A Decade Later: The Extraordinary Entrepreneurial Class of 2012
A report by Elise Czajkowski and our team about a stellar cohort of the Newmark J-School’s Entrepreneurial Journalism Program
Hundreds of media entrepreneurs have joined our program to develop new ventures since we welcomed our first cohort in 2011. Many have gone on to develop successful ventures around the world, including numerous members of the class of 2012. Ten years later, participants in that cohort are earning journalism awards, serving millions of readers, and generating millions of dollars in revenue. We’re sharing an update on that cohort to answer the question of how participants end up faring in the long run.
The true test of entrepreneurial success is what happens over a decade, not a few months. So the remarkable thing about this cohort as we look back on its growth over a decade is not just what its 16 members did during the intensive semester they spent on campus — but the consistent growth and impact these founders have led since.
What the 2012 founders are up to now
At the end of his term in the EJCP program, Noah Rosenberg launched Narratively, a multimedia platform dedicated to original storytelling. In recent years, the company has signed deals with NBC, Fox Searchlight and Warner Bros. TV for film and television adaptations. Its site attracts hundreds of thousands of monthly page views.
Adda Birnir launched Skillcrush to help make coding and other digital skills more accessible. More than 10 years later, more than 350,000 people have taken courses on the site, earning millions of dollars for the company. Adda herself was named one of “20 Women to Watch in Media’’ by the Columbia Journalism Review and one of the “30 Most Important Women in Tech” by Business Insider.
Stacy-Marie Ishmael has held leadership roles at Buzzfeed, Apple, and the Texas Tribune and is now chair of the board at the Newmark J-School and Managing Editor for Crypto at Bloomberg News.
Ashley Milne-Tyte recently finished an 11-year run of her podcast, The Broad Experience, which was downloaded more than 3 million times.
Other members of the cohort have likewise gone on to have a big impact, as noted in the update table below.
The value of a global gathering
For more than a decade, the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY’s Entrepreneurial Journalism program has been helping journalists develop and launch news media ventures. For Jeremy Caplan, Director of Teaching and Learning for the Newmark J-School and head of the EJCP program, the 2012 cohort — the second class— was a particularly memorable group.
“They came from all over the world, spoke numerous languages, and brought with them all sorts of life experiences,” Caplan says of the group. “When they crowded around a lunch table, sparks would emerge as they talked about independent journalism or debated the impact of tech platforms, which were then emerging as a major cultural force.”
For the members of the 2012 cohort, that camaraderie was one of the major keys to the success of the program. John Samuel Raja, co-founder of the data firm How India Lives, says the “melting pot” of people in the cohort helped shape the idea for his firm, which has since had a long run of success serving major clients and working on impactful data analysis and reporting.
Energy and passion
Rosenberg cites the vibrancy of the cohort during the program. “What really sticks with me is the energy and passion of our fun-loving group: We’d left the classroom and were out in the world, our world,” he said. “You could almost reach your hand up and grab ahold of all the potential in the air.”
In the decade since the program ended, the members of the class have stayed in touch — professionally and personally. They have started businesses together, worked on projects, attended weddings and continued to meet up socially.
“Learning for months alongside a small group of peers builds lasting bonds, particularly when you’re building something that really matters to you, like your own new venture,” says Caplan.
A turning point
Members of the 2012 class often think back to their program experience. “I never would have started that show had it not been for the CUNY Entrepreneurial Journalism Program and the encouragement of Jeremy and Jeff [Jarvis],” said Milne-Tyte. “The podcast changed my life in all sorts of ways and has spawned a bunch of competitors. To date it’s the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done professionally.”
For Birnir, the EJCP program changed her trajectory entirely — and encouraged her to focus on her passion project. That turned into the tech course website Skillcrush, which she’s run for more than a decade.
“Ultimately what led me to the CUNY program was exactly what I loved about the program and what has really stuck with me for the past ten years: the opportunity to workshop business ideas with a group of people who I knew were interested in more than just building the ‘next big thing’ type of startup,” she said.
From Caplan’s perspective, the group needed space, time and support to learn, to explore ideas, and to expand their skills. “The successes this group has had are a result of the persistent work and passion they’ve poured into their projects,” said Caplan. “The program provided them with a launching pad and a laboratory for experimentation. This cohort arrived at a pivotal moment in the evolution of social media and new business models for news.”
“What they’ve accomplished since is a tribute to their perseverance. It also demonstrates why we feel so strongly about the importance of a public institution like ours and the opportunity it affords for collaborative, creative, entrepreneurial experimentation.”
Lasting Lessons: Reflections from the 2012 cohort
Always be testing
“One lesson that has stayed with me is to keep A/B testing everything. When making a film, there are so many scenes and how they fit together like puzzle pieces is super nuanced. When I A/B test, I can see how to slot elements in most effectively and determine how to create projects with the maximum impact.” — Stephen Robert Morse, Lone Wolf Studios
Organize knowledge to organize communities
“I often hear Jeff Jarvis in my mind saying, ‘Journalism is helping communities better organize their knowledge so they can better organize themselves.’ Frankly, that’s what we architects think we do for society, too. CUNY EJ is what I needed to learn how to manage knowledge and effect some change in culture and society.” — Megan Smith, architect and co-owner of Wigwam Village
Maintain focus but stay open
“One thing that’s been critical to Narratively as a company — and to my own journey as an entrepreneur— is the importance of maintaining focus and establishing priorities while constantly keeping my eyes open for new opportunities. I’m pretty sure I can trace this mindset back to those long afternoons in the classroom with Jeremy and Jeff, and it’s paid off.” — Noah Rosenberg, Narratively
Lean on your network
“In journalism, and startups, it’s important to have a strong network — people you can lean on for advice, people who can help to make introductions and open doors, people who are taking on similar challenges that you can watch and know you aren’t alone.” — Brian Reich, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Pivot from firefighting to strategy
“It helped me realize that I knew so much more than I thought I did. And I think that was the real power of it. It was like often going through stuff that I thought I knew, but it helped me re-validate and take me out of stuff that was firefighting — because that was a large majority of my day — into strategy.” — Saalim Chowdhury, Managing Director, TechStars
Focus on meaning, not money
“My business, Skillcrush, just turned 10 years old! That’s bananas! I can’t believe it’s been 10 years since it went by SO FAST, but also, I am so proud to have lasted this long. That is an accomplishment in and of itself, and I believe that some of our staying power is attributable to the imprint that CUNY left on me, because it made my reason for running the business bigger and more meaningful than growing big and being acquired.” — Adda Birnir, Founder and CEO, Skillcrush
Be flexible and get out into the world
“I learned to let the group lead itself as much as possible, and to let the curriculum be flexible enough to adapt to changes in the ecosystem, given how quickly things evolve. I also learned to focus on passion, persistence and a strong track record when assessing candidates, given how successful this cohort was, having come from a variety of professional backgrounds. And I learned to capitalize on our New York City network of media and journalism partners, given how valuable it was to spend time outside of the school walls visiting with creative entrepreneurs and leaders.” — Jeremy Caplan, Director of the EJCP Program