Raxa Mehta had a long and distinguished career in the financial services industry, where she rose to the position of director at Lehman Brothers and subsequently executive director (Market & Credit Risk Management) at Nomura.
In March 2014, she struck out on her own to become a social entrepreneur and worked hard to launch a new venture–an online maths resource–for children between the age group of 6 to 11, which will go live this month, writes Anjana Parikh
AL: Can you briefly tell our readers about your family background?
Raxa: Born in Kenya to Indian parents, themselves migrants to East Africa from India in the 1950s, I was educated initially in England to primary school level, then India to secondary school level, and again in England at graduate and post graduate level. My father was an accountant / book-keeper and my mother worked in various factories or was a house-wife. I have two siblings, a brother and a sister. Both my parents had high aspirations for us; they worked especially hard to get us the best education that they could manage.
I was married to a Ugandan Indian, with whom I have two children, both boys. We have been divorced for over 10 years but remain friends. My sons got the best education we could provide, having been to some of the country’s top schools and both have got undergraduate degrees at Oxford University. My oldest son is a doctor and my younger son is a financial analyst in a global pharmaceutical company.
I have a BSc Economics degree from the University of Bath and an MSc in Management Science from Imperial College, London.
AL: You rose to the position of a director at Lehman Brothers and Nomura. Why did you choose to go on your own after an illustrious career in the financial services industry?
Raxa: I am now in my mid-50s and as my children have both completed their further education and have started out in their respective careers, I am in the fortunate position to be able to take some risks and start an enterprise that I have always been very passionate about – teaching kids Maths. So I have taken this opportunity to embark on my career-encore, as I call it, to create a long-term sustainable work platform that I feel passionate about and that will take me into my 60s and 70s, bearing in mind that more people have to work into their retirement these days.
AL: You are now a social entrepreneur who’s ready to launch an online maths resource. Why did you choose maths?
Raxa: There are 3 main reasons why Maths:
Maths is such an important subject for all sorts of careers, not just finance, and as I wanted to do something impactful in this phase of my life, Maths was the obvious choice. And in my experience with my own children, when kids are good at Maths, they gain confidence in all other subjects with improved results across the board;
Too many children get labelled as being “bad at Maths”, either by themselves or their teachers or parents. I believe that all children can be good at Maths, provided enough time is given to practice the key concepts. I believe that a daily 15 minute exercise is an excellent way to do this – and that is what I am providing;
Maths is a subject that lends itself to be practiced online, while other subjects are less easy.
AL: Many dread the subject. What does a child need to have to fall in love in maths?
Raxa: To continue from the previous answer – children drop out of Maths because they feel that they are not good at it. The problem with the way Maths is taught at schools is that teachers have a lot of the curriculum to cover. So they teach a new concept, do a little practice and then move on to the next subject without ensuring that all kids have understood the concept. Some kids get it quickly, with others it takes time, and time is what they don’t get given. My belief is that with enough practice, every child can “get it” – so that’s what Chilipopcorn provides. Once kids start to “get” Maths, they realise that it was not all that difficult after all, and as they grow more confident at the subject, they grow to enjoy it, and start appreciating the beauty of Maths and the logic in it.
AL: How is online maths going to help children?
Raxa: Online Maths is simply a delivery platform for a Maths practice system. Online just means it is accessible over the internet thus making it easier for parents and students to access it, and for us to deliver it.
The way it will help children is our unique methodology – we first assess each child to find their current level, we then assign them daily worksheets which grow in complexity. But they only progress to higher levels once they reach the required standard of speed and accuracy. This way each student progresses at their own pace but we ensure that they only progress once they have fully understood the concept of each subject. While schools help them learn each subject, we also provide tutorial videos – but they can also use a vast amount of material that is available online. The unique selling point about Chilipopcorn is the daily worksheets and the structured method we use to progress the student.
In a recent pilot that we ran over a period of two weeks, we found a significant improvement in the way kids were applying Maths, they got faster at doing the sums in their heads, and this was just after two weeks. So we are confident that this method really works.
AL: Is there any fee that one needs to pay for the resource?
Raxa: Users have a choice of a monthly fee in the region of £10 per month or £100 per year or equivalent in any other currency (it may be less, or negotiable with schools or NGOs)
AL: Can adults also benefit for it?
Raxa: Absolutely – many adults that I have been speaking to say that they would really like to have a go – once a student is registered, we only consider their age when allocating the initial assessment sheet – after that it is their own abilities that drive progress, not their age.
Usually, women like to stay away from maths. Tell us how did you fall in love with the subject?
My father had a lot to do with my love for Maths – he was very good at arithmetic and used to teach us early mornings in preparation for 11+ exams. That learning made me confident in the subject and when I reached senior school, I was always scored top marks. What I am trying to do with Chilipopcorn is to provide that same start to millions of other children who may not have fathers or mothers who could provide that type of support.
AL: Does a person need to have a certain type of acumen to love numbers, theories and formulae?
Raxa: I believe that it is less to do with acumen and more to do with the basic foundation – if the latter is strong then the love of numbers and theories would come naturally. But if the foundation is weak and we are trying to teach simultaneous equations to kids who have not quite got a full grasp of negative numbers, then those kids will always be struggling and never really enjoy the beauty of Maths.
AL: You’re also quite vocal about Britain’s EU membership. How do you think that women and ethnic minorities are going to benefit from the membership?
Raxa: The European law on equality establishes a basic minimum standard for member states to implement. It ensures that no member states deviate from this basic minimum standard. This is not a future state thing, we as members benefit from this today. Without this EU directive, there is a risk that individual governments can remove this core principal that protects minorities, LGBT, gender, age and disability discrimination.
AL: Why do you think that the voice of British business matters in EU?
Raxa: There is a long and a short answer to this. I will try the condensed version – fundamentally, EU rules, regulations and laws impact British citizens directly, from employment law, copyright law, tariffs, taxation etc etc.
We have three choices: remain members of the EU if we see any advantages at all, but be an active member such that we can influence the laws, rules and regulations in a way that meet Britain’s interests, remain members of the EU but keep our distance in a passive at best or negative way, criticising the system but not be influential enough to change it or leave the EU altogether and strike out on our own
To date the present government has followed path two – we have seen a reducing influence in the EU with each passing issue, and with the pressure from UKIP on immigration, hence, the drive for many in the country to go for option 3. My view is that there is a case for EU membership, but that there are many issues with it as well – I believe that Britain is stronger within the EU, but that we should strengthen our influence within the structure, not leave. I am firmly in the “lead, not leave” camp.