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Jacob Toren leads Education First China's efforts to make learning interesting and worth striving for
For Jacob Toren, CEO of Education First China, or EF China, success in the local market is key to realizing the company's global ambitions.
It is the first time the company has appointed a CEO for its business in China, as the country has become increasingly important to EF's business.
"For EF to open the world through education, EF needs to open China through education. For EF to succeed with its mission in the world, EF needs to succeed also with its mission in China," Toren said.
EF has been in China for more than 20 years, a period that saw it expand all product lines, from child to adult English training centers, to language-for-travel programs to campuses in the United States or the United Kingdom.
EF will help people to learn and use the English language with confidence, he said. The company now has more than 260 centers in China. It also has the largest number of international employees among all English training companies in China. There are more than 2,000 foreign employees from 32 countries working with EF China.
To lead them toward the company's goals, Toren relies on his experience as an avid sailor. It is a big transferable skill that helps him to skipper the company expertly as if it were a ship navigating choppy seas.
"I've learned from sailing the ability to listen. When you're on a boat, you need to be able to listen the way the waves hit the boat during the day, and at night to hear if something is wrong," he said. "It's the same thing when you walk into an office or a center, you can hear from the way someone walks or closes a door if they are in a good mood or not."
Sailing has taught him to be prepared always for any problems and deal with them ASAP.
"While sailing, despite forecasts, some unexpected storms may still catch sailors by surprise. If you are not prepared with the people and the material, you will have a big problem. The same happens in a company. If you think you can deal with your problem later, you will have a bigger problem then," Toren said.
Being a sailor has also taught him how to embrace new challenges as opportunities. "I've experienced at a young age what it was like to arrive in new countries in a traditional sailing boat and go through the wonderful times and hardship that is required to go through the ocean and reach a new continent."
In 60 4, when Toren was the marketing and sales manager in EF's headquarters in Switzerland, waiting for the birth of his first daughter, he was asked by the founder of EF, Bertil Hult, to move to Hong Kong to expand the company's business in Asia.
After listening to his sailor's instinct and wife's opinion, he decided to catch the plane to a "new continent".
Fourteen years later, Toren became the CEO of EF China. By then, he and his wife had three daughters.
In recent years, there has been a lot of investment and interest in the education industry. It highlights the power of education, he said.
However, young children are also experiencing increasing academic pressure as their parents rush to send them to various after-school training institutions.
"The stress level for young children can be too high, and there is no reason for the stress level to be that high," Toren said, drawing from his experience as a parent.
Regarding English education, he said true magic happens when a local child or adult for the first time stands on a stage, communicates in another language, is understood by, and connects with, the audience.
"It's not all about how to score high in exams, though a child who has been with EF for several years will also perform well in their exams at school."
To make EF stand out, the company has always put the long-term interest of students at the top of its priorities.
"I have never been in a meeting where we discuss how to increase the interests of shareholders, only the value of our students," said Toren.
The company has spent more than 60 years to develop the EF system, which is utilized for all EF programs, combining the best of academic practices, content, technology and design to create a unique and personalized learning experience for students.
"In order to deliver the EF system to the students, we also need teachers and service staff who have been with the company for a long time and understand the best interest of students," Toren said.
"When delivering a high-value service product, you need to control all the steps in the value chain. We control every step, from the student, to the teacher, the content we have developed, the technology we have utilized and our actual centers. It is EF all the way."
On a personal note, as a proud father of three daughters, Toren considers himself very fortunate. "As a parent, it is important to invest the time to connect with our children. It's one of the largest gifts we can give to them," he said.
"I travel a lot for work, and the side-effect is that I can't spend as much time as I want with my daughters, so every time when I come home, I try to connect with them, and share things that are meaningful," Toren said.
"It is like a relationship. You have to bring excitement, add some surprises and bring some magic to make it develop."