Edupreneurship for a new ecosystem

Ritika Chawla

“40% of India’s children cannot write their names but they are waiting to write history.”

I read this in 2010, an advertisement that encouraged many people like me to apply for a fellowship called Teach for India. The ad promised that I will be joining a movement that would change the nation and also my career path. And so it did. But like me there were many others who had joined the bandwagon in 2009. This fellowship, like many others that exist in India now, exposed its fellows to the realities of the Indian education system. Being in classrooms of budget private schools or government schools for two years made the socio-economic gap between the fellows and their students too huge to ignore or not do something about. Thus began the transformational journey leading to many of these fellows staying on in the development space, more so in the education sector. They chose career paths of being teachers, teacher trainers, school principals, curriculum designers, policy researchers, etc. When the first cohort of Teach for India completed their fellowship in 2011, only 20 per cent returned to the corporate world whereas 80 per cent remained in the education sector with 54 per cent working in nonprofits and 26 per cent directly contributing to the education sector. Over the years, this number has only grown with 74 per cent alumni in 2017 still working across the education ecosystem, many working directly in schools, nonprofits, corporates and also with national and local government bodies.

Closing the inequity gap at the community level
There have also been a lot of alumni, who felt that there was a need for starting organizations with the intent of solving the multitude problems in this space and to ensure educational equity and someday narrow the socio-economic gap. The root cause might be low socioeconomic backgrounds but the issues pertained to lack of good parenting and parent investment in the learning of the children, a good healthcare system and safe and clean environment, lack of a contextualized curriculum that students could relate to and learn despite English being a foreign language for them, having skilled and empathetic teachers, as well as school leaders and many more. If you ask what motivated them to turn into entrepreneurs, or ‘edupreneurs’, they will tell you one or both of these things – either from their classroom experience or the realities of their own lives. It wasn’t a decision based on a singular moment of clarity, but a lot of gradual experiences and reflections based on those.

One such story is of Mainak, whose love for teaching and just being around children has now turned into a mission to ensure quality teaching and learning inside public schools of Delhi NCR and Tehri Garhwal. Mainak felt that in India, public school educators are the most misunderstood group of people, they want to do well but lack the skills to do so. Hence, this led to the forming of the Simple Education Foundation (SEF), which intends to empower teachers by partnering with government schools for a period of five years helping them effectively manage all aspects of school development. SEF currently works with four schools, reaching out to more than 1000 children and 35 teachers. They want to grow to 20 schools in the next four years and transform many more schools through sharing of best practices from the current schools.

An organization that has picked up on working on a different piece of the education puzzle is Meraki in Delhi. Started by Seemant Dadwal, an alumnus of IIM-B, Meraki focuses on improving parent-child relationships and building school readiness for children of anganwadi and government schools. Who would have thought that one could improve parent responsiveness towards children by using a simple idea of storytelling time but Meraki is proving this every day. Coming from a consulting background where Seemat worked in operations and project management for Microsoft’s ‘Classroom of the Future’ Program, he now leads program and fundraising at his own organization.

Building parent-child relationships
While SEF and Meraki both engage with stakeholders from the government school spaces, down south in Hyderabad, Loop Education Foundation believes that low fee private schools need to provide quality education but the school itself needs to take ownership of quality by setting up strong support structures with coordinators and teachers and not just depend on external organizations to solve their problems but manage their own resources well. In just one year Loop has expanded from one to five schools, and is now working towards developing a tech-based solution as an enabler to document, analyze, share and expand their model of school improvement and development. The co-founders, Vikrant Patro, Ashish Navalakha and Saahil Sood say they get a “kick” out of their work and based this model from their own learnings of having worked at a budget private school in multiple roles as teacher trainers, staff managers, accounts consultants, assistant to the school leader, etc.

These are few of the many organizations that TFI mothership (as lovingly called by alumni) gave birth to including mantra4change, iteach, saajha, Leadership for Equity, Alohomora, Youth Alliance, 321 Education Foundation, Indus Action, Samarthya, and many more. However, all the edupreneurs stories are not just of TFI alumni. There has been an overwhelming number of entrants from various other backgrounds including corporate, solving the education puzzle from a very different end.

Ajay’s childhood was spent in studying with a kerosene lamp and living next to a dumping ground, with its unbearable smell and a breeding ground for many diseases. Seeing the disparity between the “privileged” class that had limitless access to resources and the rest who lived in dreadful scarcity, led to him starting Teach for Green (TFG). TFG aims at inculcating the values of environmental responsibility among the young minds based on a structured curriculum and ‘Do it yourself’ technique. They impart life skills training to sensitize students and encourage them to innovate and develop indigenous solutions for environmental sustainability at individual, household and community levels for issues such as waste management. TFG is now also under the year-long incubator program of TFI called TFIx.

Platforms such as TFIx and organizations like Central Square Foundation are bringing these together to create an ecosystem by promoting and supporting talented and capable edupreneurs during their start-up phase. Sharing, learning and working in cohesion may still be a dream but these two have helped organizations such as Creatnet, Million Sparks Foundation, Saajha, The Teacher App, etc., to get on the path of growth through funding and mentorship. But there are also those working independent of this support so far.

Setting the right foundation from early childhood
Learning Curve, a leading knowledge and deployment partner for life skills education across multiple state governments started when Subbu’s wife made him realize the critical need for social and emotional skills in children, especially those living in underserved communities. Currently impacting close to 12,000 children and 400 teachers across 55 low income schools in Hyderabad and Chennai, with 88 per cent of all children showing improvement in social and emotional skills scores, Subbu and his team now want to contribute to the education system by enabling other organizations through life skills content, curriculum, technology and Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) frameworks and tools.

While most of these organizations have taken to being registered as NGOs with reasons such as having a subsidised model, serving the underprivileged who are unable to afford these services, not everyone is going in that direction. LEAD School started by husband-wife duo, Sumeet Mehta and Smita Deorah, is a private enterprise that aims at providing quality education through its apps for teachers and parents, works with 40+ budget private schools. They seem to have cracked the code on using technology for ensuring quality education through development and engagement of various stakeholders including school owners, principals, academic coordinators, teachers, parents and finally students.

Even though the ultimate beneficiaries for all of these organizations are children, their models are aimed at impacting them through different stakeholders including teachers, school leaders and parents and the larger community that the students belong to. But having just an innovative idea is not sufficient. Turning it into a sustainable model has its own challenges including funding and finding the right funding partner, expansion with keeping quality intact, guidance and mentorship, but most importantly finding the right team members who would take the vision forward. Some rightly said, necessity is the mother of all inventions. Well, in the case of education or largely the development sector, existence of multiple issues/problems and hope for a better future are the parents of all innovation.

Making learning fun
They may have been brought up in different parts of the country, small towns or big cities, have high flying corporate backgrounds or just starting off, be engineers or MBAs from a top university, have had humble beginnings or “privileged” backgrounds, there is one thing common to these edupreneurs – they all want to create a better future for India by impacting its current young generation. Each one of them might pick a different model, a different path, a different language, but the ultimate goal and vision is the same – of ensuring equitable opportunities to the children of today and tomorrow. These very edupreneurs are slowly taking small and big places in India by storm, not looking at short-lived fixes but long-term solutions. These may seem like problems that the government should solve but they have taken the onus of it all with the aim of building knowledge and developing skills along with a change in mindset and behaviour of various stakeholders.

As an educator I have always wondered when we will reach the tipping point, but as I see the growth and spread of these organizations, maybe, we are actually standing at the tipping point and will soon see the change. Or as Ajay would say “Now the thing to see will be how the future pans out for these brave souls who decided to venture into this, rather than be on a “Brace Yourself” mode.

The author is the Senior Academic Excellence Manager at LEAD School. She has worked in different spheres of education including school leadership, curriculum design and development and has done MA in Education from Azim Premji University, Bangalore. She completed her Teach for India fellowship in 2012 and can be reached at ritika.chawla@apu.edu.in.

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