Priya Lakhani is the CEO of Century Tech, a company designing and trialing education technology software ( Century Tech )
Most insomniacs spend the early hours shopping online or endlessly scrolling social media – but entrepreneurial junkie Priya Lakhani used her sleepless nights to come up with business plans.
“There were times where I used to sleep three to four hours a night. Some doctors offered to help but I always refused because this is when I am at my best. Insomnia is quite common for people with ADHD – but I just become hyper-focused and I can be obsessive to the point that I want to learn everything about something. I am not saying it’s for everyone and some people do really need support, but for me ADHD is like a superpower.”
This might be an unpopular opinion but, in her own words, Lakhani “always found it very difficult to go through traditional routes”.
A former barrister, Lakhani founded charitable food business Masala Masala in 2008, before turning her attention to education in 2014 with Century Tech, an AI teaching and learning platform.
According to research published this month, nearly a third of teachers spend more time recording, analysing and monitoring data than they do preparing for lessons.
But Lakhani spotted that trend even earlier. “In 2012, I visited some of the best performing and some of the most challenged schools in the country, and while each one is different there were a couple of similar themes.
“All the teachers I spoke with had the same issues: they struggled to teach and adapt to different levels in the classroom and they couldn’t cope with their workload. No two learners are alike and yet we are still relying on a one-size-fits-all system. It has to change,” she says.
Century Tech’s goal is to create a personalised curriculum based on what each student knows and how long it takes them to finish a lesson. It also aims to free up teachers, giving them more time to focus on children in need and adapt their lesson to their skills and ability.
The platform is now used by hundreds of schools and colleges including Beacon Hill Academy in Birmingham and Passmores Academy in Harlow, Essex. The technology will also be rolled out to all 700 regionally funded schools in Belgium over the next five years – a pretty impressive achievement for Lakhani, who doesn’t have a background or degree in tech.
“At school I was told that I wasn’t really very good at anything. When I said I wanted to become a lawyer, a teacher refused to sign my Ucas form. They said, you’re not smart enough, you’re brown, you’re female, you’re from an ethnic minority, you’re certainly not good enough to go to Oxbridge.
Students using Century software at Lozells Primary School in Birmingham (Century)
“I’ve always made sure that I had a competitive CV and lots of work experience. I certainly got into the right places through perseverance.”
Born in an east African Indian family of entrepreneurs, her parents shaped her strong work ethic and taught her the importance of giving back to the community. “I remember them really tightening the purse strings during the recession and still funding heating or meals in schools. My father would say, ‘Priya, we have a roof over our heads, it’s our responsibility to give back’.”
Determined to make a positive impact on the world, she studied to become a lawyer. After graduating from Queens Mary University with a BA in law and economics, followed by a degree in media law from NYU and a master of laws from UCL, she started working as a barrister for Newsquest media group – the second largest publisher of regional and local newspapers in the UK.
“It was really important work at some time but some other times I didn’t feel like I was really changing anything. I would go to editors and say ‘I don’t think we should write this’, and they would tell me to get lost and take the risk anyway.”
At just 26, Paul Hunter, then the chief financial officer at Newsquest, called her into her office and asked her: “Have you ever thought about running a newspaper? We think you could be good at it.”
To his surprise, this gave Lakhani the confidence to resign just a week after, convinced that if she could run a newspaper, she could also run her own company.
“When I was working as a lawyer I had no time to cook. So my mum would send me these homemade sauces and I couldn’t find anything similar in the supermarkets. I realised that even though everyone loved curry, all you had in the supermarkets were these water-downed, pasteurised versions and that’s how the idea for my first company was born.”
Called Masala Masala, the ingredients are all freshly made and authentically Indian, rather than watered down for the UK market.
But Lakhani also wanted the firm to be charitable and her idea was to feed a homeless person a hot meal each time a jar of sauce was sold. “There was talk of a recession, it was August 2008 and I said to my husband, ‘if I don’t have nationwide deals by Christmas, I’ll quit because I’m obviously not very good at this’.
“I was laughed out of the door by manufacturers and suppliers, but I always believed that a ‘no’ plus time can become a ‘yes’.
“You need to persevere, be agile, learn from your mistakes and constantly change your approach,” she says.
Lakhani founded Century Tech after seeing how education could be improved through AI (Century Tech)
Within six weeks she scored a deal with Harvey Nichols, quickly followed by Waitrose, Ocado and 3,000 independent retailers.
By December 2012, four years after its launch, the company’s charitable arm had provided more than 1 million meals and 35,000 vaccinations to the underprivileged in India and Africa.
Lakhani was awarded Business Entrepreneur of the Year in 2009, and made it onto the Growing Business Young Guns list in the same year.
The experience meant she was invited to be part of then-business secretary Sir Vince Cable’s advisory board during the coalition government. “This was a really important experience in my life. Suddenly I was walking into a completely different forum. All the people around the table had board-level experience and no one looked like me or sounded like me, but they did really want to hear what I had to say.”
While on the board she learnt that 1.8 million children were underperforming in UK schools, which prompted her to find the source of the issue and eventually led to the creation of Century Tech.
“The opportunity was huge but it was risky. I owned 100 per cent of Masala Masala. A new company required money to be raised. We went for dinner with my husband and drew a plan on a napkin with each company on a side.
“My husband looked at me and said: ‘If you don’t do the tech education company...’ and I was really waiting to hear what the end of this sentence was going to be. Bear in mind that he didn’t sign up for this. He signed up to date a law student, got married to her and suddenly I’m hiring vans, doing food festivals and now I’m talking about AI.
“But he continued: ‘If you don’t do, the tech education company, I’d be really disappointed because you have been banging on about education for nearly a year. You have learnt everything there is to know so far about how to solve this problem with a scalable solution. You’d be mad not to do it.’”
Since founding Century Tech in 2015, Lakhani has raised £2.1m in angel investment, and she’s now focused on taking Century to as many schools as possible around the globe as well as educating people about the advantages and power of AI.
While some are worried AI tools like Century will leave teachers without a job, Lakhani argues it will empower them instead.
Teachers report that the system frees up to six hours a week, time which they can use into creating more tailored lessons for the children or do creative arts and sports activities, she explains.
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“The platform highlights to the teacher when and where they need to do an intervention. So rather than spending hours and hours marking a test and trying to figure out where the main misconceptions are, they can open their dashboard and know how that cohort of students are performing, where their weaknesses are and where focus needs to be.”
The early results are very promising, with schools seeing a 30 per cent increase in performance and students becoming faster at answering questions after using the platform, according to Century’s data.
But the hype around AI has created many myths, with some customers worrying about an AI that will take over the world, while others firms use it as nothing more than a buzzword, making it harder for Lakhani to spread the word about Century.
“It’s going to take a long time to change these misconceptions. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but what I am focused on now is removing the noise. We are focused on our teachers and our learners and, given the traction Century has had, we are getting there.
“Part of our job is trying to get headteachers out there as role models. We need to show they’ve done something a little bit different by using Century and now they’re reaping the reward. So it’s not so much about the technology, it’s more about the people.”
As a mother of two, she admits that finding the right balance between family and a job she is deeply passionate about can be tough.
“I know I am supposed to say that I wake up at five in the morning, do an hour of yoga and feed my kids a perfect breakfast of five courses before dropping them to school, but that’s not the case.
“The truth is I have a very supportive family, my children also love Century, their schools use it, they know what I do and that I try my best. I know they are proud of me and they know what I am doing is important. That’s all I ask for.”
Any advice for young entrepreneurs? “Don’t email. This is something I learnt while building my first company, you should just call. British people are polite, right? They don’t like to say no, and it’s much harder to say no while speaking to someone than to an email.”