Riya is Co-Founder of Founders Academy, a branch of Founders Forum and a free alt-MBA that launched earlier this year. Having made the transition from finance into the world of start-ups, she discusses her tenacious journey into carving out a new form of education, constantly having the humility to be a beginner again, and the purpose behind her drive.
Tell us a bit more about your role and how you got into the start-up industry?
I’m a bit of a serial re-inventor which is really what the programme is all about. I started life as a trader at JP Morgan and spent 5 years in the financial services industry, eventually moving into an investing role.
I hit that point where I started asking myself all the important questions in life: what problems am I solving, what am I good at, how do I navigate a career path… I had always been interested in the world of social enterprise. The whole model is about being sustainable and creating impact at the same time, it seemed like a no brainer and I wondered why this wasn’t already at the heart of every business.
Ultimately, I wasn’t sure where I would fit into that world, which is when I discovered On Purpose, a company for individuals who typically have 5-10 years of experience within the private sector, and want to repurpose their skillset in purpose.
On Purpose felt like the perfect opportunity to explore roles in the social impact space. I did their year-long programme which included two different paid placements and worked for tech-for-good start-up, Do Nation. It was an incredible experience and I loved the creativity that comes from building something from scratch, and building something scalable.
It’s really where I fell in love with Tech, we were a six person team but coming from a more commercial background, I felt I didn’t have the level of technical literacy that I wanted. I decided to learn to code at a place called Makers Academy, which is a three month intensive programme, and following that I joined Founders Intelligence, the advisory arm of Founders Forum, which helped me feel embedded within the ecosystem.
What inspired you to start FA?
In making the career transition from a more commercial background into the tech world, I had so many conversations with friends expressing a similar interest and wanting to do the same. People in consulting or banking who were like, I want to be part of this new economy, one that’s business and tech enabled, as well as being impact-driven.
Reflecting on these conversations, I realised that so much of the magic had happened through the combination of On Purpose and Makers Academy. I give them all the credit for creating something brilliant, and combining this impact driven Tech-focused education into a single learning experience. It was after coming up with the concept that we realised we were fulfilling the role of an MBA in today’s world.
MBAs usually come with a pretty hefty fee, but FA is a free programme, how is it funded?
We are reimagining the MBA of today from first principles: what do people need to learn, how should they learn and what should the business model be.
For the students, there is no tuition fee as the placements are funded by the companies we develop talent for – they pay the education fee in return for access to top talent that has gone through a hands-on learning experience specific to their needs. It’s akin to a try before you buy model, with a guaranteed 6 month placement for the student, with stipend income.
Tell us about your partnership with Founders Forum
We were born out of Founders Forum, and they are technically co-founders in the business, as investors and supporters of us.
This means that we are essentially part of the family and the group is an ecosystem of assisted companies all geared towards supporting innovation and entrepreneurship. I worked for Founders Intelligence and knew them for 3 years before pitching the idea to Brent Hoberman.
What sorts of projects / partnerships have you worked on recently?
We have partnerships with high impact, high growth and scale start-ups and have a line-up doing amazing things at all kinds of stages, including female founder Rachel Carrell of Koru Kids: who’s on a mission to build the best child care service in the world, Vita Mojo: a series A food nutrition tech supplying restaurant software, as well as Bulb: a later stage company that are the largest clean energy supplier in the UK.
How do you assign candidates to placements?
The process is inspired by On Purpose, it’s a 2 way, 2 stage matching process, where both the associates and partners express preferences in each other. Matching day happens at x+why where we are based, and candidates meet around 6 top preferences before everyone re-ranks again.
Do you support candidates looking to run their own business?
We’re proudly for the joiners. We love that people who want to be founders are supported by start-up ecosystems like Entrepreneur First, Founders Factory, and Founders of the Future.
The gap we want to fill is for smart problem solvers working alongside founders to scale impactful companies. We are creating founders, but perhaps ones that shall become so 6 years down the line.
What do you look for in successful applicants?
We talk about 5 main traits:
- Individuals driven by impact – the whole programme is mission-driven
- Building a community of business leaders that care about using tech for good
- Looking for creative problem solvers
- The authentically curious: one of the questions we ask is ‘tell us about something recently that inspired you’, and are looking to find both breadth and depth in the response.
- Empathetic leaders and team players: Tribe 1 demonstrate a high Emotional Quotient, which is key as building a business is a team sport
Is the interview both written and interview based?
The interview is based on a 3 stage process:
- An online application request, a short and sweet form designed to highlight motivation
- A further online application form with written questions such as, ‘if you were going to run a masterclass for the tribe, what would you run it on?’, along with a video introducing yourself.
- An in-person interview consisting of 2 main parts. Firstly a case such as a start-up challenge, and secondly a component centred around leadership potential.
They are currently individual interviews but for tribe 2 we are considering seeing people in a group dynamic, possibly as part of a finalist’s event.
Where do most of your applicants find you?
When we put it out into the world the first time, we hardly spent anything on marketing and just leveraged our organic network.
The heart of what we do is community building, so around 50% of our candidates heard about us through word of mouth which is exciting, it shows that something is going on here, enough that people feel like telling their friends.
We created a bunch of organic content on LinkedIn, and then also tried to build lots of different partnerships across the start-up ecosystem like Escape The City, Hustle Crew and YSYS. However, we also recognise that talent lives far and wide and also go out and find people.
What have been some of your career highlights?
So, I did really love investing, you essentially have to make sense of a really complex world, and then have an opinion on it, which I think is an important skillset in life.
The standout highlight of my transition was at Do Nation, it was probably the first time in my career that I really felt like I came alive. I think humans are entrepreneurial by nature, we’re born to create, and it was the first time I’d been given the platform to do that.
Here we are now, building something from scratch. Reflecting on last year and a half the thing I enjoyed the most is rallying both the project, and a brilliant team, around the idea of Founders Academy, and working on it together.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
The biggest lesson I think I’ve learned is that we all need to personally define what success means to us.
The first chapters of my career were still influenced by decisions driven by what society deems successful. Over the years I’ve started to really redefine what that means for myself, and all of us should continue to do that.
In the current climate, an increasing number of us will have to get used to the idea of reinventing ourselves, and have the humility to repeatedly be a beginner again, even in mid and late stage careers.
How has what you do changed you as a person?
I think it relates to the last thing I said around reinvention, because I have chosen to reinvent myself every few years, I’ve gotten increasingly comfortable with change and internalising that humility of starting again each time, as well as finding joy in knowing that the learning curve ahead of me is really steep – which I think is what growth mindset is all about.
What’s your vision for the future personally and professionally?
I guess personally, being the best leader that I can be, the KPI I set myself is that I want my team to truly feel like they’re doing best work of their career.
Professionally (it’s all blurred now), I think education fundamentally needs to be re-thought from first principles in a pretty significant way, it’s one of the last industries that’s yet to be truly innovated, and I would love for founders academy to a) catalyse that conversation and b) inspire other new models of education.
In a sector as big as education, how do you implement such change at scale, whilst keeping up with the exponential rates of change?
It’s particularly hard to change the public sector, especially when there are so many entrenched interests.
There’s a lot of inertia in the period up until university, however the adult learning space up until retirement, you could argue is a blank canvas. I think what we will see in the next decade or so is many more new models from the private sector giving people the option to plug back in every few years as part of their life-long learning journey.
We’re already seeing this with companies like General Assembly, Escape The City, Nomad Academy and Jolt, it’s an exciting space to be in. As careers change and people shift jobs more frequently, individuals are realising that they need to take more ownership of their own learning journey, it’s no longer the sole responsibility of their employer. So we’re seeing solutions coming into play in response to this organic demand.
When working on your passion it can be difficult to put on the breaks and easy to burn out. How do you prevent this, and manage anxiety and stress?
It’s both a blessing and a curse when you see your professional life blend with your personal identity. Ironically we talk a lot about this on the programme and ‘vitality assets’ are part of the learning outcomes. It takes both physical and mental fitness to thrive in world of accelerating change.
I try my best to practice everything we preach, which is mental fitness like meditation. This is something that has become an important part of my life and we do daily meditations with the tribe at lunch time.
I’ve also learned to be bring more clarity and emphasis to the things that recharge me, such as time with family, making a nice meal, working out, and other non-negotiables.
Any books or blogs on your recommended reading list / what do you recommend young businesses read?
One of my favourite books of all time is Legacy. It’s basically a book about the All Blacks – one of the most successful sports team in history. It centres around the first time they let an external journalist into their inner circle, and distils everything down to 15 core lessons.