Today we’re talking to someone who is doing something very different: Rafi Chowdhury of rafichowdhury.com is a chess player, but he sees the game of chess as an innovative way to get high school and college students into an entrepreneurial mindset by discovering the joy of chess. In the interview he gives some great hints on how to start a business teaching an after-school program, as there’s really a need for engaging things for kids to do after school. I think that, given some elbow grease, it’s a very viable business that you can start very quickly. Rafi did start it fast, with nine schools and several employees right off the bat, so it’s really interesting to hear about a business that scaled up so quickly. It is also interesting to hear how he got his first clients. There’s a lesson in here for a lot of us, I think.
Rafi, welcome to the show. We’ve talked a bit in the recent past about what you’re doing, which I think is fascinating. Perhaps you could tell us a bit about how it works and how you got into doing this in the first place.
Rafi: Definitely. I’ve been coaching chess for the last eight years or so. There are lots of chess programs out there that teach students about the game of chess, but I saw is that there were no programs teaching students about how to actually take the skills that they’ve gained through the game of chess and apply them elsewhere. We talk about chess increasing concentration, knowledge, focus, and how to become a leader and that kind of stuff, but there was no highlighting of these concepts.
So what we did is we took this idea, a chess curriculum, but we also added with it the idea of focusing in on things that are specifically happening in the game of chess and how those particular instances can be applied directly to life. This entire idea actually is halfway inspired by a book by Gary Kasparov, former world champion, called “How Life Imitates Chess”. Our program came out of that.
Meredith: That’s awesome. So when people come to you to play chess, are they beginners? Or are they people who are already really into chess who are just looking to you to really master the game?
Rafi: We particularly chose schools that have never experienced any kind of chess education before. In almost all the schools where we’re hosting this program right now, with the exception of one school, the students don’t even know what the game of chess really means. Most of them are complete beginners.
Jasper: How do you create a program for students then? How do you equate the chess part to the entrepreneurial mindset part? How does that work?
Rafi: Chess, if you think about it, is a game composed essentially of three domains: psychology, philosophy and economics. What we do is each time something happens in a game of chess… For example, you can think of the pawn in a game of chess. The pawn’s job is it’s the bravest soldier out there. No matter what, it’s going to continue to move forward. You can stop it in its path, but you cannot make it go backwards. That’s the concept we can actually take and apply to our daily lives, too. It’s the concept that, yes, we’re not going to be the strongest people out there. Sometimes we’re going to be pretty weak. But the main idea is to continue to move forward regardless of obstacles that might be coming your way. It’s okay to get stuck somewhere, but you’ve got to constantly try to move forward past that. Ultimately, at some point, there is some kind of a crowning that happens. In the game of chess, the pawn gets promoted into a queen, knight, bishop, etc.
Then we talk about how, in chess, there is taking the initiative, which is really important in life. A lot of times, you get a no for an answer. Most people say, “Well, I just heard no,” so then we go onto the next idea. But you don’t have to take no for an answer because there are lots of people out there. Two people, ten people, 100 people might say no, but the next person might say yes, so continue to try to look for a yes until you get one. These are the kind of concepts we see popping up in the game of chess over and over again, and we try to highlight those for these students.
Jasper: From playing chess back in my school days, I suspect that one of the most obvious ones is the whole concept of planning two moves ahead.
Rafi: Exactly. In chess, the whole idea, or at least how a good chess player views the position, is they start at the very end. They figure out “What kind of end game am I trying to achieve?” Then, based on that, “What sort of middle-game plans I should have?” Then, based on the middle game, they think, “Okay, what’s the best choice of openings that I can play against this particular opponent?” So we’re teaching students how to work backwards to figure out what is it that they want the most. If it’s a job, well then, find out what job it is, what kind of degrees you need to get to that job, and then what kind of education you have to take to get that degree. We’re teaching students how to work backwards on things.
Ever since I was 14 years old, I guess you could say I’ve been a chess “freelancer”. I worked for a company, Midsail Chess, then with Cajun Chess to run tournaments. But on the side, I was always teaching private lessons, teaching at little camps here and there. I was already doing a lot of the things I do now, but I decided to put all this under an umbrella.
Right now, my main focus is the school programs because that’s where I have the majority of my students. I do have a couple of students who are taking some private lessons with me, but I don’t really charge them for it right now. I kind of do that as volunteer work. I also have a local chess club that I started, which is the nonprofit sector of my business, where I teach chess as well as leadership education. It’s pretty much the same program I have in the schools, but it’s for all sorts of underprivileged children, adults – basically anyone in the community.
Meredith: How did you make your first sale to a school to pay you to run a chess program in the school? In other words, how did you get your first client?
Rafi: I really like that question because I think that’s a pivotal thing for a lot of people. At first, I was thinking about how to use my previous job as a way to market myself, because I already knew a lot of people in the chess community. Then I realized that maybe that wasn’t the best approach.
Honestly, I woke up at 8:00 a.m. for about two weeks. I went to Google and searched lists of elementary schools in my city, and I just called them. I called each and every single one of them. I said, “Here is who I am. This is what I do. Would you like to have this program or not? Here’s a little about myself.” I asked for their email address and sent them an email. The first 50 or 60 schools that I called said yes, no, or maybe. None of them confirmed until maybe about two weeks later. The first schools called me back and said, “Hey, you called us about this program. We would love to speak with you to see what it is that you do.” A lot of the schools showed good interest, but at first I didn’t get any kind of confirmations at all for a long time.
Favorite Books: Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki; You Call The Shots by Cameron Johnson
Favorite Resource: YouTube
Rafi’s top tips for starting a business based on an after-school program
1) You need your own website – it gives a visible legitimacy to that program
2) Find someone who is doing something similar, connect with them and learn from them.
3) If you are looking to start a business do what you know best
4) Get your legal stuff sorted so your business is properly set up and protected.
5) Go for it – if that means cold calling to start with, then do it.
Want to get a free audiobook version of the book recommended by this week’s guest? Click here to download it.
Rafi Chowdhury is the founder & CEO of Chowdhury’s, co-founder of myCampusHacks, and is an experienced digital marketer, chess coach, and public speaker. He helps companies in Memphis such as Easley Transportation and Team.Aero grow their revenue. A recent cum laude graduate of the University of Memphis, Rafi Chowdhury holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology. He is the owner of numerous awards and accomplishments including, Shelby County Chess Co-Champion, winner of the Mid-South Psychology Conference, and has been ranked among the Top 100 best young chess players in the nation. He has appeared on the Commercial Appeal, ABC News, United States Chess Federation, and has recently been featured on The University of Memphis Magazine, Startup Dhaka, and Street-Side Convos.
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