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Iris Hormann, President of Language Abroad, EF

Iris Hormann has enjoyed a 20-year career with international education giant EF. She spoke to The PIE about her focus on students rather than competitors, using AI in education and EF’s ongoing development in language teaching with Portuguese in Lisbon and Arabic in Dubai now in the portfolio.

The PIE: How long have you been with EF?

Three of our biggest markets are France, Germany and the US.

Iris Hormann: I’m German and started in the Berlin sales office over 20 years ago. I started in the customer recruitment part of EF for the first three years. Since then I’ve worked with our Latin American, European and most recently Asian markets.

I’ve been extremely fortunate to have gotten a global perspective with EF and I’m surrounded by an incredible team of colleagues, students, parents and partners. At EF, there are many colleagues who’ve been around for a long time, mixed with a lot of new young professionals to joining. It’s that mix that has always inspired me. The last three years I’ve been based in Hong Kong and in the fall I moved back to Switzerland where I am looking after EF’s International Language Campus sales globally.

I’m really an EF homegrown bean – I’m very passionate about exploring the world. I’ve always been curious and love learning new things, embracing new functions and growing as a person and EF has really enabled me to do that.

The PIE: What does that role entail exactly?

IH: We have own international language campuses – 52 language schools – where we teach the local language and I look after the sales globally to these language schools. So I work for our direct offices but I also work with the agent network.

It continues to be a steady growth and I’m enjoying it a lot.

The PIE: I saw that EF recently moved into a new headquarters in Zurich.

IH: EF has been in Switzerland for over 40 years so we’ve had a long presence here and we just moved into our new Zurich flagship office.

It’s the former Swiss stock exchange building which is really a historical landmark building. Until a few years ago there was still active trading going on. So it has a lot of cultural heritage and we have been rebuilding and reconstructing it for the last two years and then moved in January. We’re all so proud to be here.

And the reason for that is it’s a building that was re-designed by EF to be really open spaced and a little bit like our schools – very collaborative.

It’s on several floors with a lot of open space with different meeting points throughout the building. So it’s not your very traditional office where you only sit at a desk. The design encourages so much open discussion and an exchange of ideas. It connects everyone and invites everyone to discuss.

We have over 700 people with 48 different nationalities working here. Walking around you get a glimpse of all of these languages that are spoken – we are really living what we offer.

I’m a mother of four. My kids are a little bit too old now, but we now have our company own daycare centre and children’s playground. It is very convenient and helps colleagues to make their family lives a little bit easier.

The PIE: What are EF’s biggest markets?

“I always try to encourage parents to start early”

IH: EF is a global company with a global presence in over 114 countries around the globe. I would say the most significant growth that we see right now is in the European and Middle East region.

In terms of specific markets, three of our biggest markets are France, Germany and the US.

The biggest demand without question is still for the US and UK. And yet despite also seeing increased demand for, which I think the industry is talking about, Canada and Australia, the US and the UK regions remain the most important for us. And those are the ones where we’re also looking in to expanding our offer further. That hasn’t really changed.

The PIE: When do you mean the UK and the US are your most important markets, do you mean in sending students or students coming in?

IH: [For] the US, both ways, sending abroad but also coming to the US, so when I was referring to UK and US it was for incoming students going to our schools. And in regards to the US – it’s also one of our biggest sending markets.

The PIE: Who do you consider your biggest competitors?

IH: There are many good companies out there. On competitors I tend to be very customer centric so I don’t think so much about the competition. Of course it’s out there, but I think more about our students.

A metaphor for staying ahead is our brand new EF pro cycling team that is currently racing to international success around the world.

In many ways it also brings this global aspect and connection and also deals with the team speaking different languages and raising a lot of awareness. Something that also connects us globally and brings people together through another means languages but also sports. I think that’s always exciting.

The PIE: Is language teaching EF’s only offer?

IH: My responsibility is languages abroad, but we have three main divisions. They are EF Languages and Schools where we teach languages abroad, but we also teach language locally. For example, in China, Indonesia, Russia, and other markets.

The second division is EF Cultural Exchange where we have programs like au pair and high school exchange programs.

And then the third division is called EF Educational Travel which is organised cultural tours.

We are also associated with Hult International Business School, which has campuses in US, UK, Dubai and Shanghai. It is named after our founder Bertil Hult.

EF Academy, which is our boarding school segment, is seeing similar trends that we see with the abroad language business. We are excited about opening a new boarding school in Pasadena in California as we’re seeing increasing demand for the West Coast of the USA – that’s a campus that we will open in fall 2020.

The PIE: And in terms of teaching languages locally and teaching languages abroad – which do students prefer?

“Students are really at the forefront of all of our research”

IH: It really depends on their needs, their time, their budget. I think you need offers for both.

Being immersed in a language 24 hours a day of course is much more than just a language course – you have the possibility to interact with locals, you live the language 24 hours a day but equally when you enter our local English language schools we really encourage an English speaking environment. We try to mirror as much as possible how it is being abroad but staying within your own city. Ideally I would always say you should try to experience both.

I always try to encourage parents to start early, start investing into learning languages early, whatever you can do interacting with foreigners, exposing yourself to that other language.

Start trying to expose your children to the language as early as possible with whatever means that are available. All of it together will have an impact on your learning journey.

We don’t only offer English however. Asia, for example, is an area of the world where we not only recruit students but we also send students.

EF has language campuses in China, Shanghai, Singapore and Tokyo, and as of last year also in Seoul. We’re seeing a lot of demand for a variety of languages and Seoul really began as a project linked to our engagement with the Olympics. EF was the Official Education Service Sponsor of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics and now we have now opened a permanent Korean language school in Seoul which is really exciting.

It reminded us of the demand not only to learn English but we’re offering 11 different languages. In addition to Korean and all the Asian languages we already had, due to popular demand we just added two more languages.

One of which is Portuguese and we opened a school in Lisbon in November. The other is Arabic, and [we opened] a school in Dubai. They are both immensely popular.

The PIE: How many students come through agents?

IH: We work both directly and indirectly with agents, but historically we started as a direct business and the majority of our customers come from the direct channel. We have always had excellent relationship with agents, so in all of the countries where we operate we have an agent network as well.

What we see in our schools by having such a global presence is that we have very diverse classrooms. By always having recruited directly and also through the agent network [has created] a really diverse international student body in the school. I think that is that is really what is most important for our students.

The PIE: How is EF being innovative in its language teaching?

IH: We continue to invest in technology. We do a lot of research that really helps us anticipate technological trends. We have an edtech department that creates apps and digital services that help us transform the way we teach.

Right now it’s all about personalisation. We use data that we collect to improve and personalise the learning experience of the customers. But also use it to help teachers personalise the teaching journey for their students.

We think that artificial intelligence will transform education in the same way that it’s transforming other sectors. We don’t think it will replace the teacher but instead really equip them with the resources that they need to serve the students even better.

Ultimately again with all of this technological investment, not to forget the student. They are really at the forefront of all of our research – what is best for them in terms of learning the languages, and what is best for our teachers in terms of teaching it and making it a very personal journey.

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