As Udemy, a leading global marketplace in online learning, prepares for its initial public offering, the company’s Co-Founder Eren Bali has penned an inspiring letter that was included in the company's S-1 prospectus.
Udemy was created by co-founders Gagan Biyani and Eren Bali through the 2009 Bay Area Founder Institute, where the two co-founders originally joined the program separately, and upon meeting, decided to join forces. This is why we created the Founder Institute: to empower talented and motivated people to launch great companies.
Eren Bali has remained a part of the Founder Institute community, as a longtime Mentor to many other entrepreneurs, paying it forward and passing along his knowledge and experience throughout the startup ecosystem. His inspirational letter from Udemy’s prospectus, copied in full below, illustrates how any entrepreneur, no matter what humble beginnings they come from, can ultimately create an outsized positive impact, with reverberations that better the lives of others all around the world.
Letter from Eren Bali, Udemy Co-Founder
The seeds of Udemy were first planted in the apricot orchards of rural Turkey. I know that sounds fanciful, but it happens to be the truth. I was born in Turkey and grew up in a small village in Malatya, where apricot farming was the main industry. My parents were idealistic teachers who moved home to the village when no other teachers wanted to work there. The conditions were less than ideal: my mother rotated between teaching five different grades and also tended to the maintenance of the one-room schoolhouse, and many of my classmates walked miles to get to school. Despite these circumstances, all of the kids, including my sisters and me, eagerly headed to school each day.
Like the other kids, I helped with apricot farming and herding animals in the summers. I also began developing a serious interest in mathematics and chess. It was an obsession really, especially chess, and I would spend hours playing with the wooden chess pieces my father made for me.
There is an incredible amount of talent everywhere in the world, but not enough opportunities for everyone to realize their potential. When you live in a small village far from any city or university, there are limits to what you can learn from people nearby. That was the case for me, and it only changed because my parents bought a used computer and internet access for my older sister. Suddenly I could tap into the world outside our village, and soon I was searching for math problems online. These problems were on a completely different level from the math problems at my school, so I had to work on them by myself and then try to find help from the online math community. It took effort, not to mention resolve, as a number of those who responded to my early efforts were less than kind. But others, even some professional mathematicians, were supportive, and I kept at it. Eventually I won a national mathematics competition and then a silver medal at the International Math Olympiad.
Online learning profoundly changed my life, and I committed myself to creating a way for people everywhere to open up new possibilities for themselves and reach their full potential. While at university, I found myself thinking about the world’s experts, my small village, and how knowledge has historically been reserved for the few. Would it not be powerful to share that knowledge with everyone? What if we could fundamentally change access to expertise by tapping the internet’s vast potential?
With the goal of realizing this dream, I moved to the United States, a place where both my passion for learning and my entrepreneurial spirit could flourish. In 2010, with my like-minded co-founders, Oktay Caglar and Gagan Biyani, we founded Udemy. To be sure, there were those who doubted that a marketplace approach to learning would work or that we could make learning viable outside a traditional educational setting. But we remained steadfast in our conviction that those who possess knowledge want to share it with those seeking knowledge. The first courses appeared on our site in 2011, and within three years we had more than a million learners.
Udemy is now a global destination for learning and teaching online. In scale and scope—millions of learners, thousands of instructors, thousands of enterprise customers—it far exceeds my early dreams. Even so, I believe we are only just beginning. When I hear from those whose lives were forever changed by their experience learning or teaching on Udemy, I’m reminded of my own journey from a small village in Turkey to Silicon Valley. Believe me when I say that there truly is no limit to what people can accomplish when they can access the world’s knowledge and pursue their dreams.
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