HRTech Interview with Tarun Malhotra, CTO at InStride

Learn from real success stories and insights from InStride’s CTO on aligning education strategies with business goals.


Tarun, to set the stage, could you provide a brief overview of InStride’s mission and approach in transforming workforce education and development?
InStride is a public-benefit company guided by a mission to cultivate the workforce of the future. We accomplish this by enabling organizations to provide career-boosting degrees, credentials and diplomas to their employees in partnership with the highest-quality academic institutions.

The timing is crucial. Now more than ever companies seek to upskill, reskill and retain their employees through learning opportunities. We help employers offer career-aligned, debt-free education through a personalized digital platform and consultative service model. This makes life-changing education accessible and improves ROI. Driving meaningful social and business outcomes, our approach delivers improvements in retention, recruitment and internal promotion rates and creates future-proofed workforces whose leadership more accurately reflects the society in which we live.

Can you share specific examples of successful customizations that have significantly impacted the learning experiences of employees?
Three examples come to mind with clients: a hospital system, a medical device company and a major retailer.

At a major hospital system, we partnered with one of our academic partners to develop hybrid clinical cohorts that enabled that health system to enroll cohorts of team members into medical assistant and surgical technologist programs. These blended online learning with in-personal clinical education, a feat that made access to this kind of specialized education much easier. For the overall program, 1,700+ caregivers have enrolled and of those, 94% of them have stayed with the organization.

In another case, we partnered with a medical device company seeking to expand its talent pool and ensure a more inclusive hiring process. Our collaboration focused on the implementation of skills-based hiring, which involves redefining job requirements and identifying relevant skills for various positions. This new approach opened doors for frontline workers aspiring to advance to mid level roles, even if they lacked traditional degrees. With expert guidance, the company successfully redefined qualifications for 65 roles spanning 17 job categories. Notably, this transformation also resulted in half of the organization’s IT workforce occupying roles that no longer require degrees.

Finally, for a major e-commerce and logistics company that has a large delivery partner model, we built out an entirely new multi-tenant onboarding, billing, contracting and reporting solution that is a unique way to provide broader access to education and manage the program at multiple levels.

What specific customer feedback has driven changes in the administrator portal to facilitate ROI calculations and provide insights for HR teams not found in traditional tuition reimbursement programs?
Traditional tuition reimbursement programs require considerable time and effort from all stakeholders involved, including employees, company HR managers and academic administrators. And for the most part, there is very little insight provided on impact and ROI of the program. In contrast, the InStride platform addresses what research showed were major blockers — complicated processes, financial barriers, administrative hurdles, technology integrations and measuring results. For example, the platform allows employees to easily navigate through their learning options with seamless academic integrations, and alerts them in real-time if they are eligible to enroll or need additional approvals. InStride’s platform also streamlines the process of managing employee participation and enables companies to understand the program’s ROI with in-depth analytics.

Traditional tuition reimbursement also places the financial burden on employees, reducing program participation, especially among frontline workers and underrepresented groups. Based on the success of the first-of-its-kind Starbucks and ASU direct-bill education partnership, InStride was founded to remove this financial barrier to education for working adult learners. With our direct-bill programs, financial responsibility is primarily with the company and does not require employees to pre-pay any out-of-pocket expenses. This ensures equitable access to programs for all employees, including lower-wage workers. Our collaborative approach allows us to work closely with our corporate partners to create programs that match their specific needs and preferences. InStride has been able to improve participation rates from a tuition reimbursement industry standard of 2% to an average of nearly 6% and as high as 31%.

In what ways does InStride utilize white labeling to enable companies to brand all parts of their benefit, and how does this strategy maximize engagement with employees?
InStride is proud to offer a fully white-labeled product, which is unique in the industry. We believe that employees are being provided with a life-changing and career-enhancing benefit by their employer, and the platform experience should reflect that. The white-labeled employee experience is designed to make it easy for companies to offer life-changing education to their employees, while reinforcing the message that a company is investing in their people.

With this white-labeled approach, the company branding is featured on both the platform and all employee communications. The goal is for InStride to act as an extension of the company’s team. The process begins with a marketing discovery session where InStride’s team gets immersed in an organization’s brand, voice, communication channels and strategy. Together, we co-create a comprehensive marketing and communications plan, develop creative assets and campaigns, and measure our effectiveness to continuously refine our marketing initiatives.

How has InStride tailored its platform to efficiently handle complex billing structures, especially in the context of franchise operations?
InStride is the workforce education provider of choice for large franchise organizations. For these clients, we’ve built out several first-of-their-kind capabilities to enable ease of program administration and assessment for franchises.

Take for instance our fully managed franchise engagement lifecycle marketing. InStride manages communication with franchisees to promote program awareness, consideration, signup and renewal, requiring little effort from the parent company. We also offer these communication services for the individual employee-learners at the franchisees to promote program awareness and share information throughout their learning journey.

Beyond communication services, our solution uses a flexible billing model that allows billing to take place at the franchisee level, at the parent company level or some combination of the two.

Another key to our approach is roll-up and franchisee-level reporting. The ability to view reports at the individual franchisee level as well as consolidated reports for all participating franchises allows the employer to review overall program success metrics and take data-driven actions to achieve business goals.

Configurability is also at the core of our offering. A quick, simple sign up process allows individual franchisees to set their own eligibility requirements as necessary.

What advantages do Career Education Paths (CEPs) offer to HR leaders, and how are they seamlessly integrated into InStride’s platform design?
Career Education Paths (CEPs) are education options mapped to in-demand careers and roles that meet every employee where they are and advance them to achieving business goals.

Through CEPs, employees are empowered to choose learning options aligned to their career aspirations, whether that is to move laterally into a new area of the organization or to advance within their current field. Our programs have successfully resulted in employees being 2-5x more likely to be promoted than non-participating peers.

Could you elaborate on how InStride has implemented live, on-demand support within the platform to ensure continuous assistance for employee learners?
Learner outcomes and success are central to everything we do. As employee learners begin their education journey it is natural to have questions, so InStride’s coaching and support model ensures that learners connect with the right experts, in the right modality, at the right time.

It starts with InStride’s Personal Education Advisors (PEAs) who offer live, on-demand guidance for learners, answering questions and providing unbiased advice tailored to individual needs. Additionally, our advisors are specially trained to support employees who have experienced non-standard academic journeys, as well as those with more traditional academic backgrounds. For one of partners, 43% of those who engaged with our PEAs continued through their education journey, which is 8x more than those who didn’t engage with PEAs.

Alongside our PEAs, InStride’s academic partners provide additional support including financial aid advisors, academic advisors to help select courses, student success coaches to help a learner stay on track, career services to help with career progression, and a variety of other services – from alumni connections to mental health – to ensure students receive help every step of the way.

How does InStride strategically design its platform to align with the evolving needs of the workforce and the education landscape?
InStride understands that each organization has different needs, challenges and priorities and as such, we do not offer one-size-fits-all solutions. Instead, we work alongside each partner to create a custom-designed program that aligns with their specific requirements and desired outcomes. We also recognize that priorities change, and have a track record of evolving and adapting as needed to produce desired results.

Can you provide insights into the comprehensive solutions that InStride offers to organizations seeking to enhance their employee education and development programs?
InStride empowers organizations to build a best-in-class solution with consultative customization and unmatched flexibility. Our comprehensive solution goes beyond the basics, providing additional features to enhance equitable access to education.
One of the primary ways InStride breaks down barriers to education is by offering a direct-bill education program. Instead of requiring employees to pay upfront for their education to be reimbursed later, InStride believes that a direct-bill option leads to more equitable outcomes by providing all employees access to the education they need in order to succeed at their company. Moving from tuition reimbursement to direct bill does not only improve access, it also improves your ROI. According to SHRM, tuition reimbursement has a 129% ROI, while at InStride, our direct-bill programs average a 226% ROI, that’s a 75% improvement.
In addition to removing the financial barrier, we know that working adult learners face other barriers that could prevent them from entering into and persisting through an education program. This can include educational trauma, concerns about how to balance work, school and their personal lives, or challenges connecting educational offerings to advancement opportunities. Our learner experience – from the marketing materials and personalized platform through to the self-serve and live resources learners can access – are designed to remove all friction, maximizing learner engagement and success.
The quality of InStride’s academic network is another true differentiator. Our academic network consists of high-quality, research-level institutions with expertise and success in supporting working adult learners. Through our broad and deep catalog of 3,000+ programs, we have multiple on-ramps and entry points to provide access to life-changing education to every learner, no matter where they are in their career journey.

In your role as CTO, what advice would you offer to HR and tech leaders looking to embark on a similar journey of transforming their workforce education programs?
I would recommend that leaders first align on the “why” behind the transformation. How does workforce education align with the core strategy of the business? For some it’s about retention. For others it’s about upskilling and reskilling to ensure their workforce is ready for what’s ahead.
Next, I would embrace a very data-driven approach to assessing the need, your employees and the ROI of any workforce education solution. It starts with using your workforce analytics to understand your retention, understand what skills your employees have, and what kind of workforce you need in the future. That will help pinpoint the type of workforce education solution that will be most effective and align with the company’s strategic direction. And then once you have the right program in place, it’s about using data to continuously measure the success and effectiveness of the program so you can iterate based on what the data is telling you

Lastly, I would work with an experienced partner who can help be your partner in designing a program that will achieve the results you’re looking for and has the right mix of solutions and services to deliver on that strategy.
At InStride, we can help you with all aspects of that transformation. We have a solutions team that can support you in designing a program that aligns with your company’s strategic goal, leverage the data you have to curate the right career education paths and learning options, and then deliver a platform and services model so you can track the effectiveness of the program.

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Tarun Malhotra Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of InStride

Tarun Malhotra is the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of InStride, the partner of choice for businesses creating sustainable advantage and social impact through the continuous growth of their people. In his role, Tarun leads the end-to-end strategy and execution of the technology, applications, infrastructure and operations that power InStride’s offerings. Prior to InStride, Tarun was VP of Technology for Disney Parks, Experiences and Products where he led the development and operations of their eCommerce marketplace and supported multiple lines of business. Most recently, he was responsible for the end-to-end technology for Disney Park’s retail, food and beverage, and park operations groups which included key digital and automation initiatives for guests, employees and operations. Prior to that role, Tarun built and led the technology teams behind Disney Park’s portfolio of highly rated mobile apps that fully digitized the guest experience. In previous roles, Tarun also led Disney Park’s marketing and e-commerce teams, including the rewrite of their ticketing sales website, resort sales website, search platform and marketing platform. Earlier in his career, Tarun led the UI Engineering team at Orbitz Worldwide, which included the development of their white label platform to support their global portfolio of travel brands. He began his career as a consultant at Deloitte Consulting in their startup and finance practice. Tarun holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.