The transformative power of education is a subject that is close to the heart of Nuno Fernandes. His parents were the first ones from their small village in western Portugal to graduate from a university. In that community of fewer than five hundred people, the most common jobs were in agriculture and fishing. Fernandes’s paternal grandmother was a farmer who didn’t know how to read or write, and when she became a widow, his father had to start working all sorts of jobs at a young age.
“My father had in his mind that the only way to get out of that situation was through education,” Fernandes recalls. His father became a lawyer, his mother became a teacher, and together they moved north from their village to the city of Porto to pursue their careers.
Today, Fernandes channels that deep-rooted value of learning into his role as president and CEO of Miami-based Ilumno, a company that partners with universities in Latin America to expand access to higher education throughout the region.
“When we say that education changes lives and transforms societies, it can sound like a cliché, but it’s true,” says Fernandes, who was born in Portugal. “I’m an example of that.”
Fernandes has held various roles at Ilumno since joining the company in 2013 and has guided Ilumno along a sustained path of growth. In the last decade, its partner institutions have had a 25 percent average annual growth rate for the number of online students in attendance, he explains. Ilumno serves about three hundred thousand students in Latin America, where less than 50 percent of the population has access to higher education, according to Fernandes. Enrollment has been flat for the region in recent years, and in some countries, enrollment is declining. Schools must compete harder to attract students from a shrinking pool.
But one strong segment in higher education right now is the online market, Fernandes says. Universities often want to grow in that space, but as universities are more traditional institutions they aren’t always sure how to accomplish that. That’s where Ilumno steps in, providing the technology platform for its partners to grow their online offerings.
Ilumno also harnesses technology to help students who might be struggling. The company uses artificial intelligence to track a range of variables—whether a student pays tuition on time, or how much time they spend on Ilumno’s platform, for instance—to predict how likely that student might be to drop out. Retention is a challenge for universities around the world, Fernandes says, so helping students make it to graduation is key to Ilumno’s mission.
“The possibility of graduating thousands of people every semester, knowing you put them into the market with new opportunities to pursue better jobs, earn more money, and provide better conditions for their families—for us, it’s the fuel that keeps us going every day,” Fernandes says.
Though passionate about Ilumno, Fernandes has not always worked in the realm of education. Before this, he spent more than a decade in various positions at Bosch, working in Portugal, Spain, Germany, Brazil, Mexico, and the US. He has a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Porto in Portugal, an MBA from the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, and is trilingual in English, Spanish, and Portuguese.
“The possibility of graduating thousands of people every semester, knowing you put them into the market with new opportunities to pursue better jobs, earn more money and provide better conditions for their families—for us, it’s the fuel that keeps us going every day.”
Ilumno’s social impact is what caught Fernandes’s eye most about the company years ago. As he sees it, a person’s decision about what to study during their time in university is one of the three biggest defining choices in life—right up there with whether to get married and have children.
“What you study has such a profound impact on your life,” he says. “I thought it was fascinating, the possibility of being involved in something like that. That’s really what I found very attractive about Ilumno.”
He still gets excited today about how much more work there is to do. Ilumno is looking at expanding its market in Colombia and also entering the Mexican market in 2020. Peru and Ecuador are two other potential markets the company finds interesting.
One of the things Fernandes loves about steering the ship as CEO is that everyone at Ilumno understands the importance of its mission.
“Typically, companies spend a lot of resources and money to tell the employees why they exist and why they are relevant. At Ilumno, everybody knows why we exist. Everybody knows that we exist to expand access to education,” Fernandes explains. “I think that’s really cool, because I’ve never seen that before in such a strong way. We have a great group of people. Our best quality is our obsession with making a positive impact on society.”
Memorable Moments at Ilumno
Fernandes had been with the company for only a few days in 2013 when he had to fly to Colombia with the former CEO. As senior vice president of marketing and enrollment at the time, Fernandes had to address all of Ilumno’s university partners in the region via a livestream to explain the company’s marketing strategy. “I didn’t have any time to prepare, and I was new to the company and the industry,” he says, “but I remember saying that we would work very hard to create value for our brands and to position them as leaders in the segments we serve.”
In 2016, Ilumno closed a deal with the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, granting the company the right to distribute some of the university’s non-credit-bearing programs in Latin America. “The fact that one of the best institutions in the world agreed to be associated with Ilumno, in this particular project, gave me a lot of confidence about our story and our potential,” Fernandes says.
On the milestone of being named CEO: “I felt I was prepared, that I had the trust from the founders, and that I had the right team by my side to be successful. We have great plans for Ilumno, and I am convinced that we will achieve extraordinary things.”