Have you ever had a meeting with someone which was supposed to last for only 15 minutes but an hour or more later you wonder where the time had gone, because the discussion and the learning were so engaging. This was how my chance meeting went with Priya Lakhani O.B.E during the JESS Innovation Summit in Dubai late last year. Priya is the CEO of CENTURY, a platform that uses artificial intelligence to learn how every brain learns. In this feature, we get to learn a little more about Priya and the work that CENTURY is doing in schools.
Priya was brought up in Cheshire, near Manchester, where she went to an independent school and later a grammar school. She comes from an East African Indian family whose entire purpose throughout her childhood was formal education. The underpinning of that was to give her opportunity and choice later in life.
She was always really entrepreneurial. She and her older brother would buy and sell things for profit; anything from chocolate bars to auction stock.
Priya decided at a very young age that she wanted to be a barrister. Her dad would encourage her to go into courtrooms and watch the proceedings. It was intense but exciting, and she liked the idea of advocacy. Spending time in East Africa as a child, Priya was struck by all the poverty and decided that it was her job to change the world for the better. As much as she loved her career in law, Priya found that she wasn’t changing the world in the way she had hoped. Her entrepreneurial spirit was strong and working late nights, she saw a need for something healthy and quick to cook. Priya swapped her three-piece suit for a tracksuit and created her first company Masala Masala. It was a social enterprise: for every pot of sauce sold Priya fed a homeless person a hot meal, helped to build schools, and funded vaccines in Africa.
Its success led Priya to join Vince Cable’s advisory board when he was Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. This was where she learned about the problems in education and wanted to help. The one-size-fits-all delivery of education was inadequate and teachers weren’t spending enough time doing what they had signed up to do: teaching. We’d gone from blackboard to whiteboard but that was it in terms of technology which can help teachers and learners. Priya thought surely there should be more advanced technology. So she what is now CENTURY. Like Masala Masala, it’s a social enterprise.
Who was your favourite teacher? Why?
I had two favourite teachers: Miss Delves, who taught me physics, and Mrs Searle, who taught Chemistry. Not only were they really passionate about teaching their subject and really inspiring, both of them came to me one-to-one and told me I could achieve anything that I wanted to achieve if I put my mind to it. While other teachers would tell me I wasn’t bright enough, they’d tell me I was. I needed to persevere and not give up. I had that input from my parents at home as well, which was really powerful for me, but it also really helped to hear it from my teachers. They gave me confidence and belief in myself. They were exactly the role models that teachers can be – this is what all children should have.
What or who inspires you most?
I’m inspired by the people I meet on a daily basis, those who I’ve heard speak or I’ve read their stories, I’m inspired by the lessons they’ve learned. My family inspire me, both my children and my parents. I’m inspired by anyone who has been faced with adversity but continues to persevere to achieve what they believe will change the world in a positive way. My parents are the best example of that. And my kids. Kids are incredible when they set their minds to things – in a positively stubborn way. They have that raw innocence and curiosity that makes them so good at asking questions.
I’m continually inspired by teachers. I’m fortunate that my work has allowed me to meet thousands of teachers and work with many closely. They don’t do what they do for money, they work to create positive change, and they manage to do so even without the proper tools. I’m also inspired by my team, this amazing group of people who share the same vision as I do. The common trait in all these people is that they’re authentic, they’re problem solvers, they don’t give up – and they work for a purpose beyond the betterment of themselves.
Share two major challenges that you faced. How did you overcome them?
I feel like I face different challenges every day but I’m not sure I overcome every challenge in a remarkable way. We all make mistakes and we all fail. I can’t say there’s a certain way to tackle every problem, but what I do know is that my team and I approach problems with a certain set of values and a sense of positive culture. We always ensure we’re authentic, resilient, and that we maintain the focus on social impact. The reason why CENTURY is so unique and special is that we’re always working for what’s best for our stakeholders.
What Is Century Tech?
CENTURY is a learning platform that learns how every brain learns, to give each student a completely personalised path to mastery in any subject. CENTURY uses artificial intelligence to instantly learn each child’s unique learning needs or areas for stretch and offers them a constantly adapting, individualised path to mastery.
At the same time, CENTURY uses the data it is collecting on every student’s interaction with the system to give teachers instant deep insight into each student’s progress, attainment and interventions so the teacher can avoid spending hours gathering and analysing this data, but can instead spend time teaching.
It gives students the individualised learning they need to progress and gives teachers back crucial time wasted on micro-marking and assessment. The platform is built and run by teachers, data engineers, and neuroscientists who ensure it’s loaded with top-tier content and operates in a way that is most effective for students’ learning and reducing teachers’ workload.
Share two ways in which the work that you are currently doing at Century Tech positively impacts young people.
CENTURY has had a remarkable impact on learners. Students on CENTURY improve their scores by an average of thirty percentage points. That improvement, along with the anecdotal feedback we get about students’ increased confidence and positive attitude to learning, is why we started this social enterprise and we are delighted to see the results.
Also, teachers save nearly a day a week on marking and assessment. It has been amazing to see CENTURY achieve these things, improving student outcomes and effectively reducing teacher workload.
What is one of your proudest achievements to date?
The impact I mentioned above. The positive change CENTURY has made for both students and teachers. I come into work every day wanting to be with the people who work here. Everybody dreams of these amazing teams but not everyone achieves it. Our culture is all about working beyond the betterment of yourself, that we all believe we can change the world. A lot of people joined for the challenge, to build this platform, but they’re seeing the impact it has on kids. If a student tells them that CENTURY gave them confidence in Maths or a student with special educational needs is given the material in a way that helps them progress – that feedback is really powerful.
What are three fun activities that you do to relax and take your mind off work?
Ha! I dream of them every day but, honestly, I’m not at that stage. I wish I was one of those entrepreneurs that wakes up to meditate and run a marathon before work, but I’m all in with CENTURY. The most rewarding thing I do is spend time with my kids. Whether it’s playing Scrabble, reenacting Star Wars, or embarrassing them by singing in the car with their friends, it’s fun being creative and getting to act like a child with children.