How She Did It: Lina Ashar on Building Kangaroo Kids Into A National Chain Of Schools
Lina Ashar is the founder Kangaroo Kids, a chain of more than a 100 pre-schools, and of high school chain, Billabong High. In our brand new series, How She Did It – Ashar tells us about how she grew her business from one small pre-school to a chain which serves over 9,000 students in India, Dubai and even in the Maldives. How challenging it was to be a single parent and build an institution.
The beginning was small
Ashar grew up in Australia which is where she studied to become a teacher. She came to India for a sabbatical year in her twenties (her mother wanted Ashar to get away from her Australian boyfriend) and her experience in the country changed her life.
She says that being a teacher in India was very different from being a teacher in Australia. “What I saw in India was so different. Children carrying heavy bags, classrooms with more than 50 kids, rote learning. I saw how children with challenges got ignored. These things eat at the heart and soul of a teacher.”
She knew she had to move to India and make a difference. “I wanted to change the face of education in India,” she said. She didn’t know how, but says that she was sure that the universe would guide her.
“I thought that I have been born with a specific purpose and I will be protected in the correct way.” Life is all about how you perceive it? “You can look at roadblocks as stepping stones or stumbling blocks, depending on your mindset.”
She was a high school teacher, but did not have the capital to start a big school. So she decided to start a pre-school. She took an interest free loan from her father and opened her first school in 1993, with just 10 students.
Her Education Philosophy
“I have never believed in looking at what the customer requires. In sectors like education, one has to look at what is right for the child, and influence the community into understanding.”
Education at the Kangaroo Kids schools is activity and experience based. For example if the child is studying the novel “Charlie and The Chocolate Factory,” in an English class, the teacher will try and weave in discussions from other disciplines to enhance the child’s learning. For example, children can learn mapping- they can learn about where coco beans are grown, they can learn about the history of chocolate, about chocolate brands in India- which are sustainable, and which aren’t.
“In India the definition of success is narrow. It is about power, prestige and money. Having a higher purpose or thinking about the problem you want to solve isn’t talked about.”
Ashar thinks that engaging children is a much better way for them to understand and retain information, than by making them rote learn a text book.
“In India the definition of success is narrow. It is about power, prestige and money. Having a higher purpose or thinking about the problem you want to solve isn’t talked about,” she says. Ashar says that there is evidence that those who survived the terrible conditions during the Holocaust were people who had found meaning and a purpose.
“My education system tries to instil a different mindset in the child. I will do what is developmentally correct for the child, and you will see the effects in the long run,” she says.
Parents were so satisfied with Kangaroo Kids that more and more parents wanted their kids to attend. Kids would attend the school from all over Bombay. People started seeing how confident and curious children from the school were. Ashar says that at birthday parties, our kids would be the ones standing up, taking hold of the mike and participating.
“We have to shift the way we have our kids think. We have to teach them that they aren’t victims and that they can design their lives.”
The expansion from one to many schools also happened because of the parents of the children who attended. Kangaroo Kids runs on a franchise model, and as the more people saw the effects of its unique educational philosophy, more people wanted to franchise the chain.
“People wanted to join the movement” Ashar says.
How to scale a way of teaching
Ashar’s schools practice a unique way of teaching, while making sure children are ready for the board examinations. She has a 100 people team that looks at R&D and designing curriculums. She has written all the pre-school readers herself. All books, and worksheets, from design to print, are created in-house.
All lessons have a template which guide the teacher on what the outcomes of every module should be. Videos and a blue print of what to do is given to every teacher. A central hub is therefore useful to create and maintain the company’s philosophies.
Ashar says that the next frontier is digital. Teachers in smaller towns who do not have a lot o exposure can benefit greatly from devices like auto readers, which can read out paragraphs in correct accents, or for example from videos which show how photosynthesis takes place.
“The teacher then becomes a facilitator,” she says.
On work and life:
Ashar is a single parent. Her son grew up in Australia with her father and brother, during her years of conflict with her ex-husband. She says that they were very good role models for him, because they taught him that real happiness is when you realise your meaning and work towards actioning it.
Her son, Drish, moved to India when he was 17, and Ashar says that he go the best of both worlds. In Australia he saw how integrity is a given, how meaning is important. And in India he had enough time to pick up the street smartness required here, and the way of doing things, she says.
The two go on a lot of retreats for self-development together. “We think in very much the same terms,” Ashar says.
Advice for aspiring entrepreneurs:
“You have to believe that it will happen. There is scientific proof that every thought you have generates an emotional charge. I could have said I can’t do it,” Ashar says, “but you have to work within the frame you have got.”
She gives the example of her school at Santacruz at which although there is no playground. Yet the kids from that school are always selected for the most prestigious sports leagues, she says. “We have to shift the way we have our kids think. We have to teach them that they aren’t victims and that they can design their lives.”
“You have to think about the problems you want to solve,” she says.