Jonathan Cornelissen is a data scientist and entrepreneur. His main focus over the past decade has been centered around efforts to further education in data science. His doctorate is in the field of financial econometrics. During the pursuit of that degree, he published numerous papers in peer-reviewed journals on data science, statistics, and economics. He’s also known for developing an R package to be used in quantitative finance.
Another major accomplishment during his time as a student was his creation of a non-profit organization that concentrated on matching tutors and students. He placed an emphasis on ensuring affordable rates for students, as well as a good fit between the pair. The program, which operated in his hometown of Leuven, Belgium, helped match over 1,000 students with tutors.
Another big aspect of the entrepreneur’s life is his work in angel investing, which he began in 2018. Early startups in which he has invested include Clever Girl Finance, Kyso.io, perch.fit, and FlyThere. His focus in this sector spans numerous areas, but he has a particular interest in education, blockchain applications, and data science.
Cornelissen is also a co-founder of DataCamp, a company focused on educating people on how best to understand and work with data. While serving as the company’s CEO, he helped expand its student base to over four million and accrued more than 100,000 subscribers. The company also grew to $30 million in annual revenue under his watch, a feat that he helped accomplish through more than 100-percent team and revenue growth each year for five years in a row. That time period also saw employee satisfaction and engagement reach extremely high levels – to the top 10–15 percentile. His R course for the company has been taken by over 1.2 million students to date.
What does a typical, productive day look like for you?
You know, while serving as CEO for DataCamp, there really was no such thing as a typical day, which I really liked. There was always a new challenge because we were growing and changing so fast.
What keeps you productive at work?
I love listening to audiobooks. I always want to be learning, but I don’t have as much time as I’d like for deep reading these days. Listening to audiobooks allows me to continue to do that. Right now, I’m able to read a few books every month.
Do you have a method for bringing ideas to life?
I really thrive on feedback from others. I’ll often play devil’s advocate against myself by sharing ideas with colleagues that might not be fully baked. Through discussion, everything gets better. As an introvert, this collaboration isn’t necessarily my default way of doing things, but I find that it works well.
How did you come up with the idea for DataCamp?
The idea came about while I was getting my doctorate in financial econometrics. I was having a difficult time learning how to program using the language R. Near the end of my doctorate, I was a teaching assistant for a few different statistics courses that all used R. To help spare the students the same difficulty I had, I looked for an interactive learning platform that could help teach the language, especially for those with a non-technical background.
However, I couldn’t find one. That kind of thing existed for web development, but it didn’t really exist for statistical programming, otherwise known as data science. There was nothing out there that was fun and engaging and could teach people these fundamental skills.
So, we started DataCamp to address that need. So many people use data regularly as part of their jobs, and spreadsheets just aren’t robust enough for a lot of industries. People in those situations can learn a programming language like Python or SQL and be much more effective at their jobs.
There’s also a general shortage of people with basic data fluency – let alone data scientists or data engineers. We wanted to create a solution to that problem that was affordable and kept people engaged. I actually have a blog post about this called “Why we started DataCamp.”
Is there a current trend that excites you?
It’s gotta be blockchain-related technologies. Their use in currency has the potential to level out the way central banks influence the world economy, which is good, since it’s not like banks are elected. Really, blockchain can decentralize everything on the internet, which can fight censorship and many other issues.
Do you have any advice for your younger self?
Hire people for whom you’d want to work. That allows you to build a great team, which is the core of any successful company. It also allows you to enjoy the time you spend with colleagues and avoid bad hires, which can derail any large organization.
What’s a habit you employ that you think contributes to your success?
I always look for fundamental truths in a situation. It’s called first principle thinking. While many people might buy into hype or groupthink, you can accomplish a lot by objectively looking at data to see what it tells you. Some of the most successful entrepreneurs out there use this kind of thinking to innovate and create truly unique companies.
How did you work to grow your business?
Entering into smart partnerships was big for us. In the early days, we were looking for ways to bring customers to our program, so we built interactive complements for courses that were on bigger platforms. It showed the value that we could provide to people and also increased our visibility in ways that would have been hard to achieve otherwise.
What’s a book that you think people should read?
“The Coddling of the American Mind.” It’s all about taking an inside look at American universities. As an immigrant and someone who’s really interested in education, I find it fascinating.
Do you have a favorite quote?
“The most valuable businesses of coming decades will be built by entrepreneurs who seek to empower people rather than try to make them obsolete.” – Peter Thiel
Do you have a big potential business idea that you can share?
I’ll actually give you two. When people are flocking to a new idea, building tools to develop that idea can be a great strategy. Despite all of the buzz around blockchain, there hasn’t been much in terms of engaging learning experiences for the technology. There’s a lot of potential for growth there.
The second one is about HR practices. I think there’s a lot of headway to be made in recruiting practices, and data can be used to do that. Having some sort of objective process that relies on data tools and decreases bias would be a recruiting boon for any company.
More about Jonathan Cornelissen at https://www.jonathancornelissen.com/