Photo: Courtesy of Siya Raj Purohit
Q+A: Siya Raj Purohit, Ed.M.’16
An alum talks about funding edtech startups that focus on the human side of work
She describes herself as an education technology and “future of work” enthusiast slash nerd. Which is why Siya Raj Purohit, Ed.M.’16, is so excited about the venture fund company she recently cofounded that is providing “pre-seed” and “seed” funding to startups that help people learn new skills and improve their economic mobility — what she calls the human side of work. She says these kinds of innovative companies are needed more than ever, now that COVID has left millions of workers displaced from their jobs and trying to figure out next steps. This past spring, Purohit talked to Ed. about Pathway Ventures, what she learned from her time with HarvardX, and being hyped by Taylor Swift.
You were born in India but mostly grew up in the United States?
My dad’s job took us to many fascinating places while I was growing up. I’ve lived in 12 cities across the world. Out of these, I have spent the longest time in the San Francisco Bay area. After three stints there between elementary school and 2020, my friends joke that it’s my on-again, off-again relationship. I just moved to New York City a few months ago. It’s early but I’m already mesmerized by the city.
Explain how Pathway invests in the “human side” of the future of work?
Globally, 1.1 billion workers are expected to have their jobs impacted by automation. Even before a pandemic rattled the globe, the pathways by which workers were navigating the economy were evolving dramatically. And then COVID-19 displaced 50 million people from the workforce in the United States alone, and massively accelerated the trends shaping the future of work. We invest in companies that help individuals earn a living or learn employable skills.
Your website uses the term "economic mobility" a lot: "founders of economic mobility...," "new models of economic mobility.” What do you mean by this?
We want everyone to be able to build a fulfilling and financially rewarding life for themselves — no matter where they live, who their parents are, or where they got admitted to school. We want to invest in founders that are making that vision a reality through innovative education-to-employment solutions, and new ways that people can monetize their skills to earn a good living.
Why did you join HarvardX when you came to the Ed School?
I started my career at Udacity. At that time, we were building online degree programs with universities and companies, and the company was growing really quickly. I absolutely loved working there, but when I thought about the evolution of the edtech sector, I realized that as any industry gets disrupted, a hybrid model emerges. In the case of edtech, I believed there would be technology companies (such as Udacity and Coursera) that provided education content, and education institutions (such as Harvard) that would build technology platforms. I wanted to understand both sides of the ecosystem.
What did you do at HarvardX?
I worked with the former executive director Samantha Earp to help define Harvard’s online strategy. We evaluated how the edtech sector was evolving, and what kinds of programs HarvardX could launch to be competitive in that space. We also developed guidelines to help professors fully leverage the potential of tech platforms and teach online more effectively. Our work led to more courses — and credentials! — being launched by Harvard.
How did this help you with the work you’re doing now?
Being at Harvard, both for graduate school and HarvardX, broadened my understanding of the edtech ecosystem. College used to be a one-time, four-year endeavor, but now, thankfully, people can learn whenever they want. At HarvardX, our users ranged from high school students eager to learn technical skills through people in their 60’s looking to study ancient civilizations. Building products for such diverse users gave me more insights into the sector which I now use to help invest in the next generation of edtech startups.
You recently helped compile the VC Hype Playlist, a list of songs that emerging venture capitalists listen to before a big meeting. What’s your song?
In A Promised Land, President Barack Obama talks about how he would use music to get himself charged up before any big moment. My friend, Akash Bhat, an investor at Scrum Ventures, and I asked 30 emerging venture capitalists about what music they use to hype themselves up before a big moment. Akash judges me for this, but for me, it’s Taylor Swift’s "Shake It Off."