Founder’s Five is a continuing series from Tyton Partners that invites education company founders to shed light on their own success and illuminate the landscape for other education entrepreneurs and investors by answering five basic questions.
Rohan co-founded Cialfo in 2017 with Stanley Chia and William Hund to help students around the world expand their options for higher education.
Today, Cialfo provides a SaaS-based marketplace where students can connect to more than 10,000 university partners across 50 different countries. Cialfo’s tech-enabled platform supports high school students and everyone who supports them – their counselors, parents, and university recruiters – throughout the early career exploration and college search and selection process.
Headquartered in Singapore, Cialfo has more than 250 employees across local offices in Singapore, India, China, the U.S., and nine other remote locations working to make higher education more accessible worldwide.
What is your company’s origin story?
My experience of applying to college as a high school student was the first seed of inspiration. I grew up in India and attended a school with no college counselors. We were left to our own devices to figure out how, where, and what to study. I wanted to have a multidisciplinary education and India at that time did not offer many such opportunities. So, I was looking to study in the US. I grew up in the age of the Internet, but I did not know what to search for; you do not know what you don’t know. I would go to the American Embassy in my city where I was given this book — The Fiske Guide — to navigate through the college application process. I would go every weekend for weeks and I came back to my parents with a short list saying, this is where I wanted to study. And my parents looked at me and said, unless you get a scholarship, this is not what we can afford. And applying for financial aid, as an international student, was incredibly complex and hard at the time.
And right when I felt the most confused, the most lost, I got lucky. A couple of leading institutions in Singapore came to my high school for a college visit and introduced the option to study in Singapore. I did not even really know where Singapore was. It was a revelation that it is a developed city just four hours away from home. So, it became an interesting option. I applied and ended up with a full scholarship that changed my life.
As I was completing my undergrad, I started to realize how much of a multi-generational impact getting access to the right kind of education can have. For me, it was by chance. But if we can design this college-going experience, we can make a huge impact in the world. Especially if we do it at scale. I started a consultancy services company with my co-founder, Stanley Chia, to really help students in Singapore manage the college application process. We ran that for five years, helping families and students coming from backgrounds like ours from schools that did not have college counselors. But as meaningful as that was for us, we wanting to be able to do this at a much bigger scale. So, we ended up selling this consultancy to Verlinvest, a family office, and put all the money that we got into starting Cialfo in 2017 with the same mission of making higher ed accessible to students globally, but with a technology foundation.
How will the market be changed by your company’s success?
Most students around the world are not served by a college counselor. The American ratio of college counselor to student is one to 500 or even 1,000. However, in many cases, when you go outside of the US and North America, to India or China, that ratio does not exist, because there aren’t any college counselors in most of the schools. In India, by our estimate there are only 500
legitimate college counselors that are well trained and certified and there are 10 million students that graduate high school. So, you can see the huge difference between what these schools can offer and what students need.
And then on the other side, you have a huge information arbitrage where universities don’t have the right avenue to be able to get in touch with these students. We live in the age of Internet and all this information is available for free, but you’re talking about a 16-year-old student who may be the first generation looking at studying abroad. They don’t know of the options in the world; they don’t know what to search for. This when we reach students through these schools and connect them to all these opportunities. It has a profound impact.
The other option is when students end up going to agents. A lot of these agents have their own biases. They want to send students to those universities that pay them. Often the interests are not aligned with what the students want. And students or families don’t know better. We bring an unbiased platform, make it accessible to students globally at scale, and they get access to the right information and resources, including access to financing help and visa assistance. It has a profound impact, because it gives access to the right opportunities for the right people.
We are creating the possibility of a huge change in international student mobility. And by changing international student mobility, you are changing human mobility and social mobility in a big way.
When we first started, we saw students applying to one or two countries on average. Now in 2022, we’ve seen students applying to three countries on average. Is this pandemic related? Is it caused by geopolitical issues? Or is it Cialfo giving them the ability to look at all those options in one place and making it easier to apply through their cell phones? I would say it’s a bit of all those things.
What do you know now that you wish you had known when you began?
How hard remote working is and how hard it is to build a truly global company from the early stages with remote workers. Theoretically, you’d say it’s straightforward. Everyone’s remote, in a software company, what’s the harm? But tackling multiple time zones is not easy while managing the nuances of the different cultures of our colleagues in America, Europe, India, China, and Singapore. There are a lot of commonalities between working professionals but a lot of important differences as well. We have to be attuned to that. Managing and leading a remote working global company with diverse cultures is very cool, but also very hard.
But with the pandemic, it got easier because we already had a lot of systems and infrastructure in place to be fully remote. So, when we had to go remote with the snap of our fingers, we were technically prepared for it, we read stories that a lot of companies struggled to get to that point, but we were fine because we were used to it.
What non-intuitive insight have you gained through this work?
If you are a repeat entrepreneur, you may think this is intuitive, but the importance of talent and culture. I don’t think in business classes they teach you the importance of that. It’s a lot about business modeling, about strategy, product-market fit, building product, and getting customers. All those things are very important, but not sufficient. The important piece that was missing in my early days was the importance of talent and culture.
To have a high performing team, you need to have a strong culture that you build around that team and define it clearly. That’s a non-intuitive insight that I’ve gained through my time, and it becomes more and more pronounced the bigger the company gets. Founders are not the only ones driving behaviors or creating an impact with their presence and behavior. So, culture becomes more and more important.
What other education company besides your own do you wish you had started?
I can’t name a company in education that I would have liked to have started. Because honestly, that company does not exist. The companies that I would love to have founded would be Google or Tesla or Apple. Those sorts of companies don’t exist in the field of education yet. Truly category-defining companies that stand the test of time and make a global impact across generations do not exist. Of course, there are companies in education that have changed things drastically. But they haven’t lasted across generations. I think therein lies the opportunity to become one.
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