I’m Anne Tham And This Is How I Spend
“Parents are mostly consistent with their children. For themselves, no. But for their children, they are committed.” That was Anne Tham, founder of Dwi Emas International School.
With more than 30 years of teaching under her belt, Tham’s foray into the competitive arena of education comes at a time when Malaysian parents are spoilt for choice. But she believes her model of an entrepreneurial school sets Dwi Emas apart from the pack.
So we decided to get in touch with Tham to tap her thoughts on the education field and how does someone make it in the tough business of preparing young minds and hearts.
The education business is competitive; some say, saturated. So how did you come up with the idea of starting an international school?
It took me 12 years, from thinking about how nice it would be to actually have a school to the reality of having one.
We started off with a private tutoring centre. We started in a little building, which used to be a kindergarten, and that to me was already a dream come true.
But as I have been teaching in colleges for a long time, I realised that students learn for 11 years in school, and they didn’t have the skills required for college.
So we went backwards and started from Year One, and worked on all the things that we need to put in to place so kids are ready for college.
For example, what is the percentage of college students who can present or write? You’ll only have some who can do these, but why should that be? You need a 100% who can present and write because that’s the requirement of the college.
Another problem is their language capabilities to handle college. I used to do placement tests, being the head of the English department for one of the programmes. I can tell you, 80% do not have the language level which is required for college, which is native speaker’s language, or first language ability. About 80% don’t have it.
How do you learn the language for 11 years, and not be good at a language like a native speaker? Doesn’t make sense, right?
So that’s where I started. Then, I realised that because we taught in such an unconventional way, the students loved it. It came to a point where we felt we should do this for all subjects, and we did it across the board.
The more we did, the more we realised that it’s not just Malaysia, but across Asia, the system does not make it fun for students to learn; they’re bored stiff. So, we brought the socialising and play into the classroom, and students wanting to drop those subjects are fewer.
Case in point, for our students here, science is compulsory. There’s no science stream or arts stream. The other thing is, for our students, we don’t do placement tests when we bring them in, yet we can produce very strong, academic results for the sciences. Between 50% and 60% of our students get As and A Stars for the Cambridge exams.
Then we decided to teach financial education to our kids and it was then, we decided, “Let’s make this an entrepreneurial school.”
But we didn’t want it in theory. We gathered the entrepreneurs set the curriculum and decided to make it practical and as real as possible for the kids.
So is education saturated? If you do the same type of education, then people have so many choices, they don’t have to come to you. But for us, it wasn’t about doing it to differentiate ourselves, we did what was immediate, and that that became our differentiating factor.
Since your model is unique, what was the initial reaction from the public?
We were very fortunate because I had a crowd of 4,000 students around the Klang Valley for my English classes alone. So, when we started doing this, we got a positive responsive, and they wanted more of what we did. That’s how we started.
As an entrepreneur, cash flow is the lifeblood of the company and something you deal with on a daily basis. How do you manage your finances?
We chose a business that we felt we didn’t have to worry about cash flow. A lot of people do start-ups, but money runs out because it takes time for an idea to percolate, to take root, and for people to accept it.
You can get the early adopters but early adopters will not sustain you. So, from early on, I wanted to do it for children because I felt, that is where parents are most consistent. They are very consistent with their children. For themselves, no. They may not even attend after two weeks, even though it is a three-month course.
But for their children, parents are committed. This is because I have been dealing with kids for a long time.
Now, on hindsight, I realised that we chose the right industry because it’s a recurring thing. What sort of business do you start that has recurring business revenue on a monthly basis? And it’s not over three months or six months. We are looking at students who have been with me for 22 years.
Also, we are in the business where it is cash up front. We don’t hold stocks. We only hire when we need to. The premises take a bit more, but when we initially started, we only get a teacher when don’t have enough teachers. Or, sometimes, we’ll ask our existing teachers if they could stretch a little bit and we’ll pay them the extra hours.
So how do you adapt to the times or stay relevant?
It didn’t come from the education space. So, I’m going to be offending a lot of people because we do things so radically. I am trained as a teacher but it was in my fifth year into the business that I actually realised I was running a business.
And like what in the world I know about business, right? I am an English graduate and business is completely opposite of that. So, I decided to learn about it. It so happened my sister gave me a book and that book blew my mind – it was Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad, Poor Dad.
I was like, “Why are we not telling the students these things?” And nobody seemed to know or even put it into the curriculum. So, that’s how it started.
I then started talking to my students about things that are more real and practical as to what is going out there in the industry, which is far removed from education. I taught them cash flow, which led to a financial education workshop.
So, it’s one of those things that carried with them for life. I proceeded to read more books, went for business trainings and I connected with people who’d become my mentors. The more I learned, the more I started putting things into our system.
So the education system was developed from the industry inside, not from the education outside. That’s why it’s very unrecognisable in the eyes of a lot of educationists. Parents who are traditional, they look at it and they don’t know where this is coming from.
“Are you sure you are doing the right thing?” Well, talk to entrepreneurs and they’ll tell you how right we are. That’s why we are able to do what we are doing. We came from outside the education system.
Accessing quality education has been on top of parents’ minds. What’s your advice to parents wanting to invest in good education? Because it is expensive.
Healthcare has already gone in that direction, right? You have free healthcare, but people don’t want it. Tertiary education is same thing – you have it free or very cheap, people don’t want it.
That’s the same with private education and it has always been like that all over the world. The gap will always be there. Thing is, if you want to make things affordable, it will be too late. Usually when you want to make something cheap, it’s on its way out and new things will have already come in and these will always be expensive.
For us, it’s more important that we teach the kids, so that we can afford these things, rather than doing it the other way round by making it affordable. But we very realistic about that. We knew in order to do this you got to charge.
So we went to parents who understood what it takes out there in the world and they were willing to do this. And they made it happen by coming in and deciding to pay for it.
And, we had to make it even bigger than running a school that is making money. We ended up getting recognition from the Cambridge University Student Union, four years in a row. We got awards for innovation not because we made the most money or the biggest corporation.
We got into Endeavor because they were looking for things that impacted society, and grow the next generation who in turn impacts the economy. So we are like the only school system in Malaysia that has been chosen and there are very few systems in the Endeavor organisation globally, and it is really an honour.
Now, we are starting to talk at governmental level. We are working with the National STEM Movement. We were recently at the Sarawak Dialogue and we spoke about education there and the local government is listening. And if they make a decision where we can help their people, we are right on board to do it.
Interesting. Since your school is about teaching kids entrepreneurship, what’s your approach on teaching young ones to manage debt?
It’s to teach them how to make money. When they learn how difficult it is to make money, they won’t squander it so easily. Trust me.
Our task is to take very adult material and make it digestible to children, so we even asked the kids to ask their parents how much they actually spend on them. We also teach them the differences between needs and wants because when you choose the business you want to do, you need to know the difference.
If it is a want, how do you build branding and people wanting it; whereas a need something essential – if you are hungry, you need to eat. And we start all this at a young level. We talk to them about value, cost, and price.
For practical stuff, we turn them into games. Kids from Year 7 onwards learn about the six limiting factors in running a business and we do it through a game where we have this magical marketplace.
And your approach on dealing with failure…
We don’t look at mistakes as failures, and failure here means trying your hardest and getting it wrong. Over here, we try an encourage students to give that task another go, or if they still make that mistake, we help them build their foundation.
What’s your advice to budding entrepreneurs wanting to break into education?
They have to look for a pain point and it’s also good if it’s not too far to the left field. Because some just want to change the system altogether and not anchor it towards exams. But this is something very tough to do; the majority of parents are not going to want that.
The biggest group are still those who want something different but still want exams. So if people want to go into education, that would be what they need to look at, unless it’s going into IT.
In IT, if you start throwing terms, like “I am going to teach your children blockchain or drone tech”, then parents are going to sign up. Because the tech side, even up to tertiary, it is too old. You talk to any graduate and they will tell you. That’s why a lot of huge IT companies give out their own certifications; the universities are not fast enough.
So, it depends on what they are going for. If they are going for more artistic pursuits, like dance, that one yes, you can go crazy with it. But if you are trying to shift the education space, you need to anchor it into something that is recognisable.
Now, what’s the best money advice you’ve received?
You cannot be frugal with the marketing or sales activities to get your name out there. A lot of people, when they don’t have enough customers, they don’t spend, because there’s no money, right? But that’s time you spend and then start consolidating your money when it’s already stable.
The other advice is to imitate successful people, in this case the rich. Spend when they spend, because usually when they spend, the other side saves. When they save, the other side spends.
To the rich or investors, when there is a downturn in the economy, that’s when they spend, because there are cheap sales. The minute the economy turns around, that’s when they are selling.
Great. Now, let’s wrap this up. Who do you want to see do this interview?
Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group.
This interview has been edited for brevity.
The How I Spend Series asks CEOs and experts to share their financial tips, routines and more. Have someone you want to see featured or questions you think we should ask? Email Emmanuel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of iMoney.my.