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Balancing the Grind with Greg Higgins, Founder & CEO at iN2iTY Lab

Greg Higgins is the founder & CEO at iN2iTY Lab, a company focused on improving student completion through data science, machine learning, behavioural analytics and AI.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

My career has been spent at the intersection of technology and learning, since completing my education degree back in the mid 1990’s.

I was drawn into education by a fascination of how people learn, and how differences in environment, background, learning style, education delivery practises, and just fundamental human connections, all play a role in defining what “success” for a learner looks like.

I have held senior management roles for two of the largest educational technology and content companies, Pearson and McGraw-Hill, where I managed teams working with faculties and teaching sections from Universities and vocational colleges across Asia-Pac, helping improve learning outcomes for students through best-practice deployments of various educational technologies.

I got my first taste of start-up life when I joined Smart Sparrow in 2014, as ‘Director, Academic Learning Communities’. Smart Sparrow was spun out of a 7-year research group in UNSW, in educational data mining and intelligent tutoring systems, commercialising an Adaptive eLearning platform.

With backing from UniSeed and OneVentures, Smart Sparrow was born and went on to open an office in San Francisco, picking up funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation to revolutionise STEM education for at-risk students.

In 2016, my family decided to relocate out of Sydney, to the Mid North Coast of NSW, to be closer to family and to achieve a stronger work/life balance.

I joined TAFE NSW, and until May 2021, was Head of the Digital Learning Lab. I built the Lab at Armidale campus and created and ran 3 x teams – Learning Technologies, Learning Analytics & Data Science, and Immersive Multimedia (AR/VR).

Our remit was to focus on the “what’s next” in terms of digital disruption in learning, and to be building, evaluating and testing emerging applications of new technologies to improve student engagement and increase learning outcomes.

My teams were globally acknowledged for thought leadership, winning Platinum at the IMS Global Learning Impact Awards in 2020, winning a Good Design Award last year and named as Finalists in the Reimagine Education Awards in London in 2019.

With changes in TAFE NSW in 2021, it was the right time for me to go and build my own company, so I joined Antler’s 5th cohort in Sydney, which is where I met my cofounder, who is iN2iTY Lab’s Chief Data Scientist, Steve Nouri. 

Globally, Antler receives over 5,000 applications, and they only select the top 3% to participate, so to even make it in was affirming. Then, to be invited to pitch to the Global Investment Committee and receive launch funding in October, was just amazing.

So as CEO for iN2iTY Lab, which is now an Antler portfolio company, I am setting the vision and the go to market strategy for our company to improve student success in higher education. We are working to build a platform using data science, machine learning, behavioural analytics and A.I. to improve student completion.

Universities are bleeding billions of dollars in unrealised revenue from students who do not complete their study, and that is on the increase due to the global shift in online learning. 

2) What does a day in your life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

Right now, I am in a financing round, and I’ll be in this stage for the next couple months. My day typically starts by mapping out a quick ‘to do’ list for the day.

I have a digital Kanban I use to keep me on track, so I have a look at the cards and shuffle around what I need to – acknowledging where I’m up to with various meetings with potential investors, and what follow-ups or next steps are critical to get done today.

It’s important for me to have a balance on responding to what’s coming in from my various outbound campaigns, but protecting my time to make sure I can do some proactive work each day.

I’ll typically have Google Meet or Zoom meetings scattered through the day, with time spent in between researching the edtech and SaaS investment landscape, moves and news coming out of higher education, and continuing advancing the sales cycle (all founder-lead sales currently).

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

iN2iTY Lab is extremely supportive of flexible work. I generally work out of the Innovation Hub at Charles Sturt University in Port Macquarie a couple days each week, and then work from my home office for the balance of the time. 

My co-founder, Steve, is based in Sydney, and works from his home office too.

Most of our meetings with investors and customers are online, but I am well positioned given that Port Macquarie is only a 1hr flight from Sydney.

Being co-located in the Innovation Hub at Charles Sturt University is great, it helps keep that professional grounding that can be easily removed when working from home for a long period. I also thrive in an academic environment and am looking forward to when students are back on campus.

4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

When I hear “work-life balance”, I am immediately drawn to the ‘balance’ part. I think of the delicate nature involved in the ability to balance, and it stirs up visual references of the consequences of not balancing. They are usually bad, like falling.

Being able to balance anything is a skill that needs to be learned. That doesn’t mean that it’s hard to learn, but it does mean that it requires presence and focus of thought to get it right, and just like learning to walk, it requires practice. 

Everyone has different ‘domains’ in their life, and the needs and methods for balancing these are subjective and will differ from one person to the next.  What’s important for me in achieving work-life balance may be different to someone else, so as a CEO building a company, I am reminded of the importance in having a broad approach to managing a flexible working policy that will be accessible and deliver value for a diverse group of people.

Family is very important to me, with my youngest child being in Year 5, so personally, I try to keep my weekends free of work, especially during the day when I am focusing on family time.

I also make efforts to do most of my ‘grunt’ work where I need 100% focus without interruption, during school hours. This means that I can have those important moments of connection around school pick up time, and around the dinner table at night.

Of course, this also means that I sometimes need to be doing work later at night, but it’s work that I have specifically allocated myself at that time, that does not compete with family time and so doesn’t feel like a burden.

5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?

I haven’t felt the need to make significant changes to routines or habits within the last 12-months or so, but there have been minor changes.

For example, I try to avoid scheduling back-to-back meetings to allow myself (and people I am meeting with) to have an opportunity to mentally ‘reset’. Going from one meeting to the next over the course of the day, which I often had to do in my previous role, just results in brain fog and a decline in productivity.

With the majority of meetings still being virtual, it can lead to prolonged sedentary time. So I always make the effort to space meetings out, and also not just set a default 30 or 60 minute time. Thinking this way helps highlight the importance of setting an agenda, and it helps with the hustle too!

If we can get to the next step and meeting close in 15 minutes or in 45 minutes, then we all have time back in our calendars. Just using a default 30 or 60 minutes in a meeting invite often means that the meeting will just end up taking that long.

6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?

I’ve recently started listening to Simon Sinek’s Start With Why audiobook, which was actually gifted to me from a good friend (thanks Al!). It is an extension of Simon’s 2009 TED talk called “How Great Leaders Inspire Action”, and builds around the 3 x parts of what he calls the ‘Golden Circle’ – which has “WHY’ at the centre.

Simon’s commentary on the fact that very few people or companies can clearly articulate why they do what they do, really resonates with me and has helped me in shaping iN2iTY Lab. I think we’ve really nailed the ‘why’ in terms of our mission to help students complete their studies, and it is helping shape the WHAT and the HOW of what we do.

7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?

I cannot live without my Apple Watch – which subtly and non-intrusively reminds me of upcoming events or urgent messages. I can keep powering through what I’m working on with just a quick acknowledgment glance at my wrist, which helps me remain focused and manage my time.

I’m a regular user of Slack and WhatsApp for messaging.

When I travel away from home, I often use the ‘Rain Rain’ app when I go to sleep. We live not too far from the beach, in a town I grew up in, so the sound of rolling waves is something I’m accustomed to. Travelling away I really notice the silence at night, so with Rain Rain, I can select a sound and put it on a timer, and it makes me feel like I’m home as I drift off to sleep.

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?  

Mark Weinberger, CEO of EY – Ernst & Young, who said “You can have all the initiatives you want saying you can have flexibility, but until some of the real leaders make the choice to choose family, I don’t think people feel like they have real permission to do it.”

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

Work-life balance is not about time management, but about prioritising what’s important and setting boundaries. And like anything, a plan helps! Without a plan, you don’t have an ability to measure what works and what doesn’t.

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About Author

Balance the Grind is a work-life balance publication on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.