The Tech Academy Grows Up: Q&A With Shams Jaber, Founder and CEO, The Tech Academy

The Tech Academy Grows Up: Q&A With Shams Jaber, Founder and CEO, The Tech Academy

The Tech Academy is one of the few education related initiatives in Dhaka that has been treading an unconventional path while trying to prepare our children, our future generation for a materially different future that is slowly but surely taking shape. Broadly, TTA provides science and technology education to kids from both the wealthy backgrounds for a fee and underprivileged backgrounds for free.

Over the past years, it has developed a fascinating model, backing its school with a technology firm where it sells innovations designed by students at the Academy.

Operationally, TTA is small in size, but it aims higher. In the conversation that follows, Shams Jaber, founder and CEO of The Tech Academy, offers us glimpses into the current state of TTA, challenges ahead, priorities now and the future plans for TTA and shares his sustainable universal growth strategy.

Future Startup

To start with, please give us an overview of The Tech Academy – a kind of a state of the union thing along with anything exciting that is going on currently.

Shams Jaber

Thank you. I am Shams Jaber, Founder of The Tech Academy. Compared to 2015, we have experienced meaningful growth at the Tech Academy. We have made significant gains in the number of students and in terms of completed projects.

The Tech Academy is comprised of two parts. One is the school and the other is the firm. The Academy invents new things and the firm sells those products and solutions to other companies. What students invent in the classroom with their teachers, comes into reality. We have been doing this since 2015.

For example, we have sold an interactive hardware game to IFAD Multi Products Ltd which was designed and developed by two of our students, a fourteen years old and an eighteen years old, in collaboration with some of their teachers at The Tech Academy. You have to play the game on a computer but instead of using mouse and keyboard as the controller you have to use a pressure sensitive platform. Your movement on that platform will control the game. IFAD Multi Products Ltd bought that game from us and used it in Dhaka International Trade Fair. it was a huge success. Thousands of people came and played the game at the fair.

We have built dumbwaiter, a food elevator, in collaboration with Studio Bangi. It brings food from kitchen to the restaurant. We have sold this to Jatra Biroti Restaurant, Banani.

We did an interactive artwork in collaboration with Ree Architects and Studio Bangi for Coca Cola Bangladesh office. The architectural firms built the interior and we just added a component to make the artwork interactive. We also did an interactive artwork with Britto Arts Trust some time back which was exhibited in Bengal Art Lounge.

Additionally, we are about to launch a game of our own. These are some of the things, in a more specific sense that we have done over the past years on the firm side of The Tech Academy.

On the schooling side of the Academy, we have now over 40 students at our Banani venue. And many of them have reached an advanced level and are ready to contribute to the type of impactful projects that I mentioned above. The Banani venue is the commercial site of the school where the students have to pay for the classes. However, we have other free schools for students who can’t afford to pay. The number of students is much higher there.

We have a project in Bandarban, Rameri Para near Chimbuk Hill which we started in 2015 where we teach Murong tribal kids coding and building circuits. Over the past two years, it has grown even further. We receive support from NewsCred Dhaka and East Coast Group for the project in Bandarban which has enabled us to send more teachers and more equipment to that school resulting in more learning for the tribal kids. It is looking very promising.

Cyclone Mora, that had hit Bangladesh in May, had caused huge loss and totally destroyed the residential facility near that school. Luckily, we have been able to manage some funding from our local supporters in here as well as from Bangladesh Army to rebuild the residential facility.

In Dhaka, we have been teaching girls about coding and circuits from the BLAST (Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust) project in Korail slum.

In collaboration with Leaping Boundaries, we are also helping to teach coding to Madrassa Girls. We teach coding to the teachers from Leaping Boundaries who eventually go back and teach the Madrassa Girls. Apart from that, we are also running a small project in Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) in Goran, Dhaka. These are all the free versions of the school.

There are 15 kids in ASK, 10 in BLAST project, 30 in Bandarban and more than 90 girls with Leaping Boundaries, total 150 students who learn for free. This is what we have been doing for the last 2 years.

Talking about the team size, we are currently a team of 10 people. Our team has been a great impetus to our growth.

We have been growing consistently, both in terms of the number of students and our projects. We represented Bangladesh at the very first Robot Olympics in the USA which has helped us to get some good media coverage and attention boosting our growth. A lot of people are showing interest in collaborating with the Academy.

Our operational model is more like a Robin Hood model where we charge the students who can pay and then teach students who cannot pay for free. I would say the revenue we are earning currently is good enough for us to teach around 150 kids for free. We have also been getting consistent support from other companies and collaborators for teaching free of cost.

The Tech Academy is comprised of two parts. One is the school and the other is the firm. The Academy invents new things and the firm sells those products and solutions to other companies. What students invent in the classroom with their teachers, comes into reality. We have been doing this since 2015.

Future Startup

How do you collaborate and manage different parts of The Tech Academy? You have Academy on the side and the firm on the other. And then you have operations in Bandarban and other places around Dhaka.

Shams Jaber

Our small team of 10 people are specialized in different sectors and have complimentary skills that help in managing things well. While everyone in the team has a specific responsibility, we also collaborate in order to ensure smooth operations of the organization. Out of the 10 members, I am the only full-timer. We have a few interns who work on a voluntary basis and a few paid part timers.

Our growth has largely been organic. For instance, we did not go to the large organizations like Ain O Salish Kendro (ASK) or BLAST and seek collaboration opportunities via the traditional route. It has happened largely through word of mouth and recommendations. It turns out that parents of many of the kids who come to our Banani campus are involved with those organizations and initiatives in different capacities. When they see their kids are doing well, they think about the kids they support and the well-being of those unprivileged children which eventually led to many of our collaborations.

Our operational model is more like a Robin Hood model where we charge the students who can pay and then teach students who cannot pay for free. I would say the revenue we are earning currently is good enough for us to teach around 150 kids for free. We have also been getting consistent support from other companies and collaborators for teaching free of cost.

Future Startup

You mentioned earlier that you have been growing consistently over the past years, what has contributed to achieving that growth?

Shams Jaber

When an academy says that “…we want to teach robotics, we want to teach programming and electronics…”, it is already something interesting and attractive. The reason is that it is not very usual in Bangladesh.

And the people who get attracted to this kind of things are open minded people. They are a large number of them, not traditional parents who tend to value unconventional way of doing things over traditional ones if they see value in it. Most people who are interested in the future and are willing to look beyond the present, are interested in this project. They are not huge in number but relatively easier to attract with what we do.

That said, only marketing your product or service, in our case education of robotics, coding, and electronics, is not good enough. There has to be some certain reality to the statement. If I just claim that we are going to teach robotics, coding and engineering that’s is one thing and then if I don’t deliver on my claim that is another thing and empty claims don’t sustain long.

On the other hand, if I say we are teaching those things already and look at the results of our existing students, it sounds more promising and feasible. Since we have been working in this space for a while, we have been able to create measurable impact and results that have helped us to convince people relatively easily.

We have fascinating projects done by our students. We are organizing exhibitions showcasing the innovations by our kids. We are using social media platforms to show what the kids are doing with their projects. We have received some media coverage and participated in international competitions representing Bangladesh. All of these things have contributed to our growth.

The thing is that you have to be true to your promise and you have to deliver accordingly. If you do something important and interesting and deliver on your promise, growth should not be a matter of worry for you.

Future Startup

How do you collaborate as a team? Do you use any tool or anything?

Shams Jaber

We use Skype and WhatsApp for communication and Facebook, of course. We were doing this out of fun and bringing formal structure and working on goals and the likes were not part of the plan.

In a way, we are not as professional as many other companies that start with certain ambition and goals. That said, although we are not formal in terms of culture and all but, we do not fail to get things done. We maintain a fun environment but we get the jobs done.

Future Startup

What are the major challenges you are facing now at TTA?

Shams Jaber

Lack of resources is a major challenge for us. We have been doing some good works for the past two years which has helped us to draw attention from concerned and like-minded people. A lot of schools, semi-government and government organizations have talked to us and showed interest in collaboration.

With attention and interest comes a sort of demand and push to grow bigger. But we have been running at a small scale largely because in order to operate at a larger scale we need a lot of resources which we do not have at this moment. We are trying to figure it out.

We need human resources, funds and materials for the school to grow properly and meet the opportunity and the demand. The next step for us is to look for more resources in order to ensure a sustained growth.

The thing is that you have to be true to your promise and you have to deliver accordingly. If you do something important and interesting and deliver on your promise, growth should not be a matter of worry for you.

Future Startup

How are you planning to tackle this challenge?

Shams Jaber

The measures would be to solicit more supports in the form of funds and sponsorships. Ours is more of a hybrid model when it comes to generating revenue. We have to explore further in that direction.

We currently have some great corporate sponsors including ELC Inspires, NewsCred Dhaka, East Coast Group and we also have some individuals are supporting us.

The next step for us is to reaching out to more people as well improve on our firm side so that we can support our non-revenue generating works. That said, we are aware of the fact that we have a lot to figure out.

Future Startup

What is next for The Tech Academy?

Shams Jaber

Scaling up our operations is one of the major goals now. One initiative is to go to the schools and collaborate with them to run our programs. We are planning to do this with the NGOs that work in the education sector as well as with the government primary schools, semi government schools, and other private schools.

For that to happen we have to do a lot of ground work first starting from curriculum design to implementation strategy. We currently run a small operation and our curriculum is designed for that. In order to scale we need to modify that curriculum so that it will fit in a classroom environment where the number of students is significantly higher with students from a diverse background with uneven skill sets.

It is important to have our own venue as compared to only working in a school. This is important for many reasons. In school, the curriculum will be generalized so that everyone can learn about the things. But in our own place, like the one we have here in Banani, kids will come and innovate. These are two major priorities for now.

Apart from that, we are expanding our courses. Along with programming, robotics, and electronics, we are trying to focus on biotechnology as well.

We have already organized a bio-hacking workshop in Bangladesh with a friend of Tech Academy, Dr. Adeline Seah. She had come to Dhaka for a week. In that week we had run workshops in Jatra Biroti, IUB, and BRACU.

We are planning to teach the kids about biotechnology very soon. Anything that can be done in a lab and that is open source, we will be doing it in this biotechnology course. We have had several meetings on that. It is already at an advanced stage. It will be an addition to our existing curriculum.

Scaling up our operations is one of the major goals now.

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Mohammad Tashnim

Tashnim is a reporting intern at Future Startup. He is studying BBA at Bangladesh University of Professionals. Previously, Tashnim was involved with ‘Project – Green Light’, a road safety awareness campaign, House of Youth Dialogue (HYD), a voluntary organization and EVENT 52, an event management firm.

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