Meet Joel Dehlin
February 21, 2019
By Michele Bates
“The most significant turning point in my career was deciding to take the risk and start a company: Kuali”.
– Joel Dehlin
Leading up to that monumental decision were many small turning points. At the beginning of Joel’s career, he was a coder who studied accounting at BYU. Kind of an odd mix. Around 1990, he called Arthur Andersen’s headquarters in Chicago out of the blue trying to get a position with their Tax Technology Group. “I even offered to fly myself out to interview with them. They ended up flying me there and I worked at Arthur Andersen in Chicago for several years, coding”. That direct approach to success continued as Joel took a chance with a “new company” called Microsoft after they contacted him out of the blue, which then turned into ten years in Seattle working on computer games, mobile devices and finally in Microsoft’s incubation lab.
“I left Microsoft to spend more time with my family and I began to think, for the first time, about what kind of company to I would start. Eric Denna and Scott Conlin, executives in I.T. at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints at the time, asked me to do some work with the Church to help them figure out product management in 2004 and within a few months, I was in charge of the technology division. I had the chance to work on projects like LDS Tools, Gospel Library, the missionary application system, the missionary selection system, lds.org, mormon.org, the church’s satellite system, installing the internet in LDS chapels, tracking the church’s physical facilities, creating a new tithing system, temple systems, and so on. It was the largest organization I’d managed and significantly contributed to my preparation for the CTO roles I took later on in my career”.
Joel’s work with the LDS Church directly led to his interest in higher education. Working for the Church, he had the opportunity to communicate with some of the Church-owned universities, all of which are doing very interesting things in higher ed; an industry undergoing dramatic change at the time. So, when Josh Coates (former CEO) approached Joel about being CTO/CPO for Instructure, he saw it as a great way to work for a mission-based company, focused on serving the higher ed community, while also helping to solve a really interesting business challenge.
After his success at Instructure and armed with a better knowledge of the higher education space, Joel took a calculated risk and started Kuali, Inc; a company that has seen substantial growth and innovation since 2014. 2018 was a remarkable year for Kuali. Early in the year, the young company secured $10 million in Series A funding from Owl Ventures and ended the year with a series A-1 funding of $12 million from Mercato Partners and Owl. Kuali’s annual cloud revenue grew by about 50% in 2018 and its employees grew from 56 to 90.
Kuali, Inc is more than just a business to Joel; the employees are family and the company is a community. When asking Joel what the one thing he wants to be sure never changes at Kuali regardless of growth the answer was not surprising, “very early on, our company chose a set of values that we would try to hire for and then inculcate. They are: Deliver Amazing Experiences, Cultivate Openness, Assume the Best, Iterate to Evolve, Act with Accountability, Practice Humility. We are maniacally dedicated to these values in our company. Our commitment to these values has been a difference-maker for Kuali and I would be saddened if we strayed from them”.
As the company sets its sights on continued success and growth in 2019, I asked Joel to look back on his career and what leader’s inspiration comes to mind as he faces the challenges that come along with moving Kuali into its next big growth phase. In typical Joel fashion, the answers range from boyhood mentors to current day employees and the answer is best given in his own words.
“I like to think of my life as a company. I often literally conceptualize a board of directors with my mentors and leaders sitting around the table, guiding me throughout my life and career. Two of those individuals who’ve had an irreversible impact on my leadership are my mission president and Eric Denna.
I served a two-year mission in Sacramento, California, and my mission president was an impactful mentor for me. He has passed on, but I always admired his uncommon kindness, intelligence and the undue faith he had in me. I wanted desperately to live up to whatever he saw in me.
When I went to work at the Church, the then CIO, Eric Denna, was dealing with serious personal issues with the health of a family member. He asked me to step in and manage a huge department while he went away to deal with the death of his son. It was more responsibility than I’d ever had in an environment that needed rapid but measured technological change.
My current mentors are my Kuali executive team. I hand-picked each one and I learn from them continually.”
Joel is thrilled about Kuali’s new partnership with Mercato and appreciates their interest in the potential of higher ed and their alignment on creating a different kind of company. The mutual interest in snowboarding doesn’t hurt either!