Alfa Bumhira, ’16, wants to change society by helping people learn. In 2018, he and Subash Gopinathan founded ProSpark, a B2B online learning management system that helps organizations train their staff, partners, and customers. But rather than take on an already-mature market, the pair decided to launch their idea into the world’s emerging markets.
“We don’t want to be remembered as the biggest company in the world,” Bumhira says. “We just want to be known as the little company that made a significant dent in the way people learn and access information.”
E-learning is still growing as a concept in Southeast Asia, but Bumhira says that they’ve been successful in three countries. The ProSpark team currently does business in Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines—Bumhira often feels awe while watching as people on remote islands log into ProSpark to learn. But they also see opportunities in countries such as Vietnam, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Kenya.
Bumhira says that he and Gopinathan were intrigued by these countries’ fast-growing GDPs—many are above 6 percent annually. In these regions, ProSpark has a chance to grow with the countries’ economies. And in each country, Bumhira and Gopinathan have the opportunity to learn about a new culture and figure out how their solution can help people who live and work there.
“Booth’s global presence and focus really helped me to think outside the box,” Bumhira says.
“Companies that are tech-driven are adapting fast, but other companies have found they have no option but to change. Either you’re going to change or people are going to quit because you’re not training them.”
Falling in Love with Southeast Asia
Before 2017, Bumhira had never even visited Southeast Asia. Originally from Zimbabwe, he studied in the United States. But after graduating from Booth and then spending a year in New York City, Bumhira backpacked through Southeast Asia, where he reconnected with Gopinathan, who is from Singapore but also studied in Chicago.
As Bumhira fell in love with Southeast Asia, he realized that it held big opportunities. He and Gopinathan saw that the region relied on in-person learning, yet was brimming with online learning opportunities. Mobile and internet adoption seemed to be hitting a tipping point.
“Technology is on the upswing, the internet is growing, and people are moving into the middle class at a faster rate,” Bumhira says. Bumhira knew that a good e-learning solution would sell if they could educate the market.
And he was right. Many companies across the region adopted ProSpark, something that became especially true amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In Asia, the majority of companies will only do business with you if they’re able to meet you in person, Bumhira says. But he noticed that as the pandemic has lingered, companies have grown desperate to train employees.
“Now, you’re starting to see that people will sign without meeting you,” he says. “That’s never happened before. Companies that are tech-driven are adapting fast, but other companies have found they have no option but to change. Either you’re going to change or people are going to quit because you’re not training them. What are you going to do?”
Next, Bumhira wants ProSpark to become an ecosystem of learning opportunities. The company has added a content marketplace, with classes and information. Soon, it will add a coaching app, which will connect individuals with coaches on topics such as leadership. Bumhira believes that this feature could catch on well in the Asian market, where people often prefer one-on-one interactions.
“The most important thing for building a business is the ability to look at a problem, synthesize it, and see how your solution can really help to solve it. Booth made me a very problem-oriented person.”
A Wide Network
While expanding his company, Bumhira hired two interns he met through the Booth network. Drago Dimitrov and Earl Chua, both Full-Time MBA students who will graduate in 2022, interned at ProSpark after connecting with Bumhira through the Startup Summer program, an initiative offered through the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Chicago.
The experience was invaluable to them both. Dimitrov says he learned about the persistence and hustle it takes to run a startup. He’d sign on to work at varying times, depending on the time zone. Progress in the startup world, he learned, often felt like one step back and two steps forward, but daily persistence made the steps forward count.
Chua learned how to make tough decisions and stick with them, even amid moments of uncertainty. “That’s something I look to carry forward,” he says.
And that was something that Bumhira carried forward from his own time at Booth. There, Bumhira says that he learned to look for problems that could be solved—even during uncertain times in still-growing regions.
“The most important thing for building a business is the ability to look at a problem, synthesize it, and see how your solution can really help to solve it,” Bumhira says. “Booth made me a very problem-oriented person. And not just finding a solution, but really understanding and being close to the problem.”
Bumhira says that the Booth network has been essential to his company’s growth. Five of ProSpark’s investors are people whom Bumhira met through Booth, and Chua’s and Dimitrov’s experience and Booth education helped them excel as interns for the company.
Though new to the Booth network, Chua says the pay-it-forward culture of Booth has already helped his career. Dimitrov calls the network essential, saying that the value of the networking and mentorship opportunities were already useful during his first year. And like Bumhira, he looks forward to someday supporting other Booth alumni who ask him for help.
Whether as interns or investors, Bumhira says, people out of the Booth network enabled ProSpark to grow from an idea into something that’s helping people learn across emerging markets.
“It’s all about how you create value in relationships,” Bumhira says. “And Chicago Booth has been amazing.”