SINGAPORE — For David Chiem Phu An, founder CEO and executive chairman of MindChamps PreSchool, the word “entrepreneur” has a special meaning.
“Entrepreneurship is a craft,” the 49-year-old Australian said in a recent interview with Yahoo Finance Singapore. “Just because someone watched 1,000 movies doesn't mean they can write a movie script. Just because you have 1,000 business ideas doesn't mean you know how to build a company.”
The Vietnamese-born businessman, actor and author, who started building MindChamps PreSchool from scratch and transform it into a global brand, said being an entrepreneur is akin to being an artisan.
“You need to learn the craft of what it takes and respect it,” he said.
It is this very mindset and respect for education and entrepreneurship that drove him to take the preschool operator to the next level — MindChamps Version 2.0 — after almost two decades. Under the new roadmap, Chiem plans to set up research centres in Singapore and Sydney.
“Version 1 was about creating a global new approach based on solid research, version two is to then create our own research institute and then do empirical studies on the work we do and publishing them,” Chiem said.
Chiem made the announcement at the recent launch of the book “The MindChamps Way – How to Turn An Idea Into A Global Movement” by bestselling author Joseph A. Michelli about the philosophy and leadership strategies that shaped the company.
Michelli said he was impressed by Chiem’s “champion mindset” of overcoming adversity, “by his concept of a different approach to education that didn’t assume every child fits into a size 7 shoe, that education was uniform and the child was to conform.”
“He authentically cared about changing education. MindChamps was effectively doing it and was succeeding in one of the most rigorously challenging markets I would think for education, — Singapore.” Michelli said. “This is a brand that walks its talk.”
Birth of MindChamps
The inspiration for MindChamps came when Chiem attended the Australian, Film, Television and Radio School in the mid-90s and heard a speech that would set his path towards being an entrepreneur in education.
"On the first day, the head of the school said: ‘Congratulations, you are here because you have talent. But now you're here, we're not interested in your talent. You're here to learn the craft. It is the the craft that will lift your talents to heights you never even realise and continue to do so.’,” said Chiem, who pursued a Masters degree in film-making at the school from 1995-1996.
Chiem called it his “intellectual epiphany” and said it sparked him into thinking about what he saw as “a global gap” in the education system that “drilled students on what to learn, but never taught about the craft of learning.”
After graduating and forming his own film production company, Chiem decided to start from scratch again and challenge himself in the field of education.
In 1998, he started MindChamps as an education research centre in Sydney. The breakthrough came three years later when he met Professor Allan Snyder, founder of the Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney, who coined the term “Champion Mindset”.
That gave birth to an approach based on research in neuroscience, psychology, education and theatre, and combined with the 3-Mind Model — the Champion Mind, the Learning Mind and the Creative Mind — serves as the foundation for the MindChamps curriculum, he said.
In 2003, Chiem decided to move his headquarters to Singapore, which he deemed as an education and research gateway, and bring the MindChamps movement to the world.
Five years later, Chiem launched the first MindChamps PreSchool in Singapore. It now commands a 38.5 per cent of the local premium preschool market, with a network of 39 centres, including three Chinese PreSchool centres.
The respect for education and learning comes from his father who invested all his money in his children’s education, said Chiem.
“My father understood the investment of education. He always told me: ‘I can work double shift and can buy you material things and they can be taken away just like that. What I can you give that no one can take away is the right education.’”
Chiem was nine years old when the family fled their hometown of Rach Gia, southwest of Ho Chi Minh City, in 1978 to escape the communists. His grandfather was from China, and his parents, who were Teochew-Chinese, ran a provision shop and they lived in a four-storey house until his father was imprisoned for a year. They eventually ended up in Australia as Vietnamese “boat people” after first landing in a refugee camp in Malaysia.
He recounted that he was called “stupid” on his first day of school because he couldn’t speak a single word of English. Stung by the remark, he decide to put his mind into learning, and by the end of that year, he was top of the class.
Chiem credited his father who had a strong mindset about never taking things for granted and told him to always try his best because “for everyone of us who made it, someone died”.
His academic results were good enough for medical school, but he chose to study acting at the Theatre Nepean instead. His love for acting came after he was cast to act in a TV drama series “Butterfly Island” when he was 14. It started out as a joke with his sister, but Chiem auditioned and won the part, becoming the first Asian to have a major role in a mainstream Australian drama series.
Chiem spent most of the 1990s honing his skills as an actor. Prior to getting his Masters degree, he studied for a BA in communications from the University of Technology, Sydney.
In between, he managed to find time to write two novels with Australian author Brian Caswell, as well as some books on education. One of the books, “Only the Heart”, has been used as a set text in Australian schools. Caswell is now dean of research and programme development at MindChamps.
Under Chiem’s leadership, the company has grown to become an award-winning franchisor, with operations in Australia, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, the Philippines, Vietnam, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Singapore.
He listed the company on the mainboard of the Singapore Exchange in November 2017, raising over S$47 million in an initial public offering that was 83 times subscribed. One of the biggest shareholders is Singapore Press Holdings, which holds a 20 per cent stake.
A premium education at MindChamps does not come cheap. The monthly fees for its full-day playgroups cost S$1,985 and nursery-kindergarten at S$1,885. In comparison, the monthly fee for a four-hour per day programme at a Ministry of Education kindergarten for children of Singapore citizens is S$160. The prices are before any government subsidies for those who qualify.
MindChamps plans to enter the China market, and is currently expanding in Australia.
Chiem’s parents, who are now in their 80s, are still living in Sydney, where his 21-year-old son is studying theatre.
There is no sign of slowing down for Chiem and MindChamps.
“This is not the end. We still have Version 3.0,” Chiem said. “That is in my mind.”