The State Of Education In The 21st Century: Q&A With Alexis Assadi

We explored education in the modern world with Alexis Assadi, a Canadian financier and the Chief Executive Officer of Pacific Income Capital Corporation. He provides funding to real estate investors and entrepreneurs. Alexis Assadi has a bachelor of arts degree in political science, which he gained from the University of British Columbia in 2010. In this interview, he sheds light on whether academia in 2019 is still worth the expense, how important it is in business and more.

Alexis Assadi interview
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Let’s start with a common question. The cost of education in 2019 in most places is more expensive than ever. Is a university degree still worth it, in your opinion?

Alexis Assadi: Academia is important. It should not be prohibitive to pursue a higher education. Colleges and universities should not be filled by people with access to money, or to those who will drown themselves in debt to pay for it.

If I could wave a magic wand and redo the system, I would have universities function in the same way as high schools do. They would be fully taxpayer-funded and virtually free of charge. An educated society is an advancing society. It’s sad that many families have to go through such economic duress just to put a person through school.

However, rebuilding the system from scratch is implausible. So we circle back to your question of whether it’s worth it financially to pursue a university degree. Indeed, having a bachelor’s degree today is almost akin to a high school diploma. Here’s my take on it.

If a young adult is lucky enough to know what she wants to do in life after high school – and it doesn’t require college – then I think she should not go to college. There is no sense in attending four years of lectures and pumping out essays merely to satisfy a formality. She should approach everything with purpose, including schooling. University is not a prerequisite to being smart or successful. It’s simply one of many pathways. Keep in mind, too, that she can always attend university later on it life. It’s not a one-time opportunity.

If she does want to pursue an academic education, then I believe it is worth it as long as she follows her interests. I think the purpose of college or university should be to gain enlightenment. It shouldn’t be to gruel oneself for half a decade in hopes of landing a good job. For example, I don’t think it’s a good idea to force a 17 year-old who enjoys English and philosophy to study engineering or math just so they might be more employable. One should go to school to learn, meet people and gain new experiences.

But how useful is an English degree? Aren’t you advocating for someone to spend tens of thousands of dollars on something with limited utility?

Alexis Assadi: I disagree with that premise. First, technology has disrupted the job market to such an extent that nobody knows what the best jobs will be in ten years. Thanks to automation, half of the jobs that existed 20 years ago won’t be around in the next 20 years. Personally, I think that people who are creative and can think critically have the highest future value. Computers can generate data. Eventually they will outperform computer programming professionals. We need people who can understand that information, absorb and interpret it, and do something with it. So I do think that English and the arts are, in fact, quite applicable.

Second, employment and opportunity do not hinge on particular degrees. There are other skills of equivalent value, such as personability, the ability to work in groups, and one’s willingness to work hard and remain committed – just to name a few. I would hire someone with a photography diploma over a commerce major if they were better problem-solvers in a business environment. I think most people acknowledge that an academic degree is often just a piece of paper. What counts is what’s inside one’s head.

Studying in college

You have a degree in political science. Was it worth it for you?

Alexis Assadi: Definitely. It helped me become a better reader, writer and thinker. It made me more analytical and critical. It taught me to pay attention to details. It helped me form structured arguments and prompted me to defend my positions. I use all of those skills in business every day.

Studying political science was also useful for me as an investor. It helped me understand geopolitical events, which is a key influencer of the capital markets. For instance, when there’s conflict in the Middle East, it usually causes oil prices to spike. So it’s valuable for an investor to know why those conflicts exist.

I think it’s important to remember that one never knows where life will lead. I didn’t see a connection between my degree and my career until I became more established. When one adds hard work, a positive outlook and determination to the equation, life has a funny way of just figuring itself out.

In retrospect, was political science the right degree for you? If you could go back in time would you study something else?

Alexis Assadi: I actually enjoyed history classes even more than politics. Perhaps I should have pursued a history major. Either of those subjects would have been fine. That might appear odd because I’m a businessperson, but I don’t have an intrinsic love for commerce. I just happen to be in business.

Do you have any regrets about your experience at the University of British Columbia?

Alexis Assadi: UBC was a great school and I’m thankful to have studied there. But I remember viewing it as a stepping-stone to getting out of school and entering “real life.” To me, going to university was a formality. It was something that I had to do, not what I wanted to do. I was also stressed about career prospects because I was graduating shortly after the 2008 Great Recession. The job market was poor.

As such, I was often disinterested in lower-level classes that didn’t capture my interests. I was more excited to go to the gym or to see my friends than I was to learn. In hindsight, I should have gone to school for the experience of learning. If I ever have a child who wants to pursue a post-secondary degree, I will tell them, “Study whatever you want and learn as much as you can. Life will work itself out after you graduate.” That’s what they fail to tell young adults. Education is important, but it’s not going to determine the outcomes of your life.

MBA student

Would you consider getting an MBA today?

Alexis Assadi: Probably not. I’m sure there is plenty of useful subject matter in business school, but I don’t think it’s for me. People usually get MBAs to get a raise at work or to advance their careers. Another academic degree probably wouldn’t do that for me.

Although, I would be interested to take a course in law. Much of my work includes lawyers, so it would be advantageous to be more informed on the subject. I have a securities counsel, an in-house counsel for corporate and real estate transactions, and I use several legal firms across Canada. I don’t have the time – or frankly the stamina – to attend law school and become a lawyer, myself. But that would be an area of interest.

As I mentioned earlier, attending a college or university is one of several ways to become better educated. Today there are thousands of informative podcasts, YouTube videos and online courses. There is something for everyone, such as learning languages or studying leading business ideas, and it can be done from the comfort of home. In many ways going to campus each morning is an outdated way of learning.

How important do you think academia is in entrepreneurship?

Alexis Assadi: Academia does have a role in business. However, I think many entrepreneurs will tell you that it’s not applicable to them. I have never taken a business class, so I can’t really comment on how useful it would be to entrepreneurship. But in my case, everything I know about real estate lending was learned through practical experience. My knowledge in the field is a result of networking, building relationships, self-study and trial-and-error. I’ve never taken a course on mortgage financing, even though that is my profession.

I can think of a dozen lessons that I’ve learned that cannot be taught by a professor. For example, if one of my borrowers has broken a legally-binding contract, what should I do? Do I take them to court? Do I renegotiate? How much pressure should I apply? How should I apply it? What will happen to our reputation if I let borrowers default? What are the potential consequences of the foregoing? There is no rule for questions like these. A formula cannot help me. Rather, the answers have to be derived from experience, balancing probabilities, personal experience and recommendations from trusted advisors.

Detailed chart of business growth plan

What’s the most useful skill that you’ve learned in business?

Alexis Assadi: Remaining calm under pressure. There’s little worse than making a rash decision because you feel like you have to. But I can tell you that – at least for me – this is not a skill that is easily learned.

As well, I have a natural proclivity to try to anticipate all outcomes and plan for them. I do this both inside and outside of business. That has been useful to me as a lender. To date, there haven’t been too many situations that I have not been prepared for.

Would you recommend that an aspiring entrepreneur attends business school or pursues an MBA?

Alexis Assadi: Companies are built by people with ideas who are willing to put them into effect. While I’m sure business school would be helpful, there is no substitute for simply taking action on a venture. If a person has an idea for a company, then they should execute. Don’t delay by going to school. One can’t study their way to success. They have to act!

To be clear, I don’t mean to downplay business school at all. Instead, I’m trying to point out that at the end of the day entrepreneurship encompasses far more than what even the best professor can teach.

Do you study anything to advance your skills as a businessperson?

Alexis Assadi: No, not directly. I follow the news closely so I’m kept abreast of whatever is going on in the world. I pay attention to policy announcements, legal developments and anything that might affect mortgage lending and real estate. But the only “studying” I do right now is to learn a new language: Farsi.

College students studying

What advice do you have for a young person who’s about to enter college or university?

Alexis Assadi: Don’t buy into the idea that the next four years will either make or break the rest of your life. Remove whatever pressure you are feeling – whether it’s imposed by yourself, your parents or even society at large – and enjoy the experience.

Go to school to get smarter; not to land a good job or to earn a big salary. Unless you want to become a doctor, lawyer, accountant or engineer, your success will most likely be a function of your work performance and soft skills. An employer can find a million people with any degree. But they value people who can produce results. And if you want to start your own business right after school, then your degree will probably matter even less.