Umesh Malhotra on transforming the way education is delivered in India
28 September 2018
Hippocampus | India | 250 Pre-primary schools | 9 Primary schools | 17,000 students
When I started my career, I had absolutely no intention of opening an education organisation. I come from an IT background and worked in the technology space for 12 years before selling my company and starting fresh.
At that time, my wife was running a library for middle-income students and I joined her. I enjoyed the work and decided I wanted to shift to supporting kids from a lower income background. This was my first direct exposure to the education field but the initial seeds were planted long before that. There were two big influences earlier in my life that ultimately led me to my current path: my parents and my schooling.
I come from a small business family. My parents taught my brother, sister and I to be hard working, to always persevere and never give up. As products of partition, my mother and father built their lives through hard work and determination. My parents also taught us to be ethical, kind and selfless. They always told us not to get carried away with money and encouraged us to give to people less advantaged than us. This was a critical influence on my worldview and character, and led me to wanting to support low-income students.
The second big influence that changed the course of my life was my schooling. My parents were not familiar with the education system, and chose to send me to a young, unknown school that was founded by friends from their community. I was fortunate because the school was very focused on academics and is now in the top ten schools in the country for academics. No one anticipated that my teachers would play such a significant role in my life. My school pushed me to take the national IIT exam and encouraged me to aspire for more. Only later in life did I appreciate the positive opportunities my school opened up for me.
What motivated me to start Hippocampus was the parents. Their resolve to do something better for their children gave me a belief in life.
When I went to visit the slums, two things stayed with me. The first was the children; I was overwhelmed by such a strong feeling of injustice to what we as a society were doing to these kids and wanted to change their trajectory. Yet even more than that, what motivated me to start my schools were the dreams of the parents to do something better for their children. When I started working in the slums, I wanted to meet parents and so set up community meetings. Most of the attendees were women who all felt deep anguish about their lives. They all wanted more. Despite their challenging circumstances, these parents did not give up hope. They all dreamt of and strived to give their children a better life. It gave me a belief in life and made me realise my purpose to serve these communities. I really hope what we are doing at Hippocampus will help them in our small way.
Our ultimate goal is to give the children we work with the knowledge, skills and character required to perform as equal citizens in our large world
The children we work with are often at a disadvantage when they reach college application age because of their background. There is a perception that they are “below” children from more affluent backgrounds who have more resources and opportunities. I strongly believe our children need to feel equal in the bigger world and know that they can go beyond their local college and local environment. We want them to dream big and empower them to believe that they are as deserving and worthy of opportunities as their more affluent peers.
We want Hippocampus to have a ripple effect and change the wider school ecosystem across India. Our plan to achieve this is twofold: Firstly, to run a large scale organisation operating hundreds of quality schools that make a difference in children’s lives. Secondly to transform the way education is delivered in India. We have spent five years iterating on our Kindergarten programme. We now have 12,000 students and feel that we know enough to start creating systemic change. We want to take one program and age group at a time, scale them until we have a model we think works and then start to influence the larger sector.
One of our greatest challenges is finding the right solution and model that makes a difference in children’s lives. It is easy to say, “I will educate people” but in practice, as you work with children, every year brings a new level of complexity that is especially hard to handle at scale. Finding the right school model requires a deeper understanding of multiple factors such as how children learn and parents’ aspirations for their children. There are one million unanswered questions for each of these factors. We at Hippocampus are not just building classrooms; we are building lives. This requires a lot of thought and development and is still an open challenge for us.
A big question for us to frame our thinking is what does success mean for a child in today’s world? The driver of our school model is to transform the lives of our children and we need to define success to do that. When you ask parents what success means, each has a personal answer. They can range from money, to fame, to character value, to skills and knowledge. As a school network, we have to prioritise what we value, promote and cultivate in our 15,000 students who study with us.
When I started out, I wish someone had been able to give me advice and knowledge on how the rural market behaves, particularly their spending ability. The data that is available today did not exist when we started and that could have leapfrogged us in our first few years. We became pioneers in our market and have had a lot of learning and a lot of failures too. The advice I would give an entrepreneur who is starting out is if you are planning to scale your schools, start designing for scale from day one. Running one boutique school is very different to running one hundred schools. If you are very clear from the beginning on the intention for your organisation, you will have a much smoother experience.