Lina Ashar

Founder, Kangaroo Kids Preschool & Billabong High International School

At the switch of a breath...
by Sunayana Nair
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It is a rare opportunity to interview a leader whom you had worked with. What makes it rarer is weaving a story around corners unexplored, probing facets of a persona which you had once facilitated in projecting, as part of the internal communications team. It can be a gruelling process of rediscovery – uncovering aspects of a personality that you may have overlooked and therein the task of observing a life relatively dispassionately, whilst treading familiar terrains, groping for experiences untold, which might be like looking for a needle in the haystack. Especially since there is much written about Lina Ashar, Founder of Kangaroo Kids preschools and Billabong High International Schools. Much of Lina’s publicly accoladed journey has been about her remarkable ascent from a young preschool teacher from Australia, to revolutionising the Indian preschool sector with the establishment of the first Kangaroo Kids preschool in Bandra in 1993 and subsequently the K12 sector.

“Every moment is important. It is not about putting children through a sausage machine and expecting them to come out a specific way; their childhood is important. That was the driver for me to come back and it proved to be my biggest life altering path.”

With the launch of her preschool, Lina infused into a highly localised and unregulated sector, relatively alien concepts like joyful learning, inclusive education, low student-teacher ratio, learner-centric play-way methodology, international research-based curriculum etc., and went on to create waves within months of the launch, growing purely through word-of-mouth endorsements by parents which included celebrated Bollywood stars like Shahrukh Khan. Lina has since been within media radar and is a distinguished presence at various societal gatherings. Not one to worry about being bracketed in any particular way, Lina has always been forthright about leading her life through her choices. A trait she probably garnered through her exposure to various cultures when growing up, shuttling across countries and continents like Australia, Africa, UK and India. She dislikes the scripted, overruling the slightest attempt at clouding her personality. As Lina admits, ‘My life is an open book.’

"Any kind of loss or pain can turn around and teach you so much. There is a powerful saying - change the way you look at things and the things you look at change".

Lina Ashar at school

At school

Not many can be as refreshingly honest and unguarded about being themselves as Lina is known to be. Therefore, it wasn’t surprising when she acknowledged with much candour and grace, defining moments of her life – spanning a lesser-privileged though happy childhood, a divorce, a much-publicised bitter fallout with a business partner which sparked her to set off establishing her own schools, and remarkably, her self-realisation regarding her own evolution as a person and leader, gauged by her diametrically opposite reaction to similar business circumstances that unfolded some years ago. It might seem paradoxical that she must mention then that the biggest myth she would like to dispel about herself is that she is intimidating!

"If you are truly present when doing a task, it means it will be done to ten on ten or you will do it to the best of your ability, which makes it that much more impactful and effective."

Lina has an ethereal presence about her that seems to float around effortlessly, almost mystically into roles, fluidly absorbing the interchanging dynamics of the environment around her. Much like her favourite colour, white, which she wears to events nine times out of ten! If we were to ascertain the power of influence as the barometer of successful leadership rather than authority – as Ken Blanchard puts it, Lina would be a shining example. She has a great impact over people – be it the tiny tots or the teenagers in her schools who still wait to catch a glimpse of her to discuss topics they wouldn’t with their parents or her teaching staff whom she tries to engage with consistently or her team or her extremely close-knit family. The first time I was introduced to her years ago, I was awestruck by her sweeping grace and a smile that lit up her eyes, reflecting a confidence that evidently came from a quiet, calm place. It was months later, when Lina introduced practicing meditation daily over an audio file post lunch for all the employees across the corporate office, that bits of the puzzle fell into place! While the practice sessions didn’t last very long, it showcased the importance she accorded to this powerful technique numerous leaders swear by. So much so that she has even included a meditation segment in the recently launched preschool learning app within her schools!

"Meditation makes me feel centered and calm. You change internally. Life doesn’t happen to you but for you. Imagine the possibilities when you think like that! When you base your decisions consciously on that premise, peace becomes high on the value list".

Lina Ashar interacting with school kids

Interacting with kids

Lina discovered meditation rather organically in childhood, a period which influenced her the most. While her most memorable moments include chasing butterflies in her garden in Australia and often gazing at the sky full of stars, her earliest encounter with meditation was as a 11-year-old accompanying her Buddhist mom to prayer sessions where she would volunteer to babysit children. It was at this juncture when Lina simultaneously discovered her love to be around children and when the seeds of meditation embedded in her mind, subconsciously. Gradually, her inclination to meditate grew rapidly as a teenager until her intense involvement with meditation progressed to feeling ‘states so blissed out where you reach a state of consciousness you haven’t experienced before’. She currently practices sound meditation regularly every weekend and still loses track of time while doing so!

"I meditate whenever I feel like it, which is a lot of mornings. I am not committed to doing meditation but I am committed to feel a certain way or being in the most peaceful state I can possibly be.Meditation helps me attain that".

Lina Ashar Awards

Winning the Woman Achievers’ Award

Lina doesn’t feel the need to be ‘committed to do meditation’ rather she feels committed about feeling peaceful and centred which meditation helps her attain. It helped her to respond rather than react to situations, enabling her to avoid knee-jerk reactions and this attitude transformed how she approached any trying circumstance – by being more mindful of the intent of one’s own and of others. Lina believes that meditation allows one to comprehend reality, helping one choose an empowering narrative, enabling one to approach it from a more peaceful, loving standpoint than from fear, which consequently facilitates trusting. This gave her a new perspective to approach losses including her divorce, disassociations and conflicts with key franchise partners. It significantly guided her motherly instincts when raising her son Drish, now twenty-seven years old, and which she considers as her biggest achievement.

"Meditation facilitates trusting. It doesn’t mean that if someone does something untrustworthy that nothing will ever affect you but your reaction to it will change. How you view it will change. That is more powerful".

Meditation also helped Lina arrive at some of her most critical life-altering decisions. The most recent example being the acquisition of Kangaroo Kids Education Ltd. by Gaja Capital in March 2017, in arguably the biggest known acquisitions in the Indian K12 arena. In spite of being a second-generation entrepreneur (her father Anil Somaia is Founder of the reputed Somaia group of companies in Australia), setting up 100 plus schools across India, Maldives and Dubai, and helming the first corporate chain of K12 schools in the country within a span of twenty years, Lina dislikes to call herself a business woman. She always had a CEO to run the business aspect of her vision and resisted getting investors on board. Lina attributed her wariness to the uneasiness she felt ‘every time the intent would shift from kids’. It was the realisation of her responsibility towards her people and children that allowed her to trust the broader vision and intent this time around. She decided to take the plunge taking stock of the innumerable possibilities of growth versus the fear of losing control. In a giant leap of faith, she abandoned control, taking up a mentoring position, and reverting to her ‘authentic state’ of living her dream. A move which has already propelled the organisation to achieve long-held benchmarks within the first year. Lina admits she is back to doing what she loves to do and now feels much like the earlier days – ‘like a bunch of girls with a dream sharing the same excitement and passion when we started.’

"If you find that 'ikkigai, that sweet spot for everything - your competency, interest, your passion and your contribution to the world can come from one spot and if you work from that spot - it is not work and it is not life, it is all enjoyment..."

Lina Ashar smitten by the travel bug

Smitten by the travel bug

Lina’s core product team comprises women and the ones heading critical verticals have all been ex-parents, some of whom had commenced their journey with the organisation with the launch of the first Kangaroo Kids preschool! That she nurtured talent and bred top rung leaders whilst discovering her own fortitude is quite remarkable. In that, she perhaps should be hailed as the poster girl for having long established what is now increasingly the new-age start up culture. Her secret is to go all guns blazing at the beginning when the risks are low, focusing on getting one thing done and then moving to the next. Lina credits her ‘servant-style’ leadership style to her father who incidentally also gave her the ‘biggest gift’ she could have asked for – a loan of Rs. 30 lac to set up her first preschool. She shared a special bond with him. Apart from writing, spending time with children and nature, it was cooking dishes for her father that brought her the most joy as a child.

"The marketing world tries to impression upon us that we are happier when we receive but the truth is we are happier when we give."

Although a fabulous cook, her passion for cooking ran its course years ago in an unsuccessful marriage, after years of servitude made her realise that it had come to unfairly define and override much of her existence, reaching a juncture where she couldn’t prolong it any further. And so, one day, she hung her apron and never wore it again. Food, for Lina, however still holds a high intrinsic quotient especially since it held enormous value when growing up in a lesser privileged setup where meals were frugal and would generally consist of one potful of rice and dal (steamed lentils) that her mother would prepare every night. Lina reveals how she would steal money from her parents to get her younger brother and herself some chocolates and meat pies, convinced that they deserved some much-needed sustenance! Lina still occasionally finds it emotionally gratifying to be able to afford a good meal when she wants to. While she believes she has made her peace with food and doesn’t feel the need to seek solace by consuming it, she continues to savour that first delightful sip of coffee or that first bite of a dessert. Perhaps it is also some kind of divine justice served that her life partner Kishore D. F. runs a restaurant The Tanjore Tiffin Room which whips up traditional Tamilian original recipes and it happens to be her favourite eating joint!

"One of the most significant concepts I have come across is understanding that the brain and the body are not different. Everything is part of the same scope. A shift in the way you think regarding every thought you think, changes the structure of your brain biologically and physiologically".

Besides being a good cook, Lina is also an expert at doling out much food for thought! Apart from writing several reading programmes for her school kids and being a columnist at Huffpost India, Lina has authored two books – Who do you think you’re kidding? and Drama Teen. She shares how her lifelong desire of becoming an author manifested when she wrote down her intent to write a book at an Anthony Robbins workshop and how soon after publishers at Penguin approached her with the title to write her first book! She is currently working on her third book which is about ‘finding your north star’. Lina doesn’t have a set method to write and often goes with the flow, drawing inspiration from either the sea that overlooks her house in Bandra, Mumbai or from the lush green forest surrounding her Goa house which is her writer’s den.

"I would like to make as much of an impact as I can to leave the world a happier, more peaceful place because of my small role in it. So, that then defines what I do which is to hopefully have children in my care who grow into adults who will be that kind of adults".

For a woman who gave childhoods a literal makeover across Indian metropolitans and suburbs, it seems unsurprising that her own childhood has been integral in the very many aspects that define her today, especially in her most cherished mission of providing inclusion within schools. Lina was born with dislocated hips. In hindsight, with the knowledge she has gained by reading voraciously on matters regarding neuroscience, Lina believes that being relatively immobile during the earliest months of her developing life, sharpened her senses in terms of creativity and intuition. Much of her physical impediments and pain in trying to fit in after painful corrective surgeries and dealing with an awkward gait in childhood sensitised her towards the need for an inclusive atmosphere in schools. Some of her most touching moments have been watching children bloom in an encouraging environment. A case in point being watching an autistic child at one of her schools become the world topper in design last year; another, when a small girl with a physical impediment went on to become a singing sensation, being celebrated by her classmates on stage. She believes this to be the true essence of education and has accordingly coined ‘Igniting Human Greatness’ as the motto of her school.

"The real validators of success for me are (finding) meaning and purpose. More and more people in the psychological and medicinal fields are talking about why meaning is more important than happiness".

Befittingly, it is her own life that is the biggest testament to the ideal – that childhood matters and the secret to tapping potential is in digging deep and checking that reservoir of greatness instilled within. The most gratifying element in Lina’s story undoubtedly remains the preservation of her child-like state of joy and peace. While meditation has been her most powerful ally, she believes the medium could be anything for someone else as long as it helps in being mindful and aware. It was towards the end of the segment when I realised what Lina meant when she implied that attaining a state of meditation is unconditional. We usually prefer to conduct the interview at a place that would likely brew the requisite energy related to that particular interest. And while we believed recording Lina at a tranquil spot would well complement an interest like meditation, instead of meeting up at a conference room, Lina was confident of being much at peace in the midst of a hectic workday! She unperturbedly settled into the conversation amidst a flurry of action, demonstrating why one needn’t be confined to a particular definition (in this case) of a conducive space to being present in the truest way! And this lovely lady in white does exactly that by absorbing rapidly from the environment around her whilst reflecting light at the switch of a breath!

CXOFUNFACTS with

Favourite colour

Loves colours. Favourite to wear is White.

Birthday

January 8th

Favourite things

Children and Nature

Favourite eating joint

The Tanjore Tiffin Room

Favourite holiday destination

Maldives

Favourite Movie

Inside Out / Shawshank Redemption / Hotel Rwanda / Kite Runner

Naughtiest thing as a child

Robbed money from parents to buy chocolates and meat pies for brother and me

One Lesser known fact about Lina

Was born with dislocated hips

Favourite books

Non-fiction, based on neuroscience, motivational science, future theorists. Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think by Peter Diamandis. Books by Anthony Robbins, John Demartini, Daniel Pink. Currently reading Digital Natives

One myth you would like to dispel about herself

I am intimidating

Favourite Music

Fleetwood Mac / The Eagles / A.R Rahman / Cat Stevens / Steve Winwood / Damien Rice / David Gray / Dire Straits

Best gift received

Father funding her first preschool for Rs. 30 lac

One parenting advice you would give

Asking yourself, is this in the best long-term interest of my child? Provides instant clarity

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