In these pandemic times, practically everyone and everything is moving online. But when UpSkill TT founder Farishta Mohammed noticed both a scarcity and scattering of online courses in the country she decided a single platform was needed.
Upskilltt.com is a zoom-integrated website and serves as an eco-system for instructors and clients of fitness, academics, leisure and development. Currently, more than 20 instructors and learning centres offer their courses and events on the website with each having been vetted first "to ensure the highest standards of operation."
Mohammed discussed the genesis of the platform during a recent interview with Newsday.
Getting up on entrepreneurship
She explained she has always worked in the corporate world but always wanted to get into entrepreneurship.
"It is very difficult to make that step from one to the other, to move from regular, structured life to that of an entrepreneur. And it's very difficult to balance both."
But Mohammed had been thinking about what entrepreneurial endeavour she could get involved in.
"What can I come up with? What would be new, unique and different that I can bring to market? I had ideas, but nothing stuck."
Some of her ideas were very labour-intensive and time-intensive, and she was never prepared to leave her full-time job. Mohammed has a first degree in economics, a masters in business administration, Association of Chartered Certified Accountants certification, and she continued to study.
"I always had a real passion for development and learning new skills. I feel like if I let my mind stay stagnant too long, it would turn to mush. So to stay ahead of the curve, I have been involved in continuous development. I enjoyed those challenges.
"And part of me wanted to bring something to the market similar to my own credo."
A different kind of classroom
With 2020 and the pandemic Mohammed began to notice people migrating to online learning – by force, but also: "I saw a shift in preference, with a lot of people actually preferring online learning. They like the idea of no traffic, and being in their own space and on their own time. They don't have the hassle of physically going to a class, but get the same quality education they would get in a traditional setting."
So Mohammed did her research and found online course platforms in the US such as Skillshare and Udemy.
"A lot of people, including me, would like to be taught by a local person, to connect with a person who speaks your same language and the same dialect, so you can understand them so much better. So I decided to do something like this for the local market."
She noted a lot of Trinis like live interaction and chatting with other people in a class, but this feature was not available on the sites Skillshare or Udemy, as all classes are pre-recorded. Mohammed decided to have a website with a combination of both live classes (especially necessary for socialisation in this time of lockdown) and pre-recorded, as some people like to take classes on their own time.
As she started to build the idea she began contacting people internationally to build the site and put together a "dream team" of development experts to tailor the site.
The next step was to bring instructors on board. Mohammed had spent many years taking classes and doing personal development and maintained relationships with the people who had taught her. She reached out to these high-quality instructors about her plan and they thought it was a fantastic idea.
"They were all stand-alone and were seeking to service the market individually. While successful, they saw the value of being in one hub where people come and look for one particular course, and now have sight of other courses available."
The site was launched on February 22 with 22 courses. Some of the more popular ones include:
· Circuit training (Levels 1, 2 and 3) – Carver Rullow
· Home gardening: Know it to grow it – Hamza Ali
· Introduction to Art in Therapy – Celeste Dass
· Introduction to Guitar – Cesco Emmanuel
"Since launch, it has been a whirlwind. There has been a lot of activity on social media. And for entrepreneurs that is the most bang for the buck available."
On social media, UpSkill TT was launched with 100 followers on Instagram and grew to 800 within a month (it currently stands at 933).
"It's a good sign, a good proof of concept. People find the idea interesting. Not all of them would buy, but there is interest in the content, at least."
She reported more than 120 people have been enrolled since the launch, spread across different classes and courses. Those enrolled have been from all ages, from the young to the "not so young."
"They really adapted to technology as a must. It is a real game-changer and a real opportunity to bring something to market that really bring people options in a one-stop shop."
What are the criteria to become a tutor or instructor? Mohammed explained that anyone can apply and the team would assess the preliminary information on the application. She said the public may or may not be interested in what the individual is offering to teach.
"If we feel it's new, unique, interesting, and has mass-market appeal, we would reach out to them."
The next stage would be an interview, where the team would assess the candidate's ability to present and to speak. They would also assess his or her experience and academic qualifications, ask for references and do background checks.
"If it all lines up, we would invite them to be a part of UpSkill TT."
Up and away
Since its inception, UpSkill TT has launched virtual events. Mohammed explained these are a little different from regular courses.
"We want to become an 'experience company' and bring new and interesting experiences to the market for people to participate in virtually."
In June it hosted a date night and lime event, which was a hybrid event to bring service to people electronically to participate in and to receive something physical as well.
For the July/August period, UpSkill TT will host a vacation programme, Investing for Teens, and also Know it to Grow it, teaching children to get involved in agriculture.
She said some members of corporate Trinidad have seen the value of the company and it has received sponsorship from Nestlé and Pennywise.
"It is a great thing, because by supporting us they are supporting many other small businesses. There is a real positive multiplier effect."
So what's up next for UpSkill TT? Mohammed said while the company is based in Trinidad and has a local talent pool, the plan is to export the talent through the website, regionally and internationally.
"That's our dream. And we feel it is something that can come true."
UpSkill TT has received its first customer from the TT diaspora (a New York resident).
"There is a big market abroad and with the internet we can reach that market and offer our services internationally."
For more information, you can check out the company online at upskilltt.com or on Facebook or Instagram.