I can remember being asked at the age of ten what I wanted to be when I grew up. Being a child of two economists, the expected answer was likely a professional degree and a PhD in Economics. However, there was also a spirit within me that wanted to reduce the inequality I saw in India and thought that building and running schools for the children that didn’t receive a chance to go to school was one way to solve that problem.There were too many children in India falling through the cracks.
2013 was a decision point for me. I was in the running to become a Managing Director at Corporate Executive Board (where I had spent 9 years climbing the corporate ladder) but paused to really ask myself what I wanted to do in my career and professional life. The development sector kept pulling me back and I knew that my answer would be the same as when I was ten years old. Life has a way of bringing opportunities to you when you really want something and so, in 2014, I received an opportunity to move to the education sector.
I founded Peepul India (an education non-profit) in 2017, with the vision that every child should receive a high-quality education that will help them reach their potential, regardless of background or circumstance. Through strong partnerships with state and local governments, we now run three exemplar schools in Delhi that directly impact 800 children. We also work on systemic capacity building with 450 government teachers in Delhi indirectly impacting 16,000 pupils.
When I founded Peepul, the most challenging part of the role was to have clarity of thought around our vision while also ensuring that we were focused on great execution. We had to be ambitious but practical. A significant challenge (but in a fun way) has been to set our five-year strategy – it has required pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone, pressure-testing our beliefs around what drives change and reform and ensuring that we are building the right teams and capabilities to deliver against our strategic plan.
The schools we work with often begin with significant challenges. When our first school opened, nine students were enrolled and only five attended school regularly. Those who did attend had very low levels of learning. Within one year of becoming a Peepul led school, enrolment increased to 230, attendance reached 83% and 76% of pupils either met or exceeded expectations across English, Hindi and Mathematics.
Opening the first school in the face of many challenges and scepticism will be one of my life's most memorable moments. It required a belief that anything is possible and a faith that unified and collaborative effort across many stakeholders can make magic happen.
I remember being in one of the Grade 3 classrooms one day with the children that had joined us in Grade 1 in our first year and being amazed at how they have grown and developed. I had seen them when they were 4 years old and were coming to school for the first time. To see them develop into confident children that were able to read and write and think critically reinforces the importance of what we are doing at Peepul.
To create transformative impact through whole-school intervention, we have focused the organisation on 5 things that I believe will have the highest impact: (i) an innovative curriculum (ii) rigorous, practical and continuous teacher training (iii)regular tracking of child-level assessments & school data (iv)strong school routines and (v) regular and intensive engagement with parents and the community.
My learning on this journey and my advice to others who are moving into non-profit management is:
Build a strong narrative.
The story is critical to communicating your message to an audience
Be aggressive and persistent in fundraising efforts.
Fundraising cycles for non-profits are very similar to sales cycles from a process perspective. Thus, important to have a strong pipeline, track conversion rates and be persistent and prompt with follow-up.
Show evidence of impact.
Wherever possible, include metrics that demonstrate the impact of the programme on beneficiaries and its potential for scale.
Lead by example.
The tone you set as a leader is critical.
Stay involved in the details.
Don’t push yourself too far from day-to-day challenges and operations – it’s important to keep your finger on the pulse and be able to course correct where required.
Communicate broadly and effectively
So that all staff feel part of the larger mission of the organisation.
As CEO of Peepul, I would describe my journey as being all-encompassing, challenging, deeply satisfying and fast-paced. I’ve grown significantly in my professional skills and confidence and I would love to support others, particularly young women, who want to become the next generation of leaders.
Being part of Global Schools Forum has been a great way to learn about different school models, understand innovations happening internationally and spark ideas for how to make schools great. More recently, the setting up of specific discussion groups to bring like-minded operators together has helped me understand the experience and context of other countries and apply shared wisdom to our work.