From Startup To Scaleup: Tracing The Growth Of A GCC Education Management Consultancy Into An International Operator Nothing substitutes personal accountability, managed risk-taking, and being able to sell your services and products to people that might need them.

By Shaun Robison

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BBD Education is a management and consulting business that was set up in 2012 by Professor Ralph Tabberer to pioneer professional educational services for the emerging schools' markets in the GCC. It has won licenses for -and established- more international schools in the GCC region than any of its competitors. Expert staff cover all features of school operations: academics, financials, facilities management, school design, procurement, human resources and recruitment, admissions and student services. It's incredibly niche, and it can be quite turbulent as the organization services the sensitive space between investors and educators.

When I joined BBD as its CEO back in November 2016, I did so with the single intention of growing and scaling the business, raising capital, and/or selling it. It was ambitious, but I'd already worked in the sector for eight years, and I'd seen the potential from my previous roles, and I thought that the time was right to give it a go. After all, it's no secret that the MENA private education sector is the largest in the world, and it is often referred to as the crucible for private education.

Both Ralph and I had previously worked for large organizations before, so the challenge of growing a small business into something bigger was attractive in a variety of ways. Ralph was previously Director-General of Schools for the UK government, and, between 2009 and 2012, he was COO and CEO at the UAE-based GEMS Education. As for me, I had previously worked for educational consultancy company SSAT Middle East, and between 2008-2014, we operated 47 public schools in Abu Dhabi, and also various private schools in the region.

In a small business, the buck stops with you; you are required to manage the entire admin aspect of the business, whilst doing business development, whilst being part of operations. And when the buck stops with you, it's very easy to get up in the morning, and it's very easy to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I don't care how many TED Talks there are, how many internet memes there are about wellbeing and all that- you simply cannot substitute the level of personal accountability that comes with being the CEO of a small business. In a large corporate organization, you have a legal department to throw stuff at, you have a finance department to rely on, and you often have a marketing department who will write content and drive sales. Within a small business, resources are limited; so, it means that you have to get involved with everything and learn everything. This small business mentality is the edge that has set us apart in building BBD, and the culture our team inhibits.

When we wrote our original business plan in 2016, we defined our business objectives into three simple categories so that we could easily assign time and allocate resources, and also develop a language to discuss our business objectives. This, we believed, would be our pathway to our bigger goal. As such, between 2016-2020, we mainly operated in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but we also delivered services in Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore.

Right before the COVID-19 crisis struck in 2020, we had physical projects in the UAE and KSA, and we were just starting a project in Ahmedabad, India as well as in Jakarta, Indonesia. But everything switched to Zoom almost immediately, and the schools we were planning to open ground to halt.

Like everyone else, the uncertainty that resulted from the coronavirus pandemic caused us to rethink and reevaluate every aspect of our business. Education, it seemed, was in the global spotlight, and despite the pandemic's negative impact, our services seemed to be more in-demand, because investors and schools were forced to rethink their strategies and operating models. Whilst the majority of companies around the world made cuts to salaries and shed some of their workforce, we took a different approach. We told our team that they would not be getting a salary cut, but we expected them to work six days a week, with weekend schedules, to accommodate our clients in different time zones and countries. We needed to sharpen our tools, sharpen our delivery, and simply over-deliver in order to sustain ourselves during the pandemic.

Ultimately, this has paid off in dividends for our culture, because everyone took the lead, and everyone stepped up, and this upskilled several staff members in different areas of the business. And once business resumed to relative normality, the demand for our services returned to the levels we had seen prior to the COVID-19 pandemic here in the UAE and KSA. One of the projects that really caught our attention then was a future education-focused project. Since 2021, we have been heavily invested in research on innovative schools around the world, future trends in the workplace, and what this means for education. It's clear that since the pandemic, governments are rethinking education in more radical ways, and we're proudly at the forefront of this.

The Middle East region has been quick to recover from the pandemic, with schools recognizing the need for added capabilities in digital learning due to the crisis. The region remains the fastest moving in the world in terms of the growth of international schools. Expansion is already back underway, because of the welcoming and mature regulatory environment that has been built, first in Abu Dhabi, then Dubai and Doha, and now, in Riyadh and other leading cities in Saudi Arabia.

This momentum led to us being acquired in May 2022 by Pansophic Learning, the large international education operator, as part of its strategy for expanding in the region, through its new entity, Global Schools Management (GSM) Middle East. The Group educates over 35,000 students across its schools and nurseries in the US, the UK, Switzerland, and Uganda. The founder of Pansophic Learning, Ron Packard, is a visionary, global educator, and entrepreneur who was previously the founder and long-time CEO of K12 Inc. (He oversaw the growth of K12 from just an idea to almost one billion dollars in revenue, making it one of the largest education companies in the world.)

With the acquisition of BBD, GSM Middle East launched its operating entity. Then, in October last year, Safanad, a global principal-led investment house and GSM announced an initial planned investment of $200 million in the MENA region's education sector during the sixth edition of the Future Investment Initiative (FII). As part of this announcement, the two entities have made a commitment to invest significantly beyond this to acquire, manage, and develop multiple charter, online, early learning, and K-12 private schools independently, and in partnership with regional governments. So, what could other startups learn from our story so far? Well, for starters, avoid following cliches about startups, and whatever trends may be doing the rounds today. The truth remains that fostering a good small business culture, having a strong entrepreneurial spirit, and developing a set of industry tools and habits are things that can actually pay off in the long run. Nothing substitutes personal accountability, managed risk-taking, and being able to sell your services and products to people that might need them.

Related: 16-Year-Old Tejas Ravishankar Is Hoping To Harness (And Celebrate) The Magic Of Coding Through His Tech Startup, Dimension

Shaun Robison

CEO, GSM Education Middle East

Shaun Robison, CEO of GSM Education Middle East, is an entrepreneurial chief executive who has delivered exceptional results across the MENA education sector. Shaun has worked with investors, operating companies, consultants, teachers, and government regulators to plan, license, deliver and scale projects.

Shaun has published education research in a range of academic journals, covering the Middle East education sector, whilst also advising some of the region’s largest groups, such as the Adani Group in Ahmedabad, LIPPO Capital in Jakarta, The City Schools Group, and The Sobha Group in Dubai. Shaun has also been an Advisor to the Executive Council of Dubai and the Ministry of Finance, Oman.

Shaun holds a PhD in education, and he is a Governor for the IDEA Early Learning Center. He is also a regular contributor to The Business Breakfast show, which occupies the prime-time slot in the mornings on the Dubai Eye 103.8 radio channel.

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