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Doing What You Love is Good Food For the Soul: Meet Lauren Holliday, Managing Director of Open Courses and Marketplace

Written by Anant Agarwal on Apr 27, 2022

Related content: Leadership, Life at 2U, Courses

Lauren Holliday is a rare talent. She leads with empathy, brings her whole self to work, and inspires others with her relentless drive. Ask anyone across edX/2U who has had the pleasure of rubbing elbows with Lauren and you’ll hear about how approachable she is—and the story of Linus.

In early COVID times, Lauren was lonely working from home and spending endless hours on Zoom. She needed a bit of levity and knew the people she interacted with could use it, too. Lauren found Linus the llama, her virtual background of choice, who she says joined the team to break the ice in a sterile online environment. Linus has been a part of nearly every one of Lauren’s meetings during the pandemic and is just one example of her ability to understand the needs of the people she works alongside and on behalf of.

I share this anecdote because Lauren holds a unique role: As managing director of open courses and marketplace (OCM), she and her team are responsible for figuring out and then articulating what learners want and need and what the business needs to achieve, and then work with technical folks, like engineers, to build the right products at the right time into reality. To be successful, she must be in tune with consumers while simultaneously keeping an ear to the ground to understand what will help move the business forward. And she must care passionately—just like she exemplified with the introduction of Linus.

Having worked with Lauren closely in her early days at edX as she led the launch of our MicroMasters® programs and later as part of the executive team, I’ve learned that there are no half measures with Lauren. She goes all-in on any endeavor she commits to and delivers while being an incredibly nice person. Over time, I’ve found that every interaction with Lauren leaves me more optimistic and confident. Paired with her deep product skills and business acumen and her ability to increase the level of enthusiasm and energy by 2X in any room or Zoom call she enters, these attributes make her the ideal leader for OCM.

As the newest managing director on the team and someone I personally admire, I asked Lauren to join me in sharing the evolution of her career, her vision for the future of OCM, some strong leadership advice, and the secret to what has kept her passionate about our mission for almost six years.

Lauren Holliday with the infamous Linus the llama

Hi, Lauren! Let’s begin by talking about a field you’ve been in since the very beginning of your career: product management. How did you get started in product management, and how do the skills required in the field continue to fulfill you today?

I really wandered my way to product management. I think it all started in my undergraduate days at Northwestern—which happens to be one of 2U’s incredible university partners—where I studied both art and science. I was constantly trying to find where those two worlds intersect because for me, one fed the other. I explored it in a lot of different ways. I interned at the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, but I didn’t fall in love with either job that involved art or science alone.

Eventually, I fell into this world of product management–the bridge between those two worlds. It’s this unique blend of people and creativity with technical know-how. As a right brain/left brain person, this type of work is so attractive because it lets me play in the spaces I thrive in. I have the opportunity to solve real people’s problems at scale—a reach that enables me to know that the work I’m doing is really impactful and making a difference for the people and business at large.

It sounds like you really found your calling. Digging deeper, walk us through your career. You’ve held positions at Amazon and LinkedIn–what did your roles entail? Why did you take the leap from Amazon to edX?

My career has been all about bringing thoughtful, strategic, bold thinkers together to solve critical customer challenges in innovative ways. At LinkedIn, I was involved in the acquisition of (now LinkedIn Learning.) At Amazon, I launched the Elastic File System, an AWS product. And before being acquired by 2U, I helped make MicroMasters programs and Professional Certificates viable products and transformative educational options for learners worldwide at edX. edX was a natural fit for me: a continued opportunity to build products I believe in and do things I love. I work on products that I believe in, and I think that’s really good fuel for the soul to do what you love every day.

“Good fuel for the soul”—I love that! Since you’re a nearly six-year veteran (wow!), is that what’s kept you motivated and passionate about working at edX? Reflecting on your time here, what’s an outcome you’re most proud of accomplishing?

I joined edX because I believed in the mission and the opportunity to change real people’s lives at scale. That opportunity to unlock human potential has only grown with 2U. While every year has been a distinct adventure, this past one tops them all. I truly feel like the sky's the limit.

We have accomplished so much since my first year at edX in 2016. But of all the memories I hold on to, one of the greatest has to be the launch of MicroMasters programs. I was hired to bring the product to life, and it was an incredibly fun, fast exercise in team collaboration to deliver something big and innovative to the education space. It was worth it, too: MicroMasters got immediate traction with learners. So much so that over the course of four months, we launched a dozen MicroMasters, all of which could earn learners credit. It was challenging to do in short order—get the content, figure out marketing, and build the software—but it was gratifying and is a perfect example of how product management blends the people and creativity with the technical.

Lauren being goofy with Linus on camera

And MicroMasters only continue to positively impact people’s lives worldwide with more than 13K MicroMasters credentials earned to date! Let’s switch gears to your current role. As managing director, what is your vision for the future of open courses and marketplace (OCM)? What do you hope to achieve?

OCM is the front door to 2U. The marketplace is your host—a trusted guide that will give you the tour and introduce you to the educational opportunities best-aligned to your needs. Open courses are your appetizer—a delicious starter of accessible, high-quality, low-cost courses to get you excited about everything else on the menu at 2U. Together, OCM brings the best products to one unified platform, enabling all learners to make the education investment to unlock their potential.

Today, the OCM team is squarely focused on driving performance and growth within our slice of the business. Our goal is to expand our free offerings and grow our MicroMasters and MicroBachelors programs while continuing to build a thriving community of learners and corporate and university partners on edX. No small task, but I know we’re up to the challenge.

As you continue to talk more about your role, it becomes clearer to me that your position requires you to wear multiple hats at once. What keeps you grounded? Is there a motto or mantra that guides you each day?

This may be a little cheesy, but as a kid, I won a T-shirt design contest that had a theme of “believe and achieve.” (I still have the winning T-shirt, by the way!) And that theme has carried over into my adult life. It also ties to another motto I have: “Do what you love.” Again, pretty straightforward, but I truly believe that you have to enjoy what you’re doing in order to do your best at it. So as I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve brought the two together: “If you believe you can accomplish something—and you enjoy what you do—you can achieve great things.”

Great motto—I can see where you get your drive from. Let’s close out with some inspiration: What’s one piece of advice you would offer someone interested in pursuing a career in product management?

My career advice is to start small. It can be experimental or something you’d like to do more of—just carve out time to do more of that. With each new role, do more of what you like and less of what you don’t like. Take an incremental approach, try new things, start small, and experiment.

I also think it’s really important to bring your whole self and your best self to work. Sometimes the lines between personal and professional can be a little blurry—especially over the past couple of years during the pandemic. But I think it’s essential that we lead by example and allow our colleagues (and ourselves) to bring our full selves to the table. We need to have empathy for one another. We need to understand where the other person is coming from. And by doing that, we’ll get the best of everyone and build really dynamic teams.

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