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Wordsworth to a word’s worth: A professor’s journey from being an English Professor to becoming a so

I used to be an English Professor,

I have to profess here,

I took Frost’s words deep,

To myself, I have promises to keep,

And so I turned into an entrepreneur.

Meet Mrs.Rajalakshmi Anand (RA), Former HOD, English, and presently a solopreneur+self-employed professional.

Quick introductions: RA taught English in an Arts and Science college in Adyar, Chennai, for two decades. She started as an assistant professor and became the HOD of the English Department seven years after she started, and headed it till she got herself a new avatar. As a Prof, she has taught the length and breadth of English Literature- Prose, Poetry, and Drama, to over 20,000 undergrads and postgrads across all streams- science, humanities, and commerce (I will pause to let that number sink in).

The main reasons for her choosing to teach English Literature were her twin passions: teaching and her love for the language; she considered herself extremely fortunate to be able to open the magical world of the works of English Literature to young impressionable minds. She has always believed that once she helped her students discover the joy of the language, it would equip them with a treasure trove that they could dip into for inspiration, entertainment, relaxation, and even succor for the rest of their lives.

Two years ago, RA quit her job at the college and ventured into becoming a professional English language trainer. Two years on, she has had a smooth ride so far. She has also worn multiple hats and tasted success as a solopreneur. Mind you, turning into a solopreneur from being a teacher means she empathizes with anyone seeking to learn English communication and does not charge a bomb for her classes :).

My conversation with her is about her journey from being a professor to a teaching solopreneur/self-employed person.

  1. What prompted you to take this career pivot?

During my long tenure as a professor of English, I realized that while we teach English and inculcate a love for the language, there is a gap in getting students work-ready in terms of communication skills. This realization and my growing urge to be on my own made me take the pivot. However, I must add that I do miss teaching Shakespeare and Huxley. Still, the joy of helping an English language learner clarify their fundamental doubts about using the language is fulfilling. It is also more meaningful when someone comes back and says that my communication skills classes helped them grow better in their jobs. After all, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

2. Can you tell us how a day in your life was before and how it is now?

I used to get up by 5:45 am, cook, pack lunch for my family, and rush to my college at 8:00 am. From 8:00 am to 3:00 pm, I used to be involved in teaching and taking care of departmental and collegiate activities such as helping arrange competitions, quizzes, culturals, presentations, handling the paperwork involved etc. I would get home after 3 pm and have my other work at home. I would also spend a couple of hours on correction, paperwork, preparing for the next day’s lectures, setting question papers, etc. My day used to be very hectic, stressful, and always packed. Weekends, usually only Sundays, used to give me a breather.

Now, I get up at 6:00 am, go about my day in a relaxed manner, and take classes and prepare for them for 4-6 hours in the day. In addition, I spend about 30 minutes a day talking to prospective students and answering calls from people looking for English language trainers. I also have time to train in a gym and get more me time.

3. Wow, that sounds like a significant shift for you. It would not have been easy when you started. How did you find your clients? Could you share more on that?

Yes, initially, I was both nervous and skeptical about the pivot. However, FB jobs has been a great source of leads and clients for me. I continue to get clients from FB jobs. Most of my initial clients have come through FB jobs. After that, it has been the good old word of mouth. Whenever someone learns from me, they invariably give good feedback and often connect me with others who need help. The loop goes on J. In the past quarter, I have also started collaborating with some organizations to help them conduct soft skills and communication courses in growing IT firms.

4. What were some of the new things you have done in your journey as a solopreneur?

As a professor, I had a syllabus to follow and adhere to. When I made this jump, I had to define and create my lessons. I had to create engaging presentations and find the right balance between multiple aspects of communication to be delivered in every class. So essentially, some grammar, fun exercises, stories, and homework! The size of classes I take these days varies: from 1 to 30, and so does the age: 8 to 80! So, for each class, I have to also get examples and exercises that pique and engage my students.

I think the most important skill I have acquired is in branding and marketing myself, though I am still not out there in the online space. Another thing has been to learn the art of negotiating. As teachers, we are usually not driven by the lure of money but by the satisfaction it brings. I still carry the same mind-set, but I have learned that even if we offer something great at low costs or for free, it is not valued. To balance the cost of my services based on the kind of client I am servicing (a corporate versus a young graduate looking to land a promotion).

5. Nice! Have you thought about creating an academy or running your institute to expand your business? Essentially turn into an entrepreneur from a solopreneur.

Yes, initially, I was debating on this. I decided to start as a solopreneur to better understand the market and the journey. Also, running a center requires investments of time and money, apart from finding at least 1 or 2 reliable partners. Before becoming an entrepreneur, I thought of focusing on establishing myself as a solopreneur.

6. Thank you for your time. One last question: any inspirations that you would like to talk about?

These verses of Tagore are my inspiration:

“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Where words come out from the depth of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms toward perfection;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;

Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action -

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”

I truly believe that one should not get stuck in a comfort zone. Getting out of it to create one’s own definition of success while impacting the lives of others in some ways is very important. I also believe that age should never be a limiting factor and we should also learn and pursue our interests.

Well, that’s my inspiring English prof for you!

A quick note on some marketing and branding lessons that I have learned from this conversation with RA ma’am.

- Nothing beats good ol’ word of mouth: A happy customer is a loyal customer and your brand advocate.

- While it would have been easy to start big or spray her efforts across all directions, she has started small. Creating her own minimum viable offering in a service space is no different from a product team looking at an MVP; testing it out to incorporate learnings before launching the product.

- Knowing your ICP and Customer Journey: Her ICP is horizontal and encompasses everyone who wants to communicate better. However, understanding every student’s needs which are different, and tailoring a program that helps them is a lesson on understanding your ICP and your clients. After all, client satisfaction is the North Star metric, and RA ma’am has cracked that code with aplomb! Would she have had more students if she had narrowed down her ICP? Perhaps. Would she have had the same fun and diverse learnings? Perhaps not! (I am waiting for the day she decides to productize some of her services. I would love to watch how the entire journey mapping happens).

- Creativity: When the bots of the world take over marketing, design, and copy, the single competitive advantage left would be creativity. This is something RA ma’am has in abundance: be it customizing her lesson plans to suit her clients or engaging with a diverse range of students.

Of course, beyond marketing, RA ma’am’s journey is inspiring at many levels. Once a teacher, always a teacher, :).

Wishing you more success ahead, RA ma’am! Thank you!

Folks who have read till here, as ever, merci ,gracias, nandri, thank you!


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