The millionaire couple who could teach you a thing or two

Barinder and Dilshad on a London street looking at their mobile phone

Married couple Dilshad and Barinder Hothi are joint founders of the international training company, the Knowledge Academy, which they aim to turn into the "Amazon of the education world".

When a husband and wife team jointly run a business, you can't help wondering: who is really in charge?

With the Hothis it is hard to tell.

In conversation they tumble over each other with shared enthusiasm, interrupt and finish each other's sentences.

She's excited about what makes their company stand out in the already very crowded market for professional training.

"The future is about blending," she says. "Our online learning courses are traditional, computer-based courses, as you would expect, but we have what we call walk-in clinics. So if someone wants to chat through an issue, they can find a locally-based instructor, pop in, ask questions, get the human interaction."

Image copyright Knowledge Academy
Image caption Delivering risk management training in Abu Dhabi

The business:

  • Knowledge Academy offers both classroom and online professional training courses
  • Turnover was £20.8m, profits £3.2m for the year to April 2015

Dilshad is expansive about the big vision.

Right from the start, he says, they saw what the internet was doing to the way people bought books, groceries and clothes, and thought: "Why won't it do the same for training?"

"I knew there was a phenomenal opportunity," he says.

"In the next 10 years we'll be a global household name, I firmly believe that - a bit like Google or Facebook - we will probably be as big, if not bigger."

That might sound like hubris, but the Knowledge Academy has grown rapidly in its first six years and is one the largest training companies in the world, measured by the number of courses it offers - over 5,000 - in the number of locations. By the end of this year they say they will be able to offer training in 3,000 cities in 210 countries, from the US to Australia, Bhutan to Chile.

It delivers courses in dozens of professional areas from project management and IT to social media, aviation and animation. And they've supplied training to companies including Rolls Royce, HSBC, PwC and Disney.

Anglo-Indian alchemy

But while their operations are global, they themselves originate from a very specific cultural alchemy, a combination of Indian and English influences.

Barinder's parents, immigrants to Britain from the Punjab, ran a restaurant in Harrow, London.

Barinder Hothi

  • Aged 38
  • Daughter of Indian immigrants to the UK
  • Grew up helping in the family's Indian restaurant
  • State school education
  • Initial employment with IBM and Microsoft

"Neither of them spoke any English," she says, which meant she and her siblings were drawn into the business at an early age, helping their parents at the bank and with customers.

But as in many Asian immigrant families, the children's education was always a priority.

"I still can hear my mum now saying 'Study, because this is what is going to help you in life,'" says Barinder.

But if Barinder's life in Britain was suffused with Indian values, Dilshad's schooldays were a mirror image.

"I was born and brought up in India itself," he says. His father was in the Indian air force and his family chose for him the nearest they could find to a British public school experience.

"They put me in Lawrence School, Sanawar," he says. "It's the Eton equivalent of India."

Dilshad Hothi

  • Aged 39
  • Father in the Indian air force
  • Private education at The Lawrence School, Sanawar, India
  • Arrived in UK aged 21
  • Worked initially for a UK training company

He became house captain, played cricket and absorbed the very British atmosphere of the former colonial military school, at the foot of the Himalayas.

"I think my school background was very important, being a house captain. We were very competitive and sports-driven. We had a cricket competition and field hockey and athletics and I used to build tactics and think how many medals I'd go after."

Crisis launch pad

When he arrived in the UK, at the age of 21, Dilshad met Barinder through his aunt. For several years he worked for a UK-based training company while she worked for Microsoft.

They chose to launch their own company at what to many would have seemed an inauspicious moment - in 2009 as the global economy crashed.

"It was actually the best decision ever. Any other time would have been more challenging," says Barinder.

The new business benefited from the big pool of people who had been made redundant and lacked formal qualifications to show to prospective employers.

Image copyright Knowledge Academy
Image caption Knowledge Academy offers courses in hundreds of cities around the world including Pretoria, South Africa

"There were so few positions that you needed to have more badges on your CV to get a job," says Dilshad.

Now, he says, sites like LinkedIn have made formal qualifications even more important by making them constantly visible to everyone.

Switch off

There is now one risk on the horizon, though. That for Dilshad and Barinder the business will consume their life together entirely.

Although they barely spend 10 minutes together during the working day from 8am to 6pm, once at home around the kitchen table or on walks at the weekend, they admit, the conversation almost always turns to work.

Image copyright Knowledge Academy

Their daughter, aged nine, has already spent so many hours at their office she is a proficient operator of the franking machine and can recite the names of almost every member of staff.

"Quite often we have to tell each other to turn the iPads off," says Barinder.

They've developed a pattern of working very hard for a few months then taking a luxury break, somewhere like Dubai, for a few days.

Who is the boss?

Neither seems to resent the time and dedication required, though they do approach things differently.

"I'm more conservative," says Barinder. "Typically British."

And if she weren't there to put Dilshad in check?

"I'd try to do 10 things at once," he says, grinning.

Image copyright Maureen McLean Photography
Image caption They hope their daughter will want to play a role in the business when she's older

So who is in charge?

"Barinder's in charge of the people. I'm probably in charge of the strategy itself," he admits.

Do they argue?

"Barinder has been very supportive," he says.

If she's "supportive" then is he really in charge?

She laughs. But refuses to give any ground at all.

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