Former employees of Facebook, Nhu Tran and Aditya Gupta bonded over their shared passion for education. In 2019, they co-founded Schola, a personalized and gamified English and Science learning platform catered for non-native English learners between the ages of three to 15. With over 100,000 online classes conducted, Schola is currently operating in Singapore, Vietnam, and Thailand.
Oasis (OS): What was your experience learning English like?
Aditya Gupta (AG): I grew up in Chennai, India, where we learn English as our first language in school, so mastering the language was not difficult for me. However, it was difficult to stay motivated in classes sometimes due to the teaching methods. I’ve always preferred a one-on-one or small group setting because it requires full participation and fosters interaction.
I also struggled with the confidence to speak my mind, and this carried on even when I came to Singapore for my undergraduate studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS). I had the opportunity to go to Sweden for a year for the NUS Overseas College entrepreneurship program, and that was when things changed. I knew that it was essential to articulate my thoughts as succinctly as possible if I wanted to be an entrepreneur in the future. Hence, I decided to join one of Sweden’s oldest theater groups, named Stockholm Players, to improve my confidence in speaking and articulating my thoughts. That helped me with my confidence in speaking English.
Nhu Tran (NT): Similar to Aditya, I also had the opportunity to study English back in Vietnam but lacked the confidence to express myself clearly. The Vietnamese education system focused heavily on memorizing grammar and vocabulary instead of encouraging students to communicate fluently and confidently.
When I was 18, I was awarded the ASEAN scholarship by the Singaporean government and had the opportunity to study there. That was the most challenging period for me, as I struggled a lot to speak confidently. It was difficult for me to adapt to the environment, and that was when I learned about the need to better express myself in English.
OS: What is the idea behind Schola?
AG: I’ve spent thousands of dollars on online courses before, and have never gotten past 10% of the videos most of the time. That made me realize that the main thing lacking in online learning is the lack of real-time human interaction. Personally, I’ve always seen the value in interacting with a professional and getting instant feedback. This is why we set out to make online education fun and gamified, all without losing human interaction.
We initially started out with training courses for adults, but we gained a lot more traction in the children’s segment. The education system in many Southeast Asian countries isn’t gearing their students towards communicating effectively, as English is not their first language. The lack of English teachers in these countries also hinders learning opportunities for students. We wanted to plug this gap and cater to this large demand while providing effective outcomes at a reasonable cost.
NT: Back in Vietnam, learning quality English in an after-school program is quite expensive. Parents in Vietnam can spend over USD 2,000 a year just for English classes. I had to study on my own as I didn’t have the money to learn outside. If someone doesn’t have the means, how can they learn effectively under such circumstances? That’s another reason why we started Schola—we wanted to give everyone the access to learn, regardless of their background. Since then, Schola has started to offer not only English lessons but science classes too.
OS: What was the motivating factor that led you to make the leap from Facebook to Schola?
AG: During my time at Facebook, edtech companies and startups around Southeast Asia were growing fast. However, I was still unsatisfied with the solutions provided and the efficacy of outcomes for most platforms. Coupled with my personal frustrations in the high costs of online platforms, I decided that a change was needed. I saw Schola as a perfect opportunity to innovate on a product, create impact and resolve the issue of efficacy in online education.
NT: I’ve always had a passion for education since a young age, and that helped me out in many volunteer programs when I was a student. Schola came at the right time. I met Aditya at Facebook as colleagues, and we were both very passionate about education. It was also a plus point that we both had complementary skills—I was strong in sales and marketing, while Aditya was great in product design and engineering. That gave us a solid foundation to start Schola.
OS: What were some of the challenges you faced while starting Schola?
NT: One of the challenges we faced earlier on was trust-building. Credibility is important because parents are entrusting their children to us for their education. It was hard for us to persuade them about our educational programs’ quality in the initial stage, and even more, convincing them to purchase our courses. It took time for us to introduce our teachers and content, but things got better when we had a pool of students to build up some successful case studies.
AG: For me, the biggest challenge was localization. Not always being able to speak to users, due to language barriers, made it hard for me to build the product. I had to extensively rely on Google translate to scour through large amounts of customer chats in order to identify the gaps. Something interesting I’ve discovered about user behavior is the use of emails. For example, a lot of our users are young mothers who don’t use emails. This posed a huge challenge when it comes to app login, notifications, and marketing. In the end, we decided to forgo email address login and used Facebook and phone numbers as login methods. These are some of the ways we mobilized the product, especially in a region like Southeast Asia, where technology adoption is different in every place.
OS: How do you cater the learning experience to fit different cultural contexts at Schola?
AG: We chose English as a medium because when looking at every country, it is a common language that students need to improve. Localization happens depending on the country. For example, in Vietnam, parents are more inclined to have their children sit for a Cambridge young learner examination certificate. Hence, we will tune and benchmark our coursework catered to those certificates. Whereas in other countries, parents might not want certification, so we design and benchmark our curriculum to suit their needs.
OS: What was a new perspective you gained after setting up Schola?
AG: One of the biggest learnings I had was about building a product for customers. Coming from an engineering background, we always build the product first. However, since we are looking to solve a real pain point with Schola, the product needs to serve a purpose before bringing in additional layers that could make it look amazing. These days, before we build anything, we spend a little more time identifying if the product solves a problem first. For me, that was a whole new mindset shift.
OS: How do you measure success and impact at Schola?
AG: Our success is measured by how well we serve our customers. We have some metrics that we look at to see if our current model is working. For example, more than 70% of the students completing their courses. Also, we have managed to achieve an average score of 9.6 out of 10 for over 7,000 classes so far. This motivates us, as we know that we are doing something valuable for our customers.
When it comes to impact, we strive to not only have an impact on students but also on our teachers. For example, we managed to hire teachers who had been affected by the pandemic. Not only that, but we were also able to accommodate their needs when they asked for bi-monthly payments instead of monthly payments. That was something that we were proud of because by creating a business, we were also able to create employment opportunities.
I think profits are the cornerstone of any business, but what’s more important is how businesses can balance profits with the value that the customer is paying for. If it’s not worth it, then the product will not be able to sustain itself.
OS: What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?
NT: My mentor once told me to always have an experimental mindset. It doesn’t mean that once you’ve solved the pain points with your products, the journey ends. As an entrepreneur, it is important to keep innovating and experimenting so that we can increase the lifetime value and have other targeted segments. It is something I’ve kept close to my heart even till now.
AG: For me, it is to believe in yourself and execute accordingly. Believing in yourself is important because entrepreneurship is a tough journey, and we can question ourselves a lot. Hence, we need to be objective about the situation as a whole and not be married to an idea. In that way, we won’t be stuck in a phase, and we can quickly move on.