By the age of 22, Ms Payal Lal (Yale-NUS ‘17) had started three companies as an undergraduate. She shares the secrets to her bold approach to life and learning.
WHEN SHE WAS 18, Ms Payal Lal began her studies as a law student at the National Law University, Delhi. A month later, she quit. “Sometimes you take a step, then you realise it’s not what you want to do,” she explains. She then promptly started her first business: a telephone service linking students with tutors, called Tutor Connect.
It began when Ms Lal, daughter of an entrepreneur, saw an unmet need. “As a student, I had problems finding a private tutor,” she says. “In India, tutors are hired based on recommendations. So the students may not do as well as they expected, because you can’t really tell if the tutor is suitable till your results come out. This is especially a problem for lower-income families, who end up spending a lot of money on someone who may not be the best tutor. I started Tutor Connect to make tutor selection more scientific.” Unfortunately, Tutor Connect proved too hard to scale; she was forced to close it down after a year. “Once I got to 400 tutors, it was hard to keep track of them,” she explains. “But I was on point on identifying the problem [in education in India].”
Ms Lal admits her parents were worried that she had given up on going to college altogether, because she was far more passionate about creating businesses that made a difference. Then Yale-NUS opened up for applications for its first cohort in 2012. “I thought it would be a unique school, and Singapore is an interesting place to be in,” recalls Ms Lal, and so she sent in her application.
At that time, Ms Lal was knee-deep in a competition for young entrepreneurs called the Thiel Fellowship. “It rewards 20 teens with $100,000 to drop out of school to create world-changing ideas. My parents had wanted me to apply to college, but I just wanted to do what I wanted to do. I made it to the semi-finals. The results of the semi-finals and my Yale-NUS application were two days apart. I was hoping one would work out so I didn’t have to choose!”
As it turns out, it was the Yale-NUS application that came through. In July 2013, she began her university education in Singapore. Moving from New Delhi forced her to shutter her second start-up — a T-shirt company begun with a friend six months before, with a start-up capital of just $100. “We ended up making about $2,000 within that time,” she says with some pride.
THE IDEA FACTORY
As it turned out, Yale-NUS was the perfect environment for Ms Lal. “It really supported the entrepreneurial spirit,” she says. “Every other student had a startup. The moment you’re given time to explore, things happen.” Ms Lal is quick to point out that she was present at classes — a strict Yale-NUS requirement — but what she appreciated was “having the ability to do what I wanted, to do projects, to go to events. Having that space was very helpful.”
It may have seemed an odd combination, majoring in Psychology with a minor in Computer Science, but Ms Lal appreciates her liberal arts education because of its relevance. “I like to understand people and I like coding. It was not till I decided to do both that I realised how relevant it is today, especially in AI (artificial intelligence), where they’re trying to copy what humans can do.”
Part of her studies included an internship overseas as part of the NUS Overseas Colleges experience: she was attached to a tech start-up called e-Rated in Tel Aviv, Israel. Ms Lal credits this experience with developing her personally. “It was so different. Communication in Israel is not dependent on the listener, but on the speaker. So you have to spell it out.” She also received valuable advice from one of the founders of e-Rated. Seeing that she was balancing university and getting Social MOOC Taker up and running, he suggested that it was better she picked one and focused. So, she took a semester off and concentrated on building her business, returning to the University in August 2016 to complete her studies. She graduated from Yale-NUS in December 2017.
A LABOUR OF LOVE
It was not long before Ms Lal was hired by CognaLearn, a learning science company that has its roots at the Duke-NUS Medical School. CognaLearn uses patent-pending methods and technologies to optimise learning that is based on cognitive science. The company has created over $1m in revenue from education solutions provided to pharmaceutical giants like GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer.
Ms Lal, who turns 25 this December, is in charge of “customer success” at CognaLearn, working with customers using CognaLearn’s InteDashboardTM, a teaching software used by 10 universities in Asia, Australia and the US, including Yale-NUS. “The product is a team-based learning pedagogy. I make sure the customers are using it optimally,” she says.
CognaLearn may not be her start-up but it feeds Ms Lal’s deep dream to transform education. Social MOOC Taker focuses on group learning, while CognaLearn promotes team learning — but both fall under the umbrella known as social learning. “I do it because I love it,” she declares, “and being in a company that supports team-based learning, I get to talk to professors who are devoted to teach better. That is inspiring to me.”
What drives her? It’s not her skills, says Ms Lal, distilling it to her desire to remove the disparity that exists in education today. “In my first company (Tutor Connect), I was passionate about the problem. In my third (Social MOOC Taker), I was passionate about the vision. I still believe there is a very high level of disparity — what I do now is connect with people who are open to connecting.”
Another key ingredient to Ms Lal’s relentless pursuit of her passion is her immunity to the pain of failure. “Failures don’t hurt me much anymore, because I don’t doubt my capability to start up again.” She defines success, no longer as “being famous” which was how her 18 year-old self saw it. Now, Ms Lal defines it as doing what makes her happy. She eschews having long-term goals. “You change. Your environment changes. The world changes,” she points out. “Goals make sense if everything is static. People should just do what they are passionate about — they will make a dent one day.”