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From innovating Disney parks to tackling workforce education

See what alum Vivek Sharma wants us to know about the value of digital transformation and the strategic potential of educational opportunities in the workplace.
Portrait image of Vivek Sharma
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If you’ve ever been to a Disney theme park, you’ve probably used a digital FastPass, pre-ordered a meal from a restaurant, or used a mobile key for your hotel room – and if so, you have Vivek Sharma (SIN, CLE, CHI 02-09) to thank.

Vivek launched each of those initiatives while SVP of eCommerce and Digital Guest Experience at Disney, and before that, at Yahoo!, he managed the team that oversaw more than a billion searches a day and nearly 500,000 Yahoo mails per second.

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Vivek's team at Yahoo oversaw more than a billion searches a day

Behind all of this lies Vivek’s passion for digital transformation, which he recently brought out of the theme park and into the classroom when he founded InStride, which helps major corporations provide life-changing education to their employees, saving hundreds of millions in student debt. He also brings that passion to JetBlue, where he sits on the Board and is the chair of the Technology Committee.

In our conversation with him, Vivek discusses the impact of digital transformation, the societal and corporate benefits of workforce education, and his takeaways from his years at the Firm.

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You’ve built a reputation as a leader who drives digital innovation and transformation. What do you think is most important for leaders to know about digital transformation?

This is at the core of the course I teach to graduate students at the University of Southern California, "Digital Foundation for Business Innovation." One of the questions we address is how relatively new companies got so big, so quickly – such as Google, Facebook, Uber, and Airbnb.

The answer is that digital and digitally powered industries have multiplicative value creation. People recognize that organically digital startups grow very fast. But one thing that many do not appreciate is that even in the so-called ‘physical’ businesses, the impact of digital tends to be multiplicative. I'll give you two examples. In my days at Disney, I was in charge of launching the mobile FastPass system, where guests can use their mobile phones to enter the park faster and to find their choice of ride without having to figure out which one had the shortest line. We found incredible impact in a very short period with that. We were able to increase our Net Promoter Score to the high 90s, while also increasing attendance at the Magic Kingdom park by 5,000 guests per day.

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Vivek's digital improvements at Disney -- including the FastPass -- transformed the park experience

In addition, we launched the mobile-enabled order and pay system for the Disney park restaurants. Not only did it create a significant improvement in the quick-service restaurant experience for over 50 million annual orders, but also improved the average order value, because the software never forgets your preference or to ask you if you also want a drink, or dessert, or fries.

There is huge customer and business value in physical-digital convergence, and I wish more operators took advantage of that.

You talk about a CEO-led approach to workforce education in your second book “C-Spark.” Why do you think its theme is important for executives?

I wrote in the book that we are in the ‘Age of And,’ where CEOs are expected to drive simultaneous values-driven goals – delivering business and social impact, serving customers and the community, being a good fiduciary and a good citizen, and yielding benefits for both shareholders and stakeholders. The term ‘C-Spark’ represents the moment when the CEO of a large organization visibly and unambiguously takes their organization into the ‘Age of And.’ There are visionary CEOs who have already taken that stand. 

Millennials in particular expect a social commitment from the CEOs of the companies where they work. If you're not able to attract millennials – and by the way, millennials will be 75% of the workforce by 2025 – that will be a problem.

You co-founded your company InStride in 2018. Tell us what the company does.

InStride is a strategic workforce education company that I co-founded along with Arizona State University and TPG’s The Rise Fund. Our mission is to help leading employers provide life-changing, career-boosting education to their employees in partnership with top-tier global universities and colleges.

As has happened across the economy, the pandemic has only accelerated digital transformation in the workforce education and development space. Today we serve over 40 large corporations, and in the past three years have helped learners avoid $480 million of student debt. 

You said in a recent interview that it is good for companies to offer workforce education as a benefit even though some of those employees will still leave. Can you talk about that a bit?

I asked Kevin Johnson how many graduates of the Starbucks College Achievement Plan stay at the company. He said that fifty percent leave, and that Starbucks celebrates this because the program creates, as he describes it, “an on-ramp for better opportunities in life for the individuals who go through it.” Those who stay, he said, get promoted faster and move through the ranks, and retention is higher than anywhere else in retail.

Attrition is a huge business cost for the retail industry. A typical 10,000-employee retail store spends about $22 million a year just on recruiting and retention, so imagine the business impact of lower attrition.

High attrition doesn’t have to be a given, as the U.S. military has demonstrated. Every year, they recruit somewhere between 20,000 and 80,000 frontline people, in every organization, plus another 2,000 commissioned officers. Their ability to recruit after that over the next 30 years is zero. They retain people by offering a compelling mission and an ongoing investment in education and training.

The benefits to the company can also be in terms of revenue growth. Say you're a retailer, and you don't have qualified employees to open the next store. That's a revenue problem. As a corporation, you're as agile as the relevance of the talent of your employees in the marketplace. If you run an IT outsourcing company, your developers need to know data science. If you lead a healthcare company, your frontline employees need to be digitally conversant in adopting telehealth. If you’re a financial services firm, you need employees well-versed in the technologies emerging from the fintech revolution.

Dara Khosrowshahi at Uber, Dr. Marc Harrison at Intermountain Healthcare, Brian Garish at Banfield Pet Hospital and Swamy Kotagiri at Magna all offer education benefits, and all are effectively saying, "I can drive my business goals with investment in education for my employees."

Pivoting to your time at the Firm, what would you say was your biggest takeaway from your years here?

The takeaway I appreciated then, and that I appreciate even more now, was the unique ability of the Firm to build trust-based relationships at very senior levels of corporations.

These were typically built over time, as a result of real value-add to the client. But most importantly, they were not generalized, impersonal McKinsey-client relationships. These were personal relationships between individual consultants and client leaders. That learning stayed with me, and in fact was critical to the foundation and growth of InStride.

What was your best “only at McKinsey” moment?

I was a first-year associate serving a large petrochemical company in Asia on a major transformation project. The CST leader was asked by the CEO to join his management committee workshop for two days. The CST leader, Tsun-yan Hsieh (TOR, SIN 80-11), said to me, "Vivek, why don't you come with me, sit in on the meetings, take notes, and do some research and follow-ups for me?”

So there I was, a first-year associate, watching these incredible leaders – how they engaged with each other, how the CEO managed his team, how they debated and agreed on next steps on some critical problems requiring hundreds of millions of dollars of investment. And I saw that the CST leader asked really smart questions.

It demystified the senior executives for me. I realized they were human. They cracked jokes. They had their own insecurities. Imagine that kind of apprenticeship in your 20s. Only the Firm can do that. Nobody else comes even close.

You read several books a week. What have you read lately that you would recommend, and why?

One that I've read multiple times, and that I finished re-reading only recently, is “The Essays of Warren Buffett.”

The book is basically a compilation of his speeches and annual letters to shareholders, and you think it will be about finance and investing. But as you go through it you realize it's an incredibly clear, principle-based articulation of his philosophy on corporate governance, business management, and human psychology.

Then you realize so much of what he has achieved was based on some very simple principles. When the most successful investor of our times says, "This is outside my circle of competence," it's a good reminder to us of the importance of humility and self-awareness.