In 1991, when she came to India on a year-long sabbatical from college, while connecting with her roots Lina Ashar landed up taking a teaching stint at a prestigious heritage school in suburban Mumbai, an experience that changed her life and led to the burning question that ‘how can she bring back the joy of childhood for the children in India?’ It was the time when the education system in India was still grappling with a straitjacketed approach to education.
Crammed classrooms, disinterested students and over-stressed parents inspired her to work on a model of education that was fulfilling, effective and yet stress-free. The conviction to offer an education that set the child at the center, began with a preschool in Bandra (Mumbai) in the year 1993 with 25 students. With a successful formula in hand, Lina went from one preschool, Kangaroo Kids, to a network of them, whilst branching out to high schools, Billabong High International School, as well. Her journey of developing child centric schools across more than 44 different cities pan India, Dubai, Maldives and Qatar has been an outstanding one, supported by parents, education partners and a fierce team of dedicated, passionate and determined individuals at the school and central team level.
In her endeavor to make a difference in every child’s life, she wrote 2 books, ‘Who Do You Think You Are Kidding’ and ‘Drama Teen’. Lina has been recognized and awarded for her efforts as well as unique and meaningful contributions to the education sector, notable among them being - 'Innovative Women of the 21st Century Award' by Maharashtra United Nations Association, 'Exemplary Contribution in ECCE of the year working for young children and their education' by ECA Awards, ‘Women Super Achiever 2019’ at the 6th World Women Leadership Congress & Awards, ‘Brainfeed Lifetime Achievement Award 2018-19’, A.P.J Abdul Kalam Award for ‘Excellence in Education’ at the 46th National Summit on Start-Ups and Women Entrepreneurship, ‘The Economic Times Inspiring Business Leaders India 2016’ Award, ‘Alumni Excellence Winner’ by Australian High Commission 2015, ‘MTC Global Top 10 Thinkers’ 2015, ‘Lifetime Education Leadership Award’ by EduWorld 2014, to name a few.
Take a look at the conversation we had with an Educationalist, Entrepreneur and Writer Lina Ashar, the Founder of Kangaroo Kids Education Ltd (KKEL) and Billabong High International School (BHIS).
Tell us something about your life before Kangaroo Kids.
The journey that led me to where I am today started out in Australia when I had just become a teacher. I taught in a school called ‘Upway High’ in Melbourne and many of the children there were high-risk students from lower socio-economic families and broken homes. My attempts to help them form a connection between learning and application is what led to my penchant for hands-on and experiential learning. This was a notable moment that set me on my quest to transform education as we know it. The key for me was the design of the instruction, which I wanted to literally 'hook' kids to learning.
How has been the journey so far for you as an Entrepreneur?
When I had just started out as an education entrepreneur, I did not have any business management ideas. I did not follow any teachings from business gurus, nor did I understand India. All I had was a deep love for children, hatred of rote learning and knowledge of how to engage with children. Along the way, I learned the domains of business and a few caveats, one worth mentioning is that ‘every business association must align with the brand’s values and mission’. So, it has been a learning experience. There have been ups and downs, but when you learn to look at things from a different perspective, any challenge can be a chance at success.
In the beginning, I did not know how I would create the change I wanted to see, but today I am glad I let my passion for education and love for children direct me. I don't see myself as much of an entrepreneur but more of an artist who loves creating. It is this penchant to create that set us apart from other educational institutions and in some sense created a new movement in learning.
Education today is considered as a business. What is your opinion on the same?
Business is just an opportunity for someone to make their passion their career. I think that education as a business doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative concept. As long as the care for children, learning and growth remains constant, it doesn’t matter how we think of it. Maybe it being considered as a business can mean that it will reach the level that we wish for it to reach. After all, if you are going to pay for education, there must be some standard to ensure that the parents and children are getting their money’s worth.
For India, I see the business of education with a positive intention since we need much more investment. Most people and organisations that invest expect a reasonable rate of return. As long as we keep this rate reasonable; we should embrace the business of education. This is an overall win for the country. Competition will create different price points and customer profiles and keep quality high.
What barriers have you faced, as a woman, in becoming successful in your field? How did you overcome them?
I don't think my challenges were specific to my being a woman, but the general ones that most people face as they try to set up a business in India. Specifically, in my field initially, when I had opened my first Preschool in Mumbai, we faced resistance from everyone in the field of education as we were trying to challenge the norm.
The only challenge I would name as specific to be a woman is a maintenance of a balance between my domestic and professional life. My passion and my determination to succeed helped me overcome the business challenges, however I failed on the domestic front and had to face the dissolution of my marriage.
What is the biggest struggle of a woman entrepreneur today in India?
I believe that things are getting easier for women entrepreneurs in India and don't see major differences in challenges faced by men and women. However, women in leadership position in corporate India do have challenges in terms of pay and being equivalent to their male peers.
A female entrepreneur or young woman who wants to be an entrepreneur does not always start off from a level playing field compared to a young man from the same community. She may not have access to the start-up capital (land, house, money) she needs to start her business, and she may also have other time commitments like childcare. Do you think the existing programmes introduced by the government need enhancement? Any suggestions to the government?
There are a range of programs available for women entrepreneurs, but I think that they are limited by the aid they provide and the scope of business that others see women pursuing. They do not give women the freedom to challenge the norm, nor the support to do so successfully. My suggestion would be to increase the number of programs and to allow women the freedom to grow. Women are strong and independent, but everyone needs support. And women should get it, at least from their government and country. I do however see positives moves being made in this area as well as in the perception of boys and girls in urban India. Rural India still has a long way to go.
These days, every other person wants to start a business. What is that one quality, if a person has, then only he/she should think of starting a business?
Any business venture should have a strong purpose, which should be the primary aspect of its initiation. However, the quality that any entrepreneur should possess is the acumen to align all decisions, actions, strategies with that purpose, to ensure that they achieve success. Everyone has the potential to start their own business if they have a strong purpose.
Based on your own experience, what advice would you give to women considering pursuing a career as an entrepreneur?
Follow your passions and don’t compromise on your values, which is essential for your journey as an entrepreneur to have meaning. I think that it is important to take advice and inspiration from others and learn from them, but don’t let anyone else decide your worth. It is in your hands to make your dreams a reality.
Movement for equality of women’s rights has been a long battle. Being treated the same as male counterparts, not better, just the same. Equal opportunities and social rights for women… education, employment, etc. How far has this equality game reached or is successful? Can you suggest ways in which this can be achieved?
I believe that courage and unity play important roles in achieving gender equality. For equal rights, opportunities and lives, it should not just be women fighting for it. It is a basic right, and it is about time we stopped thinking differently. To help achieve this goal, women need to break out of the roles that have been decided for them solely because of their gender. We need to take the first step to stand for equal opportunity.
What main change would you like to see for young girls in the next generation?
I would like for girls to dream big, not just when they are young, but when they grow older too. Don’t let the expectations and norms of society constrict your growth nor force you to conform to be anything other than what you want to be. Greater systems to support self-belief would be a wonderful change to see!
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would that be?
I would tell myself not to worry about fitting in. You are too ‘you’ to be anyone else. Embrace what makes you different and unique because that is what will get you ahead in life.
What woman inspires you and why?
Self-made women like Oprah Winfrey have always been an inspiration to me because of their grit and resilience. Their unyielding attitude to keep going and to never give up in their beliefs is what drives me to achieve success and believe in myself.
What qualities make a great leader?
A great leader is one who understands her/his people. She/he understands what drives them, how to motivate them and how they feel. So, empathy, emotional intelligence and emotional reasoning are important qualities of a great leader in today’s world.
International Women’s Day celebrates the scientific, political, economic and social achievements of women. In your experience as a successful woman, what is its significance?
The significance of women’s day is that it is a global celebration of women and their achievements worldwide. But the most significant part of this day is that it unites women in their support of each other. When life is a competition, this day is a celebration of each women’s unique spirit and achievements.
Apeksha News Network congratulates Lina Ashar, who started her career as a teacher and today is one of the most renowned educators and Edupreneur in India, for all her efforts and contribution towards the education segment in India as well as overseas, and wishes her good luck for her future endeavors!