Interview with Judy Verses, President of Global Enterprise & Education at Rosetta Stone
Judy Verses is the President of Global Enterprise and Education for Rosetta Stone responsible for all institutional business across all geographies. She holds a B.Sc. in Business Administration from the University of Connecticut and was a winner of the Washington Business Journal Award for "Women Who Mean Business" in 2009. She was recently announced as a Finalist in the Women In Technology annual ‘Women in Leadership Awards’. We leapt at the chance to interview her and find out more about her plans for Rosetta Stone and her thoughts on the year abroad, language education and global opportunities for linguists.
1. How did you get into Rosetta Stone?
It’s been an interesting journey for me career-wise because I didn’t get into the online education space until 2008 when I went to work for Blackboard - a big learning management company. Prior to that I was in telecommunications for 24 years, progressing through sales, marketing, and general management, and then I officially retired - I planned on never working another day in my life, and spending my time doing much more travel and having fun with my kids after school - but I got bored much sooner than anticipated.
I was called out of the blue by a headhunter from Blackboard (which I knew because my kids used it at high school at the time) and I loved the whole concept of online education and how you can adapt to different learning styles with kids through technology versus a teacher in a classroom. So I ended up going to work as the COO of Blackboard Learn which is their learning management group. Multiple acquisitions later, when we restructured the company, I headed up Global Sales and Marketing across all their businesses, and had a great time doing that.
I ended up transitioning to Rosetta Stone in 2011 and, again, when I left Blackboard, my intention was that if I was going to work it would only be in education, particularly language education, because I am the product of a challenged system of language teaching in the US, which is very similar to other English-speaking countries: you’re taught predominantly in a classroom, and often you don’t get to learn a language until later on in your school years despite the fact that the optimum time for language learning is when you’re younger. I was really enamoured with Rosetta Stone and working there was a flukey opportunity - someone networked me with a person who was on the board and I ended up getting a job with Rosetta Stone.
2. What is your role in the organisation?
It is very exciting, I head up the B-to-B business side, called ‘Global Enterprise and Education’, because we focus on the education segment, so K12 (final year of Sixth Form in the US), Higher Ed, corporations and government. A big part of our business in terms of our total revenue comes from the education side - and a lot from K12 education - which is great because to me it’s all about transforming language learning education.
From a leadership style perspective, I have a very participative style: the most important part of any organisation are those people who are talking to customers every day, not the few people at the top. My office is in the DC area where Headquarters is, and I believe you need to be out there with your sales organisation, your marketing team, your customers - that’s how you really understand the business and can put together a strategy and a vision that’s aligned with what your customers need. So that’s how I drive, and I have found that it doesn’t matter how large your organisation is, if you get the right people in key jobs, you empower them, you hold them accountable, and then you work through them in a very team-oriented way, a big organisation can seem very small and much more productive.
3. In terms of languages - you must be a linguist yourself?!
No! That’s why I came to Rosetta Stone! I’m the example of someone who failed in the process of learning a language at school. I took seven years of Spanish there, and hardly learned anything, That’s why I was enamoured with Rosetta Stone: because it was so appalling to me that I didn’t learn any languages at school - and that’s pretty typical of kids in the US and in the UK - despite the fact that friends had actually used Rosetta Stone and it worked for them.
I love the whole concept of immersion as a way to learn a language through technology, so now I am finally spending time learning - and enjoying learning - Spanish. And the other cool thing for me is that I travel so much all over the globe now, and I can go online with Rosetta Stone and spend a little time learning the languages of the places that I’m going. I find that even just knowing a few words helps the connections and relationships that you establish in different countries, and it enhances your sensitivity and cultural appreciation. So to me, now as a Global Business Executive, it’s phenomenal to have that capability.
4. And what’s the response when you do put the effort in?
Even when I’m miserable at it, the fact that that you put the effort in is like opening a door. The door might be partially open - they’re being polite - but the minute you speak a language, the door is wide open and you can begin to form a relationship. It’s wonderful! And even places where the language is rather difficult, like when I go to Tokyo, Japanese is difficult but getting to say “Arigatou gozaimasu” (ありがとうございます) for thank you, or “Hai” (はい) for yes - it helps! It absolutely helps. And even sometimes when they laugh at your mispronunciation it helps, because you have something in common - and the fact that you are interested enough to try and you’re not (I shouldn’t use this term, but I will!) the arrogant American coming into a country and expecting everyone to speak your language: the fact that you step out and try to speak the language of the country that you’re in goes a really long way.
5. What do you think about the year abroad?
I’m so passionate about kids travelling abroad while they’re in college - doing their third year abroad - it’s a wonderful thing. It’s also positive just from the confidence and the personal growth you get from going somewhere foreign, and all the issues that you talk about when you’re starting out - finding a place to live and getting around town - to go through and be able to do it becomes second nature to you. The country becomes a second home and this builds confidence in people. That’s confidence that stays with you. You could put me anywhere and I could figure it out. It’s powerful. Even if you don’t learn a language 100%, to get some of it and start to develop your sensitivity to different cultures and how they operate makes a tremendous difference from an employability perspective downstream. And that’s the interesting thing - I do a lot of work with multinational corporations and their biggest issue is language and getting in people who can speak multiple languages. They have to invest a lot of money teaching people, but those people who come into them speaking multiple languages have a leg up, so from an employment perspective learning another language when you’re young makes a lot of sense.
6. How do languages help in terms of graduate employment?
There was an interesting study done in the US in 2012, which looked at kids who were 12 years old at the time, and said that when they graduated university in ten years’ time at the age of 22, they wouldn’t just be competing with graduates from the US, they would be competing for jobs with English-speaking kids globally. This is the way the world is changing: unless you have a language and are more of a global citizen, you are not going to be on par from an interviewing perspective. So for me when I go on my travels to China - I was at our offices in Shanghai and Beijing last week - the amount of money that people are investing in kids to learn English so they can have better careers, study abroad and go to the US, is amazing. But then I think of kids in the UK, Australia and the USA who aren’t investing time in learning another language, and it will have a negative impact. I feel passionately about that.
Multinational organisations are so desperate to find smart young people who can speak multiple languages - even with Brazil preparing to host the World Cup and the Rio Olympics, they are struggling to find people with the ability to speak multiple languages so they can host all the visitors who are coming. These are big, important initiatives but they don’t have enough people.
7. Have you had a lot of interest in Rosetta Stone in Brazil?
Absolutely. As a matter of fact, we tried to become the language sponsor of the Rio Olympics but we came in second to a company called English First (EF) which is much much bigger than we are. But we’ve cultivated a lot of good relationships so there’s stuff we’re doing around the Olympics that will be really positive. As a matter of fact, I’ve just moved one of our top people who’s Brazilian in the US down to Rio, so she will help us down there as well.
8. Having travelled so much in your role, have you learnt anything from foreign language education systems which you believe could help us in the UK?
It’s important to make learning a foreign language a top requirement for kids from their earliest days in school, and have that continue on. It seems to me that there are a lot more students from elite private schools who do that naturally, but languages need to be available to everyone. To me that’s dramatic reform and change. You get a lot of countries talking about doing it, but we’re not where we need to be in terms of truly executing it on a mass basis. Interestingly, over a decade ago, Japan was one of the top global economies, but that has really dropped off from an economic perspective. There is now a firm belief at the Ministry of Education that since Japan became so insular, with everyone speaking just Japanese, they haven’t developed the skills they need to compete globally - and it’s hurting them. They’re only just starting to drive reform. But reform in K12 education is difficult because typically it needs to come from a government level.
In terms of the drop-off of languages between GCSE and A Levels, this is what I love so much about Rosetta Stone. I look at my language learning experience, and it was boring. Very boring. Sitting in a classroom with a teacher talking and being one of 25 to 30 students versus when I do Rosetta Stone one-to-one, which is not boring at all! It’s very interactive, and almost feels game-like. It keeps you engaged and you start to see progress very quickly because you’re speaking immediately. To me that’s what it’s all about: driving engagement of students in language in a different way to keep them at it. The minute something is fun, you keep on doing it. When it becomes boring and mundane - unless it’s a passion that you have or it’s a requirement to either graduate or for a job - you don’t stick with it. You don’t have the motivation. The motivation has to come from the actual learning process being fun and engaging.
9. It’s interesting that you think the learning process is more important that the content. being relevant to them or being something that they’ve curated for themselves?
I’m a big believer that one of the best ways to implement a Rosetta Stone-type product into schools is via a blended model. I think there are things that teachers do amazingly well, and there are things that Rosetta Stone does amazingly well, and if you link them together, that’s where I believe magic happens and you get even better results. It helps the teacher become more effective. In my mind, Rosetta Stone can be a teacher’s best friend: when it’s used correctly and integrated into the classroom it will make languages a lot more fun and interesting for kids, so that’s the direction that I’m very much driving in.
And then I look at universities too. My daughter is at university in the States, and there wasn’t even a language requirement for her course. As a matter of fact, at universities in the US, and I’m not sure about the UK, the percentage of courses that require a language to graduate is dropping rapidly at a time when the world is becoming more global and the percentage should be going up! It just doesn’t even make any sense to me.
10. Year abroad students experience a lot of issues on the year abroad, which we think is great opportunity to get creative and solve the problems by starting a business. You have mentored small businesses - do you have any advice for students?
Right now I’m directly supporting young startups through a Fellowship Initiative at the Laura Bush Institute where they sponsor a country where there are equality issues for women or there is a need for more democracy. For two years they worked in Egypt, and this year they’re working in Tunisia: they choose 17 to 20 high potential young women from that country and team them up with a mentor in the US, and so they asked me if I would be a mentor to a young woman in Tunisia. What she is trying to do is to create a business that will attract other companies outside Tunisia to come in and establish their businesses there. Tunisia has a very high youth unemployment rate because of the revolution challenges there - I think it’s about 30% - and these are college-educated kids who can’t get jobs. So now I’m working with her, and for me the biggest thing is that you need to have a business plan to help you really understand what you’re pulling together. If necessary, find someone to help guide you in terms of the soundness of your business plan. Is there really a need in the market? Can you address it in a unique way? What are the funding needs in order to do it? Are there specific tax liabilities? All that stuff. You’ve got to get really smart up front to put the right plan in place, but no plan is ever perfect and you learn as you go along. You have to tweak and you have to be flexible. Make sure you really know what you’re doing, and do your homework up front so you have a more stable foundation for launch. You have to be flexible and learn as you go, and many assumptions you thought you might have had turn out to be different in practice. You can do amazing things with a good idea.
11. What are your plans for the future of Rosetta Stone?
I want Rosetta Stone to be the company that everyone thinks of when they think about language learning. When I look at what’s going on with a lot of these emerging markets with a large, growing middle class, for people to have good lives, a job and to take care of their family, learning English is an absolutely critical part of success. I want Rosetta Stone to be the company that they go to. Education is the springboard for people to learn languages, and I want Rosetta Stone to be used in schools and universities across the globe, because I think it will fuel kids’ interest not only in learning a language, but in maintaining it and expanding to other languages: then you have truly developed global citizens. I think once you do that, the empathy and understanding part - which is so important not only for business but for relations across the globe - will happen much more naturally.
Obviously that’s a big, lofty goal and we’re a public company so I want to drive revenues too, but the key thing is that the way my team and I get to achieve that is by doing really good things that changes people’s lives. And that’s why people come to work here every day. You talk to anyone here at Rosetta Stone, and they will talk about their ability to change people’s lives. It’s one person or one life at a time, and you keep growing from there. You have an impact on one person and it grows.