OWN Academy is reimagining the future of education, where individuals are empowered to identify their talents and achieve their highest potential.
by Nikhil Sreekandan
How to create a platform that empowers students to take ownership of their lives and allows them to explore all the different options that are out there, besides the conventional pathways?
This was the question that Natalie Chan asked herself when she decided to quit her corporate job and revolutionise the educational system as we know it. Her solution was simple: “Connect young people with inspirational mentors, quality learning experiences in real-world situations and professional settings.”
Three and a half years later, OWN Academy has impacted the lives of more than 4000 individuals in Hong Kong and has slowly but steadily created a revolution powerful enough to change the world.
We talk to Natalie Chan about her inspiring journey with OWN Academy and find out what’s next!
INKLINE: Could you tell us what was the inspiration to create OWN Academy?
Natalie Chan: Growing up in HongKong, with a ‘tiger mom’ type of upbringing, I never really had a choice in life, it was always dictated by someone else. And, I sort of lost my direction growing up. Not knowing what I wanted to do, I simply followed the path that was expected of me. I went on to get a prestigious corporate job that my parents were very proud of, but finally, I ended up just being very depressed in it.
It felt like I was not doing what I was meant to be doing, and I really started questioning myself – to the point where I decided to leave my job behind and most importantly, get myself into the field of education.
A lot of what I learned and studied in school just didn’t seem to matter in the working world, which was focused a lot more on the soft skills which schools didn’t teach. So, it was based on my frustrations and desires that I decided to create OWN Academy, which becomes everyone’s own academy. ‘OWN’ stands for ownership – taking matters into your own hands, owning your future.
I: What is the core philosophy of OWN Academy?
N: I founded OWN Academy with a mission to empower young people to own their future. By blending education and industries, we empower students to take ownership of their future through skills training in real-world contexts.
Just imagine, instead of students doing homework and math problems that nobody cares about, what if they were to solve their community problems or business problems! So that is kind of how OWN Academy becomes a philosophy and an ecosystem that we are building, where we connect industries to classrooms and individually empower students.
I: The OWN Future Fair is your flagship event. How else do you reach out to schools and students?
N: The OWN Future Fair is our flagship event, where we invite young professionals that represent modern industries to come and talk to students and parents. We want to educate students, and more importantly, parents, about these new career pathways so that they can better support their kids’ interests and passions.
We believe that it is very important to have awareness before you go and experience something, and that is why we host these events. But events are just one part of our focus, the other is the academy, and another is our media wing.
Our flagship programme on the Academy side is called Real-World Learning, a five-day programme where we identify an industry or topic of exploration for students to learn from the professionals that we bring on board as teachers. There will be a field trip element, a project that the students work on together, and sometimes they get to work for a client that we bring on board as well, where the students propose solutions for problems posed by the client for a chance to win an internship with them.
Our goal for 2020 is to turn the month of June into OWN month, an exploration month for students to engage with different topics. So, basically, we are setting ourselves a goal to have 200 students join the programme from five different schools, and we will have professionals from 12 different companies teaching the program, so the students can choose what they are passionate about and potentially meet like-minded peers from other schools and meet professionals in the areas that they want.
The Real-World Learning programme is our initiative to break down walls between schools because we see that the future of education is when it is collaborative, decentralised and personalised as per the need of the student. Ultimately, we see that industries become the faculties of learning. So, instead of going to a university, you will be going to Uber university or Google university, which will give you direct access to jobs as well.
On the media side of things, we are in the process of creating a docu-reality series called Dream On, a show that looks for young people who have a particular passion or interest and we teach them how to turn it into a business, and we film the whole process. It is kind of like an educational entertainment show where students who watch the show, who have similar ideas, can then learn how to create their own businesses.
I: You involve companies in your programmes by promising them the best-fit interns. How has that worked out?
N: We believe that the need in solving educational gap is the biggest in the high school and secondary school age range. A lot of the time we are trying to identify internship for these students, but companies are always hesitant to hire a high school or secondary school student. Maybe because they are worried about their maturity levels, also they have access to university students, so why hire a high school student at all!
For us, it is a pitch that we present to the companies when we develop a Real-World Learning programme, that it is also a project-based assessment for them to identify talents. We only tell students that there is an opportunity to get an internship, it is entirely up to them how they want to prove their case.
In the past, we have had great success, out of the 200 students and 10 companies involved, we placed a student in each company. So, in the last two years, we placed 20 students through this framework and were able to place a student in The New York Times, WWF and OceanPark, HK.
I: What has been the most difficult part of your journey so far?
N: First of all, I started with zero capital, so it was total bootstrapping. I didn’t have any money. I was just thinking about how can I create value, because if I am creating enough value, then money will come. But being a sole founder, it was very challenging to make decisions alone and trying to figure everything out by myself when I had no prior experience.
The most challenging part though has been the marketing side – reaching out to people and sharing the vision of OWN Academy when it was nothing at the beginning, it was difficult. Also, with schools, it is always tricky, they are approached by so many people for so many different programmes every year.
I: What is the impact you have created so far? What is next for OWN Academy?
N: Through all our programmes and events, we have impacted over 4000 people in the past three and a half years. It is not a number that I am the proudest of I have to say, because I wish we can be doing in the thousands and millions, and that is something we have coming for in the long run.
We want to create a more decentralised model where we don’t have to do everything, we just have to share our framework with other people in other countries, and hope that they can also be a part of this movement.
As an educational revolution, we are seeing it as a 30-year timeline – to get to the point when it becomes mainstream and is widely adopted. I see every three years as a cycle, we just passed our three 1/2 year mark, and it has been a lot of research and development and trying to understand the market. Now, we have a bit more insight and we will further develop it.
But I think we require a lot of people on board, after all, we are here to connect different people and organisations who want to inspire the youth and care for youth empowerment.
I: What is your advice to students who are passing out of school and are worried about their future?
N: I would say that just don’t worry too much about your grades. Go out and meet as many diverse people as possible, go to different networking events in your community and just try to get involved with as many clubs and sports as possible – the whole idea is to just expand your horizon.
Get your hands dirty in the work that you do. A lot of young people, more often than not, see trying and failing as something that you do just a couple of times. I want them to know that you need to do it not just two times, but a hundred times, in order to gain momentum and move on to the next step. Do not give up when things get difficult.
Find mentors and people who are like-minded that you can really get inspired by. There’s that saying that you are the average of the five people around you. I want students to know that they can create their own lives because as long as they have that as a goal then they will succeed in life.
Nikhil Sreekandan is a journalist with a desire to explore life through the stories he chases. An engineer who found recluse in the world of words, he is a journalism post-graduate from Cardiff University. He works as a content editor at Nature inFocus, India’s leading platform for nature and wildlife. When not lost in cinema, contemporary literature or his earphones — there is a genuine attempt at ‘giving chase’, and it is beautiful.