Zig-zag trajectory led to online teaching
Wild Geese: Henry Ryan, Learning Bird, Montreal
Henry Ryan: his latest venture is based firmly on the belief that “kids don’t hate learning, they just learn in different ways”.
“There’s nothing more impressive than a great teacher,” says Henry Ryan. The Montreal-based entrepreneur was “hardly even a student”, but, his latest venture aims to bring great teachers to the kids who most need them – all through the magic of crowdsourcing.
Learning Bird is an online library of video lessons harvested from teachers across North America, including one where a teacher explains probability while working a Rubik’s Cube. “We have all sorts of cool things, not just chalk and talk.”
It all started in Curry, Co Sligo, with a Sinclair ZX Spectrum. A child of the 1980s, Ryan was fascinated by “programming, gadgets and technology”. This led to opportunities his elder brothers and cousins could only dream of. “I was born at the right time,” he says.
After studying business at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, he found a job with Dell, at their first call centre in Bray. “When I arrived there the first day, they didn’t have carpets,” he remembers.
“We were all in our early 20s and thanking our lucky stars we’d found work.”
He might have built an interesting career at home – an almost unheard of prospect back then – but for a growing wanderlust. His first taste of international business culture at Dell had inspired him – and memories of his late father, who’d travelled the world as a barman on a cruise ship.
Soon he was soon off to London, practically walking into a job with Credit Suisse at their swish Canary Wharf offices. The Irish kid was now rubbing shoulders with British corporate bankers, hired to fix teething problems in the bank’s paperless office system.
After a couple of years, it became clear that the world of banking was not for him. Wasting no time, he talked himself into a job at video games giant Electronic Arts. As Ryan tells it, the job description was literally: “We think there’s something in this internet thing, figure it out and tell us.”
Having hit the tender age of 30 – “my mid-life crisis” – he decided it was time to move on again. “There was a part of me going: ‘there’s more out there to be had’. I wanted to run companies,” he says. One surefire way up the ladder, he decided, would be an MBA. His application still in the post, he left his job to travel, acknowledging “people thought I was nuts”.
“I kind of had that feeling of being invincible,” he says. While in Africa, he met a girl from Montreal, who’d just descended Mount Kilimanjaro. “Within four hours, I knew I was going to marry her.”
He went on to study for an MBA at IMD business school in Lausanne, Switzerland. Much of the course was focused on leadership, with gruelling psychological trials designed to break down young executive egos and build up self-awareness. The move paid off. Emotionally drained, but psychologically rebuilt, he went for the “best interview ever”.
Headhunted for JM Huber, an American company specialising in oil and gas, lumber and financial services, he was flown to the States in an executive jet.
“When a company flies over an executive jet to pick you up and fly you to the interview, you don’t even ask what they’re paying. You’re like, I don’t care what it is, I’m taking the job.”
Based in Atlanta, he had to assess whether the company’s inhouse financial unit could be expanded into a viable independent firm providing services to outside clients. After a two-year analysis, he concluded it wouldn’t work.
The company wanted him to stay, but Montreal – and marriage – beckoned. So, he headed north with visions of “Mounties, moose and mountains”. He sat on the board of a computer games start-up, eventually buying out investors with the founders. In 2010, they sold the firm to French video game developer Ubisoft.
“I asked the question: ‘What do I want to do?’ You get into your 40s and you might only get one more kick of the can.”
He met a fellow entrepreneur at a networking event, who had an idea for an educational project. The pair soon had a concept: “kids don’t hate learning, they just learn in different ways”.
“Our mission is to ensure every kid can fulfil their learning potential regardless of wealth,” says Ryan. From a low-income background himself, with a widowed mother who held down three jobs to bring up three kids, he is only too aware of the headstart early advantages can confer.
“I come from a culture where I was very lucky. where I was very well educated and I was able to get into a great company. Those early boosts put me on a trajectory with a speed that has carried me through my whole life. If I had missed either of those, I wouldn’t have had the adventure I’ve had.”