Part I: Q&A With Politico Co-Founder Jim VandeHei
Over the course of a half-hour interview, Politico co-founder Jim VandeHei very candidly discussed his career and offered his unique take on the state of journalism, reporting, and U.S. politics.
Dressed casually in a black t-shirt, blue jeans, and worn-in sneakers, Jake Schwartz could easily pass for a college student. That is, of course, until one of the 300 people employed by General Assembly introduces him as a company co-founder and chief executive.
He may look younger than his chronological age would indicate—let the record show he’s 36—but Schwartz has undoubtedly accomplished a lot in his young career. While he’s now in the enviable position of running a thriving company—General Assembly, which he and three friends started in 2011—the Portland, Oregon-born entrepreneur struggled to find his professional footing after graduating from Yale University with a liberal arts degree.
“My background is funny because I lived sort of the quintessential lost and wandering 20s,” Schwartz says. “I was a classic liberal arts kid who believed that a little piece of paper with Latin on it was going to open any door I wanted it to. But I got into the real world and found—like many people do—that I didn’t really have any actual skills, so I spent a lot of my 20s trying to figure out where I wanted to go and what I needed to get there.”
After working in a number of fields, Schwartz eventually enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. It was after he graduated in 2008, Schwartz says, that he really started to get serious about creating something of his own. “I had a bunch of projects going on,” he says. “One of them involved a couple of other young kids who also went to Yale who wanted to build this sort of community for entrepreneurs in New York called General Assembly, which at the time was called Super Conductor.”
“We started thinking of ways that we could serve that community and we decided to offer some classes and those classes just started selling out like crazy,” he says.
“At that point I looked around and realized that the opportunity in education was really for people like me in my 20s—that 24-year-old version of myself who was feeling a little lost and lonely in his career. If we could find a way to provide a sort of community and structured support to help people find an onramp to that career that’s going to be exciting and meaningful to them, it would be a huge opportunity and a huge service to all these people.”
To help people find that onramp to their careers, General Assembly offers workshops and both full- and part-time classes in relevant 21st century skills like product management, web programming, user experience (U.X.) design, data science, and digital marketing. While there is no prototypical student, most people who come to General Assembly have already gone to college and are looking for an alternative to graduate school that costs less money and is less time-intensive, Schwartz says. That’s certainly true for Camila Cano, who graduated last November from the company’s immersive web development course.
Having studied classical music composition as an undergrad, Cano decided to enroll at General Assembly to improve her self-taught programming skills. Though General Assembly’s curriculum required a lot of effort, the investment she made quickly paid off, Cano says.
“It was great. It always felt like a challenge, and I was constantly out of my comfort zone, which I really enjoyed,” she stresses. “And then about one or two weeks after I finished the course I got an offer to become a junior software engineer. I absolutely would not have been able to get this job without General Assembly.”
Meanwhile, the company has also teamed with large enterprise clients—a group that includes American Express, JPMorgan, General Electric, and the New York Times—to educate their employees on the latest trends and technologies.
“We do a ton of work with managers all the way through executives at these large Fortune 500 companies, helping them just be literate on some of these skills and disciplines that have evolved so fast that they may not have gotten exposure to them since they started at their companies,” Schwartz explains. “When we work with companies it becomes less about giving people the 12-week skillset and more about exposure to entire areas that they might not be as familiar with—whether it’s product management, U.X. design, or mobile and social strategies.”
As more and more people have discovered its innovative curriculum, General Assembly has expanded at a breakneck pace: It now offers classes in 12 locations around the world—including Washington, D.C., where it’s partnered with 1776—and, according to CrunchBase, has raised just under $50 million in funding. Yet the company hasn’t even begun to hit its stride, argues Schwartz, who reckons its quickly growing alumni pool could become a uniquely powerful tool in the future.
“One of the most amazing things that we have started to see happen is that all of our alumni start to come back and they’re doing really interesting things on their own,” he says. “Our alumni base is growing very fast and in two years it’s going to be larger than Harvard Business School’s entire living alumni base. This is going to become one of the more valuable professional networks—everyone is going to be under 40 and they’re going to be located in the hottest industries in the hottest cities around the world.”
Observing Schwartz as he animatedly identifies one overlooked opportunity after another, it’s hard not to imagine him pacing across a stage, delivering a Steve Jobs-esque performance to a captivated audience. With General Assembly showing no signs of slowing down, there’s a very real possibility that one day he might do just that.