Today is International Women’s Day – a whole day to uplift female voices and imagine a gender-equal world free of stereotypes and bias. A study by the Alison Rose Review on female entrepreneurship in 2019 found that only 1 in 3 companies were founded by a woman. Here at JCS, we are proud to be a female-founded and female-led business.

To celebrate IWD we sat down with our trailblazing founder and Managing Director, Joyce Martin, to hear about her journey to JCS, her motivations, her advice, and what the future holds.

So how did this all come about?

Having started my career as a schoolteacher, I moved across to the public sector to work on a number of major educational programs aimed at increasing the use of technologies in education – which later embraced the Internet. My focus and priority even back then was always the content that technology could enable.

The final and life-changing project is what became JCS Online Resources. It began as a government-funded initiative and involved negotiating licences with academic publishers to give schools the chance to subscribe to their digital content at affordable rates. Universities had long had this benefit and this new initiative wanted to bring parity and give schools the same opportunity.

The resources identified as suitable for schools from several different publishers keen to support the sector ranged from subject specific to cross-curriculum reference databases, as well as other general reference content.

What became apparent very early on in the initiative was that very few teachers and librarians had any awareness of these kinds of digital resources, or an appreciation of how they could support their students’ learning. A lot of project time was, therefore, spent running workshops to explain the importance of offering students access to digital reference material from trusted sources.

Good progress was being made, and schools were subscribing to the resources and feeling the benefit, but suddenly – without any warning – the funding was pulled overnight.

Why didn’t you just walk away? 

The short answer is, I couldn’t. Those 2+ years had shown me exactly how necessary it was for schools to have digital resources for their students, with affordable rates and generous licensing terms already negotiated on their behalf. They also needed a ‘one-stop-shop’, where they could select from a choice of resources that would best suit their students’ needs and ability. Throughout my career, quality digital content for teaching and learning had been my priority, so how could I possibly let this important initiative die a death when there was clearly a real need?

Times were also changing quickly. Technology was becoming ubiquitous, and everyone was turning to the internet whenever they needed to know something. At the same time, publishers were busy digitising more and more content for academic studies. Universities didn’t want their students relying on random internet sources for their studies, so they were investing heavily in online libraries. I knew the same should apply to schools, but they just needed to know more about the available and appropriate resources and how they could be accessed, and for these to be as affordable as possible.

School budgets are not generous – especially school library budgets – but it is increasingly important for budget holders to recognise how much the benefits outweigh the costs. In this digital world we now inhabit, physical libraries are offering only a small selection of reference books, which are only available during school opening hours and therefore cannot serve the needs of today’s students.

Unfortunately, there remains the myth in a lot of schools – and by headteachers as well – that you can get all the information you need from the Internet, so why should they spend money on subscriptions? However, access to high quality, peer-reviewed, up-to-date content doesn’t come for free – you really do have to pay for it.

What is your aim with JCS Online Resources?

As I’ve indicated already, I believe that schools have a responsibility in this day and age to provide an online library of quality academic resources, across all subjects and types to support their teaching and learning.

Our aim at JCS is to make it as easy and affordable as possible for them by negotiating the pricing for licences and creating a broad catalogue, so that they continue to have a choice of resources that they can evaluate before buying.

Looking back over my long career in educational technology, it feels as though it was all mapped out to prepare me for establishing JCS in 2010. From the very beginning, when I was introducing my young students to fun learning on the school’s one and only computer wheeled into the classroom once a week, to managing government funded projects and then to supporting take-up of computers in teaching and learning, JCS became the pinnacle I’d been working towards all those years.

What challenges did you face in setting up your own business?

It was a huge step moving away from the rather cushioned public sector to working in the much more challenging private sector and having to set up a business from scratch with so little experience. Whilst it was an existing project, the entire infrastructure for a new business had to be developed; from finding offices to rent, employing staff, investing in the technologies to manage the subscriptions, and investing in a mailer system so we could promote the resources to schools.

The fact that I believe so strongly in the aim of the business and what we wanted to do for schools has kept my faith through all the bad times, as it hasn’t always been easy, and it’s been a lot of hard work.  The project had tested the market, so I knew there was a need and a demand for the service JCS provides, which coupled with my belief kept me going.

Do you think you faced any different challenges as a woman?

Thankfully there are a lot of women in the publishing industry which I think has made a big difference, so I didn’t face some of the challenges that I might have encountered in other business sectors.

Can you describe how you have dealt with any of the challenges?

It became increasingly evident that schools were not appreciating the importance of digital literacy for their students and that no central body was helping. So, we decided to do just that by running two successful conferences (pre-COVID) on the subject and got the conversations started.

While it’s been necessary for JCS to become a commercial company and to charge for its services, we still remain founded on the educational benefits of the resources and want to remain involved in supporting related matters such as digital literacy.

Do you have any advice for anyone else setting up a business?

Be prepared to work hard and to be sure that no one else is doing exactly what you’re setting out to do. I knew already there was no other business like JCS so didn’t have to worry about competitors.

Setting up a business from scratch (especially with no previous experience) is very scary but as I discovered, there’s plenty of help available, especially from local business networks. So get involved, share your knowledge, ask for help, and build your business contacts.

One of the best investments I made early on was to join the government’s Growth Accelerator programme, which offered matched funding. The scheme provided access to a business coach which proved a major turning point for me. My coach showed me the importance of having a 5-year plan and focusing on the big picture rather than get bogged down in the minutiae.

And my final tip, providing excellent customer service should be paramount and never neglected – at JCS we pride ourselves on the quality of our customer service and it is appreciated.

Where do you see JCS in the future?

Having started out in the UK only and having built a substantial catalogue of resources for UK secondary schools, we have since successfully extended our reach to schools worldwide. Now when I negotiate licence agreements with new publishers, I always try to secure global rights so we can continue to expand our catalogue for the benefit of schools outside the UK.

I’m very proud to say that we now work with over 2,100 schools in 109 countries, but there are thousands more out there to bring on board, so we have plenty more work to do!

It’s important to us that we listen to feedback from schools so we can share their needs with our publishers. The publishers also depend on us to keep them abreast of developments in the sector.

We will continue to grow our catalogue of resources, whilst ensuring that we keep abreast with technology changes and are responsive to the curriculum. For example, we recently launched IMPACT, a highly innovative resource that supports the study of sustainability and climate change – extremely topical and important subjects.

A huge thank you to Joyce for taking the time to share her story and future aims with us. If you would like to speak to Joyce or learn more about the work JCS Online Resources is currently doing, do get in touch. We would love to hear from you!