Empowered and UCLA Bring Career Retraining to the iPad

11/21/12Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

Many of us see a reason to lament when we hear that millions of Americans are unemployed while millions of US jobs go unfilled. Steve Poizner looks at the same facts and envisions a $100 billion market opportunity.

But then, most of us are not serial tech entrepreneurs like Poizner, who sold the second company he founded, SnapTrack, for a billion dollars.

Poizner is hoping his third startup company, Empowered Careers, will help create an online education industry worth more than $100 billion by offering baby boomers and other adults an easier way to retrain for 21st century jobs.

Empowered, based in Campbell, CA, has teamed up with UCLA Extension to re-package 10 of the university division’s professional certificate programs into mobile study courses that students can access solely through their iPads. The training sequences in job-related topics, such as Project Management, Human Resources, and Global Sustainability, are designed to help late-career adults quickly upgrade their skills so they can recover from a layoff or delay a retirement they can’t afford.

Poizner says the programs make sense for workers who can’t spend the time or money to get a BA or a master’s degree at a college campus.

“Traditional higher education doesn’t meet the needs of our target market,’’ he says. “We’re focusing on busy, frazzled adults who need ongoing education to close their skills gaps.’’

Empowered’s profit potential helped it raise $15 million from two VC firms, Granite Ventures and InterWest Partners. But the company arose as a public service project conceived by veteran film executive Sherry Lansing, whose non-profit foundation is a founding partner. Lansing recruited Poizner as CEO, a role that weaves together two long threads in his career. Poizner, the successful tech entrepreneur, also co-founded the non-profit organization EdVoice to improve California public schools. He served as the state’s insurance commissioner, and ran for governor in the 2010 GOP primary against former eBay head Meg Whitman.

In addition to attracting Poizner, Empowered’s public benefit mission also helped it gain a star-studded roster of volunteer spokespeople for its national TV ads, including Emmy winner James Gandolfini and Oscar winners Sally Field, Cuba Gooding Jr. (pictured above), and Geena Davis. All are clients of the huge Creative Artists Agency, which is a founding partner of Empowered.

“This is a fantastic public service, as well as a fantastic business opportunity,’’ Poizner says of the company, which started operations in 2011 and began serving students in UCLA Extension courses this fall.

Poizner’s estimate of a $100 billion market in online career retraining courses covers only the United States. He says that market could double if it also embraced international students, who make up a global potential customer base for high-quality US education.

Screenshot from Empowered Careers' iPad app for students

Assignment list from UCLA's "Water Rights and Sustainability" course on Empowered Careers' iPad app.

UCLA’s extension unit offers more than 130 professional certificate programs, spanning fields including business, engineering, public health and humanities. The division was an online education pioneer as far back as 15 years ago, says Dean Cathy Sandeen. Among its 50,000 students, 25 percent now do all their studies in online classes.

But those courses are presented on websites accessed only through desktop computers or laptops. Empowered adapted the classes for the iPad, so students can get a bit of coursework done wherever they are during their busy days. In addition to mobile access, Empowered provides all students a suite of career counseling services, from skills assessment through job search support—all elements that Sandeen said she had wished her UCLA unit could offer.

“It’s something I often thought about doing, but frankly, we didn’t have the risk capital to do it,’’ Sandeen says.

Empowered and UCLA Extension have a profit-sharing agreement for their joint offerings, under terms they don’t disclose. “We’re hoping to generate lots of profits to share,’’ Poizner says.

The venture also gives UCLA Extension a national and even international footprint, Sandeen says. The school can serve more students without constructing new buildings or making students drive to campus.

Poizner credits the iPad with breaking down geographic boundaries for his online education startup. The device is relatively inexpensive, and available anywhere. And its built-in video chat and messaging functions enable Empowered students to … Next Page »

Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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