Office Hours: I'm the COO of General Assembly, a former Obama administration staffer and a lawyer. I'm Liz Simon.Featured

Hi Everyone!I’m the Co-Chief Operating Officer at General Assembly (GA), a global educational company focused on equipping people with today’s most in demand skills. In my nearly 7 years at GA, I’ve built and run a number of teams, including marketing, creative, legal, communications, public policy, and social impact. I’m also on the boards of a number of mission driven organizations, including EdReports, Raise For Good, and The Arena.Before joining GA, I worked in the Obama administration where I served as Counselor to the Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and worked on policy issues at the nexus of immigration and entrepreneurship. Prior to that I held several roles on President Obama’s 2008 campaign.I started my career as a lawyer in Washington, DC and have a JD from University of Michigan and a BA in Political Science and Government from Cornell.I’m a mom to a 2 year old (Levi) and live in Brooklyn, NY with my husband Michael.Ask me anything about joining a board, working in edtech, breaking into tech, or any one of my more personal interests - working mom life, politics, travel (including how to effectively use points and miles), and reality TV (I’m a dedicated fan of the Bachelor franchise but also recently finished and greatly enjoyed Love is Blind).
Thanks for joining us, Liz!As a reminder: please share your questions with Liz in the comments below before this Thursday. She may not have time to answer them all, so please emoji upvote the ones you'd most like her to reply to.
Hey Liz! Thanks for being here 😊 I’m wondering how you moved from the political sphere into a tech role - why did you choose it/ did you face any challenges breaking into tech?Also I’m wondering what your thoughts are on the future of coding bootcamps. As a bootcamp graduate myself, I can’t see how I would have been able to move into a tech role without it & I’m really glad I did it. I have heard though that employers are becoming less open to hiring bootcamp graduates. I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts.
Hi Rebecca, thanks for the question. 1) I was working with folks in the tech world when I was in the Obama Administration and I really wanted a 180 change after spending several years dealing with the bureaucracy of the federal government. I had a mix of politics, policy, legal and comms experience so I targeted tech companies in heavily regulated spaces who were increasingly facing clashes with regulations - it felt like that was an area I could add unique value. I was also looking for something very mission oriented. The hardest part about the transition was translating skills from the public sector into tech / private sector lingo.2) So glad to hear you had a positive experience in the bootcamp world. We haven't found that employers have been less willing to hiring bootcamp grads. I think you'll see even more consolidation in the sector going forward and increasing focus on new financing models to ensure that programs are accessible and affordable to more people. It will be interesting to see how bootcamps will be impacted if we end up in a pretty severe recession given the current situation. My sense is there may be even more interest in career transitions.
Hi Liz! What is your bigger advice in breaking into social impact space? I come from the start up and tech space mostly working with companies just coming out of YC. I find that there are so many efficiencies one can provide to non-profits with the tech mentality. The experience we are having is the organizations are scared to make changes and adopt the tech mindset because they find they have more of a value based mission. Is there a balance? We raised $100,000 and the goal is to make the biggest impact we possibly can with the money! Building metrics and supporting the execution has been our strategy. Any advice would be helpful!
In what way are you trying to help nonprofits with a tech mindset--I'm sure it's beyond techsoup.
Hi Amy, we have a lot of folks from nonprofits come to GA looking to sharpen their tech skills. This is an area where frankly I think we could be doing more - as someone who is involved in several nonprofit organizations outside of work, I know that's an area where more work is needed.
Hi Anna, 100% agree that a tech mindset is very valuable to the nonprofit world. I don't think mission and tech mindset should be mutually exclusive. You can bring models to help scale an impactful mission and to create an even more efficient organization. I would think those would be welcome! I understand that all organizations are not as adept at moving quickly and changing the way they work but if you are able to demonstrate value in terms of helping to serve more people, I would hope that would help bring them along.
Hi Liz, Thanks for being here! I'm interested in learning about your customer acquisition strategy with GA, especially in the earlier days. How did you determine which customer groups to go after first? What strategies did you use to target them (SEO, social, etc.)? At what point did you feel ready to offer B2B services? What had to happen in order to get companies on board and what kinds of companies did you target? Thanks!
Hi Brooke, Our customer acquisition strategy has been all about building a large community through events on campus, partnerships with other organizations, and introductory educational programs. From the beginning our marketing strategy has been multi-channel and includes email, SEO, paid social, and organic social. We were able to enter the B2B business based on the credibility and strength of our consumer brand. It was seen as cool for companies to partner with GA. Sometimes we'd even have students on the campus side going back and telling their company about the class they took at GA. At first, we targeted large F100 organizations who were in industries that were undergoing digital transformations (financial services, CPG, insurance, etc.) and would be looking to upskill/reskill big parts of their team.
Hello! Thanks for doing this. I'm a college student, and would love to hear your thoughts on comparing working in law to tech -- what was surprising and what person succeeds in each.I've long been interested in politics and social justice, was a competitive debater, so I used to think I would for sure go to law school. But in college, I've immersed myself more in tech and love how fast-paced, flexible, and forward-thinking the culture is. I still feel like law degree would prepare me to tackle the issues I care about the most (e.g. social/economic inequality), but am not sure whether the time/monetary commitment is worth it.
Hi Jasmin, my recommendation is only go to law school if you actually know you want to practice law. It's a GIANT investment of time/money and I think there are other ways to get into working on social justice issues. I, too, went to law school for those reasons but that was over 15 years ago and I don't think I would make the same calculus today knowing what I know now. The training you get from law school is valuable to think critically but I don't think it's the reason I've been successful in the tech industry. Law (especially in law firms) is all about structure and hierarchy and certainty and tech is often the opposite.
That evaluation makes sense and is what I was worried about regarding law firms. Thank you for the advice!
@lizsimonWhat's your best tip for empathetic leadership?And what's your favourite motivational song?I was at the DNC in 2008 and it was powerful! Thanks so much!I really appreciate it.Warm Regards,Ekua Cant
Tip for empathetic leadership: Listen more than you speak. Favorite motivational song: Right now Lizzo "Good as Hell"
@Lizdsimon. Happy Friday. Thank you so much for sharing! 💛
Hi Liz! What an impressive career!I currently work in technology at Peloton, but I spend the majority of my free time involved in various nonprofits and social justice organizations. I've been to several meetings to prep joining a nonprofit as a junior board member, but it's been really difficult to actually find an entryway to a position. Do you have any recommendations on how to actually get into a junior board member position? Additionally, do you have any general advice on how to self-prepare (tools, skills, etc.) before you get into a board position? Thank you in advance!
Hi Cara, one idea would be to pick organizations that could really benefit from your technology skill set. For example, I was brought onto the boards of EdReports and Arena because of my experience as a lawyer. Are there any nonprofits you know that really need to understand or leverage technology to help them succeed? I would then reach out to those organizations and pitch yourself/your skill set. I would also make sure to get an understanding what a board commitment looks like (sometimes nonprofit boards come with fundraising commitments, etc.). At the very least, if they're not looking for a board member, you can build a relationship that could turn into a board seat at some point down the road.
Hi, Liz! Can you talk about how you made the transition from a purely legal role to an operations role? Were you in a pure legal role initially at GA and expanded your day-to-day job to include operations or did you apply to an ops role at GA initially? If the latter, how did you sell your transferable skills? Appreciate your insights!
Hi Caroline, I was in a pure legal role when I first started at GA and my job scope expanded over time to include overseeing many other functions. Ultimately, after having been at the company for almost 7 years, I developed a lot of the competencies required to do the COO job that I wouldn't have had coming in.
Nice to meet you Liz! You have an interesting background. With increasing focus on public policy to govern the tech industry, I wonder your view of future trend and opportunities in the intersection between legal and tech? Thanks.
Hi Emma! Lots of thoughts here. I think there is going to be much more government oversight / regulation of the tech industry in the years ahead, particularly if a democrat wins the White House in 2020. Big areas of focus are likely to be privacy, data protection, anti-competitiveness, etc.. Smart tech companies will deploy lots of resources to help shape what that regulatory future will look like.
I just launched an app that texts you a new 7-minute workout video every day. We've been seeing great traction around engagement, and the science behind text-based diet and fitness interventions is solid - especially for low-income communities. Is it crazy for me to approach city health officials with the goal of partnering to send free workouts to all residents who want to sign up for the program? Especially with coronavirus, people need new health and wellness options for home created by experts they can trust. I just have no idea how long a partnership would take to close, is it the best use of my time, or should I just focus on getting our app in as many paid users' hands as possible. Love to hear your thoughts!
Hi Jennifer,Sounds like an awesome product. It's probably easier to go directly to users versus going through city officials. You can certainly reach out to make them aware of your app to see if they are able to promote it via their existing channels but doing any sort of commercial business with the government (at any level) is slow and tough to navigate.
Hi Liz, Love this - also a huge fan of Reality TV and I work in EdTech. I'm in London though - hi 👋My question to you is:1. How do you see community being a part of EdTech? I know you at GA run extra events for people that are not current students, but I wonder what your community looks like for students? Is it something that's important?I appreciate this question comes at trying times, as we are all switching to online and virtual community temporarily until this virus is finished with us!
Hi Bethany, the community aspect of GA is a really important part of what differentiates us. With so many locations and graduates around the world, our vision is for students to feel connected to the broader GA community both in class and once they graduate. That could mean access to alumni at certain companies, special events, or even future career opportunities that they gain as part of the network. Because we are such a distributed organization, much of that connection happens virtually, which is convenient given the moment we're in now.
Hi Liz! Thanks for being here and being open to answering questions. I'm a HUGE fan of GA and am really excited about the education you provide. My question is more on the personal interest side- my company, TiLT, is working to reimagine parental leave in the workplace through a software + human solution which streamlines all of the moving pieces and makes it a win-win for companies and parents. What was/ is your experience like as a working mom and what do you wish could be different?
Hi Jennifer, love to hear you're a fan of GA! Short answer is that the experience was challenging, especially for the first year. It took my quite a long time to feel like my professional self again. I struggled with a lot of physical issues and depression/anxiety postpartum. Fortunately, GA has generous parental leave policies and is a very flexible work environment. I'm also lucky to have a fantastic support system around me - a very involved husband and dedicated/trusted nanny. That's of course all being challenged in this current moment, where we're without child care for the first time and finding it really difficult to balance two full time jobs and caring for our child.
I’m not posting before Thursday, clearly, so I’ll not ask a question, but rather say thank you. You have some of the most awesome people working at GA. The culture is strong, positive and solution oriented, even in difficult situations. Of course, I’ve only spent time in two locations, my view is limited. However, it seems to be intrinsic to the brand. That’s a leadership factor. Thank you for you part in that intentional design!
That's fantastic feedback - thank you so much!