THE BLOG
02/16/2016 03:33 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Going Against the Flow: Dennis Yang, CEO of Udemy

Dennis Yang is the CEO of Udemy, the world's online learning marketplace with more than 10 million students in 190 countries. Before Udemy, Dennis served as Senior Vice President at 4INFO, a leading mobile advertising technology company. He earned an MBA from Stanford University and completed his undergraduate studies at Northwestern University.

2016-02-16-1455654425-2811654-DennisYang.jpg
Dennis Yang

What does entrepreneurship mean to you, and what underlying characteristics do you see in successful entrepreneurs?

Dennis: To me, entrepreneurship means building something new. Entrepreneurs are trailblazers, willing to take a great amount of risk to pioneer something new into existence. Building a great business requires staying focused and true to your mission.

As CEO at Udemy, however, I've learned that leading a fast-growing company means you're constantly pulled in different directions. I quickly saw the need to cultivate a trait I've long admired in other leaders: relentless prioritization. There will always be distractions, but you must learn not to succumb to them.

You also have to find ways to take care of yourself both mentally and physically and develop techniques to manage your own emotions, so your mindset doesn't shift with the constant ups and downs that come with working at a high-growth company. Even if it sometimes feels like you're riding a rollercoaster, leaders need to rally their people through positivity, integrity, confidence, and a strong vision.

What are you most proud of in your professional career?

Dennis: Udemy is a company whose mission is grounded in helping anyone learn anything. Our courses are all available on-demand so that students around the globe can learn at their own pace and on their own time. I'm incredibly humbled to be part of an organization that has enabled over 9 million students around the world to have greater access to education.

As a company, we've grown rapidly to 200 employees. Maintaining our company culture as we've onboarded new employees is something I'm particularly proud of because I know it's a foundation for our organization and is bigger than any one of us.

If you could do something over in your life, what would it be?

Dennis: I wish I'd been less concerned about picking the "right" college major. As it turns out, my degree in chemical engineering hasn't played a role in my career at all, and while I certainly don't regret my studies, I know now that the major you choose doesn't seal your destiny. Here I am at Udemy, where there are no limits to what people can learn at any stage of their lives or careers. I wish I'd felt freer to explore more options and to embrace learning, not just securing a credential to put on a resume.

Tell us about an instance where you had to go against the flow to realize your goal.

Dennis: Today, my role as CEO of Udemy is quite different from when I first stepped into the position. In 2012, the New York Times even declared it "The Year of the MOOC." There was a tornado of hype around MOOCs (massive open online courses) being the future of e-learning. More and more companies were jumping on the bandwagon and began curating academic content from traditional institutions.

Amid all of this rapid change, when so many peers were going in a different direction, we had to reevaluate our strategy and make sure it still was the right way to achieve our mission. Ultimately, we decided to trust our instincts that our marketplace model is the best way to help anyone learn anything. Today, instead of replicating higher ed online by relying on content from university professors, we continue to focus on cultivating a place for everyday experts to share what they know.

Why do you think everyday people can create high-quality educational content?

Dennis: The best teachers aren't always found in a traditional classroom. If you ask anyone to name the top five people they've learned the most from in their life, you'll often hear examples of people like mentors at work, a coach on a sports team, or a parent included in this list. People who have built up an expertise on a topic have a lot to offer and Udemy's aim is to give them a way to reach audiences and share their knowledge. Udemy instructors are teaching about their practical experiences that they've learned and mastered throughout their lives. Unlike much information in today's world, most practical expertise cannot be found on Google - it's still in people's minds. Our goal is to unlock these experiences and empower people to share their expertise with the world.

What drives you? How do you measure success for yourself?

Dennis: I measure success by the real impact Udemy is having on the lives of people around the world. Our students and instructors come from all over the globe and all have amazing stories of taking control of their own paths to advance their careers, change professions, develop a personal passion, or just learn something new.
Ultimately, what drives me most is the opportunity to help anyone in the world learn anything, at any time. Our marketplace is one where every expert can share what they know and people everywhere can tap into their potential and realize their dreams for themselves and their careers.

What advice would you give to your 22 year old self?

Dennis: I'd tell my younger self not to focus too much on climbing the ladder early on in your career, but to put focus on skills acquisition and getting a broad set of experiences so you can figure out which direction you ultimately want to go, or what you have inherent interest in. You can switch paths throughout your life so long as you have a mentality of "never stop learning."

In my career, I've learned through experience not to try to follow someone else's path. You have to have a passion for what you do and be willing to take risks, not just do something that is perceived as the "safe" option. I worked in product management for a while because so many people told me it was the "right" thing to do. But I didn't really love it. As a lifelong learner, I have a great passion for constant learning and improvement, and am deeply interested in technology's potential to impact education around the world. Udemy both fuels and fulfills this passion.

Follow Dennis Yang at @dennistyang, check out the other interviews in Going Against the Flow series at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/charu-sharma/ and join this movement to empower 1 million female entrepreneurs on goagainsttheflow.com.