Stephanie Peipers is Co-founder and president of the online platform World Schools. She began her career in the male-dominated world of car mechanics and car sales, before moving into web marketing on a freelance basis. She built on a background in computer science by teaching herself design, online marketing and web development. Outside work, she has twice been the Swiss Taekwondo champion, and once the Clio R3 Trophy Rally champion as co-pilot.
Stephanie Peipers, Co-founder and president of the online platform World Schools talks to us about the essential role of education and what a difference a certain mindset can make.
How did you get into the education sector?
I was working in web development as a freelancer and my husband was the director of a holiday camp that hosted 5,000 children per year. That meant he went to visit all of the international schools in Asia, Africa and South America. While discussing this, we realised that there weren’t many places online where parents could seek advice. So we started a site and grew from there.
What are your personal priorities in the “new normal”?
They haven’t changed that much compared to life before Covid. As a woman, I’ve always aimed to balance my children’s education with growing my business. I love developing new professional projects, but I also need to make sure that I’m there for the kids. That balance shifts as they grow up and needs to be rediscovered at each stage.
Has the crisis changed the way you work with your employees? What about the mindset around flexible work in general?
I’ve always liked the idea of choosing where you work, whether that be at home, in a co-working space or at the office. But the rest of the world hadn’t yet caught up with this mindset. Now people embrace the concept, and they’re also more tolerant of any downsides. One simple example: it used to be considered poor form if people heard your baby crying in the background while you were on a professional call. But it’s been happening to everyone for the last year, so it’s become less of an issue.
For us, the pandemic was an opportunity to offer more freedom to our people. One of my colleagues always dreamt of moving to Majorca. During the pandemic, as we were working from home anyway, I asked if she wanted to revise her contract so that she could move there. Today, she’s closer to her family and she’s very happy. In fact, she works from home and goes to a co-working space – for her, the perfect combination. Another one of our employees is pregnant and can work from home, saving her an hour of commuting every day. It also means she can organise her workload as she likes. This was all possible before the pandemic, but it wasn’t widely accepted. So from this perspective, at least, I’d say the crisis had some upsides. Countries have also had to adapt their legislation because remote work was quite a grey area for employers before.
I’ll finish by saying that we are a family company, so we want to make our employees’ lives easier, to enable them to feel fulfilled, to be happy, to start a family, to learn and develop professionally. We are particularly focused on achieving this vision for women.
I’ve always liked the idea of choosing where you work – but the rest of the world hadn’t yet caught up with this mindset.
Have changes to the legal framework been helpful for your business?
We modified people’s contracts to make them freelancer agreements, meaning that they were more flexible, but still long-term with guarantees for the employees. Before, the legal foundation for doing this was not stable. Now, everyone is free to use their pay to work in a coworking space or to arrange for an additional room, and it’s working really well. In fact, we have ensured that it’s beneficial for everyone. At the very least, we have been able to define these types of workspaces in writing.
How have you managed to maintain the team spirit and encourage solidarity among your workers?
In some ways, we grew closer because we communicate via chat all day. For some issues that take longer to deal with or are more complex, we revert to email, but chat lets us finish what we’re doing before we respond, and it’s less invasive than face-to-face interaction. We also organize Zoom coffee breaks, although it’s not quite the same as seeing each other in person. This is why it’s so important to organize times to meet up in order to build a real bond, even it it’s just to eat together or have a drink, without necessarily speaking about work.
A crisis is often said to spark new opportunities. Would you agree in the present case? And what about threats?
Yes, 100%. Digitalization has opened up a world of opportunities and they’re bigger than ever before. Let’s take Zoom, for example: how many people used it before? What about now? Equally, in the medical sector, lots of people are offering teleconsultations. That was unheard of before. It’s the same for online school. Ultimately, a lot was already possible digitally, but we simply hadn’t taken the next step, starting with the option to better integrate our family lives with our professional lives. It has been a huge benefit for many, particularly women.
For the education sector, the crisis has been a chance to go fully digital. In-person schools found themselves confronted with issues like how to hold exams and get the qualifications recognized as valid. It was sort of a pilot year, and now that the system is in place, this option will keep being on offer. We are however seeing a clear trend towards a return to normal, in-person, except in a few rare countries, like Thailand, where heavy restrictions are still in effect.
In terms of threats, I think of measures that prevent people from doing their jobs. That’s what’s happening in holiday camps; they’ve managed to keep going in Switzerland, but that hasn’t been the case throughout the world. Last summer, in the UK, everyone was looking for a solution for what to do with their children over the holidays, and they couldn’t find one. The issue is that we can’t take everything online.
When you’re in an emergency, it pushes you to do things more efficiently. If we’re expecting a catastrophe, we might not be in the best state of mind to find solutions.
What would you change if you could go back in time, and are you confident about the future?
For me, the past is the past. I don’t know if it would be a good thing to know everything that was going to happen in the future. Sometimes, when you’re in an emergency, it pushes you to do things more efficiently. If we’re expecting a catastrophe, we might not be in the best state of mind to find solutions.
I don’t think too much about when Covid will be over. I don’t make predictions and I always have a plan B. Plan A is that everything goes back to the way it was, plan B is that everything stays digital. I try to be flexible and ready for anything.
I do think, though, that we will always need education, whatever form that may take. This includes international education, for both expats and for local families. These things won’t simply disappear, but they might be online, in person, or in some hybrid format. In any case, I know we will find a solution to ensure that children are educated. Access to education is a fundamental right. And we see it as our job to help parents and schools make this transition as smoothly as possible.
Have the behavior and demands of your customers shifted, and what does that mean for your business?
We have seen new demands; working from home has enabled some families to realise their dream of moving elsewhere, for example. This means that they need to find an appropriate school in the area they’re moving to. There are also parents who have experimented with online schooling and want to continue with it. Finally, there are parents who want their children to keep going to school in person during this crisis, which has been allowed in boarding schools in some countries throughout the pandemic. By contrast, getting a visa to look round one has been difficult. This means that parents need to make a decision without seeing the place in person. The schools have responded to this by offering virtual tours.
The acceleration of all things digital is an advantage for us because all of our consultation work is digital. It’s more the event planning agencies in international education that have suffered during the crisis.
How are you preparing for what’s next?
Our key mission is to make it easier for schools, holiday camps and parents to get in touch with each other, thanks to our online services. We will also follow the evolution of online schools and new teaching programs.
Professionally, we’re going to try to stay flexible, particularly in terms of technology. However, whatever the future holds, we’ll adapt. We can’t know everything in advance. If someone told you they knew exactly what tomorrow brings, they’d be lying, wouldn’t they?
In more general terms, I hope that sharing my experience will help entrepreneurs and especially women who are feeling hesitant about taking that first step. The digital world opens up a lot of possibilities.
Finally, is resilience innate or can you learn it by weathering the storms life brings?
Bouncing back takes a certain amount of confidence in yourself, creativity and imagination. Last year, everyone had to do their best when faced with an unexpected event and find a way to improve the situation.
Bouncing back takes a certain amount of confidence in yourself.