13 Feb 2015
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Lessons in Perseverance

From a small nursery school run out of her garage, Pilar Deza has built a private-school empire in Peru
by Tyler Bridges

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Pilar Deza

Photo by Elsa Estrema

By 1998, Pilar Deza (OPM 30, 2001) had weathered several storms on her way to becoming a leading education entrepreneur in Peru.

Deza had gone from founding a nursery school in her garage with four neighborhood children to operating two well-regarded K–12 private schools in Lima—all amidst the turmoil of a military dictatorship, hyperinflation, and a guerrilla war that killed 70,000 Peruvians.

Then, with the country stable, she faced a pressing issue and turned to HBS for help. Accepted into the Owner/President Management (OPM) program, Deza wanted to settle this question: Should she establish a third K–12 school, or instead create a university?

By the time she finished the OPM program in 2001, however, a major problem had disrupted Deza’s thinking: her husband’s business had gone bankrupt and the family had to shed assets. “I returned and the bomb happened,” she recalled. “I had to do something completely different.”

So Deza chose a third approach. She would merge the two schools and sell one of them.

The plan was fraught with risks. One school was all-boys, and the other was all-girls. Her senior school administrators opposed the plan, fearful that parents would resist switching to a new co-ed school. If the plan failed, Deza knew, her husband no longer offered a financial safety net.

But the OPM program had given Deza the confidence to rely on her strategic judgment. Over a month, she outlined the plan with her customary optimism in around-the-clock meetings with the parents of all 600 schoolchildren. In today’s world, she told them, kids need to learn how to relate to the other sex.

Deza’s sales pitch worked. Only four parents transferred their children elsewhere.

Today, Casuarinas International College is one of Lima’s top K–12 private schools. It has grown to 1,022 students. With most of the teaching is in English—although students also have to learn a second foreign language—the school draws students not only from Lima’s elite but also from 18 other countries. Deza now owns three other schools, licenses out another one, and has opened a center in a poor community that ensures neighborhood families get enough to eat. Three of her five children work at her schools in Peru, while another son operates a preschool in New York City.

“I’m an educator first and a businesswoman second,” Deza said.

It is an improbable story for a woman who aspired only to be a teacher. And whose personal ambitions were dampened after getting married, as her new husband held the traditional view that she should remain at home and enjoy a life of leisure. But Deza’s go-getter personality would not allow that.

“I didn’t know I could do business,” Deza said. “I discovered that later in life.”

Initially, she began on the sly by saving money provided by her husband for groceries, in order to make the garage suitable for the nursery school. When he saw its success, he got on board and bankrolled the establishment of other schools.

Peru’s political and economic upheaval over the next 25 years did not deter Deza. Nor did HBS’s rejection of her application, in 1998, for the OPM program, on the grounds that her venture wasn’t big enough. Instead, she traveled to Boston to make a personal appeal and then was accepted. It was a good decision all around. Her personal story, and the question she was trying to answer, became an HBS case that is taught annually.

In an untidy country, Deza preaches the simple virtues of discipline, tenacity, and perseverance, as she explained while sitting in her school office. “If you can’t lead yourself, how can you lead others?” Addressing that question, she noted, “is how you solve the multiple problems that life throws at you.”

“Hot dog day” is one school innovation. Students divide into teams once a month to either procure, cook, or sell hot dogs—or some other food—to students, faculty, and staff. The students not only learn business skills, but the profits go to underwrite scholarships at Deza’s high school in a poor, mountainous region in Peru.

“I have such a passion for being a catalyst so others can flourish,” she said.

A glimpse of Deza’s style could be seen on a recent Thursday morning when she stood at a podium before 22 of her teachers. It was her weekly 20-minute talk. The topic: the need for a positive attitude. “Banish your negative thoughts,” she said as the teachers took notes. “We need to think positively, because we’ll transmit that to our students.”

A quick story illustrated her point: As she and her husband were driving to a concert the night before, he kept complaining about the traffic. “I couldn’t get out of the car,” Deza told the teachers. “So I decided I had to entertain him. It was a moment for bonding. I got him focused on a subject that would interest him.”

Deza said she began asking him about a recent club he joined where a group of men meet once a month to cook and enjoy fine wine together. She said her husband became so enraptured in discussing the group’s activities that he stayed seated in the car when they arrived at the concert.

The teachers—all but one of whom was a woman—laughed and nodded knowingly.

“How could I make my husband feel special at that moment?” Deza said. “How can I make my students feel special? That’s the question you face.”

On their way out, the teachers lined up to give Deza a kiss and a hug.

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