How to disrupt higher education?

Esther is a confused human being
3 min readMay 29, 2024


I reached out to Minerva founder Ben Nelson to discuss my vision for education. I told him that after three years of studying at other universities, I dropped out to join Minerva. I asked him why Minerva, despite being significantly better, hasn’t made systematic changes in the higher education industry.

“Minerva is a reformist. Reform is a very slow way to make changes. Also, it takes years to gather data to present to people. Even then, they’ll point to confounding variables, saying Minerva graduates succeed because of factors X, Y, and Z,” he explained.

I then asked, “How can I disrupt higher education?”

I felt comfortable sharing my vision with him because Minerva itself is a crazy idea.

How to disrupt higher ed?

As a businessman, he approached the question from a business perspective.

“Find an underserved market and capture a larger share there,” he advised.

What? I’m a CS major. It’s actually wtf to me.

He elaborated, “Target the top 1% of performers (sophomores and juniors) from B-list schools as the new Ivy Leagues and compete with the Ivy Leagues. Provide them with a high-quality education and support them with employment guarantees. These students are equally smart but lack the arrogance of Ivy Leagues. If you gain enough traction with employers, the old system will have to adapt.”

Though there were many hypotheses to test, this idea intrigued me. It seemed like a simpler solution than building something like Minerva, as it bypasses the extensive student screening process and the creation of a four-year curriculum and experience.

I then asked how he started Minerva.

How did you start Minerva?

Ben revealed that he knew nothing about accredited programs or formal education when he began. He simply aimed to design a better curriculum for his school, an idea he paused for 13 years before pursuing it again.

“So, what was the first step you took?” I inquired.

“A spreadsheet,” he replied.

What? A spreadsheet? Like Excel from the last century?

“Yes, a spreadsheet for a business model: estimating customer payments, acquisition costs, and funding needs,” he explained.

Oh, I see. Hmm…Not product first? This confused me because tech people in San Francisco usually prioritize product development.

“What did you do next?” I asked.

“Raised money.”

“But that was your 4th company, so you had a great network to start with, right?”

“Yes, I had a great network, but the idea was so crazy that no one believed in me. It took a very long time,” he laughed.

I laughed too. It seems everything is difficult anyway!

Learning Points

  • On finding like-minded people: I initially thought my idea was too crazy to find others who shared my vision. However, I learned from Ben that by putting myself out there, it’s possible to attract people with similar visions, as he didn’t know anyone in his founding team initially.
  • On the timeline it will take: I realized my vision might take more than a decade to materialize. I might need to create and fail multiple times to understand what to do and how to do it.
  • On the difficulty of starting my own solutions: Regardless of my starting point, I understand now that it will be challenging. Everyone has a hard time anyway!
  • On what to do now: Talk to more people and put out my work more. I need to attract like-minded people.
  • On feasibility: The idea Ben gave me sounds ambitious and difficult, but considering my credentials and background, I believe it is possible to implement it in Taiwan. My biggest challenge is my preference for technical work over business meetings. Is there a way to navigate around that?