In recognition of UN’s Global Youth Skills Day, we caught up with UCL School of Management Alumnus Dean Celaj who, since graduating from our BSc Information Management for Business just last year, has launched his start up akademi.al - an e-learning platform for schools in his native Albania.
Despite the global uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, Dean’s courage has seen akademi.al go from strength to strength, delivering free education to over 400,000 children. It recently became official partner of the Albanian government and the official online learning platform for children in the country, and has secured funding in excess of $350,000 from additional partners including UNICEF and the British Embassy.
Carry on reading to see how Dean was able to turn a spontaneous Facebook message into a platform with exponential growth, gaining over 100,000 users in just a week during tumultuous times.
Please tell us the story behind Akademi.al. What inspired you to launch your start-up?
I was inspired to launch an e-learning platform during my work placement at Accenture in 2018. As a strategy analyst in financial services, I had completed a lot of online training on various topics and witnessed first-hand how effective online training can be. I once joined a live training session with an instructor based in India and was shocked at the fact that the seminar had not only been facilitated from such a distance but that I was able to take so much from it and interact with the teachers.
Akademi.al was born with the mission to provide free access to excellent education to everyone in Albania, no matter their location or economic circumstances. In the months leading up to the pandemic, I had recorded more than 1,000 video lessons and built the platform from scratch. This March, the Albanian Minister of Education was due to announce the closure of schools nationwide. I approached her on Facebook offering my videos for free. The Ministry had previously paid for my education - I won a full scholarship for my studies in the UK - so I wanted to give back. The minister was very impressed and announced akademi.al as their official partner in her announcement that evening.
Why is supporting the development of youth skills and education important to you?
Education equips us with the necessary knowledge to distinguish between right and wrong. It helps us understand things around us and improve them. I think that education propels you towards achieving your dreams, whatever they may be. Personally, education is particularly important in achieving my goal - helping socioeconomic development in Albania.
I am fighting to change the culture around education and the current negative stereotype of being a ‘good’ student amongst young people. Where education improves, quality of life does too, whether in Albania or elsewhere.
The importance of youth skills cannot be understated, especially given COVID-19. The job market is becoming increasingly competitive so young people should be focused on building their skills. Having completed much work surrounding media literacy, I am currently focused on technology and programming. I will soon be offering free courses for the development of youth skills to everyone across Albania.
can you explain how COVID-19 has affected your business and any adjustments you’ve had to make?
COVID-19 massively accelerated the growth of my platform at unprecedented speeds. Over the week that schools were closed, usage increased from 50 students to over 100,000 students! In the upcoming weeks more than 400,000 students learned primarily through our video lessons. The biggest effect was that I couldn’t physically produce videos in schools anymore. However, I found an effective remote solution. After that it was simple to work remotely given our work is mostly tech based.
We licensed our videos to national TV for students without internet access. A dedicated channel ‘RTSH Shkolle (Albanian National TV School)’ was also created, broadcasting our videos 24/7.
Growing so quickly and becoming an official partner to the Albanian Government at such an early stage in the business’s development must have been a huge learning curve. How did you manage this rapid growth?
It all happened extremely quickly; from the Facebook message with the Minister in the morning to becoming part of the team leading the project in the evening. It was an unbelievable feeling to be entrusted with such responsibility and leading an important project at 23 years of age. Thankfully, I had hundreds of human resources to assist me and I was given much autonomy in strategy development for the online learning.
Everything proposed was implemented and we devised a strategy quickly. This gave me the self-confidence to keep going. We started live-streaming on national TV the next day and we had around 60 teachers in rotation, filming new video lessons. Having such a large team of staff was paramount in successfully managing the first and tremendously busy few days.
My servers crashed after 150,000 visitors which taught me some crucial lessons around technology. Working closely with the chief of cabinet, vice ministers, and the director of pre-university education, was extremely beneficial for my development too. I was learning new things every day, especially around learning and the education system. I learnt a lot from the Minister as well, particularly about efficient, productive leadership. She was able to progress things in ways I had yet to see in Albania.
Do you think virtual learning is what the ‘new normal’ will look like in the education sector?
I do not think so. The strategy we are implementing here is based on blended learning, where some work is online but there is also the crucial human interaction in class. Working with various foundations recently, such as UNICEF, I have understood the importance of human interaction. These foundations are all fighting to bring children to meet in classes and have such interaction with their peers - particularly those with disabilities and based in distant or remote villages. Therefore, I believe virtual learning will not become the ‘new normal’.
It would by far be easiest to have these students learn from home, but I think we will find solutions to this problem, even if the danger of COVID-19 persists over time. After COVID-19, I believe education must have live interaction. Making friends, understanding different cultures and interacting with peers and teachers face to face are some of the best things about learning (abroad).
How do you think your studies at UCL School of Management have helped you to launch the business?
I am extremely happy to have graduated from UCL School of Management. When I just joined at 18, I was a completely different person. I did not know anything about working, what internships were, how to apply to jobs, nothing. I was a decent student with a lot of drive but that was about it. At UCL School of Management, I was lucky enough to meet outstanding professors who taught me a lot about how things really worked. I was able to recognise my need to upskill for an increasingly competitive job market, act quickly and be curious about many things.
I was able to learn about various technologies - AI, automation, software, cloud computing -and began researching business ideas in my second year as I knew entrepreneurship would be right for me. The emphasis on technology, launching a business and understanding new innovations on the IMB course massively helped me launch my start-up.
Someone at UCL also encouraged me to apply for my placement at Accenture, where I built strong skills I still utilise. In the last two years of my degree, I learnt about business, programming, finance, marketing, the psychology of people and even law from various modules. The organisation of coursework, in groups, also provided a genuine feel of launching a business and I still refer to everything I learned today.
What is your key piece of advice for fellow aspiring entrepreneurs?
The most important advice I could give is to always believe in yourself and never listen to those who attempt to put down your idea. It sounds cliché but I had a little voice in the back of my head constantly reaffirming me. If you have that voice telling you that you are good enough (or that an idea is good), you should always listen to it and believe that you will wholeheartedly make it. If you are confident that your idea is good, do not let anyone put you down.
Motivation is key, too. I was met with swathes of rejection just last year, only to go to Albania and solve the education crisis for 400,000 students during COVID-19. I truly believe that everything happens for a reason and things find a way of working out if you put in the work. Having the motivation to work independently and going above and beyond is necessary to succeed. Doing what everyone else is, is simply not enough. Hard work always pays off.
What are your plans for the business in the future?
I am currently working on numerous projects from my main supporters - UNICEF, Ministry of Education and the British Embassy - to develop my platform further. They include making the platform more accessible for students with disabilities, adding new features and recording thousands of new video lessons.
Since we are now the official platform for online learning in Albania, we are preparing to host 450,000 students in September. We are also building a new platform from scratch which will integrate Zoom and Google classroom where teachers and students can video-call, interact, submit homework, etc. This will allow for an end-to-end learning experience. The platform will be API-based to enable multi-tenancy, which will allow us to license the technology to other shortlisted governmental clients.
I also hope to have the university version of my website ready within 2020. I plan to sell this to public and private universities in the region. By the end of the year, if things go well, I am planning to launch Akademi Pro, offering online training courses to businesses all over Europe.
At UCL School of Management, we are extremely proud of Dean and all he has gone on to accomplish. In celebration of Global Youth Skills Day, we are pleased to honour his work that allows children and young people in Albania continued access to educational material and skill development.
Well done, Dean!