Nairobi-based edtech startup, M-Shule, recently emerged runner-up at the 2017 Global Edtech Startup Awards (GESA) held in London. M-Shule was one of the 15 finalists that took part in the final event from different parts of the globe. In this exclusive and revealing interview, Claire Mongeau talks about M-Shule, her experiences at GESA and challenges of running a business as a female entrepreneur.
Can you briefly introduce yourself?
My name is Claire Mongeau, the CEO and Co-Founder of M-Shule. M-Shule combines artificial intelligence with SMS to provide personalized learning and data to primary students across Africa.
Can you tell us about M-shule and how it works? (year of establishment)
Prior to M-Shule, I worked inaccessible education for about 6 years in India, the US, and Kenya. I realized that everywhere parents and students were facing the same challenges – what were the best possible tools that could help children become strong not only in academic skills but in self-confidence and love of learning? There are incredible innovations happening in the US and Europe using artificial intelligence to achieve these goals, but the platforms are all apps or online. This leaves out the mass majority of students in Sub-Saharan Africa that don’t have access to smart devices. Together with my CTO, we realized that we could apply this adaptive technology through series of SMS that helps students practice specific skills in English and Math. This could make personalized learning possible for every student. Thus, M-Shule was born in late 2016 and launched our pilot in 2017.
Our platform is populated with thousands of instructional and question content – all the length of an SMS – that are aligned to the national curriculum. As students interact with the system, it selects the right combination of messages to help them practice a particular skill for their class – for example, multiplication of fractions, or proper nouns. As they send in their responses to our questions, we analyze their skill proficiency level and can adjust the next message we send to be harder or easier based on what they need. We then share their proficiency level and progress through SMS and web to their parents, teachers, and schools in real-time.
How will you describe the acceptance of M-shule by Kenyans?
We have been very fortunate that the reception has been quite positive so far! We used, and continue to use, design thinking strategies to understand our learning communities’ needs and ensure we are building a platform that can flourish within their environments. During our pilot, we partnered with several primary schools that allowed us to test the program with a few of their students. Not only did students report that their exam performance improved, but they said that it gave them more confidence to participate in class and greater happiness in learning. We’re excited to continue to increase these impacts and learn more about how we can better engage our users.
Before you left for the Global Edtech Startup Awards, did you ever thought your startup will emerge one of the winners?
I honestly had no idea! I was researching the other competitors ahead of time and was blown away by their amazing innovations and ideas. I was hoping to, at least, be able to share about the great things coming out of Kenya and Sub-Saharan Africa in education – since I think sometimes the international community doesn’t realize how innovative, exciting, and creative the startups and education initiatives on this continent are.
Can you share your experience (s) at the Global Edtech Startup Awards? How did you feel about being named the second-best startup at the awards? What are the benefits?
It was a really exciting experience to be in the same room as top edtech programs from all over the world – there were companies from Japan, Mexico, India, the US, Ireland, Nigeria, and beyond. The best part of these experiences is being able to learn from and share with companies in the same space as us, understanding their environments and challenges, and finding out potential areas of collaboration and support – it’s definitely the biggest benefit of taking part. We were beyond thrilled to be named as the second-place company in the awards! It is a huge honour to be recognized for our work so far and to represent the edtech community especially in Nairobi that has been such huge supporters of us. Text messaging and SMS may not be as flashy as a smartphone app, so it was amazing to be able to share about building a powerful technology that nonetheless meets our students where they are and helps them grow to a better future.
How do you think this win will impact M-Shule? Where do see M-shule in the next 5 years?
It has certainly opened up new doors in terms of new potential partnerships and collaboration with edtech companies from all over the globe; it also ensures that people around the world know what we’re doing! We hope that this will propel us forward to our 5-year goal – working with over 1 million primary students across the continent, supporting them in increasing their literacy, numeracy, and 21st-century skills, and unlocking new opportunities in their future careers.
What are the challenges of running a startup in Kenya?
Much of what we are doing now is brand-new in the East African environment – from our product to our customer experience strategy, to building our community. It can be challenging to figure out the right way forward when there are no best practices or tried-and-true methods of running a company like ours. For example, traditional startup marketing tricks like promoting social media ads aren’t going to work when the majority of our target users aren’t online!
Luckily, our team is a really stellar and passionate group of people who are excited to experiment, try new things, and adapt quickly based on the feedback we get from our users. We also like to connect with other startups in our market, both in education and in other sectors, to learn how they handle these challenges and what lessons we can implement and share from our own experience.
You are one of the few women who run and manage a successful startup in Africa. What advice do you have for young female entrepreneurs?
I care a lot about supporting fellow female entrepreneurs so I’m very happy you asked this question! When I go to events or competitions I always count how many other female entrepreneurs there are – 35% women were the highest percentage so far, so there is a long way to go. First, find mentors, especially in fellow women leaders. Start going to startup or entrepreneurial networking events – in person or in online groups – and talk to the other entrepreneurs you find there, especially those that are 6 months, 12 months, 18 months further in their journey. Ask them to meet for a cup of coffee or Skype call and come to the meeting with specific questions and challenges you need help with. I have gained so much from my mentors – from role-playing investor meetings to sharing ideas on financial models, to discussing that elusive work-life balance. Most entrepreneurs have received help from their mentors and are more than willing to pass on that support and advice, so don’t be afraid to ask. Second, practice speaking with confidence, asking for what you want, and negotiating the terms that your business needs. I practice how I speak about my business and how to negotiate conversations in my head all the time. As an entrepreneur, it’s not your job to please everyone – it’s your job to set strategy, find the right partners and resources for your business, and set your business up for success. Always remember that you are the expert on your business and bring that into every conversation you have, be it with a potential investor, customer, or partner.