From Literature to Entrepreneurship – A Conversation with Luke Sullivan
Luke Sullivan – literature major turned entrepreneur and educationalist. Luke studied English at university and was on track for a career in law, before a chance tutoring assignment changed his life’s trajectory. Fast-forward thirteen years and Luke is the founder of the Modelex Education Centre in Monaco and Riviera Tutors in the UK, two of Europe’s most reputed educational organizations. He remains a staunch advocate for the benefits of a humanities education to this day.
Human Jobs (HJ): Luke, thanks so much for chatting with Human Jobs! Let’s start with five rapid fire questions to get the ball rolling. What is your job?
HJ: How did you find the job?
LS: I made it. After tutoring in the late 2000s, I set up Riviera Tutors in 2009 and from there founded the Modelex Education Centre in Monaco.
HJ: Where are you from and where do you live now?
LS: I’ve lived in London, Sheffield, and Bristol in the UK, and Monaco for the last decade.
HJ: What was your undergraduate major? Happy with your choice?
LS: English Literature. Yes.
HJ: What is the best part of a normal workday?
LS: Problem solving – helping parents and students come to grips with educational challenges, and working to develop an effective solution.
HJ: Favorite book?
LS: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Human Jobs (HJ): You admirably endured some rapid fire, so let’s dig a little deeper now. Tell me about your education and your plans as a young graduate.
LS: Although my family is originally from the South of England, I actually spent my formative school years in the North. Looking back, I realize that I experienced an underlying sense of displacement when I was young because of the UK’s North-South divide and the country’s simmering class-obsession. It was difficult to define myself on my own terms. I am reminded of Philip Larkin’s poem, “The Importance of Elsewhere,” which now strikes me as an apt description of my time in the UK.
I think that sense of incongruity is what drew me to Monaco – it’s a place where most people are foreigners and everyone has to stand on their own two feet. In Larkin’s words, ‘‘elsewhere” reassuringly “underwrites” their existence.
HJ: I know you considered a career in the law. Why did you choose against a legal career and how did your interest in education and tutoring start?
LS: The novels of John Grisham played a big role in my early career ambitions, and I was drawn to what seemed like an exciting profession. I presumed I’d get a training contract at a decent London firm and climb some sort of ladder. It appeared a straightforward and potentially rewarding path.
But my life took a major turn when I began tutoring in Monaco after university, where I started to build a small “network” in the tutoring and education community. In 2009, I was given the chance to home-school a student in Monaco and thought, “before I go down the legal path, I may as well spend a year in Monaco – something good and perhaps unusual is likely to happen.”
I spent the year in Monaco, met all sorts of people, and had enough work that I began referring families to tutors who shared my values and pedagogical approach. That is how Riviera Tutors began, and I have been refining the process ever since.
I ended up deferring law school for four years, before deciding that I was kidding myself by even reapplying. It was only then that I committed to the entrepreneurial path that I had stumbled upon.
In short, all the careful career planning came to naught, and most of my major decisions were born out of circumstance – I seized the opportunities that arose. I have no regrets about not going down the legal path. Want to make the gods laugh? Show them your plans.
HJ: Tell me about the transition from literature graduate to entrepreneur. What was that journey like? How did it start?
LS: At university, I was excited by the ways literature can fold a range of topics – politics, philosophy, psychology, history, economics – all within a story. It seemed relevant, as well as enjoyable: a study of both society and the individual human condition.
As a student, however, I became disillusioned with the academic path. I saw the person my professors wanted me to become and knew I wanted something different. But I didn’t know what that might be or how I could achieve it.
The fact I knew so little and was so naïve after university gave me unwarranted confidence in my own abilities. It was only through charging into things and making mistakes that I became humbler.
My initiation with the “real-world” was not always easy and is still ongoing, but it was ultimately an important and transformative experience. Interestingly, the process breathed life into the literature that I’d read as a student, but never fully appreciated. It was only through living a little that certain literary works started to resonate with my own personal experiences.
To my mind, business strikes me as a gritty and practical affair, concerned with actions and real consequences. And yet it’s also about having a vision and executing it. It is an arena where you develop a “feel” for what intentions lie behind words. For someone who was taught the value of language, business has proven an ideal complement.
HJ: What is it like to run your own business? To whom would you recommend the path?
LS: Running your own business means realizing that everything depends on you – you are responsible for everything and everyone around you. It involves thinking ahead and predicting potential problems, and considering the implications of actions many steps in advance. It also entails real consequences for mistakes or missteps. You have to own your own mistakes and make amends for them in one way or another. There are no cushions and you don’t benefit from any schemes designed for productivity enhancement or job security.
At the same time, there is continual excitement that comes from interacting with reality, in all its complexity and contradiction. There is also a sense of liberation – if you have an idea, you can realize it. This is a huge upside that, for me, far outweighs the risk.
I would recommend the path to people who are up for a bracing challenge and who like to face the unexpected. If you like things to be neatly compartmentalized in life and enjoy executing well-defined tasks, then running your own business might not be for you. It is a particular style of life – no better or worse than others – but one that has special demands and significant upsides, as well.
HJ: I know you recently set up the Modelex Education Centre in Monaco. Tell me about the highlights and lowlights of that experience?
LS: Our goal was always to create a learning environment shaped by our particular approach and values, and it has been rewarding to see this vision take shape. Still, setting up the Modelex Education Centre in Monaco involved a number of logistical hurdles, such as accommodating stringent government requirements, finding suitable space in the Principality (a true challenge), and taking on a fair amount of risk.
It was the culmination of a decade of work and integration in the Monaco community. By far, the most gratifying thing has been building an outstanding faculty, and watching a genuine team spirit emerge. Having our students enter that environment and benefit from it, has been a real pleasure.
Setting up the center has demonstrated the interplay between practical tasks, values, and ideals that are characteristic of business. It’s necessary to keep them all in mind at the same time.
HJ: Humanities graduates often talk about how their education has served them in unexpected ways. Can you give some specific examples of how your humanities background proved useful in the “real world”?
LS: I never thought of myself as a salesman, let alone a good salesman. Indeed, I would have taken such a description as an insult. But literature is about narratives, and often when working with families, I would create a narrative around their child: what their strengths and weaknesses are, how we hope to help them, what our expectations and hopes for the future are.
It turns out that a credible narrative is something people are often willing to buy into, even if it isn’t always good news. So, I guess my humanities background gave me latent sales skills that I didn’t acknowledge until I was forced to put them to use.
The analytical skills developed in the humanities are useful for reading situations, in the same way that one analyzes a literary text or crafts an essay. We tell and listen to stories all day long – it’s fundamental to who we are – so it’s not difficult to see the value of storytelling both in literature and real life.
Despite that, I feel I should add that words only go so far. My school motto was ‘Res Non Verba’ – ‘Deeds Not Words’ – and this continues to resonate with me. Good words must be backed up by good actions. Good words followed by bad actions or inaction can destroy a reputation and easily get you marked out as a charlatan.
I see the two as complementary: words without actions are hollow, but actions without words lack definition. You’re onto something when the two work in harmony.
I also think a humanities education equips you well to see connections between people, which can facilitate relationship building despite ostensible differences. Monaco is a place characterized by cultural diversity, and people are often aware of the differences between themselves and others. I don’t think this ability is the preserve of humanities graduates, but a humanities education does train those skills. Reading, like travel, builds empathy and understanding.
HJ: What were the main challenges that you faced when you entered the professional world?
LS: Having no experience, reputation, network or financial backing in a foreign country were pretty big challenges. I started working as hard as I could and tried to connect with people around me. While challenging, I found it an exhilarating process to figure things out for myself and on my own terms. I was entirely dependent on my previous learning, and at the same time, I had to rebuild from zero. I had no idea what I was doing, but I had a certain faith in my instincts – my parents deserve a great deal of thanks for this outlook.
HJ: From where you stand right now, how do you view humanities education? Overall, are you happy to have studied literature?
LS: I view a humanities education as a fascinating introduction to the world, and something that trains a number of different skills: rhetorical, written, and analytical to name a few. Being able to craft a compelling narrative from evidence is a perennial skill.
I am delighted to have studied literature, but also grateful for the entrepreneurial experience of my twenties, which balanced my literary education with something “grittier.”’ Whatever direction you lean towards, finding something to balance it is important.
If someone grows up in a business family and sets up their first business at the age of twelve, reading some literature would certainly be useful for them. I just did it the other way around.
HJ: Any specific advice you would give to a young humanities graduate, beginning to navigate the job market? Anything you would have done differently?
LS: I would try to learn about the world of business and economy as early as possible, and include those topics at an early age. There is a tendency for academics to look down on these as crude things, beneath serious contemplation, but it is only through understanding them that one begins to see how the world really works. This understanding, in turn, adds depth to the study of humanities. Dickens captures this relationship well, and money features strongly throughout his writing. If you only embrace the theoretical, you can become the intellectual equivalent of someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing: someone who knows the theory of everything and the reality of nothing.
HJ: To close, I want to borrow a great interview question from the writer, Tim Ferriss. If you had a billboard – either physical or digital – and could write anything on it, what would you write?
LS: “90% of success is showing up”. Going from zero to one is the most difficult thing in life, and just showing up often achieves that. From there you can grow.