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“You do not have to be a tech expert to start a tech company.” With Douglas Brown & Jaweria Sethi

You do not have to be a tech expert to start a tech company. However, it is important for you to know the technologies you require in setting up your product offering. For example, I do not have a background in economics. My two co-founders have their backgrounds in accounting and psychology. Yet, we are […]

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You do not have to be a tech expert to start a tech company. However, it is important for you to know the technologies you require in setting up your product offering. For example, I do not have a background in economics. My two co-founders have their backgrounds in accounting and psychology. Yet, we are developing product offering that leverages technology. I believe it is important to know with clarity about how we want to use technology to create value for the users.

As a part of my series about “Lessons from Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jaweria Sethi.

Jaweria is an alternate education entrepreneur, born and raised in Pakistan. She advocates for the agency of children in learning environments and is the founder of Edopia which is a democratic learning community. She is studying at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she is developing the framework for an online learning community called Village Square.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

For 16 years of my life, I studied at a school where I was a passive recipient of the information the educators delivered. They expected me to sit on the same seat for 5.5 hours every day. My teachers decided who sat next to me. I could not share my thoughts/ideas with the friends sitting next to me, unless advised. If my mind wandered off to inquire further or make connections with the actual world, they asked me to ‘focus’. There was always a correct answer for everything. I was in a race against everyone else. To prove my worth, I had to be better than others. No one ever had the time to talk about emotions, feelings or conflicts. The twenty-minute snack recess was the only time during the day where we lived on our terms. Our social life and connections were a by-product of the entire experience, and never a priority for the administration. As oppressive as it sounds, I can confidently say that I share this experience with billions of humans across the world. Billions of children across the world are experiencing this at this instant, as I am typing this sentence.

A fish knows nothing about water because it has no anti-environment to guide its perception. I never questioned my schooling while I was at school. However, my exposure during the undergraduate experience made me question all the years gone by. It put me on a path of questioning schooling and education as we know it. And hence, the quest for answers began.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

Two years ago, I was going home when I received a call from a renowned singer and activist. He said that he had heard about my work and wanted me to develop a learning solution for a school in the northern region of Pakistan. Malala Yusufzai built that school using her Nobel Peace Prize money. We visited that school, which was about 8 hours away from where I live. Once we reached that place, we saw a beautiful campus, nestled on top of a mountain with a fast-running river at the foothills. The place was out of this world. Since they built it using a hefty investment, it had computer labs, science labs, a library, playgrounds…there was nothing in the infrastructure that was lacking from a school campus point of view.

Despite having all the resources, we could not develop a suitable learning solution for that school because that area did not have qualified human resource, which is central to any K-12 education experience. The experience made me realize the importance of leveraging on technology and qualified human resources to create holistic solutions. For almost 200 years, we have associated learning with brick and mortar institutions called schools. I realised that if we develop models with low investment in buildings and campuses and higher investment in technology and facilitation, we can create viable learning solutions for many who lack access to it.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I started my first venture, which is an alternate and democratic school in Pakistan, I was 23 years old. I had just graduated from my university and did not have any prior experience working in the education industry. I felt it would be hard for me to convince people of my vision for learning because of my inexperience. Therefore, I hired a 65-year-old principal who had many years of experience working in the education industry to be a representative of my ideas. That was one of the biggest mistakes I made because I realized that no matter how young or inexperienced you are if you firmly believe that your ideas can work and have a passion that is untamed, no one can communicate the spirit of your ideas as you can.

Entrepreneurship is all about diving in and owning your vision for the future, which is something that I learned the hard way. I respectfully asked her to leave one month later. As soon as I took over, despite my inexperience, I connected with people and built a community of team members and parents around a vision unheard of in my part of the world.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

There was a time when we had to face some trouble from the government because all of the private schools in our country were ordered to reduce revenues by 20%. As a small, alternate learning community, that was something that had put our sustainability at stake. However, the way we went about it was by inviting all our stakeholders (team members and the families who were working with us), and by sharing our challenges with them in all honesty. Luckily we were able to convince the families to support us during this time. I feel that because of the quality and value that we were giving to our customers and to those who were working with us, we were able to push ourselves at a time where the existence of the company itself seemed to be in jeopardy.

There are numerous times when you wake up and you do not feel like not going to work, however, I believe that as entrepreneurs we usually don’t have an option to give up once we have started certain things. We cannot send in a resignation letter to anyone but ourselves. You have to completely invest everything that you have because the stakes are so high and there is no option of quitting once you are in it and it is working… unless you go bankrupt and that’s a different thing.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

As cliched as it sounds, I believe that my parents had the most important role in my success. Both of them do not come from privilege and did not have the same opportunities that we got to have as children. They worked hard to secure success for their children. Sometimes my ideas were so radical that I could not get them across to them as they could not appreciate the finer details of the vision. However, they always instilled an attitude go-getter in me; someone who doesn’t give up easily and is bold about decisions, all the while never losing the humility of accepting mistakes.

I remember that there was a time when we were thinking of moving from our small community to a larger campus, but in doing so I would have exhausted every single penny of savings I had. I was reluctant to make that decision, but I remember that my mom made me invest everything that I had without thinking twice about it because she saw that the vision that I was talking about could not have been met in the place that I was at. This is one of the many examples where I did something far riskier than my potential would have allowed me to do.

In my work life, Leonard Turton and Jason Preator (consultants from Summerhill Democratics), had a pivotal role to play in shaping my understanding about learning. I remember that when I first interacted with them in 2016; I shared the daily schedule of our learning community with them. They looked at and smiled at me. They said it was a very ‘well-intentioned’ timetable. Then they asked me, ‘where is the voice of the child in all of this?’. That was a life-changing moment for me. It changed my entire perspective on how we support the learning of children.

Can you please give us your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favourite quote is, ‘ Perfectionism is a dangerous state of mind in an imperfect world. — Robert Hillyer

All my life I have been someone who was very meticulous about getting work done, and I would not leave any stone unturned before my submissions. However, once I stepped into my work life, I realized that there is no such thing as perfection…even as human beings are a work in progress. Things improve and evolve only by being put into action. Things left on desks and in computer tabs, notes and slides become procrastination. For things and people to become a better version of themselves, we need action. A constant cycle of reflection and action are necessary to improve the human condition.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

I have been running a school, an alternate learning community for children for the past six (6) years, which has around 300 children in it. My work follows a theme of empowering children to make decisions about their learning and life in physical and digital realms. This is something I feel strongly about because as adults we have a universal attitude that makes us feel entitled to decide on behalf of children. We feel we know what is best for them. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy over time because when children who are not allowed to decide about what and how they want to learn, how they want to live their lives and how they want to manage their conflicts, they become passive recipients of instruction and lose the ability to have better control over their lives. Our alternate learning school helps to address this problem by giving our students greater autonomy over their learning so that they can be in control of their success.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I think something that stands out about our work on the ground or online is our honesty and our humility towards accepting our mistakes.

From the very beginning, we made an oath to ourselves that we are not going to lie to our stakeholders, be it the children, the parents, or members of the team. I feel this has incredibly helped us develop organizations that are rooted in trust and value. This makes everyone feel a lot safer than they would otherwise. Many people build organizations based on projections and lies, and it comes back at them. You can not hide imperfections for a long time, so it’s better to embrace them. It is important to invite your stakeholders to help you become better. When you are open to feedback and criticism, it helps you grow.

Recently we hired a group of people as our pioneer teachers for the Ed Tech platform that we are trying to design. We told them we expect that our MVP will be out in November. However, we hit a roadblock, realized that our development is going to take far more time than we expected. It might delay it by 2 or 3 more months. Instead of coming up with an excuse to hold on to the educators for a longer time, we emailed everyone and told them that we are in a fix. We gave them the option to stay with us or leave. Not a single educator left. Such instances always reiterate the importance of honesty for me.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are working on two new projects. The first one is an EdTech platform that will allow children ages 6–16 to take live online multidisciplinary small group classes with educators from around the world. The children will have the freedom and flexibility to choose what they want to learn, how they want to learn and when they want to learn. The same flexibility will also be enjoyed by the educators who will be able to overcome the bureaucracy of the school where they are usually overworked, underpaid and lack autonomy over what and how to teach.

In the second project, we are also working on developing a framework to democratize microschooling by empowering parents to set up their own schools of 10–40 learners in their local communities, even in their living rooms! You can call the new venture to be the Airbnb of schools. It will be a tech enabled, one-stop solution for any family that wants to break away from the traditional systems of mass schooling and standardization which offer a one size fits all approach to learning.

We are working on both ventures with mentors and colleagues at Harvard.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

Women are under-represented in tech. The overall number of female software engineers in the US has increased by only 2% over the last 20 years. This is an alarming representation of women in tech. There is an implicit bias against the abilities of women which can become one of the biggest threats to diversity in the workplace. This bias exists not only at the entry-level but also across all the different stages that a woman goes through.

We have a problem of the broken rung. As fewer and fewer women reach higher levels in an organization, it impacts the overall diversity. As they are not a part of the decision-making process at the strategic level it affects the recruitments processes.

To rectify this problem, families should encourage young girls to pursue technical education in schools and colleges. They should build their capacity through formal and informal channels. Once the supply goes up, there will be more candidates to take on these positions and it will promote more and more people to the managerial level. Once women are in strategic positions in organizations, they can create space for more women to join.

We can also create a culture of calling out discrimination and instances where a woman’s hard work is going unnoticed. If we build these practices within the framework of organizations, it can increase the representation of women in tech.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

I often say that “women are exhausted”. It applies to women in tech, women in business, women in jobs, women at home.. as a gender I feel that we stretch ourselves on fronts I think men may not relate to.

The exhaustion stems from PMS and the monthly menstruation cycle, from pregnancy and bearing children, from the maternal guilt of not doing enough, from the responsibilities of home management and from upholding familial relations. Then on the job, it extends to being out there to prove your worth, to make people understand that you are good enough. While I really respect most men and the work they put in to support their families, I feel that many cannot relate to the exhaustion of a woman. What can we do to rectify it? It starts from the home: by lending emotional support, being better listeners, playing an active role in raising the family, dividing the responsibilities of a household and by being the champions for the woman’s progress. It starts from there then it goes all the way to the workplace where men in the organization need to be realistic with their expectation, create an equitable environment and appreciate when appreciation is due.

Having said that, I would add that whatever I have been able to accomplish in life and continue to do so, would not have been possible without the undying support of my husband. He has supported and celebrated my growth like no other. I wish more and more women end up with partners/family members/friends who understand them and help them grow.

What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

I think the pre-requisite for anyone to restart their engines is to have a desire to make it happen, because many people get complacent and comfortable and I believe that, too, is a choice. If someone wants to improve, iterate, and innovate, then in that case a good starting point is to have hypotheses and assumptions to test. Start with identifying the problems, then gather the evidence to determine how you would solve them. However, you don’t stop there. You need to listen to the people who face those problems and search for solutions. You test your assumptions and validate them along the way. This is an ongoing process of building, measuring, testing and reflecting. Some companies delve deeply into analyzing the information that they have. They are not too quick to act. Most of the learning happens in the field. Your actions engender learning, and learning makes you grow.

Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

I think three things that help the most with sales are:

1) Making sure that your sales team understands the value proposition of your company and lives by the same mantra as you. A lot of companies cannot get the results they are looking for because there is a disconnect between the vision of the leadership and the people who are implementing it. If they are not speaking the same language as you are, or exhibiting the qualities you endorse, you may not achieve a lot of goals.

2) A/B Testing of smaller cohorts of potential customers. Rather than focusing on gross increases in the number of people you are working with, it helps to monitor customer flows and the value you develop for small cohorts of customers. Parameters that reflect this are subscription rate, retention rate and the word-of-mouth spread of your idea.

3) Giving feedback and appreciation when and where it is due is very important in developing a human centered team design. Being heard and supported leads to a culture of trust.

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

We are a startup that bootstrapped so the most effective medium for us has been social media because it is economical and very effective in reaching out to the people we are targeting. Many times the customers don’t realize what they want. So rather than asking them what they would like to have, it is far more important to observe the behaviour of the people as they respond to your product. It is important to have clear and concise communication with our customers. Rather than talking about the features only, we try to define the experience so that the customers can visualize what the fulfilment of that need would look like. These things are important in building a rapport with the customers. Something that worked for us while we were establishing the first alternate learning community was the first video that we made. It was a 2-minute video. It didn’t talk about the features of the community. Instead, it stated how our vision aligns with the needs of the families. The video became viral and got us the first 50 students who joined the community.

It is also very important to be very nimble in the face of change. A lot of times startups believe that their product is for a very specific market, but it captures the attention of another related market, which perhaps was in the blind spot of the team before that.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

The most important aspect of customer service for us has been after-sales services. It is important that your after-sales service department is always available and willing to solve problems that the customers have. Most users prefer a very simple and concise user-experience, so it is important to make the cycle of service very simple. Customers like choices, but not too much. Finding the right mix of choices is key.

Another thing that has helped us build a strong relationship with the people we work with is that I conduct all introductory meetings myself. I communicate what we can offer, try to understand the expectations that the customers are putting forward and let them know if we will meet those expectations. This allows us to start off on a note of mutual understanding. As we are scaling up and entering the arena of tech, maintaining such human contact is difficult, but we still try to hold on to the aspect of relationship building in some shape or form. People feel safe when they can reach a human representative to get their problems resolved. If a company cannot afford to have human representatives, then it is important to make sure that the processes involved in resolving conflicts and complaints are very clear and simple to follow.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

While there are a lot of strategies on the book for avoiding customer churn, like charging annual subscriptions or offering discounts of different sorts for continuous usage, I feel that all of that are add ons. The most important aspect that will make a customer stay is user experience and support. There can be a company which has a lot of distinct features, however, the user experience of accessing those features is very buggy or taxing for the people using the product. It is important for us to be companies that learn along the way. It is never about developing a product, launching it and then never looking back. Listening to the needs of your customers intently and responding to the behaviour is essential for customer retention.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.

Five things you should know to start a tech company are:

1) Edtech is developing at an unprecedented rate. However, I feel that Edtech still has a long way to go. While thousands of new product offerings are developed every year (some districts in the US have to choose from more than 3500 edtech products every year), very few products can actually be deemed as disruptive. Many products are developed without a research-based design and are often unable to differentiate between the needs of different learners. Many don’t gather data for iterative improvements. There is a dire understanding of the needs of the users and developing products that are responsive to those needs. We spend extensive efforts in trying to understand how children learn best while designing our offerings.

2) You do not have to be a tech expert to start a tech company. However, it is important for you to know the technologies you require in setting up your product offering. For example, I do not have a background in economics. My two co-founders have their backgrounds in accounting and psychology. Yet, we are developing product offering that leverages technology. I believe it is important to know with clarity about how we want to use technology to create value for the users.

3) Build a core team. When you are launching a new product, you do not need a big team. For instance, in our company, we have a team of four (4) people, excluding the cofounders. We identified the features of our MVP and accordingly found people who had the skills we required to achieve those goals. It is important to leverage the gig economy to keep your salary bill low while adding a diverse set of skills when and if needed. In our case, we heavily relied on Fiverr and Upwork for developing our marketing collateral and managing our marketing channels.

4) While it is very important to have a fair idea of how you would execute your startup, many people get caught up in analysis paralysis by over planning and trying to perfect the outcome before going to the market. It is important to just dive in. Improve on the idea going forward, and you need to have an actionable matrix to test your success. I think this is something that I have applied to both of my projects. When I started the alternate learning community, I just had a vision and a blueprint of the idea, but I did not spend an extensive amount of time on projections. I was very honest to my customers about what we offered. I never promised perfection. Rather, I always offered a commitment to being a work in progress. The same thing has happened with the second venture. We drafted some basic blueprints to get an idea of what the project entailed. As we work, we try to listen actively. We analyze the behaviour and needs of the people we are working with and try to understand their expectations along the way. The product continues to develop.

5) Know the difference between persevering and pivoting. People persevere for too long because they get obsessed with the idea and its approach, although it’s not working. Knowing when to pivot is important. Ideas don’t always work as you thought they would. Your agility can help you reduce wastage and mitigate your losses. Before I founded the alternate learning community, I ran another venture for one year which was a community space/club for teens and young adults. Within a few months into it, we realized that it did not have the potential to self-sustain. We tried to persevere for a while, but we were losing a lot of money. Therefore, almost a year into it, I decided to pivot.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I have been an advocate for children’s agency. If I had to spearhead a movement, it would have the same theme of changing the attitude of adults towards children’s ability to decide what is best for them. It doesn’t matter if a child is coming from privilege, it’s just something that is ubiquitous. Agency allows children to grow and embrace responsibility. Like other humans, they learn by facing the consequences of their actions. I believe respecting a child’s right to negotiate his presence, make choices and even fail is something that needs to be preserved.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 😊

I would have loved to have breakfast with A.S. Neil but unfortunately, he is no longer alive. He is the founder of Summerhill School, which is a hundred-year-old democratic school in the UK. If not him, then I would like to have breakfast with Daniel Greenburg who is the founder of Sudbury Valley School.

I believe that it is people like them who are the ultimate sages that the world of education now needs to learn from. They started their respective ventures many years ago and even then; they were ahead of their time. A lot of alternative models of learning keep on coming up, but I still don’t see the soul and intentionality in them as much as I can see it in these few schools in the world. They were progressive, democratic, and extremely student-centred. These individuals themselves were not just driven only by profitability and returns. They genuinely cared for the children and took an interest in learning how children learn best. Unfortunately, I believe that these models did not get the appreciation they deserve. They did not scale in the same way other ventures can do today with a lot more investment, but they touched lives in a phenomenal manner. I would love to meet Greenberg and applaud him for his valuable contributions.

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