Karin Ann, Co-founder & Principal, International Montessori School
By Leon Lee
Entrepreneurship was not on Karin Ann’s mind when she started International Montessori School (IMS) with Anne Sawyer in 2002. For them, it was just identifying a need in the community.
“A group of parents looked around what was available in the education landscape of Hong Kong and wanted something different. We wanted something that was more child-centered, something that looked at nurturing a child as an individual from all aspects. So we did our research and we decided to use the Montessori Method,” Ann explains.
The Montessori Method of education was developed by Dr Maria Montessori and promotes education by doing. It encourages children to explore and learn through purposeful, problem-solving activities at their own pace.
From the beginning of one school with 70 students, IMS has grown to 900 students spread among four campuses in the Mid-Levels, Ap Lei Chau, Tin Hau and Stanley, offering the Montessori education at both kindergarten and primary levels. The school is the only accredited Montessori Primary School in Greater China and the second one in all of Asia.
Ann attributes the success of the school to the method and its Chinese program. From the very beginning, they wanted a strong dual-language program.
“Many people want to learn Chinese well, and many international families are looking for it. It also appeals to local families or Eurasian families who opt for an option other than the local schools but still want a very solid Chinese program,” Ann says.
Ann understands the pressure firsthand having grown up in Hong Kong attending local schools. While she thrived in the local system, a number of her friends did not. But once they went to study overseas, they flourished and became very accomplished. It was eye-opening.
“I think when I became an adult and saw how children were learning, I felt that the pressure and the road to learning were actually more severe than they were in my time. I looked at that and thought there has got to be a better way to do this. These children are sacrificing their childhood and I don’t believe that they will end up at a better place. That’s what drove us to go and look for a much more whole-child approach to education,” the principal says.
“My upbringing in Hong Kong absolutely influenced what I wanted to do, what I thought would work and also what I wanted to do for Hong Kong. Hong Kong is my home and I’m very rooted here, so being able to add this to what’s available in education in Hong Kong is really very meaningful to me.”
Prior to starting IMS, Ann spent 10 years in the business and finance field, experiences that have proven to be valuable in running the school. She mentions how heartbreaking it is to see passionate educators start schools but fail because they lack the background and ability to manage it effectively.
“Running a school is very operational, very detail-oriented. We spend a lot of time to understand the business side like finance and risk-management and make sure those structures are in place and very well thought through.”
Ann says that you have to be able to foresee and plan for issues like property risks in Hong Kong which are enormous. If they didn’t, she believes the school would have failed after five years.
Besides being very much involved in the day-to-day school operations, she’s also very active in promoting the Montessori education in the region. She provides Montessori training to the local education community, and in 2014 she co-organized and hosted Hong Kong’s Inaugural Montessori Conference attended by 260 teacher delegates from 26 countries.
When asked whether she saw herself as an educator or entrepreneur, Ann says she started as an educator. Passionate about the Montessori Method, Ann and Sawyer hired the best people to provide education. Looking back at how the school has grown, she believes she is also an entrepreneur.
“My father was an entrepreneur but I never had aspirations to become one. I started the school because I wanted to do education. I never saw it as my path, but I think that because it was what I found loving to do after business and finance, it really proved that when you find what you love, it happens.”