An award-winning edtech leader takes the stage.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Recognized as one of Latin America’s most influential leaders, Fernando Valenzuela Migoya earned a spot on the inaugural Top 100 list from EdTech Digest back in 2017 and more recently was named Winner of The EdTech Leadership Award as part of The EdTech Awards 2022 from EdTech Digest. A former pro soccer player and coach, he’s lived in Miami, Sao Paulo, and Medellin, and has worked in the U.S., Europe, and Latin America. He is a Founding Partner of Global Impact EdTech Alliance, where he helps education industry players navigate and thrive in a network of ideas, experts, technologies, investors, teachers, students, startups, governments and institutions. The lively, enthusiastic strategic thinker with an infectious attitude sat down with EdTech Digest to discuss his involvement in education, technology, learning and leading, from where he came — and where it’s all headed.
What prompted you to first get involved with education and technology?
I have had a privileged and broad career that has taken me to live in four different countries, learn two languages and be exposed to work closely with some of the most brilliant global minds in several industries. All these opportunities had opened for me because of my education, for having selected an uprising field of knowledge, at a moment of transformational change and for combining theory with multi-disciplined practice from the beginning.
I grew up in Mexico City with a dream of becoming a professional soccer player. At 17, that chance opened for me as I was recruited to be part of one of the most prestigious teams in Mexico. I was amazed of the fact that I arrived directly to the main team from one day to the next, I still had this illusion that the star players I saw on TV were something surreal and then I was there, with them, as part of their team.
Early on I realized how different it is to be good at a game, to enjoy playing with friends and to be a professional player with demands of daily top performance and fierce competition. I also was able to discover the value that each player brings to build teamwork, the complexity of designing for complementarity of roles and the correct distribution of skills, the strength an inspiration of coaching, the need of support and validation from peers, the demands of public exposure and the pressure of frequent high-level competition – both internally and externally.
‘Early on I realized how different it is to be good at a game, to enjoy playing with friends and to be a professional player with demands of daily top performance and fierce competition.’
All those learnings remained with me as I chose my path to a degree in Computer Science, making the tough decision of choosing school over soccer (also realizing that was far from stardom). I still dream of playing soccer in my sleep! My first job was as a soccer coach and computer science teacher at a middle school. Later, I spent two years at school to achieve my professional soccer coaching degree, which also provided unique tools for managing talent.
The early ’80s marked my professional beginning. Digital transformation had different meaning: computers began responding to individual commands rather than to pre-programmed instructions to a terminal. I was an executive at the consulting business for Hewlett Packard Latin America – at the time maybe the best management and leadership practice school with one of the leading open system architecture strategies of all time and exponential growth year after year.
Years later, I also was deeply immersed in the next digital transformation: internet and e-commerce, as president of large call centers, and a relevant player the uprising customer relationship management (CRM) ecosystem. After that, the next digital wave – data coming to phones – as President of a Swedish telco content provider where I learned about the infrastructure used in telecommunications and connectivity for the distribution of digital content.
All these cycles and profound perspectives became pertinent for education.
I was fully involved in a deep and broad understanding of how technology was evolving, how the relationship between hardware, software, content, and communication was opening new human possibilities, but how difficult it was for people to take full advantage of technology while keeping track of new advances.
I always combined learning with work, which gave me an edge even at school. I knew more than my teachers about practical application of emerging technologies.
My passion for teaching began very early in life and has not stopped since.
When Ruben, my mentor and ex-boss at HP told me, in 2009, that he felt that the next digital transformation was about to begin in education, I saw this as my call to action to seize the opportunity.
I began researching the industry, found a handful of companies—mainly publishers—owning the business space. Below these few companies—there was a big empty space in the middle—and then an uprising set of early startups hoping, one day, to disrupt education.
‘…there was a big empty space in the middle—and then an uprising set of early startups hoping, one day, to disrupt education. This was my signal …’
This was my signal, I prepared to pitch for the large publishers in NYC and landed as President of Latin America at the recently created Cengage Learning, as they changed the name and developed a strategy to accelerate digital.
LATAM represented a marginal market for them, so I proposed to be used as a LAB to experiment new ideas, new business models and new organizational structures. As a result, we founded an innovation lab: a public-private partnership at a Public University in Chihuahua, north of Mexico.
Cengage then acquired National Geographic Learning assets, I was part of that initial team, met the NATGEO Explorers, realized the power of engaging content, a powerful brand and experienced the satisfaction from each explorer to expand their impact, from 4 pages in a magazine to millions of students!
The LAB connected me to the beginnings of the edtech industry; Israel, UK, Boston, Japan, Australia, were starting to build capital instruments, incubators, accelerators, and partnerships to promote Edu-preneurs!
My initial journey had a mission: convince entrepreneurs that education was an attractive space in need of innovation with purpose and that they could also make money.
I positioned myself closer to the projects that involved M&A, to the committees making buy vs. build software decisions, to the data analysis team that was emerging from digital platforms and played a role sponsoring the major educational events to spread the message.
During those years I learned what it takes to manage an education business at global scale, about the financial, academic, human, and technological implications of building successful edtech solutions and about the due diligence, capital risks, returns and cultural integration challenges deriving from the acquisition of edtechs by larger companies.
At that point, a major financial restructuring took place at Cengage as we entered Chapter 11. This also was a major learning experience to live through; entering and exiting Chapter 11 in nine months, I understood the impact that it had on every dimension of the business, the community of authors, the stockholders, employees, the products, and the market at large.
Business dynamics changed, I was now tasked with the painful path of downsizing, reducing scope, de-constructing the vision that I had built and letting go of talent that took years to recruit and develop, I felt I had built a dream team. During that year as well, my lifelong mentor Ruben and my dear colleague Ricardo (whom I recruited as CPO in Cengage after being my boss at HP) died from terminal cancer at an unbelievable speed.
It was too much for me to handle.
I felt I had an opportunity to capitalize on that unique journey, to maximize my impact on education and to put Latin America on the map for edtech.
‘I felt I had an opportunity to capitalize on that unique journey, to maximize my impact on education and to put Latin America on the map for edtech.’
In parallel, I had been approached by McGraw Hill, aiming to do the same process that Cengage had done – Cengage had become bigger and better known for innovation in the region.
I accepted the position of President LATAM for MHE. This role complemented the perspective of the industry, added new players, got deeper relationships in the market and was also close to the acquisition of Aleks, one of the initial adaptive learning platforms, to the investment in Busuu and to the development of several digital solutions under a more powerful and recognized brand in education.
The edtech space had started to become noticed.
Even as the change did not go as well for me (there was a cultural shock; the speed of decisions that I was used to and the vision of transformation that I had lived were totally different), the personal growth path was clear. I ended up leaving convinced that I could have a bigger impact by working in more dynamic contexts.
What prompted you to found your organization—Global Impact EdTech Alliance—what problem were you trying to solve?
I began planning, met with my education friends around the world, spoke at most of the most relevant education events and decided that there was a meaningful purpose for me to pursue:
To become a catalyst by building and nurturing a thriving collaborative education ecosystem for the era of complexity (edtechs, academic institutions, governments, investors).
Establish myself as an active node that connected and improved a network of projects able to transform education at scale, with a particular focus on Latin America and other emerging markets.
My job to be done: proposition centers around solving the great challenge that arises to transform education as a complex system with many dimensions and stakeholders.
It requires a difficult balance between pedagogy + technology + capital + impact + communication.
Most people that have the pedagogical depth do not understand technology. Technology experts most likely struggle to align to the pedagogical demands to be successful. Neither one of them can also determine the capital, management, and financial returns that are required. It is very hard for all to also be capable to design and deliver on impact, closing gaps, bringing environmental, social and governance practices forward in education and finally — to communicate with legitimacy and empathy what is being done.
Building on my experience to figure the best routes to achieve better returns, I developed a methodology that expands the concept of return in education: return on learning + return on investment + return on time + return on information + return on trust + return on impact + return on message.
The products that we build are exclusively focused on education:
- Consulting engagements: for digital transformation, product development, global growth strategies, organizational design, marketing, pricing, and innovation.
- Capital engagements: for fundraising, capital deployment, pipeline building, due diligence, risk management, exit strategies.
- Open innovation engagements: to build on the innovative solutions that can solve major challenges for existing schools, universities, learning enterprises and governments.
- Thought leadership engagements: determine future scenarios, build signals for the future, analyze and address trends, connect apparently dispersed fields, inspire different thinking and acting.
- Venture building: partner with capable and committed founders to build meaningful solutions for education: School leaders, Higher Ed leaders, Edtech Leaders, Government leaders, Investment leaders and Enterprise learning leaders.
- Governance: building professional board management and governance to education.
To be able to do all this we had to execute as an efficient and effective collaboration machine:
- with Aspen Institute for thought leadership and public policy
- with The Inter-American Dialogue for public policy
- with EDT&Partners for global consulting and thought leadership
- with Venture Capital Funds and multi-lateral funders for focused capital
- with Outliers school for processes that require design thinking and new product prototyping
- with HolonIQ for the Top 100 Edtech LATAM list and Mexico Summit
- with MINDCET for Global Edtech Startup Awards
- with Edtech founders to accelerate their success
- with Smash Latam for open innovation processes with schools, universities, and corporations
- with Varkey Foundation and Movimiento STEM for Global Teacher Prize Mexico
- with T4 and Vikas Pota for Best School Award and Global Teacher Summit
- with Tec de Monterrey and Institute for the Future of Education for Tec Prize
- with New Ventures Capital and Capria Venture funds for impact investment in education.
- with Xterra to promote XR/VR
- with Rosan Bosch Studio to rethink the role of physical spaces
- with Minerva Project to advance active learning and experiential learning
- with many Global Accelerators and incubators to mentor founders
- with Startup Mexico and Founderz to develop entrepreneurial skills
From these collaborations several initiatives have been created:
- EDLatam Alliance; the largest community of education and edtech leaders in LATAM
- Luan Emotional Museum: a space where art and ethics meet education.
- Portal Cuantico; a learning experience without borders for gifted children in Latin America
- MeDiX Lab: XR/VR for immersive health teaching in El Salvador
- 2222 for the launch of a modern App for Teacher Development in Ecuador
- Victoria Latam Edtech trade missions: to connect Australian Edtech to LATAM
- Mastercracks: To bring soccer stars into education
- Qaptum: To build social listening capabilities and understand stakeholders in social media.
- Xcaanda: to demonstrate that even the most remote rural school in Oaxaca can thrive with technology.
- Be Exponential: Develop entrepreneurship mentality and skills from early ages
We supported edtechs in Latam that have evolved to become leading players for over a decade:
- Collective Academy
- Be exponential
- Life Design
- Tu clase, tu pais
- Future Education
- Movimiento STEM
Leading education companies have trusted us for strategy and thought leadership:
Discovery Education – Britannica – AWS EdStart – Salesforce – Amira Learning – Universidad de la Sabana – Universidad Anahuac – Uniminuto – Ministry of Education Chile – Somos – Conexia – Universidad Alliat – Universidad Insurgentes- Uni Magdalena- – Coursera – Universidad de Guadalajara – Secretary of Education Mexico – Arthur D Little – Colombo Americana UNICA- UNIR- Talisis- Lottus – Promotora Social Mexico – Elevar – Angel Ventures – SEMESP – Anuies – Tec de Monterrey – Colegio Giocosa – Colegio Hontanares – Red Colegios Semper Altius – Metametrics – Santillana – SM – Knotion -Tekman – itslearning – Geduc – D2L – Age of Learning – EdStart – MassChallenge – Endeavor- Edutec – Colsubsidio – Marco Polo- Anotto – Ekids and many more!
My personal major achievement is the number of people that I have worked with as colleagues, customers and partners that have become lifelong friends.
‘My personal major achievement is the number of people that I have worked with as colleagues, customers and partners that have become lifelong friends.’
How have you managed and led through the last couple years—what purpose has driven you forward—what’s been key?
The past two years represented the most accelerated and meaningful period of my career. It seemed like everything I had done in the past was preparing me for this moment.
The strength of the community of EdLatam was a key component as the over 450 educational leaders integrated rapidly, shared relevant information and best practices, identified issues to be resolved and inspired decisive action.
The level of commitment, the approach for agile collaboration and depth of experience allowed us to develop fast teacher training, to support governments, to integrate edtech solutions, and to support each other emotionally all these efforts positively impacted millions of students and thousands of teachers.
I am still amazed to see how the community added value, how our impact expanded to all Latin America countries and even how we began sharing and learning with Africa, Israel, Australia and beyond.
I think the key element has been to recognize the hard reality of the limitations that our education system had and to take collective action towards the emergency while developing knowledge and tools for a better planning of the future scenarios.
Congrats on your big win from The EdTech Awards! What does an honor like this mean for you/your team?
I can only express gratitude, it came as a big surprise and am deeply honored and moved by this award.
The motivation is to share this honor with the organizations that I mentioned above and with the many individuals who inspire me everyday.
It is not common that Latin America is distinguished on global endeavors. It creates an enormous responsibility.
I hope I can use this visibility to go even further with others, as the African concept of Ubuntu establishes: “a person is a person through other people”, I am because we are; because of how we collaborate, how we openly deliver value to others before we aim for our own.
I personally hope that each relevant initiative in education has more chances to have impact at scale, that more talent, more capital, and more learners are positively transformed as a consequence of my work with others.
‘I personally hope that each relevant initiative in education has more chances to have impact at scale, that more talent, more capital, and more learners are positively transformed as a consequence of my work with others.’
More attention shall be given to what is happening in emerging economies, the enormous challenges we face require more creativity, more empathy, and more resourcefulness.
What key lessons from your past inform your current success and your vision forward into the future?
I think I mentioned many of these learnings in [the first question].
In general, I am convinced that no complex problem can be solved without genuine open collaboration. That the diverse perspectives arising from country, language, social economic backgrounds, age, gender, currency, industry, discipline, nature and size of organizations are an asset for something like education, where everything is interconnected, there is no single solution that works for all learners in all contexts and that the ability to experiment, learn, improve and relearn is the only way forward.
I am also convinced that learning happens everywhere, curiosity is our main driver for learning, and we learn from people and experiences. I enter every single task and conversation in my day as “there will be something for me to learn from”.
It’s been a wild ride these last few years. Broadly speaking, what is the state of education today?
Education is at a historical major crossroads.
What makes you say that?
The urge to get back to the state of things before COVID is very powerful. I am convinced that we learned several lessons during this period; the importance of the relationship and trust in personal interactions cannot be replaced, but we used personal interactions for less meaningful tasks that can be replaced by technology.
Online learning has been broadly considered as sub-optimal, as a delivery method for specific actions, has been strongly criticized and questioned.
I question if we have used the same criteria to criticize sub-optimal average personal interventions?
The main roadblocks are not from technology, but from leadership. The vision that leaders have on education still reflect paradigms of the past. Regulators are ever further behind, there is an opportunity to bridge modern leadership practices for education.
‘The main roadblocks are not from technology, but from leadership.’
A person, as an organization, is only as old as it pursues control over flexibility. The only way to gain flexibility is by losing control. We lost control massively with COVID, hopefully the flexibility we practiced does not go back to the rigid controls that we used to have.
Technology and available capital to accelerate are unstoppable, to embrace this irreversible transformation we do not only need to have ability to change, but we must be actively changing. I have called this an ambidextrousity leadership, being able to deal with past and future at the same time, with physical and digital at the same time.
The abundance of knowledge and the scarcity of known paths for solutions to a different set of challenges will drive existing models of education towards an accelerated and permanent transformation by introducing greater flexibility, innovative learning and teaching methods, alongside new forms of assessments and the imperative need of nurturing a broader learning ecosystem.
The diversity of individuals will become an asset of enormous wealth. Everyone learns and engages differently and the interrelation and connection with others will be an essential part of the in-person experience.
A face-to-face encounter will have to be a fantastic experience, fabulous and unforgettable to offset the significant increase in energy expenditure, both personal and of renewable resources from the displacement to a physical space.
The creative learning cycle will always happen in 3 dimensions:
- the physical
- the digital
- the combination between both: the phygital.
For learners and their families, choices become harder as the criteria for relevance and competitive advantages is now more personal and contextual. Post COVID learners are characterized as architects of their own future.
The physical space will create a state of mind conducive to learning. It will become a different environment in which learners have to act differently than in other more common spaces. Learners in the future will be in a place that requires them to permanently adapt and create new environments.
I think the following quotes represent most of what we see:
“We are not facing an era of change; we are facing a change of era.”
“Innovation in the future will not come from new technologies, but from new forms of collaboration.”
I saw a picture recently of a bridge in Central America by the Choluteca River, originally built with the best materials and top engineering. “It will not fall down,” they said. Then, over the years, the course of the Choluteca River changed to a path that made this bridge unserviceable. The application [of this] to our views of education is compelling.
Last year I did an exercise using my LinkedIn network; I went on to find people with roles for which there is no degree or a clear educational path; people whose job description would be almost impossible to match if they were to change position. I found hundreds already in the current workforce!
I also went to social media and gaming platforms like Tiktok, Discord, Twitch and Clubhouse to find individuals performing learning activities at global scale. I found hundreds that are now able to impact millions of learners!
There is compelling evidence of the global learning losses as measured by old standards. This is a call to action to emerge with new visions of learning with more scale and less boundaries.
What’s tech’s role in education? How about your company’s efforts with this?
Technology will be at the center of the communication and connection with all stakeholders. The role of technology goes beyond teaching and learning, it has become an integral path of human activity.
The implications are major:
- We are now capable of designing flexible paths that recognize that each learner is different.
- We are also able to build a broader, more personal learning experience, one which allows everyone to be part of.
- We could break the boundaries of age, space, time to create lifelong immersive learning paths for everyone and across all learning possibilities.
- We can use data to produce better and more immediate positive interventions
- We can better align the time to learn something with the time invested to acquire a skill.
- All learners need to become digital ninjas able to learn/unlearn/create/refine and restart.
The biggest gains will occur as we factor the human element, beyond delivering content and passing exams, education institutions will be able to care more about what learners can become. What matters is that each learner is able to achieve whatever they want as success.
‘The biggest gains will occur as we factor the human element, beyond delivering content and passing exams, education institutions will be able to care more about what learners can become.’
Even with the current stage of human development and ambition, it is painful to see gaps that we are still not able to close; it hurts to see how female talent still has roadblocks to reach full potential and participation at the highest levels, it also hurts to experience how people with special abilities cannot take full advantage of learning for more autonomous and fulfilling lives, people whose future still is filled with poverty and pain.
We lack the vision to recognize how global education can be and how much we all lose by having potential learners that are not connected.
These complex challenges need to be addressed broadly, media plays al big role to create awareness, to avoid extreme local conversations, and to build momentum for change, a movement.
There are few organizations capable of integrating global, diverse, solid, and effective networks of collaboration to solve complex systemic challenges, this is our goal.
What’s ahead for education—trends to watch / any you are setting?
We are only at the beginning of this massive impact in education. The acceleration process begun as billions of dollars finally arrived at the industry and most of the old paradigms had to be broken to cope with what we faced.
Technologies that will immediately have an impact are:
- Data analysis and visualization
The trends to be aware of are related to the idea of rethinking the physical experience and augmenting it with technology.
‘The trends to be aware of are related to the idea of rethinking the physical experience and augmenting it with technology.’
Education will have to be designed in layers: from the existing core into a multiplicity of paths of value for a multiplicity of learners during a multiplicity of life stages in transit at a multiplicity of institutions and learning experiences; ready for the multi-school and the multi-versity.
Existing assets can be either appreciated or depreciated. Time is a most valuable asset, so is information, trust, and financial resources. We are aiming to establish paths for appreciation at every level for all these assets.
Roles need to evolve for more effective and flexible pedagogical models that aim at deeper engagement during shorter periods of time with clear and meaningful multi-disciplinary objectives and with adjustable layers of individual support, intensity, and validation.
Thank you and congratulations, Fernando! Anything else you care to add or emphasize concerning education, technology, or the future of learning?
Watch out for the new University in Mexico that we are designing and to be launched in Q4, for the school that we are transforming and the edtechs from LATAM that will become Unicorns!
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: [email protected]