BAM Connect Stories - Episode 5 - Claudia Cochină - Fly High

Claudia, thank you for accepting to be part of this BAM Connect Stories Podcast. Please tell us something about you, your family, and your business in Craiova.

I am Claudia Cochină. I was born and raised in Craiova. I have two children, 14 and 18, Sara and Stefan. I run two businesses in Craiova. I started 12 years ago a language center called Fly High. And my vision for this particular project was that children learn joyfully and prepare themselves for life. So that's one of the projects, and the most recent business is Inspira. Inspira International School. This is a private school accredited by Cambridge International. And it only started last year in September 2022.

Can you tell us something about your mission?

It was late that I discovered that I was doing Business as Mission. I’ve always loved languages and have worked with children. And somehow, I returned to my hometown and did exactly this. So I guess my mission is to invest in Craiova’s children and young people. My mission takes the form of an educational project that is, and I would say, different and innovative and focused on the children. We’re still working to put the mission and vision together at Inspira. And both projects started with a passion for children. And I think they both respond to our community’s need for different educational services. They cannot be that different. We're still focusing on children, believing that everyone is unique, and trying to help each of them grow. And also journey with them. Because we do think education is a journey with ups and downs. And as teachers and mentors, we need to guide the students in this journey and be there for them.

Tell us something about your customers, eventually the kids and the parents.

Our business is interesting. Our direct customers are the children, but they are not the decision-makers, right their parents are, so all our contracts are with the parents. We have a large category of children and young people that we work with. We started working in fly high with students aged three or four. And we help them learn English or German all the way to high school. It's quiet a lot because we've had fly high for 12 years. We have students that started with us in kindergarten and are now in high school. It’s very rewarding to see how long they stay with us and they grew up in Fly High, and the children are fascinating. And it's different from one age category to another. We focus on teens as well. So we'd like all ages, and we've worked with all ages. In terms of parents as customers, I would say that we work with parents who value education in general, open-minded parents that want to access a different type of education, parents that are open to new ideas with a different attitude, and a different mindset towards education, looking for other models.

Do you have a particular story to tell us?

We just had a meeting with mothers for Mother's Day the other day. One of them reminded us when her child started with us. And he was problematic. Like, he had a hard time integrating and connecting with other kids. He was, at the time, some bully. He would give the teachers quite a hard time. And the other day, told me how fine he is, and if there’s any activity he can skip, it's not Fly High. So whatever his schedule looks like, he wants to make sure he goes to Fly High no matter what. And he's a more mature teenager now and appreciates our environment. We’ve created a really friendly environment for children to learn in. And that allows them to feel safe and confident in who they are well and learn well as a consequence. We have some students now studying in the UK, Luca comes to my mind, and he was here for the holidays. And he shared with our community how much what he learned in Fly High helped him adapt to his studies and how they learn and study in the UK.

Can you tell us about the teachers from the school and other staff?

The first thing that comes to my mind is that they are the most wonderful people. I am blessed and grateful for all the people that are and have been on my team. And I couldn’t have built anything without dedicated and talented people. We have all kinds of ages, all kinds of backgrounds. Some of them are believers, and some of them are not. Over the years, we’ve retained people who think like we believe and value our organizational culture. Both businesses are value-based environments and businesses where we know exactly what we want to promote and leave out among ourselves, but also for the children. So over the years, the people that stayed with us were the people that identified with our values and the people that evolved within our organization. We recently just had another training, where we explored the talents, the strength that we have. And again, it was one of those exercises where you see how different we are. And you see the value and richness in each of them. They either went to pedagogical school, or they went to the faculty of the letters. We have two American teachers. They came as volunteers. Fortunately, they're both believers. Kaacey has been with us now for four years already.

Can you tell us something about your values as an organization?

We have six values in Fly High. We’re still working on it in Inspira because it’s the first year. But we have passion, fun, team spirit, growth, innovation, and high quality. So we translated those values into behaviors that everybody in the organization lives out. And somehow, we defined the values in the process by thinking of what we do and how we do it, and the values just popped up, which was a good thing. It got the essence of our organization. And there have been talks about whether we should revise them, but this is who we are at the end of the day. In our activities we teach students meaningful things and we organize events where they learn, discover, or experience a particular value. So I'm really careful about that when we designed the educational programs. And we try to stay relevant for the children. But we also want them to learn something from these experiences. And I'm just giving you a simple example. We never celebrate Halloween, per se. But we make sure that we have like the autumn carnival, where there is still fun and sweets; I really want to make sure that real Christian values are somehow lived out, although they are not, you know, explicit, I make sure there are learnings and meaningfulness in everything that we do.

Is there any other group of people that you serve in your community?

Ever since I returned to Craiova, I have had this heart for less fortunate, let’s say, children. My initial project, the NGO Close to Youth, focused on helping students with fewer possibilities. So, since 2008 we've occasionally invested in groups of students in rural areas, specialy in poor areas. And our projects are different, whether it was a story ending eating in a kindergarten in a village in a nearby rural area. During the pandemic, we made sure we went to a remote village with educational materials because, as you know, schools in villages did not stay open during the pandemic. Nothing happened in terms of learning during those times for them. So it's a variety of causes, social causes that we've addressed around children, and it's about investing in children. And I'm proud, I think, where we've succeeded in Fly High is to teach children and their parents to donate to think of others to understand that it's important that everybody is given a chance and is offered even a little bit of joy. And that's enough. It doesn't have to be a lot. But if it's just a little, it contributes and changes. And I'm proud I think we've done fantastic fundraising campaigns. We also had two very sick children in our community years ago. Unfortunately, they died, but we helped the family raise money for their medical services when they needed them. And yeah, we, I think at one point, we raised about 4000 Euros within two weeks or something like that, it may not seem much, but for our community, it is quite a lot. So yes, we do serve other children around Craiova.

Can you tell us something about the service that you offer as a school and what innovation you bring to the market?

Being in the education field, what we offer is mainly courses. So we offer English and German classes. We also offer preparation classes for the Cambridge English exams. And we also have Jason's service which is summer schools abroad in the UK, Ireland, Spain, and the USA. So these are for Fly High, for Inspira of course, the services are basically schooling right now, for primary-level students. Now, what’s innovative, we have three uniques that we've identified, and one of them is that we are trusted. Parents do trust us. And you can see this in the longevity. Right? And I think this is the beauty of businesses of education, if you're if you gain the trust of your clients, they are with you for the long term. And I think this is what distinguishes us in Craiova, we are very credible in everything that we do. I think we also bring some internationality. So we are connected, as I mentioned, with colleges in the UK, and Ireland. We have visitors coming from all these countries, and volunteers that work with us. So we are globally connected, and people appreciate that. And I think it has also helped us to grow as an organization being connected at this international level. What also I would say distinguishing us is this focus on the child as a whole. Don't think we can just deliver, you know, some sort of knowledge or help the children learn something, if we don't help them discover who they are, believe in what they can do. So we have this holistic view if you want on the child, although if our services focus on learning the parents have seen that the confidence in their kids grow, have seen them connect and be friends when they were quite lonely.

What channels do you use to promote your school?

It's also interesting because education is a different type of business. I think the usual channels do not work for education. For education, you need to deliver high-quality services and then word of mouth is the most efficient channel. But we do in the beginning, I remember we would just make presentations in schools or give out flyers in the city center or at the mall. And right now we use the website and social media, mostly. From time to time we organize events, that's also another way, it's also to have publicity, but also to give back to the community. I've been organising international conferences here with partners that we have brought. And they came and work either with the teachers in the public schools here or with the parents or with the teenagers.

How do you select teachers for the school?

This is a continuous challenge, especially for us in Craiova. It's harder here because the graduates, as we know, do not come out with the abilities that we need to see them as employers. Over the years I just kept in touch with the local university. I either made a presentation and invited the students to volunteer or to come on an internship. It's like that. And I think what helped us is being open to meet whoever approached us, in giving them a chance, sometimes we have young people saying, oh, I want to become a teacher, but once they enter the classroom, I can tell within five minutes, they can never be teachers. Because if you don't connect authentically with the children, then that's not, you know, really your place. So it's just being open to inviting young people to join our classes to come and see how we teach and see if they like what they see. And then, if that happened, we started training them and preparing them.

What kind of relationship do you develop with your team, and how do you help them to grow?

The richness of the relationships with my employees is that I became friends with many of them being part of important moments of their lives. But the ones that stayed, and most of them, like we have a high retention rate, the ones that leave, it's, they either leave Craiova, or they leave the country. We've had a few that did not adhere to our culture, and that's fine. But with most of them, we have this long-term relationship. And one thing that I tried to do is to help them grow. And because we develop professional contexts for them to grow, they stay for the long term. So I would say, even between me and the employees, but even among themselves, beautiful friendships have grown from this place, and I'm always grateful to see that. In terms of growth, I would say I do two things. And I'm grateful to God for that because I am not trained, I do them intuitively. One of them is what maybe three things, one of them is to challenge them at the personal level. Like, I always make sure I challenge them, you know, with various things, because I think an individual, if they don't grow at a personal level, it's hard for them to grow at a professional level. So I make sure I create all kinds of contexts, some more formal, some less formal, where we come together as a team. And then we also create professional settings in wait for them to grow. And it's either having trainers or experts coming to work with us, or going to conferences, most of them international conferences. I also see the value in them. We're seeing more things in them and make sure we generate the projects or recreate that particular context in which I know they will flourish.

Do your team members and the parents help you to fulfill your mission?

I don't think it would be possible to achieve anything by yourself. It's always in a community where we are able, to carry our mission. And I think part of our mission is to bring light to the community. So it's always whether, with the employees or with parents, you know, they are there. The employees I think had helped me by just believing in the vision that I had for the schools, just following and being there in the harder times and just coming up with solutions. So they have always been part of this journey. And in the same way, the parents have been there as well. We are able to have authentic relationships with the parents, actually, I think we are a community, and we meet regularly for various things and have feedback, having honest discussions with them, that help us think of certain processes, or we think the way we did certain things in there for you know improve and keep carrying our mission forward. And our mission is to educate the children here in a different way and help them unlock their potential.

Is any way that you try to communicate or demonstrate the Gospel in your community?

Me being a good follower of Jesus is the ideal thing. Most people know, not all the parents, but the ones that have been longest with us. They know I am a believer. And I make sure I mention God whenever great things happen. It's very often those situations where the human solutions are not working. So some work has happened, and I make sure they know it's God there. And one other thing that happened, really, in such an organic and natural way here is people found out that we are Christians, and wanted their kids, these are non-believers, who wanted their kids to come and join the church programs, the church summer camps, the church, you know, Easter egg hunt. So we've been quite a nice bridge between the non-believers in Craiova and our church through these educational projects. Whenever we have big community gatherings, I come up with a message. You know, where there are Christian values in there, and I think braver and braver in saying them out loud.

Tell us something about the key activities that you are doing.

I cannot get out of the door without just praying and having some quiet time and just entrusting the To Do List to God. So I’m sure I'm disciplined about that. Because we have a good management system, I think I just check with the leaders, you know, the senior managers where they need my help, I have meetings with parents, quote a lot and only have time nowadays to go and play with the kids, which I love. I think what takes most of my time now is just providing solutions and finding the resources for businesses to continue. I enjoy taking people on my team out for coffee and just having discussions outside the workplace. So, I tried to do that as well with my team.

Can you tell us something about your key partners?

In Fly High, when we had just started, we had no partners, but we grew to have partners such as the British Council in Bucharest, the University of Cambridge, and Brookhouse College in the UK. So we've developed a pretty exciting network of partners. With Inspira being a private school, we have two partnerships, Christian investors, that have helped me start this project. My church and my community have always been critical partners.

What resources do you need to run this kind of business?

Knowledge, textbooks, in education, we don't need a lot of resources, they need to be really good. Of course, we need the infrastructure to have the location. In Inspira I would say a key resource, right now is having upfront cash until the plane flies. From the beginning, in the spaces that we rented, we make sure we have a friendly, colourful welcoming environment. So our schools are full of color and decorated walls, and also a space that's not as formal as in public school. So very often you would come in our schools and we would be sitting on the floor with the students.

How do you raise or provide capital for these businesses?

Fly High started with very little capital. My husband lends us two or 3000 euros back then. And then we grew from there. I think it took about three years to be profitable, and then it became sustainable. Now Inspira is a different story. This is a private school. We still need many infusions to help it grow. I think some fundraising would be needed. Is quite a challenge I have to admit, at this point. The initial design, now that I look back, I didn't think it was the right one. But God has these things in control. So for me at this point is really essential that we started and we're slowly growing. Education businesses have a different dynamic. The classic business model does not always work for education.

When Fly High became profitable?

In 2011 it was a very innovative project in our city. Nobody was giving it a chance because we have the "meditatii" and they said there's no way this will work. So it took some time to adjust even the parents to the idea that they must pay a monthly subscription. I will say it became profitable within three years. Now Inspira, I would give it the same amount of time, three or four years.

What do you recommend to an entrepreneur that wants to start a business and needs capital?

Last couple of years, I've been focused on starting Inspira, and before starting the business, I didn't think I could come up with the solutions that I came up with because of the financial constraints. I am amazed at how creative we can be and how we can solve certain things by drawing resources from the section we didn't even think of. So trying to keep the big picture type of approach, and I think the solutions are there, and we can access them. Keep your faith that resources will be provided and solutions will come. I know it's too philosophical but it's better. It is reality. And of course, what would we do without our Father who provides in his timing, it takes a lot of patience and faith. He is a cocreator with us in these businesses. We wouldn't be doing this business without him being by our side.

What do you recommend between these two approaches to grow organically or find some partners or investors to come alongside you and help you grow faster?

I think it depends on the type of business. Of course, having the capital to start the business you dream of is ideal. It hasn't been my case. Fly High I didn't need much investment that time. Inspira did bat we didn't have it. So we came up with compromising solutions.

Thank you, Claudia. I visited your school, and it was very inspiring to see how you developed something beautiful in Craiova and something that I think will transform the community in the future.

I was so happy to have you there. It was one of that encouragement along the difficult way. And I'm blessed to meet people like you.