The work of lawyer turned business-founder Priya Lakhani OBE is a shining example of the entrepreneurial zeitgeist, in which ‘social purpose’ goes hand-in-hand with the quest for financial sustainability and success. CENTURY Tech is her educational software venture, which uses artificial intelligence and neuroscience to improve classroom results for children in the UK and, increasingly, across the world.
A natural entrepreneur
Priya Lakhani’s entrerpreneurial instinct was nurtured at school, where she sold Curly Wurly snacks from her locker and she and her brother drove around buying products from bulk retailers to sell on for profit. She went on to study law and practice as a barrister specialising in libel — but in 2008 she left that career path to launch Masala Masala, a pioneering fresh Indian cooking sauce brand. In the early days “a lot of people laughed me out of the door”, she told Management Today magazine, but by sheer persistence she persuaded manufacturers to work with her and retailers such as Harrods, Harvey Nichols and Waitrose to stock her products.
As sales grew, the company also developed a charitable arm, funding hot meals for the homeless in India as well as vaccination programmes and school buildings. Priya also found time not only to bring up two young children but also to publish a series of picture books, Zarin’s Perfect World, she had written to entertain them.
Every pitch you fail or idea that gets shot down develops your resilience, sharpens your acumen and ultimately leads to a more successful entrepreneur.
Recognition as a role model
Multitasking success brought Priya recognition in the form of a Business Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2009 and inclusion in Management Today’s ’35 Women under 35’ list. Her advice for other would-be female entrepreneurs was well captured in an interview with The Female Lead earlier this year: “You don’t get anywhere in life if you don’t persist, persist, and persist some more… Every pitch you fail or idea that gets shot down develops your resilience, sharpens your acumen and ultimately leads to a more successful entrepreneur – provided that you don’t give up.”
Homing in on pupil needs
As a highly articulate role model, Priya was invited to join the advisory board of the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), and was honoured as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2014. It was through her role at BIS that she became aware of the large numbers of children who were not getting the education they deserved: 36 per cent of primary school pupils (in 2018) were failing to reach required standards in reading, writing and mathematics, while a further 260,000 secondary pupils were in failing schools. She also discovered the stresses placed on hardworking but under-resourced teachers, many of whom were thinking of leaving the profession in despair.
The idea for CENTURY was born out of a conversation with Secretary of State Vince Cable MP (a Liberal Democrat cabinet minister in the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition) about the possibilities of applying artificial intelligence through classroom software programs to relieve this crisis. CENTURY set out to create tools that help teachers not only to organise what pupils are learning — a field in which there are several competitors — but to recognise that no two pupils are exactly alike and home in on specific points at which individual pupils demonstrate, by their responses to what’s on their screens, that they need more help: a transformation of teaching via neuroscience rather than merely a digitisation of existing classroom methods.
The result, according to tests on sample groups, has been to improve learning (meaning information retained in long-term memory) by up to 30 per cent, while saving up to six hours per week of a typical teacher’s time. So far adopted by several hundred UK schools, with prospects of reaching many more, CENTURY is entering new markets at a rapid pace as the hunger for technological solutions to educational problems continues to grow.
One CENTURY project has helped educate Syrian refugees in the Middle East, and current efforts are directed towards helping some of the world’s other most-in-need communities. Announcements are expected soon on new partnerships across Asia, Africa and the Middle East and the company has also broken into the American market with a first partnership with K-12 (kindergarten to 12th grade) schools, including an innovative project to use CENTURY software to help create future nurses.
I want to end up in a place where every child in the world has access to a top tier education tailored to them as individuals.
Priya has often declared that her ambition is to lead “the UK’s first global edutech venture”. In her Female Lead interview she said: “I want to end up in a place where every child in the world has access to a top tier education tailored to them as individuals.” In pursuit of that goal, CENTURY’s headcount doubled in the course of 2019 and the company now has staff based internationally to help manage demand.
“CENTURY’s mission is to harness the most advanced technologies to help teachers to improve the life chances of children across the world,” Priya told The Spectator magazine in November 2019. “With more than half a billion children across the world lacking basic literacy and numeracy skills, it is vital that we equip teachers with the technology they need to deliver an excellent education — and we are privileged to be working with thousands of inspiring teachers across the world.”