Umaimah Mendhro, Founder and President, One League

Umaimah Mendhro, Founder of One League, has a Bachelors in Science with High Distinction from Cornell University and an MBA from Harvard Business School where she was a Baker Scholar (Top 5% of Class). Umaimah is also the CEO of VIDA & Co, formerly backed by Google Ventures and Y Combinator, currently a multi-million dollar public benefit corporation. Umaimah has previously worked at Microsoft, McKinsey, and West where she led projects with companies including Twitter, Dropbox, and Square. Umaimah is a Venture Partner with Halogen VC and HOF Capital and the author of select Harvard Business Review case studies and Forbes Op-Ed pieces. In a conversation with Higher Education Digest, Umaimah talks about the importance of democratizing access to education, One League’s mission, plans and many more. 

Higher education has a high demand across all demographic sectors of society. How can we make higher education available to all who want to participate in it?

By the year 2025, it is expected that over 250 million people will expect to enroll in higher education across the world (Stamenka Uvalić-Trumbić, former Chief of UNESCO’s Higher Education Section as quoted in “In Defense of a Liberal Education” by Fareed Zakaria). And according to a recent study at RMIT University in Melbourne, that number will more than double to 600 million by 2040. Our current higher education industry does not come close to meeting this exponential global demand – according to Fareed Zakaria, we would need more than 4 major universities, with a student capacity of 30,000 per campus, to open every week for the next 15 years, to meet the current global demand.

Making higher education more accessible requires more than opening up universities, however. The cost of education has been rising exponentially. Higher education is a $700B industry today and the cost of education has increased 1,400% in the past 40 years – five times the Consumer Price Index and more than twice the cost of healthcare (Source: “Post Corona: From Crisis to Opportunity,” Scott Gallaway). Moreover, less than 3% of the population that attends top tier universities comes from the bottom income quartile, whereas 73% comes from the top income quartile, with the average family income of students attending Ivy League Plus institutions exceeding $700,000 per year (“What a Ground-breaking Study Tells us About Access, Success, and Mobility in Higher Ed,” by Stephen Burd).  

In order to make higher education truly accessible to all demographic sectors of society, we need to rethink the entire structure and system of how we deliver and impart education. 

The current system assumes that education must take place in a given, fixed period of time in a learners’ life, that the learner must be physically present to receive the education, that that education may not necessarily have immediate, practical use, while it may cost several multiples of the expected earning the learner may or may not receive. 

To rethink the entire system, we must disaggregate the services higher education institutions provide, removing costs such as research and development or on-campus facilities that may not be core prerequisites for providing education, thus reducing the financial burden of pursuing higher education for many learners. The global pandemic showed us how even top-ranking, Ivy League institutions can deliver world-class education online. We witnessed top educational institutions utilizing digital platforms to render services and facilitate teaching and learning, bringing together talent from across the globe on commonly shared platforms, clearing the geographic, social, and financial barriers of accessing higher education. To make education truly accessible to a global population, barriers of geographies must be removed. Finally, education is a lifelong endeavor; our institutions must adjust to provide access to education in a way that fits the learners’ lives, rather than requiring learners to put their life on halt amidst many important demands including earning a living, raising a family, caring for a loved one, or serving our communities.

What is missing from the regional universities across the world that is restricting students to live and work in an increasingly globalized world?

We live in an increasingly complex and interconnected world today. With COVID-19, we witnessed the global spread of a deadly virus within a matter of days and dramatic supply chain disruptions originating in one region halting essential supplies across the globe. Whether one is leading a business, a non-profit, a community or a nation, we are operating in an increasingly interdependent, global society.

Regional universities tend to expect global learners to leave their respective countries and attend these institutions in-person in order to access education. These universities end up developing and teaching learning methodologies, policies, culture, and ways of doing business that are anchored in that specific region, thus taking a global learner and training them in a regional context only. Our regional educational institutions are thus not set up – at least not by default – to train future global leaders on how to operate in an increasingly complex, interdependent world. Additionally, as a global society, we lose out as the best minds from a given emerging country are no longer working on the most formidable problems of that country or region. 

It is difficult, if not impractical, to address the needs of a truly global population in a highly regional context. Classes tend to be made up of largely local, homogenous population and learners miss out on the opportunity of collaborating with and learning from colleagues from all across the world with diverse sets of experiences, backgrounds, and perspectives that more accurately represent our global context.

Tell us more about the establishment of One League and its vision and mission.  

One League is a global education institution with the mission to connect the world’s highest potential underserved change-makers to world-class education and opportunities to realize global impact. The organization offers an Ivy League quality graduate-level education, via globally accessible live, synchronous online classes that learners can join from their respective countries. The program features curriculum curated and licensed from some of the best, top-ranking institutions of the world in business management, data science, and entrepreneurship and more in the future.

The institution was established with the mission to democratize access to privilege and opportunity. We believe what we are able to do in our lives should be a measure of what we seek and work hard for, not how much money we’re born into. And that high-quality, world-class education, which in theory should be the biggest equalizer of opportunity, must be made more accessible. 

We also believe that an education from a top-tier institution provides much more than knowledge and learning – it gives one a vote of confidence and credibility, it provides access to a valuable network of influence, it provides access to job opportunities, to funding, it gives one a seat at the table. 

One League’s mission is to create a new, much larger sphere of influence and bring more voices to the table, especially voices that have remained unheard and that better represent our global society, such that we, as a global society, can benefit from all the human capital and potential in our world.  

One League fellows may complete the required curriculum curated and inspired by Harvard Business School, offered in collaboration with Harvard Business Publishing, and then choose between a Data Science track offered in collaboration with MIT IDSS or an Entrepreneurship track offered in collaboration with Stanford Online. Each program is offered in a modular model, such that learners can take each program in any order that best fits their needs, without requiring continuous enrollment in the program. 

Each One League fellow is championed by a One League Global Mentor, the organization’s extensive coalition of industry executives and leaders who are all alumni of top-ranking global institutions. Finally, One League endeavors to provide extensive support for job placement and access to opportunities to seek venture funding to propel world-changing ideas.

What are the unique facilities available at One League that attracts international students? Tell us about the international student community at One League.

One League is designed to deliver world-class education globally. 

We bring Ivy League quality education to the doorsteps of young professionals who are leaders of change in their countries and communities, without requiring them to disrupt and upend their lives or leave their respective countries and communities behind. All classes are taught via live, online sessions, led by world-renowned faculty, while learners join from countries all around the world including Afghanistan, Ghana, Iraq, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Philippines, Pakistan, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Uganda, and the United States. 

The class has a 50-50 female/male ratio, and with education delivered online, in the privacy and safety of the learner’s homes, women from countries where attending a college or a university may not be a possibility are able to access best-in-class education with curriculum from top-ranking institutions. 

One League’s disaggregation of services, and focusing exclusively on providing high-quality education, without having to manage on-campus brick and mortar facilities, enables the organization to offer world-class education at a fraction of the price. Having said that, One League’s inaugural class has received a 100% tuition-free scholarship to enable the most underserved and talented learners of the world to have access to this opportunity.

One League’s program runs through the year, with one week off in between each of the four quarters, requiring approximately 20 hours per week, thus enabling learners to complete a graduate level education program while also working professionally, taking care of families, and/or serving other personal and societal commitments. 

One League’s global community of learners includes survivors of war, first generation college graduates, refugees, ethnic and cultural minorities, and sole breadwinners for their families living under the poverty line. The cohort includes a Forbes 30 Under 30 Awardee, a Presidential Award Winner, a Human Rights Fellow, a Global Prize Winner to Combat Energy Poverty, and a Top 100 Women in Technology Awardee. Fellows are working on audacious projects such as realizing energy equity across Africa, creating agents of change in Southeast Asia, and building technology incubators in the Middle East.

The diverse, international community at One League presents rich experiences and backgrounds across a broad variety of disciplines across arts and sciences including Engineering, Medicine, Law, Computer Science, Psychology, Actuarial Sciences, Environmental Studies, and much more. The immense richness of perspectives, thoughts, opinions, and lived experiences enlivens and enriches each One League class discussion, collaboration project, and learning initiative, preparing our learners to become thoughtful global citizens and leaders of our world.    

What is your focus as an entrepreneur who is passionate about education and bridging the divide amongst the lesser privileged? 

I believe we are living in a very crucial time in history, facing critical challenges as humanity and a global society. From environmental crisis, to life-threatening diseases, to growing inequality exacerbated by both the global pandemic and regional and global conflict. And I believe as a global society we are severely underprepared to manage our global risks. 

I believe we can’t expect to solve our global challenges using the same kind of thinking we used to create them. We need to expand the sphere of solutions, the domain of ideas, the range of voices, the manner of thinking and problem-solving, and include those who we’ve left behind who also more accurately represent our world and the biggest challenges we face.

Since our best education is only reaching a very small fraction of the total global population, we are only benefiting from a sliver of the potential and promise of humanity to solve some of the most formidable challenges of our time – and that feels like an unnecessary and enormous waste. 

My passion and focus is to equip incredible, committed young minds around the world who understand and experience our global challenges yet have not been given the privilege to voice their ideas and exercise their potential to lead the change we need to realize as a global society. 

I hope to create a new class of global leaders – in all parts of the world, not just a few developed countries – who have the ambition, grit, and potential to build the next billion dollar companies in their countries, reimagine capitalism, disrupt education, redesign healthcare, build new economic engines, and raise nations out of poverty, if only given a seat at the table. Leaders who lead with compassion, who care about the impact of their actions, and are passionate about leaving the world a better place. I am passionate about increasing the sphere of influence and the circle of privilege to develop the human capacity at large to create new, fresh, much-needed solutions to humanity’s biggest problems.

What do you feel you bring to the role that inspires others to see you as a leader? Tell us a little bit about your education and life as a student. What lessons have you learned in your childhood/college days that helped you become the leader you are today?

I grew up in the throes of a life of exile in Saudi Arabia and then in rural Pakistan, without access to proper schools for most of my life. 

When I was two years old, my family had to escape our home-country in the middle of the night, in the midst of a hostile military coup. We were displaced for several months before settling in Makkah, where, living by particular norms and practices, I first appreciated the need to learn, discover, question, and form my own beliefs and ideas. Once democracy was restored in Pakistan, we returned to the country but lived in rural Sindh where once again there were no schools to go to. I had access to the textbooks I needed to pass the local board exams, but without a set path or even a set schedule any given day, I was free to follow my curiosity and go deep into any field of study that striked my interest. Lack of access to formal schools not only made me yearn for the same even more but also gave me the freedom to define and design education on my own terms, which in turn gave me an authentic love for learning. And I dreamt of one day going to places like Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and Cornell.

I was also very keenly aware of the power education held in both making and breaking my future. My father was the first in his family to go to a school, and pursue medicine as his profession; he built a life for our family that was strikingly and remarkably different from anyone else around. Most of my aunts and uncles were and are not literate. I never questioned what I understood as one of the fundamental truths of life: education is the greatest equalizer. To achieve advancement and prosperity, one needs but grit, perseverance, and a good education. 

I constructed my path from home- and self-schooling to Cornell University, where I studied human development, policy analysis, and computer science, and later to Harvard Business School, where I was a Baker Scholar. The impact of this education was enormous on my life. I got the opportunity to work for some incredible companies, and founded a venture-backed startup that today is a successful multi-million dollar business. 

I felt I had to fight for every little win along the way, and pry open what felt like the locked doors of an elite society. A society within which things were just that much easier to achieve, success and accomplishment that much more within reach. A world where each entryway always led to another – a network of power, of movers and shakers, where companies were formed, funding flowed back and forth, and opportunities cycled through. A beautiful place bursting with potential. But much of that potential all looked the same. 

As shared above, I believe we as a global society are only benefiting from a mere sliver of the human potential available to us. I hope to give a voice to the myriad of new voices, with a fire and desire to make a difference. I can relate to that voice, that fire, those challenges. Coming from a background of lack of access to education and having the aspiration and desire to make a difference, I can see and understand the burning passion our global youth wields and their quests to be the change they and their communities need. 

Some of the key values I live by today, that I’ve learnt from my early childhood, include to lead with curiosity, compassion, and conviction. Curiosity gets me out of my head, it helps me be authentic, and reminds me time and again that I don’t have all the answers. It compels me to seek what I am looking for. Compassion helps me truly see, listen, feel, and connect, and find meaning and purpose in what I do. And conviction gives me permission to take bold action and push the realms of what may be considered possible. 

I’ve learnt that no matter what life throws my way, my life is mine to design. My challenges, my shortcomings, my barriers are also my powers. I take all that I am, all that I have, and all that I can do to make a meaningful impact on my world.

Do you have any thoughts you would like to share about being a woman in the education sector or advice for other women carving a top management space?

Be true to who you are. The unique experiences and strengths we have as individuals and as women are powerful and may be just the qualities missing at the table. The barriers, challenges, structural and systemic biases we may face as individuals and as women, as unjust and unnecessary as they are, are also highly valuable in that they can lead us to find solutions not just for ourselves but others behind us. 

Let’s not hide, let’s not hold ourselves back, let’s not simply try to fit in. All progress depends on pushing against the status quo. In most situations we find ourselves in, we are not the status quo. We therefore have the opportunity, no matter how difficult and uninviting, to push against the status quo and bring about positive change.

Additionally, when it comes to access to education, in many parts of the world, women and girls are highly underrepresented. In many environments, due to cultural and religious norms and practices, poor infrastructure, violence, and poverty, girls and women are not allowed to go to a school or a college. A recent World Bank study estimates that the “limited educational opportunities for girls, and barriers to completing 12 years of education, cost countries between US$15 trillion and $30 trillion in lost lifetime productivity and earnings.” 

Women in education, in positions of leadership and influence, can play a critical role in understanding the barriers girls face and presenting more thoughtful, relevant, and creative solutions that address the unique challenges. When the solutions can come from within the communities, from those who best understand the challenges, when we can create or redesign programs that best fit what is needed, we all win. 

Given how much is at stake as we educate our girls, these can be the very solutions that help lift households, communities, and countries out of poverty. 

What projects or goals are you working on or leading currently? & What are the immediate plans of One League? How is the institute preparing to operate in the post-pandemic world? 

At One League, the pandemic has taught us that world-class education can be delivered in a globally accessible way. In a post-pandemic world, we will continue to  provide the top talent of the world access to a world-class education within their contextual settings. 

Our goal and mission is to increase the sphere of influence and give a voice to new leaders who want to create a positive impact in their local regions and across the world. We are working to build the platform to develop the next heads of states, founders and CEOs of the next billion-dollar companies, and global leaders who bring about positive change for our world. 

We enrolled our Master of Business Administration (MBA) cohort in January 2022 and have most recently welcomed our newest cohort for the MicroMasters in Statistics & Data Science (SDS) offered in collaboration with MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society. 

We are now getting ready to welcome our third cohort for our Innovation & Entrepreneurship program, offered in collaboration with Stanford Online, which will commence in early 2023 and for which admissions are now open. We are particularly looking forward to welcome this new cohort of founders, entrepreneurs, and innovators from a wide breadth of disciplines and all parts of the world who are looking to build and scale meaningful solutions that address large-scale local and global needs.

Additionally, we continue to grow our One League Global Mentorship Board of industry leaders and executives, all highly successful individuals in their industries, who are giving back to emerging global talent by way of support, advice, and championship. And we continue to grow our incredible team of faculty and staff at One League, welcoming some of the most brilliant, humble, and incredible minds of the world that are highly dedicated, action-oriented idealists, fighting to democratize access to power, promise, and privilege. 

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