Priya Lakhani OBE is Founder CEO of CENTURY Tech, an award-winning company that helps schools harness the power of artificial intelligence to provide each child with an education personalised to their strengths and weaknesses. Founded in 2015, CENTURY improves outcomes, cuts teacher workload and gives teachers greater data insights to allow them to perform better as educators.
Prior to this, Priya started her career as a barrister before starting her own Indian cooking sauce company in 2008. Priya has been a member of the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills’ Entrepreneurs’ Forum. She authored a children’s book, Zarin’s Perfect World, which was published in 2014. She was awarded Business Entrepreneur of the Year by the Chancellor in 2009 and Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2014.
Where did your passion for entrepreneurship stem from?
I have always had an entrepreneurial streak, something that started in school and has stayed with me throughout my life. I was the kid at school selling Chomps and Curly Wurlies from my locker and my brother and I used to drive around buying the products that large bulk retailers couldn’t shift and sell them on for profit.
When I finished studying to become a lawyer I applied this mindset to getting work experience with the big law firms. I turned up uninvited to an awards do and buttonholed the big wig lawyers to get shadowing opportunities – and it worked! All of these taught me that a bit of sheer determination goes a long way, but the most important lesson was to never fear failure.
Could you tell us a little bit about the first business you set up?
So flogging chocolate bars at school doesn’t count? In 2008, I left my career in law to set up Masala Masala, an Indian cooking sauces brand. I noticed that the nation’s favourite dish was curry, but the only fresh cooking sauces you could find in the supermarket were carbonara and arrabiata!
It wasn’t easy – all that everyone said was how hard the food industry is to crack, how saturated it is with ideas and that I might as well give up. But I persisted, including literally turning up to the headquarters of supermarkets demanding to see the buyers. We soon had products in nationwide supermarket chains and independent retailers. I’m passionate about changing the world for the better, so I set up our business model so that for every pot of sauce sold, the company’s charitable arm provided food, vaccines and funding to build schools for the underprivileged. We ended up providing millions of meals and 35,000 vaccinations.
You said you were laughed out the door by all suppliers, where did you find the strength to keep going?
You don’t get anywhere in life if you don’t persist, persist, and persist some more. I suppose this comes partly from the way I was raised by my parents, who wanted nothing but the best for me and always encouraged me to take bold risks and follow my dreams. But I developed thick skin as a barrister that only toughened when I took my first steps as an entrepreneur.
Every pitch you fail or idea that gets shot down develops your resilience, sharpens your acumen and ultimately leads to a more successful entrepreneur – provided that you don’t give up. This is the most important aspect of success – not giving up. Failure happens every day, even in successful businesses. We are allowed to fail at CENTURY when we are innovating or creating new product features or processes. We know this is part of succeeding as long as we learn from our mistakes and improve fast.
What inspired you to launch your second business CENTURY Tech?
While sitting on the UK Department for Business’s advisory board I learned about the problems facing teachers and learners in education – nearly 2 million pupils were in underperforming UK schools. I learned about the overwhelming challenge teachers face – our hardworking teachers, who do what they do to inspire young people or impart knowledge of a subject they are passionate about, spend most of their week too burdened with ridiculous workloads to be able to do what they came to do. It was heartbreaking to walk in to schools and hear about how increases in workload were resulting in stress and wellbeing issues for some of the most hard working people in the country.
Technology had been transforming all other sectors in society for decades, yet education remained largely untouched. I decided to pull together the latest developments in AI, neuroscience and learning science into a platform that provides each child with an education personalised to their needs and that would remove a huge amount of workload from teachers. From our humble beginnings in 2015 CENTURY has gone on to work with tens of thousands of teachers across the world, and recently agreed the first ever partnership to roll out AI across an entire school system.