This piece is part of Meet Minerva, a series of interviews introducing the Minerva community to the humans behind the school’s policies and classes. Everhardt was interviewed by Linnea Moritz and Anna Mukhlaeva, who both took business courses with her during Spring 2019. This interview transcription has been edited for length and clarity.
Linnea Moritz and Anna Mukhlaeva: Why did you decide to come to Minerva?
Nikki Eberhardt: I find traditional academia too antiquated and uninteresting. I am an activist and practitioner first and an academic second. I found Minerva and thought, “Oh wow, that’s the perfect combination of global experience and innovation and academia, I could do this!” I started reading profiles of the students and how amazingly top-quality they were and thought it was totally my gig. I met Ben Nelson at the Skoll World Forum, where he delivered a very powerful speech. He essentially dropped the mic with this demonstration of the market need Minerva was filling. It was such a powerful argument that I walked away knowing that I needed to check out Minerva.
LM & AM: Wait, how long have you been at Minerva?
NE: I [just wrapped up] my first year. This was my second semester.
LM & AM: Did being a professor at Minerva meet your expectations?
NE: It has exceeded them. My colleagues are true innovators as well and they are also very collaborative. Minerva professors are incredibly helpful, especially in the Business college. That was the important aspect of the value proposition Minerva brought, which exceeded my expectations. And then you guys, come on [LM & AM: she means that we students are cool].
LM & AM: Do you have a lot of contact with other professors?
NE: Yeah, it is unbelievably collaborative. We have regular virtual meetings. We chat on Slack daily. We are constantly in dialogue: building curricula together, discussing courses, working through bumps and recurring issues. It is super communicative.
LM & AM: Professor, I am curious about your life outside of Minerva. Can you tell us some general stuff about your life?
NE: Sure. I am trained as a sociologist specializing in global poverty, migration, and gender inequality. So, I did quantitative analysis around those issues. I had worked in the non-profit sphere for over 20 years, but I made a very intentional pivot to business about a decade ago. That’s why I went back to get my MBA and why I am working with innovative start-ups that are tackling the biggest world issues. For example, Global Citizen works with business development as well as event production. There, I saw these powerful team-ups with big corporations, non-profits, and government entities. And in those partnerships, I found that the business was often driving the change and was certainly the most well-resourced stakeholder. I thought, “What if it was the business that drives the change and tackles these social issues?” That’s why I made the pivot and that’s why you now find me in the Business college.
It was an amalgam of all of those experiences which made me realize that the power I had was not in reasserting myself in my own community but in opening up space so that people from under-resourced communities could empower themselves.
LM & AM: What about your childhood dreams and life?
NE: We each have our own perspectives because of the amalgam of the experiences we had. Each of us has a beautiful story, and it’s uniquely ours. Each of us has the opportunity to craft that to help us tackle social issues, professional goals, and individual satisfaction.
I was raised in a very safe suburban area. It was a very homogenous community, but it was safe and happy. My father came from the poorest area in our town. My grandfather, his dad, was a functioning alcoholic. He would go to the bar every night and get drunk, then my grandma would drive him home, then he would go to sleep and then work all day. So my father was raised with a lot of deprivations. I think, as a result, he brought to his adult life a different perspective on what it means to come from an under-resourced community. What it means to not have a voice.
Even though he raised me in such a safe environment, he never let me forget where I came from. He fed the homeless folks in the community and worked in the prison. We would go to the prison, Utah State Prison, every month and interact with inmates there. We would also sponsor refugee families. I remember being a young girl and walking into the home of a family that had just relocated from Vietnam, who were classified as refugees. I walked in there, and I thought, “These smells are amazing. We can’t communicate, but still we are communicating non-verbally [through sensory experiences].”
It was an amalgam of all of those experiences which made me realize that the power I had was not in reasserting myself in my own community but in opening up space so that people from under-resourced communities could empower themselves. For example, my dissertation was focused on refugee youth outcomes and working with all of the different stakeholders who have an interest in moving the needle for this population. I also do work with extreme poverty with Global Citizen. I do a lot of public-facing work and some public speaking about giving voice to disenfranchised communities. I feel compelled to do something with what I have been given.
LM & AM: What is your motivation to keep on going and not get depressed by these big topics that you are tackling?
NE: What I do is super-focused messaging on not just the destructive elements of society but also what we as individuals can do to make improvements and change the game. I try to remember that myself.
My friend just spent time in a Rohingya refugee camp, the largest refugee camp on the border of Bangladesh. She has some horrifying stories to share from the victims of the genocide there. It is super depressing. I realized that it is a natural human reaction to feel helpless, but that reaction is not helpful. I tried to think about what we can do to package this message in a way that is going to be inspiring so people get moved to action. If we share these stories about horrifying events that have happened to these refugees, I could lay in my bed in the fetal position and say that the world is horrible, which is natural. Or I could start volunteering with refugee youth and people who are struggling, and that experience is empowering.
Another approach I take is that we can’t do it all. If we think about the large scale it feels like we are ants and there is nothing we can do. It is much more powerful if we see ourselves as nodes of larger ecosystems that come together and create a synergistic team-up. Once we do that, it is very generative. One plus one does not equal two, it equals a whole lot more. It is because of that collaboration we have all engaged with that we are all making magic.
LM & AM: What is your advice to become a boss business woman like you?
NE: Well, have children, you perfect your craft by bossing them around. I’m joking, but I’m not.
It takes the right ecosystem. You have to align yourself with like-minded individuals. Sometimes you find yourself in environments that are maybe not conducive to women achieving executive positions. Maybe, like the very male-dominated Silicon Valley startup culture, they are not interested in diverse voices and you are representing someone from an emerging market. There are some environments which are maybe not the best to be in, especially when you are younger and just starting out.
There are other situations when you think, “Okay, this is status quo, but I can navigate within this and create change.” I’ve worked with teams that didn’t appreciate diversity, such as women or people of color. They were quite stale to me, quite boring. I either left those teams or found ways to change them.
Then there have been times when I was working with powerful mentors, who were women I wanted to be like or startup entrepreneurs I was inspired by. I try to align myself closely with those individuals because they were not only inspiring, but also helped me in my own journey. I think part of it is surrounding yourself with people who will help you achieve your goals.
It is also being shameless about pursuing what you need and what you want. You may have an idea of where you want to be in 15 years, and that might be a CEO of Company X, but there are a series of steps that you need to take. How can you strategize what those steps are? You take that first move, and that leads to either A, B, or C. How can that help you leapfrog to step N instead of step D? It’s being very strategic about that.
I think underscoring all of this is that you are not exploiting people because they are the means to an end, you are valuing those people and engaging in reciprocal relationships with them. You have mentors, you have people who inspire you and help you, but you are also willing to do things for them. Sometimes the best kind of network building is when I have no objective in getting something from that person. Rather, I’ve said to that person: “What can I do to help you?” And then I have cultivated that relationship and literally brought some value to that person. Then, if I need something, I can go back to that person in a very authentic way, and say, “I would really love this letter of recommendation,” or, “I’m thinking about this, could you possibly give me some advice?” I promise you that person would be very keen on helping you since you have already created a relationship of trust and they know you are willing to help them as well.
To wrap this up, it is being strategic about your end goal, and understanding a series of steps that are required to take you there. It is aligning with the right types of people that provide inspiration, know-how, and mentorship. And it is about how you are developing those relationships within those networks and what you are willing to do for them.
You have mentors, you have people who inspire you and help you, but you are also willing to do things for them.
LM & AM: You have a very specific mission in your life, a purpose. Do you want to articulate this?
NE: The desire to participate in something above and beyond ourselves is not only the most noble way to live but also the most fulfilling. When we have a purpose in our lives, it is very satisfying. I think my personal purpose is derived from what my father instilled in me: You have seen that not everybody has the same advantage as you in life, and they are incredible human beings. So what are you going to do to change the system, or give them a voice, or create more of a power balance so that they can fulfill the measure of their creation? It is not fair if you can do that and they can’t. Generally I am driven to not only help disenfranchised communities but also help people have more equal opportunities like I have had.
LM & AM: It seems like you have this specific purpose and everything in your life has been very aligned with it. Have you ever lost track of your purpose and felt lost, and if so what did you do? Or, how do you stick with your purpose?
NE: The older I get, the more jealously I have to guard my time for the sake of the relationships that matter most, which is usually my family. You have to make parameters around the things you are willing and not willing to do, and you can be really explicit about that. It may shift as you get older, and it may shift as you have different personal needs. You have to learn to say no and learn how to say yes.
In terms of distractions, it has been important to keep my larger goal, which is driven by my purpose, in sight. I used to narrowly define what that means, but now I realize that it can sway and change a little bit because our perspective in life shifts and the opportunities we have also shift. A part of me argues that it is good to be flexible because you have to open yourself up to those aha moments and serendipity. Often the innovation comes in our own personal lives, and the things and the companies we create because of that. It might be a huge pivot in our career, but that is good. Maybe it is better to align yourself with a bigger company that will bring you a bigger salary so that you can pay off your student loan debt. If you have a purpose behind it, it might not be that big of a distraction. Be gentle with yourself in respect to that.
LM & AM: What makes you feel hyped about Minerva?
NE: I am most hyped about Minerva because it is signalling to traditional academia, especially the Ivy League, that we are going to utilize the best technology to bring the best higher education to the best young people so that they can drive change and be the voice of the future. It is the democratization of higher education for the best. It has huge ripple effects.
Something else I am very hyped about with the Minerva model is that there are a lot of online options, increasingly, but we have the ability to create magic, some could argue, out of nothing. We can harness the best of the current research on how you can create a quality education based on the skill set we think will be most demanded by companies in the 21st century.
I went to Oxford, and my college was established in 1261. It was so beautiful and so amazing, I would feel like Harry Potter when I was there, but there are adverse effects to being an antiquated institution because they don’t change as quickly. Minerva came out of nothing, so we allow you to develop those amazing critical and creative thinking skills that will set you apart from everybody else. You will be able to make contact with people and take the contrarian perspective in a boardroom. Would an intern do that? No. But you are asked to do that every single class. You are comfortable with this. These are not skill sets that most kids in universities are crafting right now. This gives you an advantage.
The coolest thing is that you have the opportunity to live in seven global cities and you all come from a wide range of countries. That is a unique social experiment at a scale most of us have never seen before. I am assuming that all that is going to do for you is create tolerance, build global networks that students normally do not have, and, ultimately, really make you those global leaders that you have to be. This is why I am so stoked about Minerva and I brag about it to everybody.
Minerva came out of nothing, so we allow you to develop those amazing critical and creative thinking skills that will set you apart from everybody else.
LM & AM: What do you think would make Minerva better?
NE: One of the concerns I had about it, and I still do, is a kind of brand awareness of Minerva. When you are pursuing internships, people are like “What is Minerva?” That can be a negative. On the flipside of it, and I actually heard Ben Nelson convincingly argue in a podcast at Wharton that sometimes the lack of brand awareness puts it in a neutral category and being in a neutral category is inherently good if you do the right thing with it. I think you have had to deal with some of those adverse effects of it being less well known than Yale or a big institution in China.
There are glitches in the platform sometimes. There are glitches in the ways we administer some things and there are glitches in the ways I deliver class material. But I feel like Minerva is so much more than just a company. We are signalling, to the world, that higher education has to change and that those who don’t adapt will become obsolete. That is only good. That means more inclusion and that is widening opportunities for amazing students all over the world.
LM & AM: Is there something you want the Minerva community to know?
NE: I encourage us all to take a pause and think about what we are actually doing here. How important this social experiment is and how it speaks to larger issues. Let that pause be a chance for us to reflect on our own individual journeys. What is our narrative? If our purpose is not fine tuned, what do we have to do to get there? Constantly reflect on the networks that are instrumental in getting you there and what you are giving to those relationships as well. If we engage in all this, and we take pause, we have a purpose, but we also understand that there is serendipity along the way and things are going to shift. If we all have that, and we team up together, we are going to create some amazing stuff. We are not going to be depressed and be in the fetal position and think about how awful the world is. Instead, we are going to generate important solutions through our businesses, our families, and our networks.
LM & AM: Would you ever run for president?
NE: No! Oh no!
LM & AM: We want to vote for you!
NE: The scrutiny! I am not as tolerant with intolerance as I would need to be.