Education startup helps students who are pursuing liberal arts get skills to compete in tech industry

The Adjacent Academies team, from left: Anh M. Nguyen, CEO; Malena Harrang, senior manager of business operations; Shireen Campbell, professor and Chair of English, Davidson College; Kristen Eshleman, director of Innovation Initiatives, Davidson College; and Jesse Farmer, lead instructor, Adjacent. (Adjacent Academies Photo)

College students who want to pursue the liberal arts subjects they’re passionate about can still get the technical training they need to compete in a job market that demands those skills thanks to the Seattle startup Adjacent Academies.

Founded in 2019, Adjacent is the brainchild of San Francisco-based venture studio Entangled Group and Davidson College in North Carolina. Anh Nguyen, who spent more than seven years working on education initiatives at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is the CEO.

Adjacent raised $2.1 million in a funding round last month led by Rethink Education, with additional participation by New Ground Ventures, Bisk Ventures and Entangled Group.

“Our goal is to enhance — not to replace — a liberal arts education and enable more students to access a broader range of opportunities in an economy that is increasingly driven by innovation and technology,” Nguyen said.

Adjacent is not a coding bootcamp. The startup offers semester and summer study programs in U.S. innovation hubs — Seattle, San Francisco and Austin — where students can earn credits while picking up valuable skills that go beyond the technical capabilities so often aimed at landing specific jobs.

“We care a lot more about making sure our students have a transformative experience that shifts the ways in which they learn, fail, and create,” Nguyen said. One of our students summed it up pretty well in a message that she wrote us: ‘I never saw myself as the ‘tech type’ — this experience has shown me there is no type.”

With a background in education, education technology, and HR technology, Nguyen also spent more than four years at the predictive hiring startup Koru.

“The through line in my career has been a focus on expanding opportunities for others,” she said. “I’m a child of immigrants (my parents and brother left Vietnam the day before the war ended) and my opportunities have been a direct outcome of not just hard work, but also the generosity and support of others. That recognition is what what fuels me to do this type of work.”

We caught up with Nguyen for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire:

What does your company do? Through transformative, academically rigorous, for-credit study away experiences, Adjacent ensures that liberal arts students — particularly those from backgrounds that tend to be under-represented in tech — have the skills, networks, and opportunities to shape and lead in a world of rapid technological transformation. We believe that students shouldn’t have to major in computer science to play a role in the tech industry.

As we like to say, you can still major in what you love and graduate tech-capable.

Inspiration hit us when: Our origin story is above, but we knew we were on to something when we sent out a form to the freshman class at Davidson, asking them to fill it out if they’d be interested in a summer program with Adjacent. 100 students filled it out in 24 hours.

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: Entangled was essentially the angel investor in Adjacent and gave us not just the capital, but also the continued support (i.e. advice, networks, acceleration resources, etc), to get the idea off of the ground. Given our vision of scaled student impact and the degree to which we care about student success, we went the VC route to provide us the capital to do it right and to grow. We couldn’t be more thrilled with our investors (Rethink Education, New Ground Ventures, Bisk Ventures). They understand education and care deeply about student outcomes and equity.

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: Three things: (1) We have instructors and team members who believe in the inevitability of our students’ success. (2) We have a core competency in designing transformative learning experiences that tie disciplines together (our semester away program has two technical courses, an English course that explores ethics in tech, and an interdisciplinary course focused on a capstone project and deep reflective practice), and (3) We have a deep respect for the value of higher education and therefore the ability to authentically partner with faculty and staff. Those three things combine to lead to results such as a student recently telling a Dean of Students that “This is hands-down the greatest experience I’ve had in relation to my education.”

The smartest move we’ve made so far: Creating deliberate space in our programs for students to wrestle with ethical, moral, and societal questions related to technology. We would fail our students if they left Adjacent as badass coders without perspective on or a strong sense of responsibility for the choices that they make when building technologies. We want them to think critically about the values expressed (or not expressed) in technologies. We need more leaders who come to tech and innovation with those perspectives.

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: We make mistakes all of the time, it’s hard to keep track. … From a “product” perspective, we had a pedagogical inconsistency in our first program and students were quick to point it out. We acknowledged it, were proactive in sharing student feedback with our college partners, and quickly iterated to change things for the next go around.

Which leading entrepreneur or executive would you most want working in your corner? I’m going to punt on this and instead say we have an incredible group of folks already in our corner, from leaders in higher ed to talented coaches/instructors who have powerful beliefs and skills in terms of transforming learning mindsets and capabilities (Sherif Abushadi, Jesse Farmer). And, honestly, at this early stage of a company it’s about people like Malena Harrang who worked with me at Koru — she works at multiple altitudes and gets things done.

Our favorite team-building activity is … exercise — and then complaining about how sore we are. We’ve run, hiked, and interval trained with our students. There’s nothing like huffing and puffing with your customer to build some vulnerability, trust, and connection.

The biggest thing we look for when hiring is … ownership, i.e. the degree to which someone takes responsibility and acts in service of something greater than themselves. Do they play the victim when something goes wrong, blaming lack of resources or other people? Or do they instead acknowledge the failure and ask themselves what they could have done differently to lead to a higher level of success? Do they focus only on their function or do they actively think across the business and do what it takes for everyone to succeed? Do they leave a dirty dish in the sink or do they clean up their dishes (and maybe those of others) and put them in the dishwasher? I’m sort of kidding about the last one, but we do want the person who just gets things done and doesn’t hesitate and ask “is that my job?”

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: Stay connected to what fuels you outside of work. Many entrepreneurs share a restless drive to solve a problem that keeps them up at night; it’s very hard to not get completely consumed. The thing that often helps me rebalance isn’t a work-related “win”, but rather something like a high five from a little kid on the softball field (I coach little league).


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