Many parents dream their offspring will study at a prestigious Oxbridge or Ivy League college. theDesk spoke with Sujaree Xu, Managing Director of Crimson Education Hong Kong and Thailand. We learned about what it takes to get into a top school and why this mumpreneur speaks from first-hand experience.
Opening up access
Crimson Education prepares students to enter the best educational establishments in the world. Founded in New Zealand in 2013, Crimson is now a global entity. They recently raised $30m in a funding round.
Thai-born Sujaree Xu, known as Pom, set up Crimson Education in Thailand in mid-2016. She is now building her business in Hong Kong.
“We focus mostly on the USA and UK because the application for these schools is particularly complex. Our approach includes leadership development, tutoring, and career mentorship.”
Admission to Oxford, Cambridge or Ivy League schools takes dedication. ”These are the most competitive education markets in the world. We help students with undergraduate applications but also with boarding schools in the US and UK,” Pom explains.
The company has been tremendously successful. “Approximately 90% of New Zealand students who get into Ivy League schools are Crimson students,” Pom smiles.
“When we started, there was little knowledge about the requirements and process,” she tells me. Now, Auckland has the highest percentage of students who get into Ivy League schools. “We feel like we’re a big part of making that happen.”
The road to success
Originally from Thailand, Pom has lived in Hong Kong for nine years. “I went to local school in Thailand,” she tells me, “And I won a scholarship to top US boarding school Phillips Academy in Andover.” From that auspicious start, Pom went on to study at Harvard.
“I guess I’m a bit of a workaholic! It’s a challenge at times, but it keeps me energetic and happy.”
Pom understands first-hand the benefits of a world-class education for Asian students. “Before I started Crimson in Thailand, I worked with management consulting with McKinsey,” she says. After more than eight years working in private equity investments, Pom took time off to spend with her young family. “I have a boy and a girl aged five and three,” she beams.
A chance encounter
“My investment job was time demanding and required my full attention,” Pom remembers. “I became bored to the point that I needed to do something else. I wanted the next stage of my career to be something new. I wanted to do something entrepreneurial,” she reflects.
In 2016, Pom had the opportunity to coach a team of students in her native Thailand. That led to her meeting with Jamie Beaton, the Kiwi founder of Crimson Education. “Like me, he went to Harvard. We randomly sat next to each other at dinner and started talking about his business.”
“This was a sector I’ve been thinking about for some time, but I didn’t have the right platform,” she explains. Talking with Beaton, Pom realised that his company had the funding and operational experience she needed. “I said, ‘Why don’t I open Thailand for you?’,” Pom smiles. And from that conversation, Crimson Education Thailand was born.
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Starting up in Bangkok
Since then, the company has become a success in Thailand. “There were many things to learn. But that was the fun bit,” she recalls. “I got to do everything.”
Pom rolled up her sleeves and managed operations and back office. She dealt with legal, marketing, sales and strategy. She pitched to potential partners and worked on institutional relationship building. At first, she also coached many students.
“It was exhausting but exhilarating,” she says. “It was fantastic to take on challenges and learn about every single aspect of the work.”
A complete package
For parents and their kids, deciding what and where to apply are the first steps. “Parents come in thinking of a specific major, regardless of whether the child is interested. Kids usually have little idea which direction to take. We rarely meet students who know what they want to do,” Pom tells me.
Understanding each country’s admissions procedures is crucial. Pom tells me that the UK application process is straightforward. It’s all about the academics. “If you don’t get the grades, you don’t get in. That’s the bottom line,” Pom states.
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The US process is more holistic, but top grades still matter. “You have to be academically viable,” she says. “They don’t want to accept you and have you fail the class.”
For students aiming at US schools, extra-curricular activities are as important as grades. “Schools look at your profile carefully,” she says. “It’s about who you are as a person.”
“If you’re an academically strong student but very one-sided, you might not get in. You need to be quite a unique and interesting individual. Your personal narrative is important for US admissions,” she advises.
Big ambition, local needs
The US process allows kids to shine as rounded individuals. But the highly competitive nature of the Asian educational markets can put students under intense pressure. “Parents understand their child can’t only be good in one or two subjects. Kids have to be good at sport, creative arts, public speaking and many other areas.”
She admits that some children are made to do numerous activities they aren’t interested in for the sake of the application process. “Students frequently need a great deal of guidance,” Pom says. Coaching and nurturing students over a period is what Crimson offers clients.
Pom explains, “The traditional focus of providers in Thailand and Hong Kong has been on selecting the school, completing paperwork, writing an essay and filling in the application. At Crimson, we enrol children for a minimum of one year, and sometimes up to four years,” she says.
“We want students to consider their school selection carefully, not only look at the ranking. It’s where they will spend the next four years. It’s a place where they build a lifelong network.”
“We coach students to become better; to manage time, work with colleagues, manage assignments, delegate. We pay attention to developing core life skills,” Pom tells me. This comprehensive service is something parents increasingly value and appreciate.
Crimson even provides a personality assessment test. “We work with team members with PhDs in psychology. They specialise in this kind of assessment.”
Building the Hong Kong business
One year after launch, the Thailand business is in a good place. With over 50 students and ten full-time staff, Pom is satisfied operations are running efficiently. Pom is now focussing on achieving success in Hong Kong.
“The city’s educational consultancy sector is crowded and heavily marketed,” Pom says. “The majority of students use a service provider.” Companies here spend more on advertising whereas in Thailand it’s more about word of mouth.
Pom acknowledges that while demand is strong in Hong Kong, parents expectations are high. “A large number of Hong Kong parents studied in the US or UK. They are knowledgeable and understand the process well.”
Locally, the USA and the UK are the most popular markets. “It’s pretty much half-and-half. Trends move back and forth. It used to be the UK, then the US, now it’s the UK again,“ Pom says.
“Right now it’s still very much baby steps,” Pom explains. “We’re spending time on research and development, looking at the trends and how to market our company effectively.”
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Co-working made sense
With three consultants on staff in Hong Kong and a global network of experts on hand, Crimson is the first tenant to move to theDesk’s One Hysan Avenue space. “You should give us a plaque for being the first!” she laughs.
“It’s exhilarating. There’s a huge benefit to us being in Causeway Bay. We want to be close to students and parents. We chose theDesk because of the location and the great flexibility.” Pom says.
These days, many companies chose co-working to start and grow their business. “The rent in Hong Kong is always a consideration. It makes more sense to work at theDesk, and share facilities and meeting rooms. Our clients come in and out. We need the flexibility of space.”
Crimson is typical of many modern startups and businesses. More than flexibility and location, Pom understands it’s the details that make co-working an ideal solution. “Setting up an office, most people imagine the basics such as high-speed, reliable internet, and utilities. But there’s so much more. Even water dispensers, coffee cups and tea in the pantry, a maid to keep it clean and tidy. Even how many rubbish bins to have,” Pom says.
Ready set go in Hong Kong
It’s clear from our conversation that the journey has been rewarding for Pom. “I feel proud of the success we’ve achieved. We’ve expanded quickly, and it’s been fun. Part of it is having a great team to work with.”
In Bangkok, Pom began by covering all roles. She gradually hired people as the business took off. In Hong Kong, she can adapt her approach based on that experience. “It’s much easier for me this time because I know what I have to do.” Having covered every single function means she can train each member of staff, whether in marketing, sales or administration. “I can even train consultants and strategists,“ she says.
“For me, the priority in Hong Kong is to hire the right people. The speed we go in the city is the speed at which we can assemble an expert core team.”
Today, Pom’s schedule is becoming less brutal. “I’m still travelling a lot. Last year I worked in Bangkok about 15 days a month. I stayed there a week at a time. Now, I’m able to spend one week in Bangkok and the other three in HK.“
“I will always need to roll up my sleeves,” she says determinedly. “But I have a model that works; I can train people and connect them with our global experts and resources. Here, I can focus on assembling my team from day one and spend time on managing the business.”