Ms Lim Ee Ling is the founder and CEO of Smarter Me, the school that teaches children the skillsets they will need for the tech-driven future.
We checked in with Ee Ling to find out more about her edtech start-up and how it disrupts the education industry.
What is Smarter Me and what made you believe that your idea will work?
Smarter Me is an online to offline school that equips kids with the skillset, mindset and heart set for the future. Through Smarter Me, kids can learn coding, robotics, entrepreneurship and design thinking from the comfort of their own homes through our live online classes, or meet and collaborate with other kids offline at our camps.
Education is ripe for disruption. Apart from validation from our target market, it has also been encouraging to see edtech players in China and the U.S., such as Bell AI, Hujiang, Codemao, General Assembly and others securing funding and being acquired.
How is your business different from other online course providers other than your target audience?
We have two key differentiating factors:
Firstly, we have a strong focus on real-world relevance by partnering with industry practitioners who design and teach the courses in our curriculum. Regardless if it is our coding, entrepreneurship or robotics course, our students will apply their skills in solving a corporate challenge provided by one of our corporate partners.
For example, our robotics students’ final challenge involves a lifeform detection robot challenge issued by Garuda Robotics; while our Design Thinking challenge is a rebranding exercise issued by Grab’s Lead Visual/UX Designer. 80% of students say they learn better when they see the applicability of it in the real world, which is why real-world corporate challenges are a key feature in our courses.
Secondly, we are building a community of students, entrepreneurs/experts-in-residence, future employers and schools. I firmly believe in the power of networks. Imagine what kids can achieve if they had access to a network of like-minded changemakers and innovators, mentors and future employers, whom they can tap into for knowledge sharing from a young age?
Smarter Me aims to be more than a school. We strive to be a platform that enables the next generation.
Do you think that the curriculum taught at schools need a thorough revamp to reflect what’s needed in this day and age truly?
Without a doubt. The public education system was designed for the last industrial economy which was to produce efficient factory workers. The system valued workers who would carry out and deliver orders methodologically. However, times have changed. According to the World Economic Forum, the top skills one needs in the future are problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity. What’s the point of rote learning and memorising, when even us adults use Excel sheets and Google search for everything? Isn’t it more critical to learn how to distil information, critically differentiate real news from fake news, learn to use information and knowledge for communicating effectively and to improve existing processes for the better as well as to collaborate and cooperate with others? Where does a student learn all that in school now?
When you first float the idea to your loved ones, how was their reaction?
My mum was a teacher, so she loved the idea (smug even) that I was following in her footsteps, even though she was concerned that I was leaving a high-paying job to pursue something so new. However, when my husband too quit his job and ventured into entrepreneurship, our parents were naturally a lot more concerned and worried, but have continued being supportive of our decision.
What were the challenges when setting up Smarter Me and how did you overcome them?
Running a start-up is always challenging, and you constantly have to evolve, but one of the most challenging parts of our business is understanding human behaviour. Success goes beyond building a great product; it is also about connecting with consumers. Our customers are parents, which is possibly the most complex role that a human can have, and we are continually trying to understand how best to support them. The other is of course what every entrepreneur would say – finding the right people to be part of your team who would want to chiong together!
You organised the recently concluded Young Founders Summit @SEA. What inspired you to hold the event?
We were connected to Founders Bootcamp, the organiser and sponsor of this competition and accelerator program by our Robotics Curriculum Advisor. In April 2018, we made a trip to LA to watch the Young Founders Summit Finals and were so impressed and inspired by the teenage founders we saw, that we knew we had to bring this event over to Singapore to give kids here the same opportunity to pitch million-dollar businesses.
Asia has always gotten the flak of being a copycat of startups in the Western world. We believe this is due to a lack of exposure and opportunities here in Asia from a young age; kids in Asia have lesser exposure to entrepreneurship compared to the Western world. But it doesn’t mean we are less capable of ideating, and we believe the greatest gift we can give the next generation is the opportunity to dream and to be inspired.
What surprised you the most for the Young Founders Summit @ SEA?
We launched YFS in early August 2018. In less than two months, we received more than 100 idea submissions from 6 countries. Not only that, what touched me is the willingness of our local entrepreneurs to mentor our teenage founders, for which I’m forever grateful.
For most of our young entrepreneurs, this is their first foray into entrepreneurship. It’s important to give them credit for taking the first step in doing so, as it’s so easy for one just to spurt out ideas and then not go any further under the pretext of overwhelming school work.
Through YFS, they are getting started, putting ideas into action, and getting their very first taste of the entrepreneurship journey. We’ve had students ask us for advice with regards to non-dedicated teammates, roadblocks in making their prototypes and difficulties in finding beta customers – which is just like what an adult entrepreneur would face!
After much success of the summit, will it turn into an annual affair where parents and their teenagers can look forward to?
We have always intended for Young Founders Summit to be an annual affair, connecting teenage founders in the East to teenage founders in the West (as well as mentors). Our partners in the U.S. and us are working towards making Young Founders Summit a year-long forum and a bi-annual summit with both a U.S. leg and an Asia’sleg, thereby facilitating cross-border exchange of ideas.
What’s next for Smarter Me?
It’s just the beginning for us! Apart from building out our community, we’re working on launching a new hybrid program in 2019 to enable more kids in the region to gain access to the future skills education that we offer. To close the economic gap, we believe that future skills education needs to be accessible by kids regardless of socioeconomic status, and we aim to be able to bridge that gap.
What’s your opinion on the skills and education that a parent should invest in their children to prepare them better for the future economy?
There’s a prediction in China that within the next two years, coding will become a compulsory subject in all provinces. It already is in the Chongqing province.
For parents, we only have one piece of advice. We must stop seeing tech skills, problem-solving, critical thinking (which is what Entrepreneurship and Innovation is all about) and human-empathising (the core of Design Thinking) as competition against academic hours.
It shouldn’t be viewed as a zero-sum game, and it shouldn’t be “extra-curricular” skills that kids take up only during the school holidays.