Asian entrepreneurs should go beyond their home markets: Preetam Rai


His love for knowledge has taken him places. Preetam Rai of LittleLives speaks on being an educational technologist, a role he covets

Pic courtesy: Joi Ito under Creative Commons License

A good high-school experience paved the path for his career. With a strong wish to replicate the same spirit with which his teachers taught him, he today enjoys his prominent role in the field of educational technology and support. Meet Preetam Rai, the Director of International Community at LittleLives, an educational technology company based in Singapore that aims to develop communities and connect preschool and elementary educators around the world.

He has had a diverse professional background ranging from stints as an educational technologist in Ngee Ann Polytechnic (2003-2013); Regional Editor of South East Asia for Global Voices Online (2006-2008); Lead Organiser of Barcamp Singapore 2009 and in his current avatar, he engages in community outreach strategy and community building activities at current vocation at LittleLives.

An exposure to a wide range of Asian cultures and his involvement in the educational technology sector, entrepreneurship and community learning events has gained him insight into the workings of the entrepreneurial culture and startup ventures around Asia.

He took time away from his duties to share with e27 about the insights and experiences gained from his various roles. Excerpts from the interview:

What motivated you to join LittleLives?
Well, I was working in the educational sector, building software and organising community events for educators when I first began working for Ngee Ann Polytechnic. I also organised a Barcamp, as I wanted to reach out and connect to the international community. A friend working for LittleLives invited me to come on board and build up an international educators’ community.

Why educational technology?
I’ve always been interested in learning and education. People say that schools are a thing of the past, but I believe in maintaining a balance between technology and schools. Schools are an excellent way to aggregate communities, which is where my niche lies. I’m interested in education and knowledge, in every aspect of it, and being an educational technologist allowed me to explore all the different facets. I could explore education and expand my knowledge by assisting educators.

There’s a big gap in technologists being available to educators, and not just in terms of IT and computing. Educational technologists make work more interesting and functional by allowing the educators to focus on the essence of teaching, since we simplify the labour of educators through technology. Educators don’t have the time to explore technical tools due to their many commitments. One area lies in the privacy implications of using technology. Students are extremely tech literate, and Facebook makes for a good discussion platform, but it impacts on the privacy of teachers due to the social nature of it.

We also help educators teach students about privacy by getting them to create blogs and showing them how to manage their privacy. So that’s one specific area educational technologists facilitate – showing the implications of technology on personal privacy.

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Aside from that, we advise them on what tools to use. For example, students on exchange in China will face restrictions on the resources they can access, so we guide them on the methods to bypass these restrictions.

Which countries have you lived in?
I’ve lived mostly in India and Singapore, and have spent considerable time in Japan, as my wife is Japanese. I’ve also travelled extensively through South East Asia, and still do so. I’ve worked with non-profit organisations in the educational institutions of China and South East Asia. I have also worked with a startup venture in India for a year.

What’s your educational background?
I dropped out of university actually. It was my good high school experience that sparked my interest in the field of education. I had teachers who were very committed and passionate about their vocation, and I wished to replicate that spirit. Hence, the career in educational technology and support.

How did you end up in Singapore?
I was working in a project with a specialist skillset back in early 2000. It was a multimedia design company based in Bangalore that specialised in instructional design. I was working on a contract in Singapore and ended up moving more actively into the education sector through working for Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

What drew you into community education?
I’ve found that it doesn’t help if you hold creativity workshops and seminars, or invest in other training channels to develop creative competencies in your students. It only works if the society itself accepts creativity and unorthodox thinking. Students engage in creative thinking and then they return to their traditional homes most of the time. For schools to be more interesting, the society itself must be more interesting and willing to allow the exploration of ideas.

Given your experience, what do teachers need?
Teachers often have effective methodologies and solutions that are unshared. I saw a problem in this and a way to enhance the value of the teaching experience, hence I wanted to build a community of educators. LittleLives was interested in expanding their portfolio of operations and building better solutions for knowledge and education. Our goals were aligned, so I was recruited by them as a Global Strategy Director and community builder.

Do you feel your job title affects how you carry out your roles?
Officially, I’m the Global Strategy Director, and when you engage people it can intimidate them or imply yourself as being above them. My role is very functional, so I’d much rather use the term of community manager, which is far more relatable. Teachers can relate to me more that way. Some communities care more than others about designation and rules, but youths nowadays care more about participation and engagement in their activities.

What sparked your interest in entrepreneurship?
I had my own company, which I ran with my brother; we did advertising for cable companies in India using a Commodore 64, back in 1999. I also ran a magazine called White Noise. In my early forays and ventures, I was always dabbling and helping friends out with their ventures. I helped with recruitment and market intelligence for example.

It comes from my desire to solve problems and people’s needs, and I found out that some problems require a company to solve it, as it require more resources and competencies than what I have as an individual.

In your experience, what do you feel Asian entrepreneurs need?
I think more Asian entrepreneurs should seek to go beyond their home markets. They need to build cultural literacy and spend time with the people who are going to be their users. They need to rely less on websites, published data and statistics and spend more time with the user community, in order to relate to them and empathise with their needs.

When they want to set up in a country, they should go there and travel as a low-end tourist or student, spending time with them to understand their daily needs and desires, immersing themselves as individuals in their society in order to build empathy and create a compelling product and service that resonates with them.

What attributes are important?
Empathy and humility are critical. We may think we know a lot, but people everywhere live such rich lives and we need to understand the depth of it. This greatly improves ourselves, as well as our products and ventures. Once we do this, we can build a better offering for our customers who will be your biggest fans and supporters, as you have been with them and know that you care.

So how would you build up cultural literacy?
Perhaps we read too much non-fiction from Silicon Valley and big companies. You need to read a lot of fiction from the country you visit to understand the local life and culture and what matters to the people. Reading fiction gives you a starting point to communicate with people. It gives you conversational material and some cultural familiarity, as well as an idea of their values and how they think. You can watch their films or listen to their music. For example, nostalgia is useful in connecting with older generations of people.

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Cultural literacy helps you develop an empathetic connection to the community, and by extension, their market. This doesn’t just apply to Asian entrepreneurs, but anyone entering a new market

What about joint ventures? Don’t they accelerate market entry?
For entrepreneurs with small businesses, certainly. But you still need to develop to a certain level. Also, it depends on the market. If you’re in a niche area, you can do a lot by yourself without a partner or investing in infrastructure. You can organise meetups and events, or hire an active educator or community representative to be a reseller. Joint ventures imply escalation and a much larger scale, along with higher capital expenditures and greater risk.

What do you think of small businesses and startups partnering with locals when venturing outside their home countries?
It’s a good approach. You can spend time in the country and learn more about local conditions. You can also meet the person and build trust. When I was in the Philippines recently, I attended tech meetups, followed blogs and engaged in social networking online and offline to find out whom could I partner with. I aimed to meet as many community users as possible. You can work through agencies, but in community-intensive ventures, you need partners who have a network and are trusted community members.

What’s your opinion on the role of Hackerspaces, incubators and accelerators in a startup ecosystem?
I don’t have experience with incubators and accelerators but I do have experience with Hackerspaces. I read an interview with Assistant Professor Denisa Kera about Hackerspaces in Tech in Asia. They are essentially community-building projects and I’d definitely encourage the formation and creation of small hackerspaces as they possess a buzz and vibrancy.

I’d appeal to public institutions, such as schools and libraries, to host and enable them. Not in terms of funding, but in resources like a space for meetings and events, furniture and the like, as it provides a space for learning and experimentation. However, they need to be willing to take the risk and liability involved as well.

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They bring people together in a space to exchange ideas without a profit motive. And with travellers passing through, it also provides a neutral and affordable event space. For instance, you can follow big conferences and then host a seminar or lecture in a hackerspace to air ideas. I invited two Cambodian friends to come down to to talk about how Cambodian youth were using technology.

There are no bureaucrats, no overheads, relatively low costs and administrative simplicity.

What can you say about large Asian markets like China, India and Indonesia?
The Cambridge economist Joan Robinson once said about India: “Whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true”. I would extend the same to large countries like China and Indonesia. I would refrain from making too general a statement, because as I travel, whatever I think will change as I meet new people and see something new.

Any parting advice to entrepreneurs venturing into new markets?
Contact universities, teachers and institutions that are invested and interested in the same area as you. Then offer to give guest lectures and seminars or to hold workshops. Chances are that they will accept it. Provide them with links and reference to your past activities and events. If they invite you, they provide ready access to students and academics who can provide you with data, networks and ideas, as well as opening up the possibility of partnering with the locals.

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