Investing in young minds
When Rema Menon arrived in the Emirates in 1998, little did she know that her life would take an entrepreneurial twist. In India, where she worked prior to moving to Dubai, Mrs Menon had primarily laboured in the non-governmental organisation sector, which is focused more on philanthropy and less on profit. "I haven't let go of the human itarian streak since my working days in India, which is probably why I'm not a commercial success in the way the world perceives success," Mrs Menon says, who worked with children and arranged adoptions through the Indian Council of Child Welfare.
She moved to the UAE when her husband shifted jobs. After scouring the job market for work similar to her previous experience, Mrs Menon accepted a position as a counsellor to girls between grades five and 12 in Dubai's Indian High School. She says her four years with the school were pleasurable. Meeting an average of 25 to 30 students every week, Mrs Menon says the major concerns at the time were related to higher education, as there were limited university options in the UAE.
In 2002, on being presented an opportunity to join a test-preparation company, Mrs Menon was ready to move on. As a counsellor in an Indian school, she interacted only with individuals from her own country. She was eager to help other communities realise their educational aspirations. Mrs Menon joined the start-up, excited by the prospects of working in a small company with large ambitions. She was also lured by the promise of a large advisory role in expanding pre-university counselling across the UAE.
"Unfortunately," she says, "as is often the case, there was a discrepancy in what I was offered and what I did. My real role ended up being part of the marketing team, and I left as soon as I completed a year." Mrs Menon, who is in her early 40s, decided 2003 would be her year of introspection. Armed with lessons in "how not to work" and following repeated self-assessments on what gave her the most professional satisfaction, she realised the only way to work in a company that suited her personal principles was to set it up herself.
Counselling Point was established after much deliberation over the finances involved. The fact that Mrs Menon's husband is a salaried employee in a UAE-based bank offered security. "In that sense we knew we would always have a steady income through him, but my son was on the verge of entering university, so we were under pressure to not place a strain on our investments," she says. Mrs Menon's husband and son, however, insisted she follow her instincts, and the final catalyst emerged in the form of an Emirati ex-student of hers who offered to be her local partner. Encouraged by the family support and gesture of her partner, she rented a 1-bedroom aparfordingtment in a commercial building in Bur Dubai - close to her residence. "I walk to work, saving time and effort," she says.
Starting off with an annual rent of Dh50,000, she has faced a steady increase every year. Additionally, she pays for the relevant economic department licenses on an annual basis. Her initial investments also required her to spend Dh16,000 on kitting out her office space with furniture and accessories. Mrs Menon does not have any staff and says she "relies on volunteers and goodwill" to assist her when required.
Counselling Point's main source of income is generated through Mrs Menon's work to prepare students for university admissions, although she has a smaller clientele seeking therapy on social matters such as marital problems. "I'm not a clinical psychiatrist, but I listen and I advise," she says. The company helps students identify appropriate universities and programmes of study, and streamlines the applications for admission, scholarships and visas - particularly to the US - a process which can be long-winding, complicated and even daunting.
For a fee of Dh6,000, prospective international students keen on a US university experience have access to unlimited sessions with Mrs Menon. During the meetings, she assesses the academic and extra-curricular profile of the student, their personality type, his or her aspirations and fears, parental concerns and financial background. Following the initial discussions, the family and Mrs Menon identify universities and desired areas of study, after which the application process begins. Students wishing to study in Canada or the UK can avail the same services for a fee of Dh2,000. The cost difference is due to the more complex nature of the American admission process.
"I spend more time in discussing," Ms Menon says. "Students must write their own essays and come to their own conclusions. I merely facilitate their thought process. " Mrs Menon also prepares students for their university and much-dreaded visa interviews. Although Counselling Point's clientele is predominantly Indian, about 20 per cent of the students that seek its services are Arabs. "Counselling Point has a 100 per cent success rate with respect to visas, and it's not because I'm a lucky charm," Ms Menon says with a laugh. "I just remain updated on all visa regulation changes and ensure that all the documentation is provided."
Counselling Point is largely a one-woman show. Mrs Menon, who has helped place students in Harvard University, the University of Toronto and Leeds University, among others, says her centre's philosophy remains dedicated to prioritising the student above all. Ms Menon is most proud of the informal nature of Counselling Point's student mentorship initiative. Connecting past students with hopefuls in a "big brother or sister" way, she feels, is the best way for students to feel welcome in their new environment of study.
Citing the case of Mr Tejas Sapre, Ms Menon elaborates on the mentorship philosophy. Mr Sapre was a second-year engineering student at BITS Dubai, the local campus of a well-known Indian technology institute. Mr Sapre and his parents approached Counselling Point with a view to transfer to a US university. "Tejas was academically brilliant and had a 10/10 GPA," Ms Menon remembers. In order to successfully transfer the credits from one institution to another, Ms Menon sent detailed descriptions of courses Mr Sapre had taken and the number of hours of classes he had logged, along with his transcripts and references.
Mr Sapre applied to highly-ranked universities such as Duke, Rice, Purdue and Cornell. He was accepted by all of them; since Cornell was his first choice, he enrolled there. "The Sapres were absolutely delighted. I then connected his family with another family whose son was at Cornell through Counselling Point," Ms Menon says. "Tejas benefited through the tips he gained on settling in at Ithaca. When he visited me last Christmas, it was wonderful to see him share his experiences."
But despite affiliations with top academic institutions in the world, Ms Menon takes pains to remain objective and not affiliate her company with specific universities. "There are numerous offers to act as an agent, in which case I could profit from 10 to 20 per cent of the student's first-year fees as a commission, " she says, adding that her company broke even in only its third year. " But it would compromise on everything I believe in.
Mrs Menon's clients are brought in by word of mouth. Additionally, she writes for various local publications, such as Gulf News' educational supplement, Notes. She is also a visiting counsellor at Sharjah's Delhi Private School and teaches counselling skills for B. Ed students at Sharjah Women's College. "I'm yet to declare a year as profitable," she says. "But the recession makes me hopeful, as more people are interested in returning to school to upgrade their skills."
Looking forward, Ms Menon plans to hire a full-time staff member so the company can engage the community on a larger scale. For example, she aims to target ethnic communities and conduct presentations for parents on various career choices and their corresponding higher education opportunities in different countries. "I'm working in a company I believe in," she says. "We're not busy 365 days a year. But, we're happy 24/7."