Success sans compromises – Educating all the way

Teaching was the last job she ever wanted when she was young, but life had different plans. Today Anne Tham has been a teacher for the past 34 years. When she first startedEducation  teaching in KDU College, Malaysia, she loved it so much that there was no looking back.

After about 10 years in tertiary education, it was horrifying for her to realise that 80% of students do not have the English proficiency level of native speakers. How can Malaysian students learn a language for 11 years and be bad at it? It didn’t make any sense as she spent those 10 years sorting out what wasn’t working and creating solutions for them. Six months wasn’t enough to undo an 11-year problem.

Anne felt that it was easier to fix it from young rather to have to undo what is already engrained. So, she started teaching from her dining table at her house in Subang Jaya 25 years ago. And has never looked back since. Today, she runs eight language centres, one private tutoring centre, two international schools (Dwi Emas International School is the first entrepreneur school in Malaysia), two kindergartens, an EdTech game creation studio, a Co-Creative Entrepreneur Hub, and an online market store.

Anne Tham believes that she is an accidental entrepreneur, education reformist, big believer of lifelong learning. A big fan of Lord of the Rings and a collector of their merchandising, she loves visiting the countryside / seaside of different countries.

Here she shares some of her thoughts with AsiaBizToday.

What are the activities that you undertake?
What drives me is that education should not be exclusive and elitist. Top schools and best schools select these students. The focus has been on students who are academically strong which accounts for about 20% of students.

As a teacher, our job is to ensure that all students are successful in whatever career they choose to undertake. E.g. If they choose to be in the automotive industry, then be the best that they can be.  Most Asian parents would be horrified if their son or daughter chooses to be a mechanic, not on the list of choice professions. But they should be given the skills and tools to succeed in any industry they want. We have students who chose this industry – one is doing very well in BMW and the other sold 500 cars while he was still in college and now runs his own company, fixing up old cars and sells them to collectors. Another is now a pro racer.

The largest group of students at 75% to 80% should have equal focus as to how they want to learn. Just imagine what this majority can do if we can move these students to being extraordinary by equipping them with the 21st century skills from young. These human skills were completely systemised out of the education system in many countries.

Humanising Education is what we have been doing for the past 25 years with the track record to show for it.

What was your trigger and motivation to get into this?
My children and my college students. I wanted to make sure my daughters had the skills that were missing in so many college students. They are my business partners in owning and setting up the first school and all of the businesses now.

The lack of skills in my college students besides language skills like ability to think critically and have an opinion, the ability to write both creatively and academically, the ability and confidence to present, to handle content for their course with any depth, the ease of having a lively, engaged discussion in class with any teacher etc. put me on this path. And the feedback from my students that they loved what they learnt and how much their perspectives changed drove it home.

That was then. Today, what gets me going is that we have created a system that transforms students for a world of uncertainty and constant change. Most education systems are getting students ready for certainty.

What have been your experiences in this leadership position?
I have led based on what I felt was right, which was by serving my team. Encouraging and providing them the skills and tools for them to be great at what they do. So, we are big on training. We created a lot of our own in-house training that is very practical unlike a lot of teacher training that tends to focus on theory.

Many years later, I realised that the leadership style I have evolved into and trained our leaders is very much in line with leadership the way John C Maxwell leads and talks about in his books and training. It was from him that I learnt about servant leadership.

Which are the important factors that keep you going?

  • The horror of how far behind education is in the fast-changing world we are in now. Yet most educators and policy makers are doing so little to move it forward. What they are doing is taking baby steps when the world is on a rocket ship.
  • Keeping abreast of where the world is heading by attending international business and tech conferences, not in education conferences.
  • The fact that I work with my family and friends. We share so much together and we got to where we are today, together.

Have you faced any obstacles in your initiatives? Do you think you have faced specific challenges because of being a woman?

  • Working on changing an education system that is resistant to change on so many fronts – policy makers, teachers training policies and systems, the university systems, traditional mindsets of parents and teachers.
  • Requirements at governmental level to set up an international school was prohibitive until 2019 when the Ministry of Education finally relaxed the requirements.
  • The CAPEX to set up a school was prohibitive. Had to figure a way to do it that was manageable for a bunch of teachers.
  • A father predicted that we would close within six months of setting up our school in 2012. Two years later he sent his two children to our school system.
  • Mindset of the Ministry and many parents that the education from the West is better.

Where do you usually find inspiration from?

I was inspired by my girls when I started, created the businesses with my girls and moving forward for my girls. They’re 33 and 31 now.

What’s your proudest moment so far? 

They are too many on the ground level.

  • Set up the school business and the rest of the businesses together with my daughters, my family members, a friend and teacher, and my two ex-students. I guess the best would be the validation on a global and business level that we are on the right track. We came together because of a shared vision – to change education.
  • Featured in Cambridge University Union Yearbook six years in a row. In 2018, we were one of eight schools featured under Chapter 1 World Class. Only two schools were from Asia, one from China, the other us.
  • Selected by Endeavor Global New York as one of three school groups selected out of 32 countries over 22 years after screening 50,000+ companies.
  • My daughters, my niece and an ex-student are the game designers for ChemCaper, the first Chemistry Role Playing Game in the world which won the APICTA awards in Taiwan beating 17 countries and IMGA awards for South East Asia.
  • SOBA 2017 (Star Outstanding Business Award) for Female Entrepreneur of the Year and Best Employer.

How would you define success ?

  • Solving problems for many people at the same time and creating value for making that happen. Working and growing with my family.
  • Having great friendships along the way.
  • Making an impact on so many people’s lives.
  • Creating business partnerships with my teachers and staff. Co-investing together

What Advice do you have for other aspiring Entrepreneurs, especially women?
We can have it all. Success and family, good friends, a supportive ecosystem, a great network of likeminded people to create change for a better world. Many women think they have to choose one or the other. I decided that I wanted a business where I can have all that. So, I set about making it happen. So, Ladies, don’t wait for someone to hand this to us. A lot of people’s success comes at a price but it can be done without compromising what is important in our lives.