Mital Thanki, AMBA’s MBA Student of the Year 2021, tells Ellen Buchan about her aim to enhance the lives of a million children in her lifetime, inspired by her own story of resilience and self-preservation
Mital Thanki is the entrepreneur behind Spark Academy, a tutoring company designed to help children reach their full academic potential, while encouraging a growth mindset and building confidence. Earlier this year, she won the coveted MBA Student of the Year accolade at the AMBA & BGA Excellence Awards 2021. Ambition caught up with Thanki to find out more about her story and discover what was next for her and her company.
You are Founder and CEO of Spark Academy, what drove you to set up this organisation?
Growing up, I had a teacher tell me that I wasn’t good enough to get a ‘D’, let alone an ‘A’. I remember that I was only asking that teacher for guidance, as I was struggling and starting to feel lost in A-level chemistry. When he said those words to me, I remember feeling embarrassed and like a total failure. Over time, my spirit started to break, and I began to have no sense of direction. After a turbulent period, I eventually decided to move to a different college and start all over again – that’s where I met Anne, my new chemistry teacher. Anne ignited my passion for chemistry – a subject that I had felt was impossible. My resilience started to develop and I began to restore that faith within myself.
What I realised is that if all teachers were as compassionate, encouraging and supportive as Anne, then all students could build their resilience, develop their confidence and enjoy academic success; gain greater opportunities, greater social mobility and the chance to live out their goals and aspirations.
At that moment, I decided that I wanted to teach and, specifically, I wanted to teach A-level chemistry. I felt this sense of deep purpose, and after completing my undergraduate degree and my PGCE, I worked in a school as a science teacher specialising in A-level chemistry. I vowed that I would ensure that no child under my watch would ever go through the same thing as I did – a sort of a teachers’ Hippocratic oath.
Although I loved teaching in schools, there was something inside of me that wanted to do things differently and follow my passion for working with small groups and incorporating more of a robust, holistic approach. That’s where Spark Academy was born. Since 2009, I have led a team of equally passionate teachers – an ‘army of Annes’ and founded Spark Academy – a multi-award-winning provider of after-school tuition for maths, English, science and wellbeing for children in primary and secondary school, offering both online and in-centre-based tuition.
At the core of Spark Academy (Spark) is a belief that boosting a child’s confidence and cultivating a ‘can-do’ attitude can significantly improve their academic grades, which in turn, creates social mobility and builds brighter futures. Wellbeing and developing a growth mindset are definitely at the heart of academic success. That’s why I believe it’s my absolute purpose to ensure that those children who don’t feel worthy are lifted up to reach their true potential.
What were the biggest challenges that you faced in creating Spark Academy?
When I first started Spark, I remember not being taken very seriously. The surrounding community were a little shocked to see a woman behind the brand, as the tuition industry seemed rather male-dominated, especially in Leicester. I remember being asked by some men if I was working for my husband or for my father, which used to really anger me. However, thankfully, there’s been huge progress since 2009.
What makes Spark Academy different from other tutoring organisations?
At Spark, there is a heavy emphasis on research and innovation. When a child first comes to Spark, we want to understand what motivates them to learn by using a metacognition tool. We use the result of this and implement a personalised and strategic methodology to help children learn faster and reaffirm their knowledge in maths, English and science, as well as refine their examination skills. At the heart of this is a wellbeing programme which is run in parallel to the academic programme. Here, we concentrate on developing resilience, self-awareness and a growth mindset while maintaining healthy relationships and mental health.
Your organisation has won awards for its digital transformation, how did you digitally transform Spark Academy during the pandemic?
Our intention was to create an online offering in 2026. Covid-19 changed everything – we were forced to implement new systems and processes quicker than we ever imagined. I am incredibly particular with systems and efficiency, and I believe that whatever we offer to our students online must be of the best standard and quality. During the first lockdown, we began to overhaul our CRM system and optimise our processes through automation. Spark Academy also partnered with a global IT firm to work together on bringing online learning technology to schools as well as to the students and parents at Spark Academy.
What are some of the key changes you would like to see happen in education in general?
I believe that blended learning is the future. Combining traditional teaching and learning techniques with powerful AI and technology is going to ensure that the children of today are fully equipped for a technological future.
What’s next for Spark Academy?
We want to ensure that we are continually innovating in the space of education, whether that be technological or through science-based teaching techniques. We are also growing our team and have experts in metacognition, behavioural therapy and education psychology.
What made you want to do an MBA and how did it impact you as a person?
I felt my entrepreneurial drive and spirit could only take me so far and I wanted to expand my business with theoretical and practical applications. My MBA journey was incredible. I got to meet and network with the brightest minds in business, as well as learn from incredibly experienced and knowledgeable tutors. As a result, Spark Academy has grown significantly. Personally, it helped bring out my inner confidence in business, allowed me to think strategically and rationally, and reignited my love for lifelong learning. I will be forever grateful to my tutors and peers at the University of Leicester for showing me the possibility.
You did your undergraduate degree and then your MBA at the University of Leicester, what drew you to the University of Leicester for your MBA?
The University of Leicester had an excellent distance learning programme that allowed me to continue working on my business while I was getting my qualification. I was also recommended to do the programme specifically at the University of Leicester School of Business (ULSB) by a friend of mine who had already completed the programme.
In your MBA Student of the Year entry, your Business School described you as a ‘mentor and role model for classmates that spearheaded programme improvements and promoted the MBA.’ How were you able to make the most of your MBA experience?
I am a big believer in learning from one another and capturing knowledge from multiple sources. Furthermore, I felt it was really important to keep in close contact with the tutors and attend every seminar and residential (even if they were optional).
The residential weekends and the 10-day masterclass were invigorating and refreshing – they kept me challenged and I was able to directly apply what I was learning and bring concepts together to sharpen my consultancy skills.
You came from a scientific background to the MBA. Was it a challenge to move into a business mindset for the MBA?
Not at all. I felt that the switch was relatively easy for me, especially because of my natural interest in social science. The theory was of a scientific nature and it was just related to a different context – in fact,
I found it much easier as I was able to relate to it.
During your MBA, were you able to build a network among your peers, and have you been able to leverage this network since graduating?
Our MBA peers continue to stay in touch via WhatsApp and through video calls. It is wonderful to know that we have a strong global network of MBA graduates that are there to support one another in business and personally.
How has your Business School continued to support you, post-graduation?
ULSB has been brilliant and ensured that students are aware of upcoming opportunities and ways they can get involved. I am also very honoured to be part of the external advisory board and contribute to the growth and development of the School. The Innovation Centre at the University of Leicester has been pivotal in helping me. It offers several programmes to enhance business through various schemes. Furthermore, its mentorship and support has been incredibly valuable.
What did winning the MBA Student of the Year award mean to you?
Winning the award was a personal victory. My academic journey to date has not been easy – from being told that I wasn’t ‘good enough’ to pass my exams when I was younger to getting global recognition for MBA Student of the Year was incredibly emotional for me.
I could not have done this without the support of Olga Suhomlinova, the Course Lead for the distant learning MBA programme at the University of Leicester School of Business. She genuinely wants the best for her students and knows exactly how to bring the best out of them. I am also grateful to the judges – I was among some amazingly stiff competition.
How do you see winning the MBA Student of the Year award impacting your career going forward?
My mission is to enhance the lives of at least one million children in my lifetime. Social mobility is a big passion of mine. As well as continuing to grow Spark Academy and supporting children from disadvantaged backgrounds, I am also keen to help state schools develop systems and processes to generate additional revenue and maximise staff productivity and happiness. I am also in the process of starting another two companies that will impact local businesses and community ecosystems around the UK.
I am very committed to giving back to the University of Leicester and pleased to be serving on its External Advisory Board and am also involved with local and international charities. My journey through education has been challenging and winning this award will help me to spread the message that resilience, self-belief and a strong mindset can empower you to be the best version of yourself… and achieve the goals you have set for yourself along the way.
What would your advice be to next year’s finalists of the MBA Student of the Year award?
My advice would be to be your authentic and true self. Enjoy every moment of it. Remember, you are already a winner for being nominated and getting to this stage is very honourable.
Mital Thanki is the Founder and CEO of Spark Academy, an online tutoring company in Leicester, UK. During her MBA studies at the University of Leicester Business School, Thanki served as a mentor and role model for classmates, spearheaded programme improvements, and promoted the MBA while continuing to grow her business in a socially responsible way. She now serves as a member of the School’s External Advisory Board.