Sunday, April 01, 2012

The Start-Up: My Story So Far

In 2009, while I was working to set up a global chain of English Learning and Employability centers, I was being told - by the educators I met and the employers I tried to persuade - that I should focus on global higher education instead. My pitch was that with the additional English language and employability skills training, the millions of graduates in India and elsewhere in Asia would be able to meet the demands of the employers: However, I was being told that the education system was somewhat broken and there was a need for a more global system of education altogether. This was outside the scope of what I could do then: While I was having conversations with customers and reporting this back to my colleagues, the business of Global Higher Education was  complex, investment intensive and difficult, and could hardly be achieved without deep commitment and long term vision, which my employers lacked. My design of making English training a loss-leader and building on a model of global higher education didn't find any favours with the company, which was grappling with the effects of recession in its home market anyway. 

Disappointed, I approached an ex-colleague who I previously worked with in a large scale e-learning project. My proposal was to create a technology-enabled platform to facilitate education, which then could be delivered through the franchise network that I was helping to build in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. I knew I needed help: While I am good with idea development and building networks of partners and collaborators, I needed someone who could instill the commercial discipline, manage the money and operations and keep my more expansive instincts at check. Mike was perfect for this: During the two year stint I had with his e-learning company, he was a mentor and a friend, someone with discipline, integrity and commitment that I could look up to. I knew a project of the type I was suggesting, with global scale and complexity, would need his 'grown-up' leadership.

While Mike was interested in my idea and we met several times in the pub opposite the Wimbledon tube station, in the end, timing was not right for him. He just invested in another technology company and picked up a sizable order from a sector skills council. He wanted to focus on what he had at hand. It must have been a part of his new year resolution, as I received this, rather heart-breaking, mail from him on the 11th January 2010 which stated that he wanted to focus on his company. He said he thought the idea was good and I should still go for it, and he would be available for help and support, but 'it will need to be from a distance rather than active involvement'. 

I did almost give up at this time. However, by then, I knew Higher Education was a great opportunity, and decided while I could not get the business started, I should still be inside the industry rather than outside. I had already failed to persuade my employers, so I needed to have a fresh start. Soon after I received Mike's email, I made up my mind and left my job, though I searched and failed to find an appropriate employment in the Higher Education sector at that time. My best chance was to start as an adjunct tutor in one of the private colleges, but even that was hard to come by because I was traveling so much (at least till then) and was hardly around in London for any reasonable length of time. Therefore, I had to prepare myself to leave the job without having an alternative at hand, something I loath to do usually: At that time, I was ready to leave London and go back to India, or anywhere else in the world (I did actively consider relocating to KL on the basis of a very vague promise from someone I knew there) to get into Higher Ed. However, eventually, it worked out better than planned. After a month of persevering without an employment - my daily routine being filling out various job adverts and trying to talk to various people I knew from the past - an offer came through. This was a private institution whose owner I knew for a while, and he wanted to open a placement division in his college and wanted to hire me to run the same. I had to accept a salary cut of 30% and accept a much junior role than I had, but I did not mind as it gave me the foothold and a new start anyway.

Immediately after the start, I did approach the owner of the business with my plans for global college, but he was not interested. He had other things to deal with, then. The college was just suspended by UK Border Agency because of the suspected malpractices by its agents, and the college itself was struggling to expand infrastructure to meet the surging demand. In summary, the college was the beneficiary and later the victim of the same surge of demand for global higher education I experienced during my traveling years. With my new role, I was suddenly at the sharp end of managing the rising demand.

My job role changed soon after I joined. There were too many things to deal with at the college, which took priority over setting up a placement cell. The college needed to handle an avalanche of bad publicity on the web at the wake of its suspension. This, eventually, became my first project. I started by being open and honest and acknowledging our errors, where there was any, in public. Soon, some of the disgruntled voices on the social media space was cooperative, they started acknowledging my sincere efforts to solve the problem. Soon thereafter, I engaged with a complete refashioning of the college's identity: With the help of a gifted and insightful graphic designer, we created an identity to reflect the diversity and global identity of the college. I was still committed to the project I wanted to do, just that I had to take a roundabout way.

Soon after my interventions with the brand identity and social media presence of the college, I was given the task of sorting out the flagship MBA programme of the college, which was suffering from the consequences of over-recruitment. The validating university was up in arms, the quality of students enrolled in the programme was problematic, and the tutoring was erratic. The university froze all recruitment and was threatening to withdraw validation at the time. If I needed an opportunity in education management, here it was: An induction by fire where margin of error was non-existent. However, this was an opportunity too: To raise the game, to refashion the programme, to create a team from scratch and to test out my assumptions about global higher education. With the support from the owner, I managed to pull this through: The university gave its seal of approval on whatever we were doing and reinstated our status. There were many other benefits of this crisis though: It allowed me to establish a reputation in the business, but also brought a number of talented people in, allowed us to start an online support system (through Moodle - again another test of my ideas in global higher learning) and custom text books, and started a transformation of the MBA programme from an undifferentiated, commoditized degree to a programme with a purpose.

The success with the MBA programme gave me a bit more leverage with the owner of the business and I could argue in favour of more changes. At that stage, it was about getting the right people in the business and making sure that we were recruiting the right students. By this time, end of 2010, Mike was ready to commit fully into Higher Education. I introduced him to the owner and he liked him: Mike joined as the MD of the college in January 2011. This allowed me to make more changes, indeed one step at a time, in tutoring team, the work environment and the like. There were a number of people in business who were deeply entrenched in the practices of the past, and while I couldn't confront them because the owner wouldn't, they were getting crowded out and their influence on the college was waning. The UKBA's drive to limit immigration made some of these colleagues to give up on the college, whose business model that far was dependent on international students, which allowed me an wider berth to implement the changes. All of this was part of my education, which I wanted to use to create the global college I always planned for. By then, I was happy that I chose to work where I did, because it was giving me that near-death experience everyday so common in the start-ups.

However, we were confident with whatever we were doing: Mike was imposing the operating discipline that the business needed to succeed, and while that was deeply unpopular with some colleagues who, so far, had an easy ride, most people saw the sense in it. The performance levels gradually started to improve, and our recruitment, operating practices, and staff caliber improved dramatically under Mike's watch. Alongside, I pushed through some basic housekeeping with academic delivery, and soon the effects of these were acknowledged by the partner universities. In fact, one of the universities we worked with started changing their business model, mired by intermittent scandals and pressures of an impending merger, and terminated all their partner arrangements across the world; but offered us, alongside a handful of other partners, a new arrangement, a stamp of approval of sorts for what we have been doing. The students and tutors started acknowledging the 'steep improvement' that they saw, and in general, our delivery and the deliverables both got better. By the end of 2011, the college was poised for a redefinition: We had the blank canvass on which we could start building a world class institution.

This was a perfect time for me to restart the discussions about doing the Global College. I traveled to India in November 2011 mainly to have a feel of its Higher Education market, and what I saw encouraged me. The demand had only increased in the two intervening years, and the private education model, while this has put significant new investment in infrastructure, has been severely constrained by bad regulation and failed to meet the aspirations of the new global generation. India's politicians, many of whom have a vested interest in education business, did not want a change: They kept the gates closed and the sector inefficient primarily to serve their own ends. I could see possibilities, however, of setting up a college from scratch, in more business-like states of Western or Southern India. My belief that collaborative arrangements with an English (or American) college would be a winner was corroborated by all I met.

Our, and indeed Mike and I were working in tandem on this one, idea was to align the brick-and-mortar college that we worked so hard to transform with the new technology-facilitated global college. The idea is to have a high quality core in London, which offers advanced courses in technology, business, entrepreneurship and innovation, and then build global collaborative provisions in different countries offering part of this course, or pathway courses, all integrated in a form by which a student can travel and study, eventually ending up in London if they wanted to. I saw technology enabling this model of portable qualification, and wanted to build a network of expertise in teaching and learning, but also in industry collaboration and cultural facilitation, into the business model. We proposed the idea of collaboration to the owner of the college we worked with, who agreed and first made an offer to become an investor in the project, but started imposing very onerous conditions. I have tried and failed before to make a venture work without the investor fully buying into the vision, and know that it does not work. So, after a few months of wasted effort, we came to the point of realization that it was not going to work.

This meant a fresh start, and this is where we are now. Indeed, there is work to complete at the college, which we shall do now. My agenda is still to fix the recruitment network - in my mind, the recruitment through agent model is fundamentally flawed - and infrastructure, where the college can indeed do better. But once these two areas have been fixed, which would be soon, we are ready to walk away and start fresh. The last two years gave us enormous experience in International Higher Education, and allowed us to build a network of friends and colleagues which is enormously valuable. The experience, as it inevitably does, helped us develop the ideas that we started with farther. We learned the hard way - skirting the edges and facing the difficulties - which was indeed better than landing directly within an idealized environment and not having to know what the challenges are. We have faced and mastered the challenges, at enormous personal cost, but this makes us better prepared to do what we have to do to set up the global college.

I wrote down this narrative as I mark the start of a distinct new phase of my life, coincidentally but rather conveniently on the 1st of April. This narrative is actually the start of a new narrative, something full of excitement and possibilities, just the sort of stuff I allowed my life to be defined with. I am not daunted by the scale of the task - I never was, by anything - because I am ready to build partnerships, work with other people and know that only a task that is beyond my everyday abilities remain worth doing. All this indeed means a fundamental redefinition of who I am and what I do, on a day to day basis. This post marks the first step in that journey.

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