Dive into the mind of Aaron Kornblum, General Counsel of BYJU’s learning as we discuss hiring, global remote culture, EdTech, India, and the journey of GC. 


Chris Sands:

I’m pleased to have Aaron Kornblum on the podcast. Aaron has over 20 years legal experience covering multiple industries, including software gaming, and now EdTech. Currently, he serves as the president and general counsel for by BYJU’s learning a part of the India-based EdTech Decorn by BYJU’s. Aaron has spent nearly 14 years in legal and business roles at Microsoft. There he scaled a team from one to 55 and covered multiple areas such as games, brand protection, privacy and online safety, geopolitical and content ratings review, physical and online confidential information protection, including the Xbox One console launch. Aaron began his career serving nearly five years on active duty as a military prosecutor and trial defense council at US and NATO air bases across the world. Aaron is now an active tech GC charter member in our Seattle chapter, regularly participates in speaking opportunities and also happens to have an incredible voice and announces football games across Western Washington, including my favorite team, the Seattle Seahawks.


Okay, enough with the intro. Let’s get into it. All right. We are here with Aaron Kornblum, thanks for being with me. I want to start off by getting your thoughts on generally what you are working on, what you’re thinking about. Clearly a lot of changes happening in the world a lot of things that GCs and CLOs are thinking deeply about. Even more so on the macroeconomic level with layoffs. Your background is interesting cuz you’ve worked in military, you’ve worked in private practice, you’ve worked in large technology firms, you’ve worked at startups and now you’re working for an EdTech company that’s with a PA parent company that’s based in India. So clearly <laugh> a lot of threads that we could potentially touch on. But I first wanna just start off with the broad question of right now in this environment, what are the top things that you’re thinking about?

Aaron Kornblum (03:37):

Hi, Chris. Absolutely, great to be with you. Thanks for having me on today. So yeah, there’s a lot to unpack. There’s a lot going on in our world right now. And so as a legal department leader the focus in some ways is changing to meet those dynamic environmental factors, but in some ways they remain very much the same. And by that I mean the first focus should and continues to be on people. So for our team, that means finding great people, hiring great attorneys, and great paralegals onto the team, and then retaining that talent, keeping them excited, challenged, and always learning as an EdTech company. Learning for our customers is important, but it’s important for our employees as well. So people are the most important, most valuable asset of any organization and no exception for BYJU’s for our global EdTech operations. So for me as a legal department leader, that means identifying attorneys, paralegals, legal professionals that have the right skills, that meet the needs of our business that are a good fit for the company and are a good fit for the individual that we’re thinking about bringing into the team for where they are in their career stage and their career journey.


This is a really challenging time for business with the macroeconomic conditions. And so the second thing I think about is how can we as a legal function, as a legal team, help to empower the business to take smart risks? We do that every day, but particularly in these times of challenging economic conditions, the business is trying to squeeze every possible penny, every possible rupi, euro out of the business and out of our existing operations. So how can we help our business teams do that? How can we help empower the business to seize those opportunities to help grow market share? This is a great time when economic conditions are challenging to grow market share, how can we help the business do that in a smart way? And then lastly, how can we do things better? Continuous improvement, which is always something we think about, but again, particularly right now when finance is coming to visit, asking about vendor spend, outside council spend people spend, how can we do that in the most efficient way possible? Can we reinvent the way that we conduct our own business, our own legal operations our own processes and procedures to help support and enable those business functions and seizing those opportunities I just mentioned. So managing spend, it’s a reality for all companies right now, but for legal, being proactive about that continuous improvement, not waiting for finance to come knocking on the door, asking about this invoice or that spend but thinking about how to do it better before that phone call or WhatsApp message arrives.

Chris Sands (06:55):

Nice. Yeah, think there’s a couple threads I can pull on there. I guess starting with the people piece everyone has their different hiring approaches, and I think it depends on what your organization is like, of course. But in terms of focusing, say on hiring generalists versus hiring a bunch of narrow specific skill sets, it seems like in the startup space, I see people more tending towards the generalist view someone who could be kind of a jack of all trades kind of more of a blunt instrument and rather than having someone really hyper specialized what are your thoughts on this generalist versus specialist approach?

Aaron Kornblum (07:40):

Well, Chris, I’ll give you the straightforward legal answer, which is that it depends of course on what you’re trying to do for our business, if we’re going into a new geography, so for example, into Brazil, which we did in 2021, we did hire a generalist. We were looking for a legal director in that market who could handle any and all craziness that we threw at them, whether that’s related to the startup nature of setting up corporate governance and getting the business on its feet and doing marketing and advertising, legal, reviewing guidance, which our business does a lot in a B2C space and helping with HR escalations or helping to support a finance request or support request. So really looking for someone that could handle it all. By contrast, we also have areas of our business where we do need a specialist or want that specialist expertise deeply in a particular area of law.


So our specific example would be in marketing and advertising law. So we did hire a specialist, a subject matter expert in ad law in the United States also, or actually more recently in 2022. And we brought that person to board because we knew we needed that support, not just in our market but globally to help backstop questions or issues that arose. And we were spending an awful lot of money for outside council support in that area. So thinking about what the needs of the business are in a particular geography or in a particular area of law influence those hiring decisions immensely.

Chris Sands (09:19):

It’s been a pretty common thread about how to shape our cultures post pandemic all the time in the office all the time, remote hybrid situation, occasional offsites. You joined after the pandemic but I’m sure you have some context of what it was like before, but how in general is your organization thinking about this new way of work?

Aaron Kornblum (09:47):

It is a new way of work, Chris, and in some ways we may never go back to the old way of work. I’m putting the word old and in air quotes just as the business of education has changed forever, and we can talk about that. Of course the working reality of lawyers has changed forever as well. In some ways. Lawyers were ahead of the curve. I mean I’m sure many of your listeners have been working in some way in a remote capacity long before the pandemic ever arrived, whether that meant handling emails at home or caring for those of us old enough, a blackberry to keep connected with the office long, long ago. So in some ways, lawyers were on the vanguard at the cutting edge of remote work even long before the pandemic made it a reality for so many others. So keeping a team, building a team, growing a team, keeping a team in a remote world is different.


It requires a different skillset or enhanced skillsets in ways that a traditional face-to-face environment really didn’t call on. Yes, I’ve been working in a remote way early in my career. My first role in the military, I was a remote worker if you will, in Turkey. So my boss was in a different country, her boss was in a different country as well. So I’ve done that. And then I’ve also been on the other side managing a team at Microsoft of 60 plus that sat in China, sat in Dublin was a global team as well. And so thinking about time zones, thinking about how to lead logistics and operations for a team that is following the sun that’s supporting a business that never sleeps. These are things that are really important to think about and think about from the standpoint, from the viewpoint of your team members how do they think about and feel about working for someone that is up before them.


And so they wake up to an inbox full of mail or perhaps the opposite, where things are happening after they go to sleep. And so there’s just a mismatch in having synchronous work opportunities. You have to artificially create them. You have to think really hard about how to create a healthy work environment, a healthy work culture for the team without being disruptive, without being invasive to the time of day realities for all of your team members. So that takes work. That does take some thought. And I know working and thinking with the tech GC community has been super helpful to help think about how to build those sorts of culture and community robustness when you don’t have the water cooler meeting opportunity. You can’t take the team out for dinner or for drinks after work on a Friday. You have to be really deliberate about those motions and about those sorts. Culture building activities.

Chris Sands (13:01):

Yeah, I mean the first thing that comes to my mind of a creative way would be to make funny videos or something. I mean, of course in many times you can’t be in a meeting same time. So I don’t know. That’s the first idea that I get is like, oh, maybe if I make these goofy videos and that are fun, then they could respond and comment. I don’t know. What are some things you’ve heard people do to try to create more engagements on these distributed teams?

Aaron Kornblum (13:30):

Sure. So thinking about having meetings at different times, especially with a global team. If there’s one time where it’s the only time when everyone realistically can join, then that’s probably where your meeting will gravitate towards. But if there’s an opportunity to move things in order to be respectful and to think about the impact that you’re, your work life balance or work is having on someone else’s work life balance, I think that’s important. Videos zoom screen backgrounds are changing backgrounds to indicate with photos what you did this weekend or what’s going on or significant in your world right now. That’s another great idea that I picked up from, specifically from a tech GC event. So again, putting yourself in the shoes of your team members in a different country in a different location being mindful and respectful of holidays that are occurring in different locales these are all important to have in mind as a leader when you think about setting and scheduling your team activities and the way that you’re interacting with your team members.


So again, I used the word deliberate earlier. I think that’s super important to think proactively and think deliberately about these sorts of topics as a remote team leader. And then if there’s an opportunity budget-wise to bring everyone together, you have to seize that opportunity. And our team did have the chance to do that in 2021 but with some of the macroeconomic factors, we haven’t been able to do that this year. That makes it harder especially with a geographically disparate team and organization to build that culture. But if you have the chance to do that, you must seize that and make the most of it to get to know the team. Have some off work, non-work activities like going out for a meal or going around the room and doing a more thorough introduction beyond what you can do in Zoom and really get to know the people that you’re working with.

Chris Sands (15:36):

So I wanna intersect a couple points. You made the people, the hiring piece, the retaining piece, the seizing of business opportunities. Of course, most of us are at companies that are trying to grow still, even in this macro environment and the managing spend piece on managing the people while you’re trying to grow and manage spend. Does that mean there’s a constant shift in the way you’re thinking about hiring? Okay, well maybe we don’t afford five more, so therefore we’re going to split it up with two full-time and then we’ll kind of outsource, freelance the rest. I know you in the past have worked with some tech GC sponsors called Law Trades, which kind of is a nice kind of cushion in the back if you need some quick supports of highly skilled legal talent. So I know that can be a resource and maybe that offsets some of the outside council spend at the same time. So you’re still trying to grow, you’re managing spend, you need support. So are there slightly different ways we’re thinking about some approaches that are unique and trying to <laugh> level out all those aspects?

Aaron Kornblum (16:55):

Sure, you need to be super thoughtful about how you grow your legal department. And that’s true not just now as we were out of the pandemic or in the pandemic or before, it’s a universal truth. You need to think about a couple key factors. First, you need to think about okay, you’re busy, you’re too busy, you need help. And what sort of help do you really need? And frequently, you may not know what sort of support or what sort of assistance you need on an ongoing basis. That is, you’re busy now, but it might not be certain. You might not have clear line of sight to whether the work that is causing you to be completely blasted from a calendar perspective and scheduled perspective. Is it going to be continuing? Is it going to be durable? Is it going to be something that you’ll need to continue to do forever?


Maybe that answer but frequently you might not. You might be whelmed by the totality of the work being thrown at you. So you also need to think about budget. Your finance team and your cfo, F O are going to be concerned about adding ahead a full-time head to an organization which many perceive, for better or for worse is not revenue generating. You’re a cost center would be a frequent retort in that conversation about heads and then thinking about whether the position is going to also have a future. So this is really a question that your potential candidates are going to be asking. Okay, so you’re hiring, Aaron wants to hire me in as an attorney supporting this, but what will I be doing after two or three years? Will I still be doing the same thing? Will I be turning the crank? Is there an opportunity for an advancement whether it’s a geographic role or if it’s a specific disciplinary role in a specific area of law, either one.


And what is the next step? What does success look like for me for the future at this organization? So all of those things are to think about at the time that you’re creating the business case, the business justification for a position. And so short-term staffing solutions do present a good opportunity to test, to test out those theories or answer, get answers to some of those questions. So particularly if it’s a area of law, like a specific area of all marketing or advertising law. And so the approach that we took, and you mentioned we used a specific vendor we did that. We did invite a short-term staffing solution into our legal team because we wanted to check out whether first the role would be durable, if this is something that was going to continue into the future. And then also to check out the professional involved to see is this a person that we might like to hire into a full-time role or learn about the interaction from that person.


Maybe we really need a different set of D N A in that role or helping to support the team. So short-term staffing solutions are very important and helpful, I think because they provide an opportunity for almost like speed dating to check out each other and to see if it’s a good fit for the professional, but also for the company as well. And then perhaps right away, you’re in the crypto space and you’re going to need a regulatory professional right now, and this is going to be a continuing need then maybe there’s no need for an interim staffing look, see you what you need and you need to go get that person right now. And so that’s a different conversation. That’s about then working with the right recruiting and sourcing professional to find that talent to find exactly who you’re looking for with the right skills and experience and bring them into in the door. Bring them in the door pronto.

Chris Sands (20:53):

I’d like to get your thoughts on the EdTech industry. BYJU is the largest valued Indian education, or no, it’s the largest valued private company in India. Correct? Correct. And they happen to focus on education all around valued at 22 billion I think it is. Curious on your thoughts on EdTech in general. Obviously the pandemic really that must have catapulted us into some serious deeper thought into the way we think about online learning and how prevalent that should be. Perhaps it’s actually slowed down a little bit now that people are more in classroom and <laugh>. Perhaps it’s the opposite effect too. It’s like, oh, actually no, we do really need in-person realized that after being locked down for so long, we really do need to be in the classroom. And maybe it’s like swing the pendulum swinging the other way drastically for the time being. But obviously there’s a place for the physical and virtual world to create a really great learning solution globally. So I’m curious on just where we’re at right now, what you’re seeing in the EdTech space, and you mentioned taking smart risk to seize on opportunities. So I’m curious about what are those kind of unique gray area opportunities in EdTech to the extent you’re able to share them that can help inform just where we’re at,

Aaron Kornblum (22:27):

Chris. It’s a super exciting time in online learning and education technology. And in some ways, the pandemic has changed these business spaces forever similar to working the working reality being changed forever. So some of the things I think about just in the last two years, which have been a whirlwind in the online education space prior to the pandemic education technology existed, but it was not top of mind for educators, certainly in the United States, but in many other markets as well. Teachers schools were thinking about ed tech. They were thinking about how to use online tools in their classrooms, but it wasn’t required. It wasn’t something that was essential to the learning experience. In fact, I know from friends of mine who are teachers, some actively resisted the implementation of ed tech tools in their classrooms because they didn’t like them. They found them distracting, they found them not essential to the learning experience for their learners.


And these are our public school students. K through 12 you know, saw some adaptation in test preparation. You saw some adaptation in test taking driven primarily by ed, by economic factors because it was less expensive to administer tests, more efficient to grade and return exam results using an online portal or an online tool. But the energy behind that was, again, it was economic and it was a SP sporadically adopted. These solutions were sporadically adopted by school systems based in large part by the budgets that they held as either public learning institutions or private institutions respectively. And then for organizational or corporate learning environments, you saw some adaptation of tools. One that comes to mind that we used at Microsoft was Cahoot. So this is an online tool early gamification tool for learning in a corporate environment or for outside of school, informal learning. Some schools adopted it as well, but again, it was more sporadic driven by a particular teaching style or by the educator wanting to adopt that tool.


So fast forward to the pandemic. The pandemic changed everything. It was no longer an option. It was the only way to deliver educational content. For some learners who were unable to attend a school, it was a hundred percent required or a hundred percent driven by this inability to meet for face-to-face learning. Similarly, for corporations which sent all their employees homes suddenly for their organizational training and EdTech or education needs. So think annual privacy certifications for employees or information security training for employees. All of that now had to be done online. Some already was being delivered in that method, but now there was no choice. There was no other option. So thinking about it turning to your second question around how does BYJU think about and seize the opportunities in this space now? So it also drove behaviors in the consumer market to think a lot more about education technology, not just for schools and individual educators that might have been attracted to it, but it became more of a mainstream conversation.


How do I secure additional supplemental learning resources for my child? How do I secure additional accelerated learning education materials for my child? These conversations always have taken place, but they were frequently in the offline context, going to a test preparation center, going to an online learning center. Again, these options no longer available online learning became the mainstream conversation. So thinking about for our business a specific example was thinking about how do we bring our services to this larger mainstream environment globally in a way that our mainstream environment and our customers are familiar with are. So one of the specific things that we looked at and implemented was changing our business model from more of a purchasing credits to purchase class credits to more of a subscription model all a Netflix or Disney plus that customers and consumers were familiar with and familiar with purchasing. And so that from a legal perspective meant changes to the way we sold our sales and marketing motions, the way we talked about our business offerings.


A lot of fun, a lot of change, a lot of work for our team. But again, this is about helping the businesses seize these opportunities and enable these new enable business models. And lastly, I mentioned the gamification with Cahoot, which is a product that I’ve used personally in the corporate environment and also seen used outside of formal education environments as well. But that was another, I think opportunity that we seized as a business was thinking about how do we gamify, how do we bring, especially for online learning for kids, that gamification, that fun and excitement level with our products and services to our audiences who we knew would be attracted to those modes from their gaming lives.

Chris Sands (28:14):

Amazing. And I wanna end here cause I know we’re tight on time. I wanna touch on the Indian market more broadly, the Indian economy. I love looking at these macro, I mean obviously we’re going through some macroeconomic changes globally right now. There’s geopolitics, there’s a lot of shifts going on, but I typically take a longer term, longer view at investing. And when I look at India, I’m looking at a population of over a billion with demographics that are relatively young with the population that seems, maybe this is just intuitively, but it seems like there’s a technical savviness, prevalence or particular interest or proclivity in mathematics, in computer science that seems a little more embedded than say in America where and so when I look at the future of India, I even read an article about Apple shifting some production, especially with all these dynamics happening in China going over to India for production.


So it seems like it’s ripe for, there’s obviously a lot of people that can be lifted out of poverty still there. So it seems like it’s got a big future despite all these geopolitics and maybe five to 10 year challenges that they might face. It seems that if you look at a longer 20 to 30, you’re looking at a pretty potentially bright future for India. I actually have I own a stock I N D Y. It’s the top India 50. It’s basically the top 50 public companies in India and it’s super cheap and it has a super high yield and stuff. So I’m curious on your thoughts on just the India market in general, what you’ve seen. Are my intuitions at all on point with what you’re seeing?

Aaron Kornblum (30:11):

Well, I can’t give specific advice on stock or other equity investments today, Chris, but no, I’ve been to India with Microsoft and now working with Baiju for the better part of two years. It’s an incredible market, incredible business market, and the country’s on pace to become the world’s most populous nation. And so it’s a lot to learn from the experience specific to our company and our business model in EdTech. One of the things that I think is fascinating about the Indian EdTech market is that consumers in India historically do spend a larger proportion of disposable income on education services. And that’s a broad bucket, not just online learning, but also face-to-face educational support for accelerated learning, for supplemental learning. A larger pot of the pie, piece of the pie if you will, then and compared to say, an American consumer. And so I think that our business, that is the business of supporting your child, helping them to succeed in any and every way possible through that accelerated learning support or supplemental learning support something very, very, very common and comfortable to the Indian consumer.


And so parents in India would I think echo that to say, yes, it’s very important in the us I think there’s more of a reliance on the public school system for parents that place their children in public school or parents make a different decision and go with a charter school or private school selection and speak with their wallet in that way. And so telling the story the value proposition for parents in markets in the US in particular, but also outside of India, that’s been a fascinating journey to help change and craft our story and our value proposition for parents in a way that’s a little bit different from in India and with our I’ll call it our legacy customer base, which is where BYJU and many of its subsidiary companies have grown up. But for the future, I don’t think there’s any going back that is, I think that so many customers have joined BYJU have joined online learning regimes as a way to help empower their child to help them become creators instead of just consumers of technology and actually become a part of the ecosystem to grow and build technology themselves as they learn coding or they learn math or other subjects.


So I think that there’s a very important social aspect to face-to-face learning. There’s no substitute for a child being in a classroom, for having face-to-face experiences with friends, with school athletics, with school extracurricular activities like band or theater. You can’t replace those completely with an online experience. But is there a place for online learning or for supplemental learning or accelerated learning support? Absolutely, and I think that’s the foundational change that has occurred and will not be retreating from, if you will. I think that there’ll be if anything, with more digital learning and more digital literacy with our young people and young students they’ll be more of a familiarity, more comfort with online learning or with digital learning experiences, whether that’s in the classroom or in a home setting. So that’s exciting to me to think about that potential growth and that expanding addressable market for our business. And by js,

Chris Sands (33:57):

I love it. You think you’re going to stay in EdTech for some time.

Aaron Kornblum (34:03):

It’s an exciting place to be. Chris, when you say EdTech, of course that now encompasses those offline learning experiences as well too. So for example, we’re teaching children how to do art, learning about art and offline, so helping them, it is online, but they’re creating offline. They’re creating new objects and new art in an offline setting using supplies that they purchased through the class. So yes, I think it’s new challenges and opportunities abound in this space and it’s going to be a fun next couple of years, perhaps. Recently you might have seen BYJU as a sponsor of the FIFA World Cup, and so there was branding as a part of the FIFA World Cup matches for the brand. And so lots of expansion and lots of growth opportunities for the company as we grow our brand and visibility.

Chris Sands (35:00):

I love it. Aaron, thanks so much for spending the time. We’ve covered a lot, the people, the opportunities, the markets. If you were to sum up this episode in a song of a name of a song, what would that name be? The foundation of learning.

Aaron Kornblum (35:22):

Think I would pick a band named Journey. Journey. Life is a journey. Business is one as well as a legal professional these days, you have to keep your eye on the forest, not just the trees, so to speak. It is a journey. You have to enjoy the journey and the adventure. Not get too hung up in the day-to-day machinations of individual challenges and requests to the team. There’s a lot going on but keep your eye on the prize, which is that lo, keep your eye on the prize, which is that longer term view, that more strategic view. That’s what your peers, your C-suite colleagues and your C e O and your board are going to be thinking about. And that’s where your line of sight, that’s the altitude that you should be trying to keep at as well.