zanker AFHU spoke with Hebrew University alumnus, Bill Zanker. Bill is founder of The Learning Annex, a leader in adult continuing live and online education. Zanker is also a successful businessman, entrepreneur and author.

On choosing Hebrew University…

I grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey, in a middle class family. At 18, I wanted to go to college and thought Jerusalem was a very special place. I thought HU interesting and decided to go there without family or friends.  I spent four years and received my B.A. in political science and international relations.

On his time at Hebrew University…

I was on the Mount Scopus campus for the first year on a program for new immigrants, and spent the remainder of the time on the Givat Ram campus. The Israelis were totally different than American students, they were older and more mature, so I had to grow up fast. The Israelis, having just finished the army, had jobs and some had families. They [Israeli students] adopted me very quickly and made me feel comfortable. I had one group of friends who came from all over the world from places such as Turkey and Switzerland. The other group was the Israelis who were very special.

On how his time at HU influenced his life…

My HU experience taught me to be independent and manage on my own. I didn’t speak the language or fully understand the culture, which made me become resourceful. This helped shape my career in the business world. It also taught me how to integrate into any situation because I was exposed to so many different experiences. I remember taking  the #9 bus from Mount Scopus and sitting next to a woman with a crate of chickens; feathers were flying all over the place. It was definitely different than what I was used to; in Teaneck we didn’t really go on buses or have to deal with live chickens!

I had difficulty in some of my classes because I didn’t understand Hebrew fully, but the professors were very helpful, serious, understanding and caring. Caring–that’s probably the best word to describe my instructors at HU. It wasn’t just a factory or a degree; they wanted you to leave with a sense of purpose. The idea was to take this knowledge, go into the world and do something with it.

On what role alumni play for a college/university…

I was always surprised we didn’t have an alumni program. For many years, I kept quiet about my university experience because no one understood HU in America. I was doing a business deal one time and colleagues asked where I went to school. When I told them, they asked if it was a yeshiva or something similar. I said, ‘No, it’s one of the greatest universities in the Middle East.’ That was 15 years ago. We need to let the world know that some of the best and the brightest are HU graduates. As HU alumni we could be a powerful force in the U.S. We could change things and influence perceptions. We should be proud of where we went to school and what HU represents.

Like other universities that have alumni groups, we need an alumni network in the U.S. It’s an immediate family. For example, my friend went to Harvard and when we needed a lawyer in North Carolina during a trip we were able to find one through his alumni group. HU alumni are very diverse and talented; we are in a great position to help each other and create a strong HU network.

On how could HU can help Israel…

It’s the core of the leadership of what Israel is all about. You have some of the greatest minds at HU.

On what inspires him…

The Learning Annex– this was my way of continuing my wonderful experience of learning at HU. I created a business to keep on learning! It has been the core of my career. I’ve been a serial entrepreneur, but my main passion has always been the love of learning and developing a marketplace for people to teach other people what they know. That was very much what it was like at HU– you have these great professors who taught their skills and shared their knowledge with others.

On why education should be democratized…

At HU, anybody could go and get an education. When I went, everyone had to the opportunity to learn, which to me is just the greatest thing in the world. Even if students didn’t have the money, they could still go to HU, learn and receive an amazing education.

On the importance of education in today’s society…

It is the ‘end all’ of everything. If someone has an education and a skill, he or she can keep on growing in life. What I love about the Learning Annex and what I do is you can keep on learning; it’s a life-long process. People need different learning and skills for different seasons of their lives. That makes life, your skill set and your career interesting.

On never taking ‘no’ as an answer…

This has been my standard. My success has been based on the belief that there is  no such thing as ‘no.’ ‘No’ just means I haven’t presented my idea in the right way yet. If you’re determined and want something, you will get to yes. This is what I do and what I tell my kids to do. ‘No’ is just the beginning of someone saying ‘yes.’