Sky-High Ambitions: Skyline University College Founder And President Kamal Puri
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When conversing with Kamal Puri, one thing becomes easily apparent to me- the Founder President and Chairman of Skyline University College is an educationalist through and through, with every statement he makes in his bold, booming voice tinged with a flair characteristic of a professor or a teacher. But don’t let that fool you- make no mistake: Puri is not just an educator; he’s also one of the UAE’s (and indeed the MENA region’s) most successful businessmen; an entrepreneur who started his enterprise way back in 1990 in the Emirate of Sharjah. While it was path-breaking in its own right, Puri’s institution had rather humble beginnings- it started out offering diploma courses in travel and tourism, and today, Skyline University College’s portfolio consists of business education courses in everything from information systems to strategic management and leadership, with the enterprise gaining a name for itself not just in the UAE but throughout the region as well. Skyline’s growth over the years is reflected in the size of its campus as well- it may have launched with classes happening in just a handful of rooms, but today, it boasts of infrastructure spread across 40 acres of land in Sharjah’s University City. Sitting at the helm of all this is Puri, who saw his enterprise celebrate its silver jubilee recently as well.
But Puri is not someone who’s content to sit on the achievements his enterprise has made thus far- Puri and his team believe in continually looking toward the future, and this foresight is what he believes will help ensure and consolidate Skyline’s continued success in long term. Puri wants to equip Skyline in such a way that is ready for the student populace in the years to come- and this means analyzing current industry trends and anticipating future demand, which would help the team at Skyline to better tailor their various educational offerings. This is indeed the modus operandi Puri has in place at Skyline already, and if the institution’s current state is any indication, then it’s a strategy that has worked out quite well for the enterprise. “We limited ourselves in the areas where we felt that these are the areas that are going to grow,” Puri explains. “And now we have completed 26 years.” When asked about subjects that can be considered to be of import to the MENA region (and beyond) today, Puri highlights fields like travel and tourism, retail marketing and international business, among others, which, when considering the ambitions most of the countries in this locale have decided for themselves, are certainly poised for an increase in demand for skilled professionals in those particular areas.
With respect to the UAE’s education sector itself, Puri says there’s need for a uniform accreditation and approval system across the country, as opposed to the fragmented situation that is in existence today- Puri puts forward one example, which is of schools in free zones in the UAE, which don’t need to seek approval by the Government-run Commission for Academic Accreditation. But a student who graduates from such a school will find that their degree is recognized only by the home Emirate, thereby limiting their chances at landing a job in the UAE. “I, as a professional, feel that the UAE should have one policy- not different systems operating [across the various Emirates],” he says. “Because the market is confused.” Another issue is with standards- Puri says that there are some institutions that are not recognized by anybody here, yet still manage to give away diplomas and degrees by virtue of their registration with, say, the Department of Education in the U.S. So what’s the solution? “What I expect [from] this country, [is that] the Ministry of Higher Education [and Scientific Research] has to make a uniform policy. Standards have to be laid down. Most of the institutions are in business education; they have to put a limit on that, taking [into account] the needs and demands of the manpower here. The same national standards need to be followed- not state standards.”
Besides keeping an eye on those industries that will play an important role in the future of the region, Puri also notes that the changing nature of the process of teaching and learning itself is also helping decide Skyline’s approach to its own future as a business enterprise. “Education is no more just in bricks; it’s in bricks and clicks!” Puri exclaims, pointing toward how the evolution of technology and the internet has enabled the rise of a whole new style of education in the world today. Puri is insistent on Skyline being cognizant of these changes and adapting itself to this new online environment, because in his view, academic institutions turning a blind eye to these trends are doomed to be left by the wayside very soon. “According to me, in the next 20 years, you will see at least 10-15% of educational establishments close down,” he predicts, likening the situation to the way travel agencies were left in the lurch not too long ago, after online ticketing and booking systems became a lot more commonplace. But while other educational institutions may find it difficult to catch up with the times, Puri points out that Skyline has been ahead of the curve in this regard, with respect to the curricula it offers. “Ours is the best of both [the online and offline] worlds,” he declares, noting that Skyline already has online-cum-onsite courses on offer, with more such programs in the pipeline.
It’s rather clear from Puri’s thoughts on everything from ensuring Skyline’s longevity, to its diversification strategy, that the entrepreneurial spirit with which he started his enterprise is as active as ever. From an operational standpoint, Puri believes in discipline, dedication and transparency as being key to establishing a successful business- these are the principles he imparts to those among his students seeking to start their own companies. While strict discipline is needed to maintain the high quality and standards of one’s business, Puri says dedication is an attribute an entrepreneur simply must have, since, as he puts it, “every business takes one life[time] to build,” and transparency is required to maintain its reputation over the years. As for his own leadership style, Puri doesn’t see a distinction between Skyline, as a brand, and his own personal brand, and he is keen on leading the way from the front, for the rest of his team. “A leader is like an engine [driving the organization],” he says. “If my staff comes at eight-o-clock, then I’ve to be here at seven-o-clock- because I am a role model. If, in any business, you don’t have people skills, then you can’t run a business… And no vertical organization can work- it [the hierarchy of management] has to be horizontal.”
From a personal standpoint, Puri claims to not be driven by his ego, or by any kind of external motivation, with respect to what he does as a businessman. “I have an internal motivation,” he says. “I have my own vision, mission, purpose, goals, objectives.” At this point, I press him to tell me what exactly pushes him to do whatever he does. “Happiness comes through only one thing in life- when you help others,” he replies, adding that this has been his guiding principle ever since he started out as an entrepreneur. “I consider myself to be a privileged child of God,” Puri says. “He has given me education, He has given me everything… Privilege and money were never a shortage in my life. So if I don’t give back to society, I’m a thief!” As an educational institution, Skyline, Puri points out, has always made it a priority to allow for scholarships and other awards that would help the less privileged to move ahead with their lives. In addition to such initiatives, Puri makes sure that students at Skyline are instilled with principles like his, by making it mandatory for them to perform community service before they graduate- these can include performing a variety of activities, which range from becoming teachers for people in prison, to donating blood for medical institutions in the country.
Puri’s notion of giving back isn’t restricted to just his social endeavors though- given his own success as an entrepreneur, he’s keen on helping younger peers in this space get a leg up with their enterprises as well. Skyline’s Innovation Lab has been especially created for this purpose- besides being a space for students to build up their ideas and their teams, the Innovation Lab also enables meetups between these budding entrepreneurs and investors who can help their ideas get to fruition, with Skyline also allocating some of its own funds for enabling these new startups get their feet off the ground. Of course, Puri himself can be a source of inspiration and information on starting up an enterprise here in the UAE- his entrepreneurial journey has obviously had its own share of hurdles, and he had to obviously pour in a lot of effort to make what Skyline what it is today. Looking back, Puri acknowledges the hard work he had to put in, but he still counts himself to have been rather fortunate with his enterprise. “See, nothing comes easy; we have to remember [that],” he says, in a matter-of-fact way. “But I will still consider [myself] very lucky- my efforts have paid off! There are so many people who put in a lot of effort, but don’t get their rewards. Here [with Skyline], I got [my] rewards!”
Comparing the ecosystem today to what it was back when he started up, Puri feels there are more opportunities for entrepreneurs today, despite the seemingly crowded business arena of the region. “Competition will always increase in every field, no doubt at all. But then again, also keep it in mind [that] if you create something new, it will have a very short shelf life. You’ll see it gets outdated very fast… So you have to make sure that whatever you are doing, you work on a skimming pricing policy, rather than a penetration pricing policy. So then you charge your prices, you cash that, and then once you’re secure with your finances, you can do other experiments on that- because if you don’t have the finances, you cannot experiment! It’s very, very important for every entrepreneur to have a cushion to fall back [on] fast.” Puri also emphasizes the importance of having a team that is tuned in to the entrepreneur’s vision and mission, and also insists on the need for well-defined systems to be put in place right from the start of the enterprise. These are principles that Puri has implemented in his own life, and if his success so far is any indication, then it’s safe to say that entrepreneurs today would be wise to follow his lead with respect to their own startup journeys. As for Puri himself, he doesn’t plan to rest on his laurels- diversification, be it in Skyline’s offerings, industries or markets, is on the agenda, and his ambitions remain as sky-high as ever.
'TREP TALK ME
Kamal Puri's five point checklist for entrepreneurs
1. Discipline - “It is the most important thing [to build your business].”
2. Dedication - “If your inputs are sincere, the output is bound to come.”
3. Transparency - “It take ages and ages to build up your brand- and it can be destroyed in minutes. Work on a marketing concept, not on a selling concept.”
4. People - “One brain is no good as compared to, say, five brains. Always work in a team.”
5. Community - “Ultimately, whatever you do, make sure it contributes to the betterment of society.”
Skyline University College - By The Numbers
1990 The year SUC was established
40 The size of the first SUC class
6000 The number of SUC alumni as of January 2015
40 The size in acres of the SUC campus in Sharjah, UAE