Andres Nuñez

EdTech with a purpose the Nuñez family and Griky

On this occasion, EdTech Mentor brings you a conversation with siblings Catalina, Mónica and Andrés Nuñez, founders and directors of Griky, a Colombian company that wants to change the future of education.

Griky’s platform helps universities to build a digital platform to manage lifelong learning, breaking educational paradigms and helping institutions adapt to constant changes to knowledge and the market.

As we’ll see, Griky is the realization of a dream that started with the Nuñez siblings’ father. In this dream, even more people will have access to opportunity through high quality lifelong learning.

Thanks to more than a decade of collaboration between Catalina, Mónica, and Andrés and our founders, Carlos Márquez and Laureano Díaz, we’re able to share with you the fascinating story of this family of educators, in addition to valuable insights about EdTech, marketing, and purpose.

What does it mean to be a family of educators?

Mónica Núñez:

That educational spirit, and especially the love for learning, comes from our father Francisco Nuñez. He was a Franciscan, working as the deacon of education at the Universidad San Buenaventura de Medellín, and they offered him a grant to go to the United States when Andrés and I were very young. I think Cata was on the way, but hadn’t yet been born. With really limited resources they told him, “Okay, Pacho, you’re going.” And he said, “I’m taking my wife and my kids.” We were five and seven then, and he went off on this adventure. I think that’s why we’ve had this entrepreneurial and adventurous spirit embedded in our DNA from the very beginning.

He went confidently off to the United States to get a PhD in education and to learn English. He successfully finished his doctorate and, from there, decided to start an institution of higher education in Colombia. He started with a professional/technical college, which was what he could do at that time with the resources he had and the vision that he always had in mind from the perspective of Education and Administration. And as you know, that’s how the story of Unipanamericana starts, which was called INESPRO at first and is now the Fundación Universitaria Compensar.

He always said that his homeland called to him, and we spent less than two years in the U.S. Then he started on this wonderful path of building a college piece by piece, with all the economic constraints, always with a lot of restrictions, but I would say my father always kept his perspective. He knew where he was headed, and this kept his determination to offer quality education strong. Offering education for people with fewer resources was also always a strong theme for him. That continued on with us, especially Andrés, with the vision of offering education without barriers and democratizing educational access and knowledge on a grand scale.

As his children, we were always inspired to see this conviction and passion for doing what he loved, so we all ended up getting hooked. At Unipanamericana we used to say—there were four of us then--- so we used to say we were each a leg of the table. My mother (Cecilia Álvarez de Núñez) took care of the culture, the people, the empathy, and that warmth we worked with at the university. My father, true to his roots, was directing us to that North Star of what we were working for, and Andrés was the visionary, the one who pushed us to dream. And I was the one who kept our feet on the ground when it came to talking about administrative and financial resources. Cata joined us a few years later.

How different are the challenges your father faced from the ones you are facing?

Andrés Núñez:

There are intergenerational tensions. Different phases in life. One is maybe a little more relaxed when looking to the future and less aware of the economic anxieties or thinking “how will we pay for this, and this, and this?”. And the founding generations have been living much more with that in mind, so there are naturally these tensions.

I remember especially when I came back from the PhD in the United States. You get filled with ideas and things there. Virtual education had started, it was 2002, and [in Colombia] the situation was very complicated. I remember that we went from 2,500 students to 1,200, and that semester 90 students enrolled, if I’m not mistaken. And I’m showing up wanting to do things.

For example, I remember when Estrella Azul was a reality TV show on CityTV, where they looked for a player for Millionarios, and I went without permission to negotiate a giant contract with El Tiempo publishing to sponsor the program. If that hadn’t worked, it would have broken the university. It’s those kinds of crazy ideas that I’m open to that those of other generations aren’t.

I don’t think it’s a family thing, I think it’s a natural intergenerational thing, and I’m grateful to have experienced it and I know that we all feel that way because now at Griky we are always trying to challenge ourselves. We always ask ourselves, what can we do so that anyone on the team can say something and we will be ready to listen and to make mistakes? Because if we aren’t making enough mistakes, we’re not moving forward.

What was it like being part of the university, especially when the vision was considered fairly unorthodox in the industry?

Mónica Núñez:

They nicknamed my father the propaedeutic for his academic vision; he always looked for different ways to deliver education. The other half of the story, the unorthodox thinking about the market, culture, attracting talent, that’s Andrés.

Andrés Núñez:

I love this story. I think it’s the basis of everything we do today.

We always say we were born at the university and I think that’s uniquely valuable. Not everyone can tell families that they were born at university and experienced every part of the process.

We were guinea pigs for preschool education. They literally would bring me and Mónica in to practice pedagogy and other things. We lived in a big house near the Military Hospital that was divided into a triplex. On one side was our apartment, and the other side was the classrooms. I don’t know if my parents realized what they were doing, but they were the ones who instilled that entrepreneurial spirit and impulse to do things even when they seemed crazy.

Once we raffled off a Renault Twingo and our colleagues just about killed us. They called us educational hucksters. But it wasn’t about that, it was about fulfilling our mission. Saying, “ok, how do we get a million people educated?” And then you do what you have to do. It was never about selling, because we don’t think of our students as customers.

Carlos Márquez:

I remember that you were the first university in Columbia to use Adwords ads. That didn’t exist, but Unipanamericana did it of their own initiative and, once it started to work, other universities got on board too.

Andrés Núñez:

Yes, I also remember that we set up a 15 person call center, which hadn’t been done. A dedicated call center was very strange. Then everything we did they copied later with higher budgets, so we had to reinvent things because then our ideas no longer worked. But that’s what it’s about.

How was the experience of transitioning from traditional formal education to EdTech?

Andrés Núñez:

✨ Pearl of wisdomThe obstacles along the way are opportunities to transform yourself. Everything Griky is today is the fruit of our previous experiences.

We went from being a technical institute to a technical college. It was something my parents fought for, but it was very, very difficult. They called us “garage universities” and looked at technical colleges over their shoulders. Every certification process took ten years, and as a child I experienced these tensions at home and celebrated those changes. We also suffered from the inflexibility of the Ministry of Education because approvals were so slow, everything was really delayed. Certification for a program could take two, three years and then the program would no longer be useful.

We always say, “we’ve never wanted to tear down the idea of the university. We were born university and we are university.” With Griky we’re not Netflix trying to take down Blockbuster; we want the universities to have a Netflix that will help them transform themselves.

And we feel that, without making them lose their traditional function, we need to give them a model of agility and flexibility, but one that comes out of our previous experience.

Mónica Núñez:

We capitalized on all the learning from so many years at Unipanamericana to understand what opportunities there were, and we always emphasized that we weren’t competing with the system. It was about finding a way to mobilize, to be adaptive to this moment where we’re learning and communicating differently. Universities are big, it’s difficult for them to change and they have very rigid structures. So we’re showing them this vision of the impossible and telling them, “ok, here’s another way of doing things.” But we have to respect this system that has done a lot, but also understand that there are other things that can be done.

The kids who are coming through today will study things that don’t exist right now. So we have to respond to that speed and the way we live now, which is very different from what they believe at the universities, and is another way of seeing the world.

Catalina Núñez:

It’s also about being true to that purpose, because too often we can forget the reason we’re doing this, which is to democratize education as we do it today, responding to today’s changing world. Often the industry, education specifically, is very jealous and possessive. So if you are with me you can’t be with this other university. And so it’s also the philosophy of co-creating, of truly working as a network. We are here to drive growth at all universities, but beyond that, it’s about being able to fulfill that purpose of bringing learning to thousands of people. So, how can we transform ourselves so we don’t lose our direction and can continue with our purpose in mind?

Mónica Núñez:

There’s an important element there, and that’s the word “share”. When we left Unipanamericana, the three of us met on a beach and said, “ok, now what? What do we do?” Andrés invited us to dream and told us,

“I think that it’s going to be about the instructors, and we’re going to share knowledge.”

If there’s one thing we experienced in higher education it was that jealousy and protectiveness of the instructor. So the first effort, Alianza Superior, was a portal we came to with Color al Cuadrado to share a model course and, starting from that course, bring  in instructors so they could share what they knew. The courses continued to be improved and perfected so that others could use them better. The goal was to share that knowledge and open up education. So sharing is also a key element of everything we have done.

We’ve explored the origin of the “Ed” in this path to EdTech, but what about the Tech side?

Andrés Núñez:

When I was in college I still wasn’t  using Word. I was a really late tech adopter. It was almost by accident, because in ’96 I had a stint in the Ministry of Education as an advisor to a minister, and it fell to me to get the first high schools on the internet. I was not tech-savvy at all and I went to Cali to connect some public schools to the Internet. A 19-year old kid—I was 24—showed me this crazy thing called the internet. I even remember the sound of the modem. I said to him, “Wait, you’re going to write this here and it will pop up in my house?”

Right then something clicked in my head I knew that this was the scalability that my dad was looking for to democratize access. I see it the same way now:

✨ Pearl of wisdomTechnology is simply the tool we’re going to use to be the generation that educated 8 billion people. That’s what technology brings: scalability.

Later, when I was getting my PhD, I got into online education. I continued with the idea of the internet and I was able to get a Master’s in Distance Education with Open University. It was casual, but always practical. I never got into code, nothing on the backend, always as an end user. And that has become a characteristic of Griky: it doesn’t generate a line of code—instead it integrates with absolutely everything that already exists. And I think that has given us a perspective on how to make everything easier for the end users, because none of us is very technical.

We’re experiencing a unique moment in history and we are the protagonists. Angela Merkel said this in a speech; she said that she was a protagonist in history because she lived in East Germany, and whenever she went to college she had to walk alongside the wall and then turn to go home. She said, “every time I turned my stomach hurt, because I was turning away from freedom.” That built this strength in her, and when ’89 came she helped tear down the wall with her own hands.

✨ Pearl of wisdomI say that we, all of us here, are all very lucky. Because we are part of a generation that will make history. We are changing an institution that hasn’t changed over a thousand years of history.

And with you, Carlos and Laureano, we’ve been doing crazy things since 2012.

When we look back we’re going to be surprised. For example, what artificial intelligence is going to do for education is completely blowing my mind. In December the family was already bored because we asked ChatGPT everything. The future isn’t a timeline. The future is a design that we build and we six are building the future and we’re doing it through education. That’s why we’re so fortunate.

What does coming from Colombia and Latin America mean for Griky?

Catalina Núñez:

When Andrés called me and told me: “Cata, we’re ready, I want you to come to Griky,” I didn’t know all that much about EdTech. For me, it has always been education and higher education, and that’s it. And yes, this was education mediated through technology, but I didn’t know there was an industry called EdTech, so I’ve been discovering it bit by bit. That’s how it goes for a lot of people in the industry in Colombia and in Latin America.

I’ve seen how the industry has gotten stronger in Latin America and now there are more powerful groups. I think that is a challenge, because we’re used to talking about education, programs, applicants and enrollees. But when you come to a university to talk about technology, it can be complicated to learn how to communicate effectively, because Griky is a platform, it’s technology, but it goes way beyond that. That’s where universities can get a little bogged down. Directors, founders, vice-deans, sometimes they don’t understand this world as well.

So they start asking, “where is the academic piece? Where is the quality?” But technology is simply a tool. I think that has been one of the major challenges: explaining who we are. Because sometimes you can fall into the trap of speaking very technically, losing sight of the big picture. You have to remember your value proposition and why you’re there.

It can sound really simple, but giving the reason for what we do isn’t so simple. I think that this has been one of the major challenges. It’s about how we demonstrate the potential that Griky has without getting mired in the tech, because our core is education. It’s about how we provide a flexible, agile model for universities to face the changes they’re experiencing.

Andrés Núñez:

✨ Pearl of wisdomI’m fascinated by what’s happening in Colombia. The union that is coming up is spectacular and there’s a common factor behind it, which is that we are sharing equally and there’s less jealousy.

At the universities, we have to accept it, the possessiveness is about the style of the university, which is focused on prestige, brand, etc. In the EdTech world they say, how can we integrate? Do you have APIs? Can we do business at scale? It’s spectacular.

I think it’s also because there has been good talent and the problems are the same throughout Latin America. The universities share 80-85% of the same problems and this has allowed Griky to reach 17 countries in two years, and we’re hoping soon to be present in 20 Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America.

I think that this growth is due to the combination of great talent at the right time and with enough capital. And a very clear need. In other words, we can provide solutions and there are people who need them.

What do you think works now for promoting EdTech, and what vision do you have to spread the word about Griky?

Catalina Núñez:

I think right now there isn’t a super clear marketing mix. If you had asked me a year ago, when I was face to face with universities and looking for applicants and enrollees, that was super clear. It’s important to have a balance in the marketing mix between on and offline. At an EdTEch company it’s completely different and we are constantly challenging ourselves. Andrés challenges us to not just stick with traditional marketing. In EdTech you need extremely relational marketing, because our audiences are deans, vice-deans, directors of innovation, directors of virtual learning, etc. It’s not just like a B2C or doing digital templates and branding and performance campaigns. This is about how, using content that provides value—those famous inbound marketing strategies—how we can deliver on that value proposition and a dean will understand it.

In EdTech you need extremely relational marketing, because our audiences are deans, vice-deans, directors of innovation, directors of virtual learning, etc. It’s not just like a B2C or doing digital templates and branding and performance campaigns.

I think Andrés has been able to show this vision really effectively by telling universities that Griky is an ally to help make institutions much more agile. So where do I communicate that? Is it on LinkedIn? Do we do it with a video or an article? For that, experiences, for example, are great. On the experiential side of things, one of our wins last year was bringing 30 deans from 30 universities to the Disruptive Transformation for Universities program in Silicon Valley.

We’ve talked about how it’s such a possessive industry, but here were these deans sharing best practices, co-creating, telling stories about what works and what doesn’t. I think that collaboration, that vision of being in network with each other, works really well. There’s no recipe, it’s not as easy as 50% online, 50% off, massive template, television, radio, digital ads, etc. No, this is super different because it’s a B2B, it’s so relational, the target is very different and it is a very busy audience.

Part of that is looking for where the buyer persona is, what events they attend. If they go to Virtual Educa, for example, or GDB Venture. You have to be able to be there, be able to have a conversation, be able to share experiences and raise visibility. That’s why I think useful content, networking, and relational marketing is what we’ve seen working.

We are used to creating annual marketing plans that take months to be defined and that we don’t even execute 30% of. You have to look at audiences, indicators, and see whether or not to be able to change strategies. You have to have very clear goals and objectives, where we want to get and what the buyer persona is, but the tactics change constantly.

Andrés Núñez:

You all at 27zero are setting an example with what you’re doing with an EdTech Mentor. This is relational, and most importantly, it’s fascinating. And coming back to what we do, the answer is lifelong learning because knowledge doesn’t last six months and then move on to something else. You have to be trying things and maintaining long-term learning.

Today the focus is on relational marketing. This year the community is going to be very important at Griky. We want to create the most robust EdTech in Latin America and we’re going to be focused on that. Artificial intelligence is also going to help us scale and stay ahead of the speed of knowledge duplication that I believe now happens every month.

I also say that 2023 will be the year of “boring tech” because previously we were trying to create a thousand features and this and that. But now it’s all about who can give the user a unique experience, and what will matter is the user and their engagement with the platforms. Instead of a million features, we’re going to be restricting down, getting smaller and more focused.

Is there a mistake you’ve learned from in 2022?

Catalina Núñez:

Last year Growth Hacking was booming, and everyone here was saying you have to do this. We did our test a year ago with Growth Hacking topics on LinkedIn. It was a total disaster. For various reasons, but In the end I concluded that it depends a lot on the audience. Our audience, one again, is deans and directors.

Growth Hacking is sending messages to the inboxes of your audience on LinkedIn, with a clear strategy and content plan, but in the end it’s that you get your value proposition in their inbox. But only some deans are on LinkedIn and not many open their inboxes, so it turned out to be something of a waste. But we learned from that.

Laureano Díaz:

That’s very interesting, because it shows that marketing principles---trying to make things resonate and to be persuasive—still hold. If you try for a tactic that works well in another context and it doesn’t really fit the buyer persona or the group of buyer personas you have, well then it doesn’t work. That’s a major lesson.

Carlos Márquez:

It’s so important, because it’s the ABCs of marketing, which is thinking about your primary user.

Catalina Núñez:

Right, it’s the most basic thing, but sometimes the new thing comes along and kind of pushes that out a little, and you have to say let’s go back to the essentials.

To close, could you talk a little more about the importance of purpose?

Andrés Núñez:

Of course.

✨ Pearl of wisdomFortunately, we’re talking about EdTEch and not TechEd, because technology is only the medium. The purpose has always been linked to education.

Griky was born out of all our earlier learning and started to see results when we, following Simon Sinek, finally defined our purpose clearly.

Because not until you ask yourself why you’re doing this, put it down on paper and mark out that North Star, that’s when things start to truly work. And in reality Griky wants to democratize access to opportunity more than education, something that comes out of my dad’s story. He said to me, “education gave me an opportunity.”

I remember him walking through a university campus in the United States when I was a child, and he was really emotional, almost in tears, and he said, “millions of people need to experience this. I am too lucky.”

When you understand that education is an opportunity, and that that opportunity allows you to improve your quality of life, then you can ask yourself, “how do I scale that?”

Griky isn’t going to change its purpose, but technology is going to change. Tech is dependent on the purpose, but it allows us to scale in a huge way. Today, we have a clear vision of where we’re going. How it’s built, how it’s built and the partners who come in, they are the ones who can tell you, “it’s this way, or it’s this other way.”

Catalina Núñez:

My father, at 40 years old, launched a school. He didn’t have a lot of resources, but there was something inside him that told him he was capable. He visualized everything that he made reality. It’s that ability to go beyond, see the world, have a different perspective, and I think it’s that conviction, that light, that internal strength that told him, “I have a purpose.”

Technology can change, and each era has its own way of doing things, but the purpose is what doesn’t change. That conviction is what drives you to launch something new.

Carlos Márquez:

That reminds me of the quote “we achieved it because we didn’t know it was impossible.”

Andrés Núñez:

Exactly, and that’s why we have so much connection with you all.

✨ Pearl of wisdomContinuing to work with a partner after more than ten years isn’t easy. You need your allies to help you look beyond, and that’s where we’ve found so much in common with 27zero.
🔥 Rapid fire questions
Agency or internal?
Inbound or outbound?
Marketing or sales?
Hubspot, Pardot or Eloqua?
Webflow, Wordpress or others?
WordPress (Andrés screams: “Webflow!”)
Specialist or generalist?
Ed or Tech?
Without a doubt, Ed.
In-person or remote?
Remote (Andrés chimes in: “Hybrid!”)
Creativity or technique?
Quality or quantity?

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