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Meet the CEO of the world’s largest English language teaching school

My First Boss: The people who helped shape business leaders

Wall Street English got over 100,000 students from physical into virtual teaching in under three weeks with no losses of contracts during COVID.
Wall Street English has 180,000 enrolled students in 35 markets, with 80,000 classes a month. (Danny Fernandez)

James Mc Gowan is CEO of leading global EdTech company Wall Street English. A geologist by trade, Mc Gowan worked his way up from starting in a teaching position in 1992 to leading the company 30 years later.

In my first month as an undergraduate studying geology at Queen’s University, Belfast I went in to see my tutor, Professor David Sanderson. We were trying to work out a problem analysing what was underneath the ground, I couldn't find an answer and I asked him to explain how to do it.

He responded by asking me to leave his office straightaway and only return when I had thought about it with answers and a solution. I remember being pretty upset.

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The following week I went back and we sat down for three hours as he walked me through the errors I had made but helped me get to the right answers. I learned then that how you could coach someone to do something better.

I left the room feeling exalted, almost inspired. From being angry, I had found someone who was prepared to help and, above all, be able to think through a solution. That analytical skill was like a gift from him to me.

If you are faced with a problem, look at the situation, try and come up with a solution and learn something for yourself. It’s not something I realised at the time but over the years it has stayed with me.

I had grown up in a classic system of up to 30 kids in a classroom where you become one of the herd and do the best you can. Professor Sanderson was the first case of one-to-one mentorship I had come across.

A PhD geologist by trade, Jim McGowan started at Wall Street English in a teaching position in 1992 to becoming CEO.
James Mc Gowan started at Wall Street English in a teaching position in 1992 to becoming CEO.

In my first professional job at Wall Street English, in 1992, I had just been promoted from teacher to manager of the linguistics franchise in Valencia. My boss, who was quite tense and nervous as he was investing his life savings to make the business work, had left a message on my desk on my first day.

The note said, ‘What are you going to do today to make me money?’

He trusted me but it was a brutal comparison of being supportive and how I was going to make the business money. It was a pretty clear message. Even though it was a small scale business – I had moved from Madrid to Valencia to join him – I knew then how much it mattered. It was a bit of an awakening to start doing the best of my ability and to perform.

Just after COVID started, the board asked me how we would survive. It was hands to the pump to transform and change the business and from January 2021 I was officially made CEO.

For 50 years, we had been an English language training business where students would come to physical locations in nearly 30 countries. We had 120,000 students who had purchased a training course and we had to pivot and also offer an online solution in under three weeks.

Read More: The company that operates without job titles or clocks

Luckily the students stayed with us, with no loss of contracts, and we have now evolved the model to give people the choice and convenience of either in school or online.

We are now in 35 territories in 320 learning centres and now up to 70% of the students prefer to come to the schools.

For us, it’s about how to make it interesting for adults. The reality is that it’s hard work as a new skill. Our competitors have been pushing their online offering whereas we see it as something complementary and we would much rather have students come to our centres. They have voted with their feet and it’s a happy mix.

The average age ranges from 17 to 35, but I was recently with two students from Hong Kong in their late forties who had been students with us for a decade. That's pretty remarkable.

Wall Street English is at the forefront of training young professionals to advance their careers
Wall Street English is at the forefront of training young professionals to advance their careers

For them it has become part of their life with a network of friends; we really cater for a wide variety of needs to deliver the kind of experience each student wants.

We recently opened a location in Libya, both online and locally. For these people to get access to a western brand and almost a different form of education is almost remarkable given what has happened in the country. With the power of learning in these smaller territories you can really see the transformative effect in the students, rather than taking it for granted in, say, Paris.

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Our corporate headquarters are in Hong Kong with most of our operations based in Barcelona, with 55 staff. Our tech and platform development team of 70 is based in Chennai while the Italian business has around 130 staff. This year we are tracking towards $240m (£189m) in network sales.

I was emotional when I was thrown out of my tutor’s office all those years ago. The second time around I learned something from him which never left me. It was also where a passion for teaching and supporting people really shone through.

It opened my eyes to an approach that's carried me through to my professional career.

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