Malai Roper’s Journey from Educator to Eduprenuer
When she was 10 years old, Malai Roper wrote down that she wanted to be a fourth-grade teacher.
Malai tutored her cousins in French, so she already had a knack for teaching.
Unlike most kids, Malai did pursue her childhood dream. It took a few years and a roundabout way of landing in education, but she did it.
And now, she’s creating her own path in the teaching world by empowering kids (and other teachers) through an online tutoring service. Looking back, Malai may have known her teaching destiny for a long time. But her family, and the way she was raised, reveal why it’s no surprise that she’s now an entrepreneur.
Pursuing a Different Dream
Malai’s journey didn’t start in the classroom. Instead, she pursued a college degree that followed another long-time passion: writing. So she enrolled in journalism at the University of South Carolina. Once she finished, she started working at newspapers around the state.
After a few years in the business and a couple of kids, she realized the unpredictable schedule of covering news stories didn’t mesh well with her childrens’ sleep schedule (or her own, for that matter).
Malai went back to school and completed a master’s degree in education, bringing her childhood dream of being an educator to fruition, just a little differently than she expected.
Although her path didn’t start as she planned at 10 years old, Malai’s career change led to entrepreneurship.
Developing a Passion for Teaching
Malai didn’t realize it as a child, but her upbringing prepared her for life as a teacher and an entrepreneur.
“I went through a lot as a kid. My mom was a single mom. And you know, we were low income and just had a lot of challenges,” Roper said.
During the tough moments, Malai found relief with a pen and paper.
“Writing was very therapeutic for me.”
It was the creative outlet she needed.
“I felt like in school, writing had to be very structured in a certain way. And it was very critical. But on my own, I could just write how I wanted to write,” Roper said.
Malai brought her love of writing and creativity to her own classroom settings.
“I think that’s what made me love teaching because I kind of felt overlooked in school. And I remember with my fourth-grade class, I would allot time for them [the students] to write however they wanted to write.”
Entrepreneurship Was a Way of Life
Malai was surrounded by entrepreneurs, side hustlers, and founders as a kid.
But that isn’t how they referred to themselves. Instead, Malai’s family ran their own businesses to put food on the table.
“In my family and especially not growing up with a lot, being an entrepreneur or [having] a side hustle is just something that we did, but you didn’t call it that,” Roper said.
Running a business is just part of the family tradition.
“My grandfather was a farmer, and I grew up in Charleston. So Charleston, that’s where the slave trade happened, and just a lot of those remnants of my family on James Island, a lot of farmers, a lot of midwives. And so that’s what I saw growing up; my mom dibbled and dabbled in entrepreneurship. My brother, he lives here, but I mean, he works full time, but he has his own side hustle.”
Malai learned these lessons by selling produce with her grandfather at the farmers’ market and going to the flea market with her mom.
She had a recent opportunity to reflect on these times with her cousin, who spoke at the GrowCo Growth Summit, and they both reached the same conclusion.
Being an entrepreneur and hustling, it’s just in their DNA.
How Malai Turned Her Passion for Teaching into a Business
After years as a classroom teacher, Malai began tutoring on the side five years ago. She had some clients on her own but also worked for tutoring companies. Through this experience, she realized that people were willing to pay a premium for excellent tutoring services. It also gave her a unique way to connect with kids.
“I was just trying to make ends meet as a teacher and [realized] I can do this tutoring thing and try it a little bit on my own,” Roper said.
Her reputation grew after one client from New York began referring Malai to families in their network. The business grew and pushed Malai to focus on a virtual-only tutoring service.
Two years ago, Malai took the next step by filing an LLC and officially opening the doors of The Art of Learning.
The pandemic accelerated the demands for Malai’s services as schools went remote and kids struggled to keep up in a rapidly changing learning environment.
“When COVID hit, I had families just reaching out left and right. And I was working full time, and it was just the demand that I couldn’t handle. I had to turn people away.”
She ran the numbers and saw that her teaching pay was about the same as what she was making by tutoring.
A decision needed to be made, and the timing was right.
Both of Malai’s kids finished high school. She knew this was her opportunity to go all-in on the business. So she left her full-time job in October 2021 to dedicate all of her time to The Art of Learning.
The Challenges (and rewards) of Building a Business
The shift from full-time teacher to eduprenuer hasn’t always been easy.
Malai is wholly self-funded, and even though she runs an online business, she still has expenses to manage.
“There are costs associated [with the business], keeping a website up if you want quality, you have to pay for it. I have an HR system, you know, working with educators and children, I have to have background checks on these people. All of that costs money.”
Learning how to market herself as a full-time business owner is another challenge.
“I think that’s been the hardest part. Really just defining my brand and getting myself out there and because I’ve never marketed. All of my clients have been based on referrals.”
She’s overcome these obstacles by finding the right people to help.
“I’m trying to work smarter, and just really connecting with the right people and knowing that I don’t know how to do everything,” Roper said.
Now, she is building a team of tutors to expand and reach more students.
And she’s not afraid to get her kids involved and teach them the same principles she learned as as a child.
Malai has also gotten support from the Columbia entrepreneur community.
“Being here at SOCO is helpful. Just connecting with people like going out to 1 Million Cups and the Growth Summit, and at this point, it’s a lot of learning how to just navigate the space”
Malai’s excited about the future of her company. When asked why she’d step away from the classroom to run her business, she had a simple but powerful answer,
“The freedom and doing education the way that I know it can be done.”
Malai is making an impact on many kids by working with them one-on-one. They receive tutoring and instruction in a way that isn’t possible in traditional classrooms.
She’s forming close relationships with families and growing with them as their life changes. And she’s still able to have connections with teachers and the school systems.
The path to founding The Art of Learning had many twists and turns, but looking back at Malai’s childhood, it all makes sense that she’s launched a business of her own. That’s just who she is.
You can learn more about Malai, her journey, and The Art of Learning right here.
Photo by LaShay Price Studios