Ben Nelson is Founder, Chairman, and CEO of Minerva, and a visionary with a passion to reinvent higher education. In 2011, while building the concept of Minerva, Nelson was the Executive Chairman of RedBeacon until its sale to Home Depot in 2012. Prior to RedBeacon, Nelson spent more than 10 years at Snapfish, where he helped catalyze the company’s growth from a startup to become the world’s largest personal publishing service. Serving as CEO from 2005 through 2010, Nelson began his tenure at Snapfish by leading the company’s sale to Hewlett Packard for $300 million. With over 42 million transactions across 22 countries, nearly five times greater than its closest competitor, Snapfish is among the top e-commerce services in the world.
Prior to joining Snapfish, Nelson was President and CEO of Community Ventures, a network of locally branded portals for American communities.
Nelson’s passion for reforming undergraduate education was first sparked at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, where he received a B.S. in Economics. After creating a blueprint for curricular reform in his first year of school, Nelson went on to become the chair of the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education (SCUE), a pedagogical think tank that is the oldest and only non-elected student government body at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also the co-author of Building the Intentional University: Minerva and the Future of Higher Education, published by MIT press in 2017.
Potolicchio: What’s Minerva?
Nelson: Minerva is a completely reinvented university experience that uses everything we know about how people learn to create a more effective educational system. Today, the Minerva Schools at KGI (the first instantiation of Minerva's system), is the most selective and most effective undergraduate program in the United States, if not the world.
Potolicchio: What was the eureka moment when you decided to start Minerva?
Nelson: I have been thinking about Minerva's curriculum for 25 years but the moment when I decided to start Minerva came when I realized that after a decade in the world of e-commerce, the next chapter of my life needed to transform society for the better. When I was talking with my friend Raj Kapoor, at the time a venture capitalist at Mayfield, he told me that there is such a thing as an emerging education technology sector (this was in 2010 when the field was nascent) and gave me the encouragement to think through how I would take my passion for education reform and make it my life's pursuit.
Potolicchio: What's something you know but others don't about the future of education?
Nelson: It isn't going to be fast. Everyone is looking for shortcuts -- how to learn without trying, how to become wise without investing time and energy, etc. This is not going to happen. Real education takes a great deal MORE effort than most students currently exert, not to mention the shorter forms that many entrepreneurs are trying to advocate for.
Potolicchio: What's a book you would gift the new President of Harvard?
Nelson: Shameless plug: Building the Intentional University which is a book about all of the principles we used to build Minerva. I do believe he may have read it already though . . .
Potolicchio: What's a future trend you predict will happen that most people would be surprised by?
Nelson: Artificial Intelligence will be much more destructive to white collar professionals (e.g. radiologists) than to blue collar professionals (e.g. truck drivers).
Potolicchio: What's something you are sure about that most people will disagree with?
Nelson: My father has a saying that I very much believe in: “To fight extremism, you need to fight moderation.” On the surface, this appears to be counterintuitive. After all, isn't moderation the opposite of extremism? But if a society, as an example, treats some of its citizens as unequal, extreme treatments of them can often be justified. If you teach your children to believe in superstition as opposed to science, could they not then much more easily be corrupted to join a cult? Having foundational anchors that are logical, reasonable, and grounded in empirical evidence is crucial to resist the pull to extremes.
Potolicchio: What's one thing every leader should do before they have a position of public trust?
Nelson: Become a systematic thinker. Think through not just the immediate implications of their decisions but the second and third order effects of them.
Potolicchio: US colleges have faced a precipitous drop in international applicants. Traditionally, more than 3/4 of Minerva students come from outside the US. Have you faced a similar drop and how should other colleges combat this trend?
Nelson: We have actually seen the opposite trend -- over the years Minerva has become even more international. Granted, we are one institution with a very small slice of American students, but the value proposition of colleges need to be fixed. American colleges think of international students as ATM machines that will pay unreasonable tuition rates that American students will not. That is indicative of a larger issue, which is thinking of international students as "others", setting quotas that are highly discriminatory, and thinking of those students roles at Universities as enriching the education of the (mostly rich) American students. If American universities want to appeal to international students they should simply think of them and treat them as students -- with the same rules and policies as their domestic students top to bottom.
Potolicchio: How does the online nature of Minerva classes impact your recruiting strategy for professors? What characteristics or teaching styles are especially valued or disregarded?
Nelson: Most academics are valued for being very narrow (the world's foremost expert on a small sliver of a field) and having high rigid intelligence (my theory is correct and I will prove that my rival is incorrect). Minerva professors are the exact opposite. We value professors who are broad (comfortable navigating multiple disciplines in depth) as well as having high fluid intelligence (I have a hypothesis I believe in but would welcome a different perspective that I can evaluate dispassionately).