Interview with Andrea Šešum - Founder and CEO of SMART OWL
Andrea Šešum is Founder and CEO of SMART OWL, an education-technology scale up which works closely with companies, institutions and governments to bridge the global skills gap by helping them deliver industry relevant programs and curriculums.
Andrea is passionate about innovating the way education is delivered and promoting access to digital skills that power the future of work. She is on a mission to create world-class learning experiences that help women.
Andrea lives in Canada with her husband and two children, but grew up in Former Yugoslavia during the civil war. Experiencing this unrest as a very young person taught her the fragility of society, and how education could be life-changing in the face of adversity.
In our interview with Andrea we explore her passion for education, her entrepreneurial journey and the value proposition of her company SMART OWL.
Hello Andrea. Thank you for participating in this Q&A session. Please give us an overview of your background and career to date?
Andrea: I entered the education industry 18 years ago as a Professor with a born knack for entrepreneurship. Since then, I have built several accredited schools in Canada and globally. Today, I work closely with companies, institutions and governments to close the skills gap by helping them deliver industry relevant programs. I have dedicated majority of my professional life to innovation and equality in education. This is work I have been recognized for on a number of occasions. Some of my most treasured achievements include bring named as "2021 Most Inspiring Women Entrepreneurs & Business Leaders" by Canadian SME Magazine, listed as "Top 25 Inspiring EdTech Female Founders" by SuperCharger Ventures, CSPN’s Leader in Diversity & Inclusion (2019), recipient of City of Toronto’s "Access, Equity & Human Rights Award (2015)" and most recently being nominated for 2021 Canadian National Business Awards as the "Business Woman of the Year" & "Technopreneur of the Year".
What are the key challenges you have faced in your career as an entrepreneur, and how have you manage them?
Andrea: There are so many challenges entrepreneur faces. I think how one handles them sets apart those who succeed and those who don't. A biggest challenge for me was being a woman in an education space where there is traditionally a very small percentage of women in leadership positions. Even though this was almost 13 years ago, I still remember clearly that when I shared my idea of starting a school in Canada with my male counterpart, I was told that "I would never make it".
Just like with everything in my life, when I am told I can't accomplish something, it fuels me and gives me even more determination to succeed.
I could have easily given up that day, but the difference is I didn't. Today, I can look back at this experience and hope that my work and my story influences more women choose a career in education.
Has your entrepreneurial journey been influenced by any past or present business leaders?
Andrea: I find inspiration in everyday people I meet, their stories of success, failure, hardship and achievement.
However I feel that my entrepreneurial journey had mostly been shaped by the fact that I come from a long line of entrepreneurs. From watching my grandfather carefully hand craft men ties, to watching my mom run and scale the family business, I learned what it meant to be an entrepreneur as early as I can possibly remember. I loved it right from the start.
For me being an entrepreneur is a challenge, a thrill and a lot of hard work in between.
What originally attracted you to educational entrepreneurship?
Andrea: Although I was born and grew up in Former Yugoslavia during a civil war, Canada is my home now and it’s where I live with my husband and two daughters.
Experiencing such civil unrest as a very young person taught me the fragility of society, and how education can be life-changing in the face of adversity.
Education was the key to my empowerment and was instrumental in helping me build a successful career in a profession that I not only love, but that also allows me to help others do the same.
What’s the origin story behind your company SMART OWL?
Andrea: SMART OWL was sparked by the disconnect between skills needed by employers in today's world and the skills taught at University and College level.
Due to the pandemic and the continuous evolution of technology, there is now a high growth in demand for careers which require specific skills. It’s now pertinent that school curriculums and higher education programs for students are now more employment-focused.
How would you describe the value proposition and target market of SMART OWL?
Andrea: SMART OWL works with companies, institutions and governments to help them bridge the global skills gap by creating innovative industry relevant curriculum and programs. Our team also helps with the rigorous navigation of the education accreditation process in Canada for new private Colleges and Universities. Some of the things we are passionate about are curriculum development (latest industry skills), government accreditation process, online learning, branding, scaling, acquisition, accessing foreign markets and more.
The pandemic made the educational sector rethink how education could be delivered for all to access, even from the confines of one’s home. As the world tries to return back to normal, what practices do you think the educational industry should adopt as a norm, and what practices do you think they should do away with?
Andrea: Remote learning is here to stay. Things that schools need to continue to innovate is the user journey and user experience for the remote students. I think that international student community will continue to benefit from an immersive on campus experience compared to local student community who now may prefer the flexibility of a more hybrid learning options.
Both public and private institutions will play an important role in ensuring their programs are industry relevant.
In order to stay industry competitive it will be important for Colleges and Universities to be agile in their ability to quickly implement and offer programs for emerging careers of tomorrow, while ensuring existing programs are continuously updated.
This guarantees that the any content taught to students reflects the latest industry skills.
What advice do you have for new and aspiring entrepreneurs looking to launch businesses in the educational sector?
Andrea: Education is an exciting field to be in, especially now. If you are someone thinking of launching a business in the education sector or are already in the industry exploring in demand skills and relevant programs or an accreditation process in Canada, feel free to reach out to us. We are always available to chat and are excited to hear about your plans!
Before concluding the interview, is there anything else you would like to add?
For any future entrepreneurs thinking of starting their own company put in the effort and time to create a compelling story for your business with a narrow definition of your target market and the problem it solves.
Without this, it's like walking through a fog and hoping you'll just somehow end up at the right place.
Thank you Andrea for participating in this Q&A session, we wish you all the best. Andrea: Thank you.
This interview was originally published in Issue 11 of The Business Anecdote magazine. You can read it at https://www.thebusinessanecdote.com/the-business-anecdote-issue-11