Q&A with Viktoria Kish, Founder & MD

Q&A with Viktoria Kish, Founder & MD

This year marks 20 years of International Study Programs. That’s 20 years of high-impact study trips that have helped shape future business leaders throughout the world. To celebrate the occasion, we sat down with Viktoria Kish, our Founder & MD, to reflect on the past two decades of International Study Programs.

Read ISP Turns Twenty: Celebrating 20 years of ‘eye-opening’ education & travel

1. 20 years…first thought?

Wow! What a ride it’s been! I am amazed that we’re counting our years of service in decades – it’s a very odd feeling to own a company that is older than some of its employees. I feel simultaneously very old (er, I mean, wise…) and very excited for the future.

2. First day of ISP…what do you remember? What was it like?

Earlier in that summer of 1999, I had submitted a plan (the very first beta version of ISP) to my boss at the organization I was working for at the time. He made it clear, in no uncertain terms that this was not an idea he believed in – but by the start of the academic year, with the belief of some amazing contacts and a supportive network of friends, I was running around all of the government offices, figuring out the forms and the stamps and the banking needed to make ISP a reality – in the meantime, that very first business plan was already changing at a rate of knots! It’s so true that no plan survives first contact with reality! Once the bureaucratic haze cleared, I could finally get down to the real work of the day – sending out a million faxes (!) and planning my first sales trip.

3. What are some of your fondest memories?

Most of those center around (i) the hard work of the early years. The first US road trip was three weeks of driving by myself through all kinds of weird, wonderful and forgettable places, no Google Maps, staying in dodgy motels.

(ii) The communication challenges like having to crawl under the desk every day at 4pm to unplug the phone line and connect to the internet for an hour – the only time of day for emails to be received and sent!

(iii) The behind-the-scenes learning and laughter – bolting through a hotel in the wee hours of the morning to check a conference room was properly set up and the A/C running, and the A/V working at every angle, for a particularly demanding client. Asking hotel staff if coffee breaks could please possibly include more than one-colour-carbohydrates (light brown – cookies, cakes, croissants, tea, coffee).  Sitting on a rooftop in Vietnam, with my Czech Finance Director, yelling to be heard over the (excellent) Filipino band, drinking French-style coffee as we planned the final details for our American students’ program. 

There are a million ‘Kodak’ moments like these which bring home the audacity and the amazing globalized nature of ISP – I didn’t appreciate just how extraordinary these moments were at the time, but looking back, these are the snapshots I truly cherish.

Sitting at a departure gate in China and knowing that the entire flight consisted of 2 ISP groups on separate programs – doing back of napkin maths to work out if it would be cheaper in the future just to have our own plane, moving on (rather quickly) to feeling ever so slightly sorry for the 5 passengers not involved in our programs – our groups are usually pretty loud!

(iv) The pride of seeing the ISP team blossom from nervous newbies to impassioned and informed presenters and top-of-class hosts as they created so many ‘aha’ learning moments for students. Hearing directly about business, culture and strategy from some absolutely incredible speakers on 4 continents.

4. What would you consider to be the key milestones or turning points from a company perspective? (eg: sealing the first non-US client, opening the HK office)

The moment we got our first multi-year contract with Belmont University back in 2001 sticks in my mind. I was at an internet café in Dublin and had to re-read the email several times to make sure I hadn’t made a mistake – one contract for 4 programs a year.

Since then we’ve had so many big moments – signing multiple-year contracts with some incredible clients, the launch of Nimbus (our first internal database), launching China for the first time, opening up the Hong Kong office, moving into our incredible new offices which changed so much for ISP.

5. Any major f**k ups?

Goodness no! Sure, there have been a couple of ‘significant learning moments’. But, like eating an over-cooked steak, the memory fades with time. I can’t think of any major strategic errors really but of course there are times when I could have done things better or faster or made different decisions but these are the moments that you look back on and, through the facepalm and occasional self-flagellation, you learn – and after 20 years, I’m still learning! In some ways it’s really rewarding – and a huge privilege to have the freedom to fail.

6. Have there been any major changes or trends you have witnessed over the past two decades (among clients, students, employees or the industry in general)?

This is a hot topic it seems. As I told the Australian MBA Directors’ forum earlier this year, one of the most significant changes in our industry has been the advancement of experiential learning. In the most successful learning environments, the relationship between professor and student has completely changed – with faculty evolving from being ‘the sage on the stage’ to ‘a guide on the side’ – freeing students up to learn in their own way, allowing greater opportunities for collaboration and creativity. It’s the first step to a more authentic learning culture.

This development is absolutely critical in helping students prepare for the future of work and is really the only way to engage students who, since the 2008 financial crisis, have only become more sceptical and suspicious of authority. Access to exciting, challenging, ungoogleable education is critical to the successful development of future leaders.

7. After 20 years, what do you appreciate the most about ISP?

The one thing that continues to amaze, and inspire me, is how much every single ISP’er cares about what we do and the client experience. The level of commitment, personal pride, emotional, physical and mental energy that goes into every single program is simply incredible.

8. 20 years from now…where would you like us to be?

Ultimately, the vision and the values remain the same. Education is going through massive disruption at the moment and the next couple of years will see tremendous change and opportunity in the industry – I want ISP to continue to explore and lead change, to continue to provide truly unique and inspiring experiences for our clients and our team;  to continue in thought leadership and innovation in order to effect more meaningful, engaging, inspiring and relevant leadership education globally.

If you are interested in crafting (more) impactful experiences together, please contact us today.