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.

Creating a culture of continuous thinking and learning

Elmarie Potgieter, Managing Director – RITE International Inc

A passionate educationalist who upholds two fundamental principles: Capacity Building and Sustainable Solutions, with a relentless focus on building smarter, well groomed & skilled individuals, Elmarie started her own education consultancy company two years ago after a long career in education across several continents. Her mother was a teacher, and as much as she resisted the career, she ended up following in her footsteps.

Elmarie is a certified Emotional Intelligence Coach, a Mindfulness Practitioner, writer and trainer. She is also a passionate advocate for empowerment of learners of all ages. At the same time she has a manufacturing business of eclectic jewellery from semi-precious stones and other materials that she collects from all over the world. She loves reading and continuously expanding her own horizons through travelling and collecting interesting art.

“In order to be a good educator, we ourselves should continuously learn and focus on developing our skills and talents; I love arts and often perform as singer in shows. I am also very passionate about serving the community, and hence I am a member of the Soroptimist International Organisation, and also serve as advisor to MCII, the Malaysian Collective Impact Initiative and an organisation I previously led as CEO, Elmarie adds.”

Team ABT captures some more insights from her journey in this interview with Elmarie Potgeiter.

Can you name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as an Educator?
A few figures stand out.  I was in a girl’s only school in Pretoria, South Africa, called AHMP.  Our principal was lovingly called “Blits” – a tremendous lady who modeled to us all that women doesn’t have to face a glass ceiling.  That we could become anyone we wanted to be.  As a result, my class of 82 has produced tremendously successful women who are in leadership positions, influential economists, writers, actors and leaders in their respective fields.

Another person that influenced me greatly was my Head of School as a teacher/Head of Department.  Her name is Thana Pienaar from Prestige College Hammanskraal, South Africa.  She introduced me to the field of cognitive education, which sparked a life-long interest in learning about the impact of neuroscientific research on teaching practice.  This has been an area of intense research for me over the years, and I’ve implemented this learning in all the national education transformation programmes that I’ve subsequently designed.

The last person I would like to single out is the late Stephen Covey.  I was privileged to attend one of his training sessions, and the 7 Habits of Highly Successful People has become a guideline for my own life ever since.

What has been your biggest challenge as a Woman Entrepreneur?
Despite the advances in technology and education, women are still fighting a battle that should not be necessary.  The very fact that we single out “female entrepreneurial issues” is a sign that there simply is no equality in the marketplace for women. People believe that “men are good in business and that women perform better in other careers is still a pervasive belief.”  I think women themselves use male entrepreneurial and business figures as benchmarks against which they measure their own success.  Let’s face it, look at the corporate boards across the world, the leadership positions in governments, CEOs of major businesses – and you will see that these roles are still mostly filled by men.

Female entrepreneurs not only have to deal with typecasting and perceptions around their own abilities in business, but also have to deal with other limitations – access to loans, access to decision-makers to present ideas, and even more importantly, a lack of support for their multiple roles as mothers, wives, caretakers of family and then also this role of entrepreneur which is often not supported by family members and friends.

Amongst the younger generation here in Malaysia, I’ve noticed that there are a few more female entrepreneurs who are entering the market, but on the whole, it still is a very male-dominated world.

Tell us about the journey of RITE Education’ so far.
RITE Education is growing from strength to strength.  I’ve just expanded the business through the creation of RITE International Inc in Labuan, as well as an Sdn Bhd in Malaysia.  This was necessitated by the expansion of the company’s business and perceptions in the Malaysian marketplace that a limited liability company is better that a limited liability partnership.  I am very pleased that RITE was selected by Agensi Innovasi Malaysia to lead the development of the Genosis Project – an exciting new accreditation model for schools in Malaysia and the region.

We also deliver school improvement and leadership development programmes nationwide in partnership with the PINTAR Foundation, the Edge Foundation and Credit Suisse and other international foundations as well as investment groups across the world. We also developed a programme to promote thinking skills in young children…an innovative and unique curriculum, called ThinkWise.

How would you describe your leadership style?
RITE stands for Research, Innovation, Transformation and Empowerment – the four pillars upon which RITE Education Consultancy is founded. We ground our work in the latest and most relevant educational and leadership research and best practices; Innovation:  We constantly innovate our programmes and practices and our work is grounded in Inquiry Processes; Transformation:  We always aim at transforming existing practices as well as the larger system through capacity building and sustainable Practices that have measurable impact; Empowerment:  This is my key focus.  I believe in empowering other people and hence my company works with independent associates who are given the opportunity to become financially independent and to have the capacity to build their own career as independent RITE Associates.

It is important to give regular and meaningful feedback to my team, but mostly to lead through example and to give them the ownership and trust needed to lead themselves and projects.  This is the best way to develop, motivate and inspire your workforce.

If you were to do one thing differently, what would that be?
I would have started my own business a bit earlier in my career, however, looking back, I can see how my various roles have prepared me to lead and grow RITE Education. I would also have loved to expand my field of study to include a formal education in Neuroscience!

Could you recall any one proud moment/milestone?
Being selected as a Women Icon Malaysia 2018 meant a great deal to me.  As the only non-Malaysian amongst the group of icons, I felt really proud that my work in the country and across the region had been recognised.

What would you like to achieve in the next coming years?
I would like to see that the programmes we are developing really produce learners, young people, who are equipped with the necessary skills and attributes that will help make a positive change in the world.

I would also love to see how the citizens of Malaysia start to change their views on education, that it is not about the number of “a’s” achieved in national exams such as the SPM, that it is about well-rounded and skilled individuals who care deeply about others and who use their innovative thinking to ensure that they help preserve and sustain the fragile resources to safeguard life on earth.  Perhaps to see more kindness, more deep thinking about consequences and connections between things.

Here is the video of Elmarie Potgeiter at the Women Icons Malaysia 2018 Awards by BERG Singapore.


Deep in the trenches, building solutions to improve education

James Centenera, Co-founder & CEO – The Ultimate Learning Accelerator (TULA) – Philippines

Passionate about addressing climate change through alternative energy sources, James Centenera originally started his career as an Engineer. His stint included travelling around Australia building wind farms. The inflection point came after a trip to Nepal to teach kids, where he became extremely excited about education and the potential it had, for helping solve issues such as poverty in the developing world.

He then pivoted from engineering and became a management consultant, and was able to get a break and work on an education project in Pakistan, learning from leading global experts. “Since then I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to spend every working day focused on solving problems in the education system”, he says.

After volunteering as a teacher in Nepal and working with McKinsey, James joined the world’s leading education company, Pearson. He helped spread innovative education ventures throughout the developing world. One of his projects was to establish and lead operations at APEC Schools, a chain of affordable private high schools supported by Ayala and Pearson.

James currently leads The Ultimate Learning Accelerator (TULA), a chain of innovative after-school learning centres that he co-founded in the Philippines in 2015. TULA’s focus is preparing children for a successful future by developing their academic knowledge, character, attitude, and 21st century skills.

Team ABT reached out to James to know more about his interesting journey as an educationist and insights from his experiences, captured in the interview below.

Tell us who inspires you the most and why?
I am really inspired by great parents and how they make incredible sacrifices for their kids without any reward. Many of them have missed out on opportunities for themselves, but work tirelessly and completely selflessly to make sure their kids have a much better future than they do.

What led you to take up a career in Education & Learning?
Whilst working in Nepal as a volunteer teacher, I realised more than ever that all those kids could do great things and had the right character traits and attitudes, even better than me. But they also needed a quality education to advance their skills and unlock career opportunities. Education is not a silver bullet, but it is an absolute necessity for success and greater impact in the 21st century.

What is The Ultimate Learning Accelerator (TULA) all about?
21st century industries and societies require people with more than just academic grades. They require people that can think critically, work well with others, adapt to unexpected situations, work hard, stay resilient when encountering failure, practice curiosity, and a lot more. And unfortunately schools still have a heavy focus on academics. TULA is here to supplement schools and make sure kids are prepare with everything they need to succeed in the future and live meaningful lives.

What are the key decisions that you make in your current role?
I lead the team that develops and implements TULA strategy, including our learning model and business model. I spend most of my time deciding understanding how learning works and the market, and adjusting our model to suit the learners and attract parents. This also means developing the team and motivating them to do great things.

Tell us about some of the challenges & your experience in education in developing countries
One of our biggest challenges that we face is that many parents went to school and it didn’t necessarily help improve their situation significantly. Therefore convincing them that their kids can do anything and achieve their dreams is difficult. In addition, many parents tend to be slightly fixed minded at times and don’t necessarily believe that all of their kids could learn to do anything and be anyone they want.

Could you recall any proud milestone? Tell us more.
I’m always thrilled whenever our learners achieve great things. I regularly hear about our learners being the top students in their schools or just being much braver and proactive at home. Every story makes me proud of our team and how they’ve helped.

If you were to do/change one thing, what would that be?
I wish I could catch parents earlier in their life and develop both their ambition and growth mindset towards their kids. In addition, I wish that we could completely rethink how schools worked so that TULA wouldn’t even be needed.

How do you see social media explosion and the inroads it has made in our daily lives,especially among Students?
For certain socio-economic segments, social media has definitely had an impact. You could say it has brought us closer together by allowing us to keep in touch despite being physically far away from others. That said, you could also argue the most problematic elements of growing up have been made worse, such as bullying and peer pressure with likes and shares. This is quite worrying and a greater sense of independence, confidence, and resilience needs to be developed in children to deal with this.

Where do you see yourself 3 years from now?
I see myself still deep in the trenches working out how to improve the education system. This is a critical problem facing the future of humanity and impacting every other sector, but this is not a problem that will solve itself and we are just starting the transformation now.

Equipping people with skills to serve the society at all levels

Mr. Chitresh Lather, CEO- PDM University

Mr. Chitresh Lather has always been passionate about learning new things in life and he thought that a career in education is a perfect way to achieve it.   His immense interest in the field of technology since his childhood and keenness to understand how things work, led him to choose Electronics Engineering.  Secondly, being into the education business, his father wanted him to study abroad and understand the dynamics of foreign education system.

He strongly believes in the ideology that there are millions of highly talented students in India who cannot afford to study abroad due to the high costs involved, but Chitresh could, at University of Southampton. Understanding how education system works abroad and the living environment from a students’ perspective and replicating the same in India so that those students can get access to it at an affordable price in their own country is what drives him the most.

PDM University – Prabhu Dayal Memorial (PDM) Group was established in the year 1995 by Sh. Joginder Singh (his father). The sole purpose of the organisation since its inception has always been the service to the society through education and healthcare. Over the last two decades, the group has seen an exponential growth and success in the field of education because of the tremendous efforts of its staff members and students.

The group has also made tangible progress towards its founder’s dream to create a community of learning that crosses cultural boundaries and produce global leaders. Before the formation of PDM University, the group ran 14 different institutions providing education in the field of engineering, pharmacy, dental sciences, management, education, computer applications etc. All of these independent institutions have now been brought up a single umbrella known as PDM University.

What are the initiatives at PDM University that makes it a unique institution?
Since the inception of PDM Group, we have always believed in education for all. We have pushed forward the boundaries of knowledge, equipping our people with the skills so that they can serve the society at any level. I believe, in any organisation it is the approach and the culture of the higher management that makes it unique. At PDM, our approach is the enrichment of the society at every level.

For us, education business is all about giving rather than earning and this is what makes PDM a unique institution. As far as the other aspects are concerned, PDM University is home to one of the world’s top class education technologies in the globe. Here, the students not only get the chance to experience some very good facilities but also explore their minds in different fields. Our advanced facilities, combined with the guidance of our expert staff, can help turn their raw talent and enthusiasm into the specific skills and knowledge needed to succeed in their chosen career, and to meet life’s challenges head-on.

Tell us about some of the important decisions that you make, as the CEO of the Institution.
I have to get involved in each and every aspect of the organisation. For me some of the focus areas are day-to-day administration, admissions, strategy, marketing, finance, human resources and operations.

I spend a significant amount of time in defining the strategy for the university keeping in view our vision, mission and the goals. I keep myself a part of every segment of the university irrespective of its scale. I firmly believe, for being a great leader you have to be a great performer and should be able to drive a team rather than driving yourself.

What are the top 3 things that helped you succeed in your professional & personal life?
The biggest and the foremost think that helped me achieve whatever I am at this phase of my life has been the tremendous blessings of the almighty. I have been blessed with multiple talents since my childhood and have always found luck to be on my side. The power that I receive from the eternal faith that has been inculcated in me by the supreme power has always pushed me further and further in my life.

The second thing that has driven me this far and will always drive me throughout my life is the inspiration that I receive from my father. He is perfect example of a complete self made man and my super hero. His journey, from being an ordinary man to a successful businessman has always given me motivation, strength and power to achieve my dreams.

The third thing would be the people that have been significantly involved in my professional career and that includes those who have sincerely helped me achieve success and those who have spent all their efforts in letting my success down. I would also like to mention about the professional insights that I have gained through my education at the University of Southampton UK, IMD Switzerland and UCL London, have really helped me understand the dynamics of managing higher education institutions.

Could you recall any proud moment or milestone? Tell us more.
The first thing that comes to my mind when I think about the milestones is the formation of PDM University. Reframing an entire organisation and re-branding it as an altogether different entity involves tremendous amount of energy and expertise. The underlining risk involved in merging all the different institutions under the PDM Group into PDM University was huge and had a lot at stake. But the results have been phenomenal.

Unlike other examples of higher education institutions being merged in to a university, we have received tremendous response from all our stake holders since the beginning of the university. Apart from this, there are certain proud moments for us like being awarded as one of the Economic Times Best Education Brands or being amongst the top 3 smart campuses in the country at the NDTV Digitising India Awards. Having said that I would say we are yet to achieve our best given the kind of potential that we have as a team at PDM University.

If you were to do one thing differently, what would that be?
To be very frank, the answer to this would be nothing. I believe that whatever happens in your life, there is always a reason to it. Your past, your decisions and your mistakes make you the person that you are today. Often people like to change the things that had brought struggle or pain in their lives, for me those things are the essential elements that drive your success. Changing those could mean changing the position that you are in today. There might me a few things that I also think could have been done differently, but I have never believed in sticking to the past and have always focused on the present.

What would you like to achieve in the coming years?
India has huge potential in the field of education and healthcare. Being one of the biggest economies in the world, we still struggle to be among the top 200 in the higher education. In the coming years, we hope to give the people of India, a super model of higher education that would be known for its academic standards and research practices.

To achieve this, we’re constantly ‘going beyond’ and investing in every facet of our culture in a bid to demonstrate our commitment to becoming the competitive, responsive and resilient community that will help all our stakeholders to fulfill their dreams. On the personal level, I would like to contribute much more socially in the field of education by imparting free education to the people who still strive for the basic necessities in our country.