core valuations have gone through the roof because people need entertainment. The eSports entertainment has not changed in any real way compared to when you watch 100,000 people in The Big House in Michigan. Those things are called backward in a way in which eSports is not.
We’re in mourning or feeling lost that we’re not able to see our sports or do this. I remember seeing a thing about prom, how much video there was on kids not being able to go to prom. In the lifetime of achievements and everything that’s happening, dropping the bucket. It’s sad that he had to cancel prom, but we’ll get over it. The same with sports and whether or not you’re able to go to this job or do that. Losing a job is a devastating thing, but you’re still alive at least in this country. There are places where people are so poor that the pandemic’s causing a lot more death from that. I wonder. We’re a long way from counting how many deaths there are due to avoiding the pandemic, again different topic.
If we were to get used to watching sports without seeing an arena full of people, they would do it. I believe the numbers are already there since the age of television that a lot more people see sports on TV than see it in the stadium. I’ve seen many games. I’ve been to many professionals but lots of minor leagues. It used to be a good outing. My Rotary Club would buy up 40 seats and go and support the then new Minor League Baseball team. It was great fun to go and there were fireworks afterwards. I can’t tell you whether or not that team won nor can I remember the name of that team. There are a lot more layers to it, which I’m sure we’ll come up with other ways to deal with. The light’s speaking to you. It’s pitch time. Give us a little bit about where somebody can find out more about you and your elevator pitch.
Do you have a website there?
The website is there, information about the company and the partnership with UCLA Anderson is there as well.
You wouldn’t be turning down somebody with a whole lot of money deciding to call you.
It’s not at all, I would appreciate it.
I want to know about that one. I’m not reeling and dealing here. We’re just talking.
About Hany Syed
CEO Athleta-Ed. Private equity and venture capital professional with experience as an investor and founder. Founded Athleta-Ed in 2018 as part of a VC education platform developed through Bridge Technology Capital. From 2007-2015, part of the founding team of a UAE-based private equity firm backed by major investment groups.
During his time in Dubai, led a wide range of transactions within social infrastructure sectors. In education, has deep networks at the highest levels globally.