Women founders in the Edtech sector share challenges and opportunities for startups in this spaceJerlin Justus
YourStory is the outreach partner for SheLeadsTech from Facebook
Today, nearly half of India’s population is below 25, with many being avid internet and smartphone users. As a result, the definition of learning is changing and government, academic institutions, and entrepreneurs are jointly working to keep pace with it. On their part, edtech startups and their innovative ideas have been creating ripples in the Indian education industry.
The space has a large number of women entrepreneurs who believe that the manner in which today’s students are educated has a massive effect on our economy and society. So, they have dedicated their lives to make learning fun and help children pave the right career paths. Here are some of their stories.
Dr Mona Mathur, Million Sparks Foundation
Dr Mona Mathur comes from a family of educators. She wants every child to have the same kind of opportunity and access to great teachers who enable them to reach their utmost potential. But the numbers tell a different story. There are nine million teachers in India teaching 260 million children in one million schools. Teachers continue to use age-old methods which only focused on completion of curriculum, rather than actual student engagement. And 90 percent of teachers are not trained regularly, nor do they have up-to-date skills, motivation or time to search for new content that would keep classrooms interesting and relevant. She believes that this acute problem in the Indian education sector needs to be solved to achieve better student learning outcomes.
In 2016, she and her husband Dr. Abhinav Mathur, after 25 years of a successful corporate career across multiple sectors and geographies, set up the Million Sparks Foundation (MSF). MSF is a non-profit that focuses on continuous capacity building in education. The company creates free and open mobile and web learning tools and platforms, curates and develops world-class content from various sources, and organises it for the relevant curriculum, topic-wise. ChalkLit is their mobile-centric technology platform with complete web support. It has an easy-to-use interface to guide content consumption by teachers, and hosts both curated and created content. “We need to find ways to support 21st century learners and focus on interdisciplinary skills like critical thinking, creativity and collaboration,” says Mona. In two years, over 98,000 teachers across 26,000 schools have been trained on the ChalkLit platform.
She says that the edtech interventions in India primarily focus on direct-to-student products or student assessment-based solutions for school implementation, with very little focus on developing the teacher. MSF nudges teachers through personalisation and automatic/manual follow-ups to ensure completion of training, and have an over 85 percent success rate in this. “I want to lead the change we envision with teachers, the real change-makers on the ground, who do amazing things in their classrooms on a daily basis. And we, as a society, miss out on giving them the due credit for their selfless contribution to the future of this world,” she says.
And recognition for their own efforts have been pouring in. MSF was recognised as the most innovative edtech startup in Asia Pacific at BETT Asia 2019 in Malaysia. Mona was a finalist in the Women Transforming India Awards organised by NITI Aayog, and MSF was awarded the best Indian edtech startup award by the Global EdTech Startup Awards 2018 at the Learnit Conference in London, January 2019.
In the next three years, she wants to see 1.5 million regular users on the platform and scale content curation for multiple Indian languages. From a tech standpoint, she wants to focus on a much better UI/UX that automates almost all areas, and include AI & ML techniques to better measure teachers’ progress and provide more personalised inputs. She is also excited about the intersection of mobile, video and speech technologies.
Sowmya Garimella, Amazing Scribbles
Sowmya Garimella, in her own words, is an engineer by chance and an entrepreneur by choice. Brought up in Vishakhapatnam, she was always interested in arts and literature. A trained Carnatic classical musician, she is also an ardent reader and passionate writer. After a brief stint at an engineering job, she started Textkart, a content and digital marketing company. In 2017, she noticed a dearth of content writers in her city and capitalised on that opportunity to create the Amazing Scribbles Magazine, an edutainment platform which provides children with the opportunity to get their literary and artwork published.
“Today, we hear that a lot of millennials are not happy with their careers, because their career paths were paved by their parents, and their passion lies somewhere else. One main reason for this is because the children didn't have accessible forums to showcase their talents,” says Sowmya. She wanted to build a platform that would help kids identify their talent, showcase it and carve their career paths. Initially, she found it difficult to find the right network that would help her startup develop, and the right audience to target. She realised that the age group that she targeted was 7-15-year-olds who didn’t have as much access to online platforms. So, she decided to print the magazines.
According to her, although there are several magazines for children, very few let them become child authors/artists with thousands of global readers. “We are working hard to create an attractive child-friendly magazine which would be an amalgamation of education, entertainment, and experiential learning,” she says. Over the past two years, they have seen a 50 percent increase in the readership and were able to reach more than 2,500 students in 2018 through offline activities.
Competition inspires and encourages Sowmya to be a better version of herself every day. “I work with a lot of edtech startups and I look to collaborate with them than compete with them,” she says. In the next few years, she aims to build an ecosystem to bring children, parents, teachers and experts onto a single platform, where children can be mentored. She believes there is a lot of work being done in India to provide engaging and experiential educating methods. “Edtech startups in India are receiving great support from government and private organisations which is very essential to create a greater impact,” she says. For a startup like hers, using technology to build platforms that are easy to use and understand is helping her achieve her vision. The magazine is currently incubated at NSRCEL as one of the top 100 startup ideas selected for the WSP Program at IIM Bangalore.
Ridhima Gauba, InterviewAir
InterviewAir was launched in 2015 after a personal challenge faced by Ridhima Gauba and three other co-founders who hail from small towns and found it difficult to travel to big towns or cities for multiple rounds of job interviews. “Being a woman, I mostly travelled with my parents or guardians, which meant double the expenses. I had to apply for jobs in places where relatives lived, to save money on accommodation and food. I missed out on several dream opportunities because of this,” she says.
InterviewAir is a one-stop shop for aspiring job seekers from tier 2,3, and 4 towns, so that they save time and cost for their interviews. “We also wanted to create a level-playing field for girls residing in small towns, who often travel with their guardians for interviews in big cities,” says Ridhima. They help screen candidates prior to visiting the company premises using AI-driven video interviewing technology, making sure selection decision happens in QuickTime and multiple visits are avoided. The platform also provides AI-driven interview feedback to improve the candidate’s interpersonal skills, increasing their chance of employability. Today, they reach out to 330 companies, 200 colleges, 32 institutes and 32000 job seekers.
As a new technology company, they had several challenges that evolved over time. These include popularising the concept of video hiring in small towns which was costly, and hiring a technically sound workforce. “The product has evolved multi-fold and we are able to cater to client needs and channelise vendor management. We are glad that we didn’t listen to the people in the industry who told us to “solve only one problem at a time,” she says.
On competition, she says, “You can come first once in the competition, but to maintain that status, it takes a lot of dedication, focus, problem solving skills, customer service and more.”
With rapid digitalisation, mobile penetration and projected skilled-labour surplus of around 445.6 million workers by 2030 in India, she feels jobs and job-related queries will be one of the top priorities among budding youth. Ridhima has a positive take on the startup ecosystem for edtech startups in India, “It’s exciting from a tech standpoint. There’s freedom to develop content, users are tech savvy and there’s great government support.” She believes that video technology and video analytics will shape the future of hiring.
She says that the journey has just begun, they plan to take their venture overseas and inaugurate franchise models so that they can train more people in tech and management. They are also in the process of building a “company” focused online training platform, that would assist in hiring talented candidates. “Any tech company, irrespective of the space, who is able to reach the masses and solve their issues at a click of a button will be a part of India’s growth story. The ambition and intention should only be “to serve”, the rest will follow,” she says. Ridhima is a recipient of several women tech entrepreneur awards by Facebook SLT, Grace Hopper WEQ, emPower, among others.
Vidhu Goyal, WONK App
A small-town girl from Faridabad with big dreams, Vidhu Goyal, along with her husband Rohin Kapoor, took the plunge into entrepreneurship after a 9-year corporate stint. The journey began in 2016 out of a personal experience of searching for a verified home tutor for her daughter. She was apprehensive about leaving her daughter at home with a complete stranger. To her surprise, there were no services available in the market to discover, compare and book a verified expert home tutor. “The industry was not exposed to technology and used to operate on the age-old method of referrals and yellow pages,” says Vidhu. This led to the birth of WONK App, India’s first AI-powered mobile application in India to formalise and streamline the process of connecting tutors within a specified geographical area, to students and parents seeking them. WONK services include verified handpicked tutors at pre-negotiated fees, tutor swap, ability to fund tuition fees through EMIs, and more. They have registered more than 35,000 expert tutors and centres from across the country and over 27,000 students and parents.
Her biggest challenge as a first-generation entrepreneur was convincing employees, customers, partners and tutors about her seriousness to build a long-term business. “There was no one from the tech startup community to guide and mentor me whenever I faced a tricky business situation,” she says. Coming from a non-tech background, another key challenge was the arduous task of developing a technology to organise the US $70 billion market of unorganised coaching services in the country. Over the years, these challenges have evolved. The biggest opportunity has been the actual size of the possible impact which WONK can create across the country, estimated to be a US $70 billion market growing at a CAGR of 35 percent.
Vidhu feels that the startup ecosystem in India is dynamic and full of entrepreneurs with brilliant ideas. “A large market, tremendous opportunities but challenging business environment greets all edtech startups. The ability to customise a solution as per the student’s requirement separates the best from the rest,” she says. She adds, “Youngsters are the future of any civilisation. Similarly, I foresee that tech startups will be the lifeline of the phenomenal India growth story.
She’s extremely excited about the potential of AI to improve learning outcomes in terms of suggesting the best school/course/tutor based on a student’s aptitude, powering “learning on the go” and customising content based on student’s interest.
WONK received the Digital Innovation Award 2018 from the Government of Haryana for using deep tech to solve a major pain point for students and parents. On the way forward, she says, “My dream is to connect a learner to the best teacher not only residing in the same district, city or state but anywhere across India or from around the world. The learning of a student should not depend on the quality of teachers residing near him. WONK wants to transform the world into a global knowledge village wherein a student residing in a Tier III city should be able to learn in real time from a professor at Harvard.”
Watch this video to see how She Leads Tech programme helped WONK, India’s first tutor discovery and booking app, to scale up.
Ashwitha Reddy Chinnamail and Suchitra Reddy Chinnamail, Level App
Cousins Ashwitha Reddy Chinnamail and Suchitra Reddy Chinnamail, both engineers, became entrepreneurs in 2016. During their college days, they observed that whenever anyone had an academic doubt, they would spend hours on the web browsing for answers. While generic information was widely available, specific answers were few, and they would end up asking someone well-versed in the subject. They started Level App as a personalised tutoring solution to fit students’ need. Based in Hyderabad, the app provides both subscription and instant learning.
When they started up, they were fresh graduates who didn’t know the end-to-end process of how an organisation works. Right from hiring to technology to marketing, everything was self-taught. “We thought having a good product was all that mattered, but later understood that there are several attributes that make a successful organisation,” says Ashwitha. The company has seen significant progress, in terms of technology and users. They see a lot of opportunity in tier 2, tier 3 and rural cities in India. Every year, they organise ‘Each One, Teach One’, a social cause campaign to help teach the poor and needy. “My dream is to see technology help students in education and achieve education equality throughout India,” says Ashwitha.
She says that one should try to be far ahead in the curve than competitors. Level App is all for women empowerment. Currently, more than 75 percent of tutors, 60 percent of the development team, and 100 percent of the IoS app development team are women. The founders believe that the startup ecosystem is encouraging more women to step forward, but there’s a long way to go. “We need to inculcate an entrepreneurial mindset in students right from their school days so that it will help them innovate at an early age and develop creative thinking,” says Suchitra.
They believe that this is the right time to explore technology to the fullest. “Having so many Indian leaders in Fortune 500 companies shows the capabilities of Indians in technology and leadership,” she adds.
Ritika Amit Kumar, The Young Chronicle
Prior to starting The Young Chronicle, Ritika had extensive e-learning experience, where she created content for over 300 scripts for an educational show on TV. This experience coupled with close interactions with colleagues who were parents, made her realise the gaps in early-age education and parenting issues in double income nuclear families. She built AchaBacha.co.in, a new age parent-child interaction platform and a social network for parents. The Young Chronicle was a part of AchaBacha.co.in, and of all the features, it got maximum traction. However, since she was still doing her MBA, she worked for a while before starting Young Chronicle Again, along with co-founder Varun Mishra.
The Young Chronicle is an app and newspaper for children across the age group of 6 to 14 years. “Our mission is to ensure that children are able to gather knowledge irrespective of their reading level. We also want to ensure that over 80 percent of graduate women are engaged (using our technology), to help improve the dismal teacher-student ratio in our country, by offering world-class educational audio-visual and text-based content in different languages,” says Ritika. Today they have over 1,000 customers, but initially, they faced several challenges.
They needed a team to create content across seven reading levels, which meant that the same content had to be written seven times. After conducting a thorough survey, they realised that content written by mothers was more suited for children. “I was a new mother at that time, and realised a lot of new mothers around me were going through an identity crisis, after having quit their jobs. We decided to leverage their talent, and build a CMS that could enable seamless creation, uploading, and workflow management, that enabled women from across the country, to work from home, at their convenience,” she says. These mothers now work as consultants with the company. The second challenge was that most parents weren’t comfortable handing a mobile device to their child. To solve that, they created a print at home paper that had scan codes, so that children could work on paper, and land on the app, if they needed to, thus reducing screen time.
What differentiates them is that their content comes in different reading levels, and is driven by learning objectives which are often set by parents. Their analytics system is also designed to suggest objectives and offer solutions based on the child's progress. “We have found that children in the same age bracket and class, have different comprehension skills. Therefore, it becomes imperative to ensure each child is provided knowledge based on his or her reading level, so that it becomes interesting,” says Ritika.
Talking about the startup ecosystem in India, she says that it has become more congenial for growth. “Edtech, in particular, is booming, as parents and schools are realising the importance of customised education based on a child's competencies and interests,” she says. She adds that the technology landscape has also drastically transformed, with the evolution of smartphones, and the digital revolution. As the amount of data increases, Ritika is looking forward to solutions that AI can bring about in education. “If adopted now, in a few years, real-time evaluation systems will replace exams,” she says.
The Young Chronicle was shortlisted for the ET Power of Ideas, and also won the pitch at Gurgaon Moms, a community for moms in Gurgaon to network, participate & exchange ideas. On the way forward, Ritika says that they are focusing on growing their customer base, and their network of mothers.
Supporting women founders and their businesses
These women entrepreneurs from the edtech space are part of Facebook’s SheLeadsTech, a programme that was founded keeping India’s women entrepreneurs and their growth in mind. To support them, Facebook provides access to community, tools, resources, mentorship and more. Mona, whose startup has applied for the FbStart program says that they have availed several benefits including free tools and support from the larger community of entrepreneurs. She says, "Technology is the fundamental building block of most future organisations and SheLeadsTech is a timely initiative to encourage more and more female entrepreneurs and provide them access to a supportive learning community."
The programme is helping these entrepreneurs utilise technology in the best way possible through workshops, meetups, events and access to Facebook Developer tools. "We get to meet like-minded entrepreneurs who might be facing the same problem and could help," says Sowmya. Ritika is a member of FbStart and says that it has helped her startup get more visibility.
Ridhima feels that the content during the events are well-curated to genuinely help them out. She feels the one-on-one mentoring sessions are especially helpful, "It's enlightening to talk to mentors because we get firsthand business-specific advice. Also, being part of the programme, I get the constant affirmation that I'm not alone in this ocean, there are many who are ready to help each other sail through." Vidhu says that Ask Me Anything (AMA) sessions were beneficial and helped her get answers to diverse topics, from hiring to technology to marketing. She says, "The people behind the initiative could identify my exact needs and provide tools and resources to build the business."