Education is not always a given and unfortunately, for many, it is not an option. Nyla Khan, at just 29 years old, is one of the powerhouses striving to change that. Having co-founded Mirai Partners, Willow Tree Kids and Kids World Nurseries, she has already made lasting differences and her work has garnered global attention, including being included in Forbes 30 under 30. Read about Khan’s work so far, as well as her views on the ever-changing field of education, below.
COVID-19 and Education:
We’ve seen the world change so drastically over the last year and a half since the pandemic started and education was obviously hit very hard, with schools shutting down across the world. What are your thoughts regarding it- how has education been affected?
“Things like literacy and reading [have been hard hit]. Literacy and reading are probably the basic foundations of education and due to the lack of in-person, teacher support, a lot of children that have difficulties have kind of fallen through the cracks. So not just like your typical dyslexia difficulties, but also students that are struggling and need more support. And then, of course, students with different abilities- neurodiverse children, so what’s traditionally known as children’s learning difficulties. We don’t have enough tools right now to help children with dyslexia, with ADHD, with cerebral palsy, or autism.”
However, Khan is also optimistic: “While COVID-19 made it worse, I think what’s important to know is that it also brought to light how little we were doing and how little there exists to actually help those students.”
Khan believes that one of the solutions is a reformation of the teacher training system. “Every teacher should be trained on how to work with all children. I don’t believe that you should just have something separate called special needs education. It should be a part of core teaching curriculums [and teachers should be trained in how to address children of all areas and needs].”
Khan goes on to emphasise the importance of teachers and in-person support: “As much as people think that the world is going to be replaced by computers, and teachers no longer have to be there, that’s not the reality at all. Schools will go back, and teachers are the most important ingredient to education. Because at the end of the day, students do need a teacher’s support or wisdom or experience to guide them through their [learning].”
She elaborates on the ongoing digital divide in education: “All is well and good when we think about the [mature markets where]people had access to computers [since the start of the pandemic]- they could go remote, they had connectivity. But a lot of the world didn’t have that privilege. [The reality] is that most parents don’t have laptops and devices at home. So when we think about what education means, as we plan for the future, one of the things we really need to think about is the digital divide and how to address it. And not just thinking about laptops as a solution, but also thinking about different innovative ways we can reach [students].” Khan’s three businesses, discussed below, centre around doing so.
Talking about bridging the divide, Khan reveals an uplifting outcome of the effects of COVID-19 on education: “We saw a lot of innovation actually. Because of COVID-19 the teachers were spearheading, the communities were spearheading and the parents were spearheading. So using things like TV, radio, WhatsApp to make sure that learning continued. And what was heartwarming was to see the kind of resilience, agility, and innovation that came out from the education space, because of the lack of resources. And I think that that’s very inspirational when you think about how agile, committed and passionate teachers were to making sure their students still got an education.”
Being a young woman of colour in the educational field
You’ve previously listed age, gender and ethnicity as some of your key challenges in the business world, which I’m sure many other rising women can relate to. How do you, in your daily life, deal with and overcome that?
“Yes, absolutely, I think every person is acutely aware of how their age, gender and ethnicity impact the way they work, whether it’s positive or negative. In the education space, my age does often become an issue because most people in education or leadership, have about twenty, thirty years of experience and I’m around them all the time, but I actually love being able to learn from them. My take on it is that yes, [age, gender and ethnicity does become an issue depending on where you’re from but I overcome it by focusing on doing good work and by being extremely pushy]. I’m extremely pushy and if I get rejected once, I go back and I go back and I go back, and I don’t give up. And eventually it works out because people [think ‘If she’s gonna email me a million times, I’m gonna respond at one point’.]”
Khan also discusses working on herself. “Another thing is really doing a lot of self reflection, and making sure that you are confident in your abilities and skills. People can read body language very easily- if you are insecure, they can tell, and then they don’t want to invest in somebody who’s young and insecure. And insecurities are a natural part of life, especially being a woman and a woman of colour- let’s just say you’re not raised in an environment that’s very full of role models. So you kind of have to tread your path, but I definitely think investing time in, not just appearing confident, [but also]actually feeling it internally. I think for me it comes from constantly trying to learn more things, trying to be ahead of the curve in terms of knowledge- when I say ahead of the curve I don’t mean in a competitive way, more like, I have to catch up to 20 years worth of wisdom, so I need to invest in myself and make sure that I’m constantly upscaling myself. When you learn more and gain more skills, you naturally start to get confidence for the right reasons. The insecurities, oftentimes, can be more superficial, but when you start to invest in yourself, your education and your skills, those things start to matter less and your confidence turns to increase with knowledge.”
Mirai Partners, co founded by Nyla Khan and Christine Nasserghodsi, is a learning innovation consultancy based in Dubai. Their aim is to transform educational systems across the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. Their endeavours have already reached areas such as rural Ghana, where young girls’ literacy has been strengthened by artificial intelligence, as well as Zimbabwe, where children with autism have received support in the form of new learning opportunities. Their work has also been incorporated into elite private schools across the world, demonstrating the wide and diverse range of people and circumstances that artificial intelligence can not only reach, but also benefit- a game-changing flexibility for the educational field. Indeed, Mirai Partners works with a wide range of organisations, such as governments, edtech companies, and investors to create new learning technologies suited to the target environment.
The word ‘mirai’ means ‘future’ in Japanese. What was your inspiration in naming your company so?
Khan reveals that the naming inspiration for the company came from her deep respect for Japan’s approach to education in the 20th century, as well as during the imperial era. “I love history, I think we learn more from history than we do otherwise. And historically, I was thinking about which nation has really invested in education and learning in a way where it’s created opportunities for its people, [as well as]economic development. When you think about that, Japan is kind of this miraculous case study of investment in upscaling education, culture and tradition. And, of course, like every culture, Japan has its issues, there’s no country that doesn’t, but I’m really inspired by the strength and the resilience they showed [and the development and progress it resulted in].”
Mirai Partners’ methods include the use of artificial intelligence, machine learning, e learning, eye tracking and LMS solutions. In fact, they have exclusive regional rights over Lexplore, ‘the world’s first ever artificial intelligence and eye tracking powered literacy assessment technology’. Speaking about Explore, Khan says: “Lexplore is groundbreaking and we were very lucky to have met them in Sweden. They were built by these two amazing scientists, and we’re really proud to be representing them across the region.”
Lexplore will be given to hundreds of thousands of students across Africa and the Middle East within the coming two months. The eye tracking AI product will analyse a child’s literacy, detect any developmental delays, such as dyslexia, all under 5 minutes. What this does is provide mass testing and assessment to ministries, allowing them to assess population literacy levels. This gives them important information that enables them to plan literacy interventions and educational improvements.
They have also partnered with HP to create their own line of literacy products, such as HP Literacy Coach, in order to supply remote learning plans across MENASA and Africa. The aim is to reach a million students across these areas.
What other projects are you particularly excited about?
“One of them is HP digital pedagogy coach, which is a product that we’ve developed in order to [help teachers across emerging markets. It’s not about using technology. It’s more about the technological mindset. So we focus on digital teaching, training and development for teachers that have never even used a computer. We also offer digital courses, adapted to all environments.]One of the biggest impediments today to technology and education is the fear that teachers have and it’s not their fault. It’s because you can’t force something down someone’s throat. You know, there has to be a compassionate, empathetic approach to it. So the idea here is that we want to help and focus on teachers’ development through a compassionate upscaling development approach.”
Khan also talks of another project. “And then [there]is School Improvement Coach, which is one we’re very excited about, because that really helps ministries outline what their school improvement objectives are for, let’s say the next three to five years and make sure that all schools are aligned to it and that all schools are working towards that goal. It helps ministries reduce about 30% of their costs. And at the same time, it also helps ministries work towards their policies and goals. We’re launching it with a couple of different ministries and about 16,000 of their schools. I can’t speak about it yet, but we will be releasing a press release soon.”
She goes on, “One of the projects that I’ve just done is something I can talk about and I’m really excited about. [It’s centred around building] Mirai’s rural school model- [thinking] what does a rural school model look like? One of the biggest issues we have in society right now is the urban migration and overpopulation of urban centres. And that’s primarily because of the lack of opportunities in the rural context. So how do we create opportunities in rural environments? And I think education is the centre of many of these things- you can solve a lot of society’s issues through education, not just by upscaling students and teaching students but by also making schools centres of empowerment or agency for the community at large. So we were in the Maasai Mara, and we brought artificial intelligence there for the first time in history. And I worked with one of the most remote schools in Maasai Mara. And being able to do artificial intelligence assessments, being able to use our products there, was amazing, because we were able to now work on building what this rural school model will look like, and how it will empower the community and how it could potentially be addressing the issue of urban migration, and overpopulation.”
Willow Tree Kids
I couldn’t find too much information about Willow Tree Kids, could you talk a little about that?
“Of course. So my background is as an early years teacher and Montessorian. I love the little ones under six because that’s when your brain develops the most- 90% of your brain develops by the age of six. And so Willow Tree Kids was a very practical kind of response to the idea that, why don’t parents of children under six have access or information on how to develop their children, despite it being the most important topic outside of basic health concerns? [So Willow Tree Kids is meant to be a platform and we’re building it currently.] Actually, it’s going to be launched in September as an application that parents anywhere in the world can use, it’s very low cost. And the idea is that it gives access to you whether you’re in a remote area in Kenya, or you’re in New York City, Manhattan- you can log in and do a quick assessment on your child. And then it’ll give you personalised recommendations and activities you can do with them at home. You know, working parents and working mothers often feel very guilty because they maybe have like half an hour to an hour with their child when they come home, especially when they’re young. The idea here is: it’s not about quantity, it’s about quality time. So why don’t you make that 15 minutes to half an hour quality time with your child and do one of these activities where you’re investing in their development, and you’re both growing together and having that loving experience.”
Khan reveals that making her platform accessible to remote areas is also her goal: “In a lot of rural communities, there’s high child mortality, because of a lack of basic things, like understanding child nutrition, prenatal care, postnatal care, etc. So the second phase of development will really be around addressing that issue [and bringing technology to the most remote areas in the world].”
Kids World Nurseries
Kids World Nurseries was started by Lovita Khan, Nyla Khan’s mother, in 2004. They are a network of Montessori nurseries based in the UAE, offering support to its children, teachers and parents through its curriculum, fostering creativity, empathy and community. At 24, Nyla Khan became a partner of Kids World Nurseries, at the request of her mother. Although nervous at first due to her lack of experience in managing a business, Khan persevered. Now, she is credited for the revamping of the chain of nurseries, having set up a third branch in 2016. The nurseries currently have a total student population of around 400 students, with plans to expand the number of branches to 20 in the next eight years. Some of the locations include India, with plans to open a nursery in Goa.
So you took charge of Kids World Nurseries at a very young age and at the time, I read that you hadn’t had any plans of running a business. It must have been so incredibly daunting, and I’m sure you must have had to adapt and pick things up quite quickly. Do you have any valuable lessons from being launched into the thick of it so suddenly?
“Yes, I do actually. One is, you’re never going to know everything. So it’s okay if you don’t when you start. The human brain is such that you just quickly adapt. You know, neuroplasticity is not just something you have when you’re a child, you have it as an adult, you just need to keep yourself open to it. Second, it’s okay to make mistakes, you learn and you grow from them. You know, at the time, it’s daunting to think that you’re going to make a mistake, but it’s okay. If you do, you will bounce back. [There are certain skills that I would say will guide you through your life, not just in business, but in general: resilience, self confidence and passion. You have to be passionate if you want to get into a business]. And I would say invest in your mental health, because without it, you won’t be able to do much in life.”
So empathy is listed as a key value on the Kids World Nurseries website. What are some other focal qualities you prioritise in younger education?
“Oh, my god, there’s so much. So actually, I think the first is compassion and love. I think that you cannot work with children under six, if you’re not willing to love them. I remember meeting someone who said that they wanted to be an early years teacher, [but that they never wanted to]deal with their snot and their nappies. And I told them, then don’t be an early years teacher. If you want to be a teacher, and you want to work with children, do it because you love them so much that you understand that in order for them to build connection and trust with you, you have to be able to clean their nappies. The second is I think early years teachers need to be trained in understanding the brain of children- they need to think about children as individuals that are attracted to different things, which is why I love the Montessori environment, because it’s so free; the children can go to whatever station they want. [But at the same time rules aren’t bad]- rules come out of established logic, and rationality. [So it’s things like, ‘Okay, if you take this activity out, you should put it back and you should clean up your workstation’.] So that develops responsibility as well as respect for the environment, teachers and classmates.”
Khan also talks about community: “Community is really important. You know, making sure that the parents are involved and that you’re supporting the local businesses by [doing things like]offering parents discounts to local businesses and cafes. So schools and nurseries can be areas of growth for the community in general.”
Reforming Traditional Education
Finally, what do you think needs to change most about traditional education?
“I think we need to develop more. And we need to spend more money and time investing in our teachers, both through professional development, but also through resources whether that be technology or classroom resources. I think that we need to revisit the whole model of a school- are there alternative models? Are there more localised models for different regions? Of course, there’s also a curriculum revamping and alignment to more future skills needs. And then, of course, [incorporating the local and national economic needs, which is often forgotten]. Again, that’s a very practical area of education, because we’re doing a disservice to children if we’re not preparing them for jobs. [And I do think that innovation skills is something all schools should be offering].”