It’s the 2022 Academy Awards. Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta are onstage presenting the award for best actor. Jackson gives a brief analysis of Quentin Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction.
“Did Quentin help you write that?!” Travolta jokes. Then he continues, “You know what you should do? You should teach a MasterClass.” Jackson responds, “Well, actually, I do!”
Hearing this, David Rogier, AB ’05, smiles.
Rogier’s company, MasterClass, is an online-learning platform allowing members to take classes from luminaries such as Jackson. “I’m glad that Sam is proud of his class,” Rogier says, “but for me, it’s not that the instructors are well-known or celebrities. It’s that they’re the best in the world.”
With more than 150 course offerings, members can learn filmmaking with Martin Scorsese, writing and performing poetry with Amanda Gorman or cooking with Gordon Ramsay. “It’s also about making it possible,” Rogier continues, “for anybody to learn from the best.”
Rogier, who serves as CEO, didn’t set out to create a breakout startup within the lifelong learning landscape — or to make Fortune’s “40 Under 40” most influential leaders in media and entertainment.
Growing up in Los Angeles, he was close to his grandmother, Yanka. She had escaped the Nazis and fled to the U.S., later becoming a pediatrician. “She always told me,” Rogier says, “education is the only thing that someone can’t take away from you.” And the idea that knowledge is power has stayed with him ever since.
As an undergraduate at WashU majoring in political science, Rogier served as a resident advisor; speaker of the student senate, where he helped students get free access to newspapers like The New York Times; and TV show host, where he’d interview professors. One day, he recalls going to Delores Kennedy, then associate dean and dean for freshman, to let her know that he wasn’t learning enough from his courses. “She looked at me calmly and said, ‘Oh, really? How about you let me pick your classes next semester?’” Rogier laughs. The next semester was one of his hardest. From then on, he would seek Kennedy’s guidance for course recommendations.
“Delores taught me it’s not just about the class; it’s about the instructor,” Rogier says. “No matter the field, if the instructor is amazing, you’ll be interested and learn.”
Rogier would go on to earn an MBA from Stanford, where he also conducted “Lunch and Learn” chats with Silicon Valley luminaries. He would return to Los Angeles and try his hand at investing.
But something made him pause: “In America, we often think that education stops when school stops,” he says. “For our grandparents, everything they learned in school could last them for most of their lives. But that’s no longer the case.”
In an increasingly changing world, Rogier kept going back to one question: “How do we create the school for the rest of our lives?” He thought long and hard about how to create lifelong learning in a way that’s affordable and enjoyable.
His pilot classes were with his mom and dad. It would take a few years to get the best in the world to teach. “There were some dark days,” Rogier recalls, “hundreds of cold emails with no response. And then I got a call from bestselling author James Patterson.” He agreed to teach a class about writing.
In 2015, MasterClass launched with Patterson and four other instructors: Dustin Hoffman, Serena Williams, Usher and Annie Leibovitz. Today, MasterClass has more than 150 instructors, offers more than 540 hours of content and more than 2,600 lessons. And it has been recognized by Fast Company magazineas one of the “brands that matter.”
Rogier scaled back on creating courses during the COVID-19 pandemic, but MasterClass saw a surge in popularity. “One of our most-watched chapters was with Chris Voss,” Rogier says. Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator, teaches a negotiation class on tactical empathy. “We found that people wanted to know how to negotiate with their spouses on stuff like who gets internet access tonight.” His team also saw a spike in CEOs signing up for classes, in search of leadership skills during a time of crisis.
Looking ahead, Rogier plans to expand these lifelong learning opportunities with new offerings to business employees. Sessions by MasterClass, for example, will provide a structured, 30-day curriculum where members can learn meaningful new skills by guided instruction. And international outreach is important, too; the company has committed to distributing MasterClass programming — for free — to at least one million people around the globe in 2022.
Rogier sums it up: “Imagine if you could go back in time and take a class from the Wright brothers. Part of our mission is to create that legacy knowledge, so in the future, you can still learn from the best of our time.”