“The greatest motivating factor for me is that many people know what I’m trying to do. I would be too embarrassed to quit.”

Laurie Pickard is on a mission. An Oberlin and Temple-educated international development specialist working in Kigwali, Rwanda, Pickard wants to be the first person to complete the equivalent of an MBA degree using Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), free university classes available on the internet.

Married to a US foreign service officer posted in Rwanda, Pickard considered applying to traditional MBA programs in the US — her education and work experience would qualify her to attend an elite school. But pragmatic considerations led her to an unconventional choice. “Cost was a big factor, especially the opportunity cost of taking time off and moving. I could never stomach the idea of going tens of thousands of dollars into debt”, Pickard told SlideRule. “And since I’m living and working in Africa, I can’t just do a part-time degree in the city where I live.”

Her plan is to complete over 20 courses from business schools like Stanford, Wharton and Yale — more than the typical MBA degree requires — and “graduate” with a world-class business education in three years. If all goes accordingly, she’ll have achieved this from the comfort of her home in Africa, and spent under $1000. She is about halfway to that goal.

Pickard regulary shares her progress on her website No-Pay MBA. She also recently co-authored MBA Essentials — an open curriculum with 475 hours of online courses that anyone can take to get an MBA-equivalent education for free.

Here’s what we learned from talking to Pickard about her project:

  • Why Pickard wanted to pursue an MBA: “I want to bring a business perspective to the work I’m doing in international development,” Pickard told SlideRule. Knowledge of financial skills has helped her in some of the work she does with small farmers in Rwanda. Pickard also knows that earning her business degree would have long-term benefits: “I want to open up future options as I further develop my career.”
  • How she built her curriculum: Pickard carefully studied the curricula of elite business schools like Harvard, Wharton and MIT. So far she’s completed twelve courses in her first two “semesters”.
  • Why it comes at zero opportunity cost: Because MOOCs allow Pickard to take classes from multiple universities without leaving her home in Rwanda, she’s able to do all this while keeping her job at USAID.
  • How the experience compares to attending a traditional college: Pickard says she misses discussions with classmates, but she has found ways to bridge the gap. For one course, she formed a virtual study group that meets weekly on Google Hangout.
  • How she is getting around the issue of no formal degree: “I do think a lot about the importance of signaling”, Pickard told SlideRule. “Basically, the whole purpose of my blog and website is to signal the seriousness of my intentions and the value of what I’ve learned.” She hopes that someone can create a more scalable solution to the signaling problem for autodidacts like her.
  • Why she knows it’ll work: “The greatest motivating factor for me is that many people know what I’m trying to do,” Pickard told us. Now that she’s gone public with her story, she feels more committed to finishing.  “I would be too embarrassed to quit.”Feel inspired already? Check out the curriculum of Online Courses which Laurie is following right here on our MBA Essentials Learning Path at Springboard!