Riva Hiranand meets the founder of Shule Online, whose mission is to make education accessible to all.
It’s hard not to be inspired by Lani Tao, who at only 25 operates two nonprofits. Tao left her job at a furniture solutions company last year to launch Shule Online (shuleonline.org), an organisation that allows volunteers from around the world to teach schoolchildren in Kenya, China and India via the Internet.
At the same time, Tao set up Petal Delights, where she and her friends take leftover petals and flowers from weddings, birthdays and other events and fashion them into beautiful bouquets to be delivered to hospital patients in Hong Kong.
After graduating from the University of British Columbia with a degree in commerce and marketing, Canadian-born Tao moved to Zhongshan in 2012 to work as a global sales and marketing manager at a manufacturer of home and bathroom products. She moved to Hong Kong in 2013, met her husband Lars and the pair got married last year.
Tao’s flair for entrepreneurship has never eclipsed her love for philanthropy. A volunteer trip in 2010 to Mombasa, Kenya, inspired the launch of Shule Online – shule means ‘school’ in Swahili. When Tao learnt last year the organisation she volunteered for was pulling out of the Kenyan school, she wanted to create a sustainable volunteerism model that was beneficial both for volunteers and students.
“Cheesy as it sounds, I wanted to follow my passion for education and do something where I knew I would be making a difference,” she says. Through contacts at existing partner schools, Tao is expanding her network and hopes to partner with schools in Cambodia and Ghana later this year.
What are the main difficulties of volunteering abroad, and how does Shule Online aim to fix them?
Volunteers can pay a lot of money to organisations in order to help out. It’s not sustainable as it costs a lot of money, and takes up a lot of time. Shule gives the opportunity to those who cannot afford to take six weeks off to travel or [to buy] a hefty plane ticket. The money could be better spent – US$3,000 for a plane ticket can be given to someone on the ground or a local worker and they can do so much more with it.
How do you identify the schools that need volunteers?
We first connected with Olives Rehabilitation Centre, the school I volunteered with in Kenya. Right now we are working on finding more schools to join, so to start we have had schools referred to us by other educational institutes or friends and family. We look for schools that need the help of additional teachers, especially for teaching English, or schools that are not fully government funded.
What is the application process for volunteers?
People apply online to be a volunteer, and once they are approved (those with teaching experience or relevant degrees are automatically approved) they enter the times they are available to teach, and are matched with schools that fit the same time slots. We are working on getting TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) training done online for our volunteers who don’t have as much experience; otherwise we do [teacher training] sessions.
How does the teaching process work?
Volunteers and schools have their own profiles; our platform allows for integrated live video and chat, and features like document uploads and sharing, PowerPoint sharing and whiteboards. We have around 250 volunteers right now, mainly from Vancouver and Hong Kong. There is a minimum three-week commitment, though the number of classes may change depending on each school’s schedule.
How do you evaluate the performance of the volunteers?
We base this on reviews from the students and the teachers at the schools, and we will also compare test scores before and after Shule is launched in a school. If someone has to cancel, we ask them to give us 24 hours notice or find a replacement, such as other volunteers on Shule.
What has been the biggest challenge so far?
Managing finances. It’s hard to prioritise which schools get funding first, but I base it off which schools financially need more support. For example, the Kenyan school that the charity organisation pulled out of lost a lot of funding support and teachers. Some other schools are still getting support from other charities so they can be prioritised lower. It also depends on where it is easier to set up Internet and electricity – we provide this for all of our partner schools – as we want a quicker rollout time.
What motivates you?
My personal philosophy is to have a goal in mind and work backwards to figure out what steps to take to achieve that goal. It’s also lots of little milestones – being able to connect with students and offer them classes and seeing them happy is very rewarding.
What is your goal for Shule Online?
Being able to provide accessible education to everyone. In India, for example, a lot of the girls had scholarships to attend school but dropped out because they were harassed – either because of the caste system or where they were from. The girls also wanted sex education classes, so we connected them with doctors to give them information and resources they have no access to where they are. I hope for it to be global in every country that needs teachers.
What has been your proudest achievement so far?
We were able to provide a school in Kenya with a lunch programme – they have at least one meal a day confirmed now.
If you could change one thing about Hong Kong, what would it be and why?
I would want to help the elderly. You see them digging through trash and pushing carts – it shouldn’t be accepted as the norm. I want to find a solution to stop them having to do physically demanding work, for them to have jobs that are not so stressful for their bodies at their age.
Where do you hope to be in five years?
Working at the United Nations and contributing to greater progress.