67 speakers, 90+ workshops, one lit fest: how this Harvard-educated woman entrepreneur is taking children’s literature by storm

It all started with the inception of the Neev preschools. Fifteen years later, Kavita Gupta Sabharwal, the Founder and Managing Trustee of Bengaluru-based Neev Academy, is now charting an incredible journey with the biggest event in the children's category, NLF.

67 speakers, 90+ workshops, one lit fest: how this Harvard-educated woman entrepreneur is taking children’s literature by storm

Friday September 13, 2019,

6 min Read

Sometimes, ideas spring from personal experiences. On other occasions, it’s just a matter of finding one’s true calling. For Kavita Gupta Sabharwal, the managing trustee of Bengaluru-based Neev Academy, entrepreneurship was an amalgamation of both. 

A business graduate from Harvard University with a Master’s degree in Biotechnology from Mumbai University, Kavita began drifting towards the education sector in 2005. By this time, she had already raked up years of experience in corporate strategy and finance, heading these functions for one of India’s largest publicly-listed pharmaceutical firms. But she realised her true calling was somewhere else.

Kavita Gupta Sabharwal

Kavita Gupta Sabharwal

In early 2000, frustrated with the state of pre-schools in India and unable to find the right fit for her own children, she began considering the education market – now a whopping $101.1 billion market opportunity – seriously. It was ultimately in the year 2005, when she incepted Neev.

It was indeed the beginning of something new, both for the pioneer educationist and the academy, which today owns five preschools and one academy campus in Bangalore, employing over 200 teaching professionals and meeting the developmental needs of around 1,200 children.  

Its excellence is built on small learning environments focused on learning and development that is differentiated, relevant, and integrated. The idea, as the founder tells HerStory, is to create life-long learners. Neev is invested towards this cause, not just through the academic curriculum but also in the form of many other endeavours, prominent among them being the annual Neev Literature Festival - a literary event devoted to putting children’s literature at the front and centre of all action.

Everything you need to know about NLF 3.0

Over the years, the NLF has seen some of the most celebrated writers and authors of India - Sudha Murthy, Devdutt Patnaik, Rupa Pai, Paoli Sengupta, and Ranjit Lal, to name a few - become a part of the festival. In its third edition now, the line-up for NLF 3.0 is once again spectacular.

Neev Literature Festival

Neev Literature Festival 2018

Around 67 speakers and 90+ student workshops will be a part of NLF 2019, with an illustrious forum boasting names like Aditi De, a writer-photographer-blogger, Aijaz Khan, filmmaker and director of The White Elephant, Ameen Haque, the founder of Storywallahs, David Melling, author-cum-illustrator, Deepak Dalal, author, and mythology writer Devdutt Pattnaik, among others.

Besides sessions for children, NLF 2019, hosted at the Neev Academy on September 20 and 21, will also introduce a host of workshops, interactions, and book readings focussed on parents, teachers, librarians, and educationists. The festival also has a curated book marketplace for great children's literature, from India and abroad, that children should read.

“This is the largest event in India for children’s literature,” says the Neev School’s founder. “Our simple goal is to bring a unique experience for children's literature, so they all recognise the need of ‘taking children's literature seriously’.”

Why we need to take children’s literature seriously

“At most literature festivals, children's literature is a sideshow,” says Kavita. 

She explains the Neev Literature Festival (NLF) is an investment in the future of education in India. It puts children's literature at the centre stage, creating a serious conversation around quality, choice and its impact while engaging the influencers (parents, teachers and librarians) in a dialogue with the creators (writers, illustrators and publishers). All this while children participate in workshops that inspire spark a love for reading.

“It is not entertainment,” asserts the educationist. “It is deep engagement for all the speakers and audience… creating a recognition of the need to take children's literature seriously is our main intent.”

But why the urgency? Explaining this, Kavita cites a related concern - the absence of knowledge when it comes to the impact of reading. Research shows there is a strong connect between reading and writing – a strong reader is known to make a strong writer – and also between reading and empathy.

“The link between books and creativity is implicit in the fact that while every reader may not be a leader, every leader is a reader. The ability to read deeply is a strong predictor of success in school, work and life,” explains Kavita.

The Neev lit fest is dedicated towards this very end – instilling a love for reading in children and influencing the stakeholders in the sector to address the lack of funding in children’s literature. In doing so, however, the event is also recognising and upholding the need for Indian authors in this burgeoning space. Authors whose writing is reflective of the society and whose characters are relatable to the young readers here, not just global pop-fiction.  

Neev Literature Festival

Neev Literature Festival

“A revolution in Indian children's literature has begun,” says Kavita. “And recognising quality writing, and creating access to it is another purpose at NLF, that we take forward with our Book award launched last year.”

Called Neev Children’s Book Award (NCBA), the award was born out of years of struggle of being unable to find Indian children’s literature to include in literature studies and school library. Now in its second year, the NCBA boasts some fantastic works, especially in the oft-ignored picture books segment, which is suited for early reading.

“This year, we have even tried working with Flipkart and Amazon and the NCBA shortlist is now available on Flipkart, but the book bundles sold out literally overnight. But it's there and will continue to be available,” adds Kavita.

The journey that started more than a decade ago

It all started with the Neev preschools 15 years ago. Then came the Neev Academy, a full continuum IB school that was started nine years back. Kavita, however, prefers calling it an Indian school with a curriculum that is global and which ropes in technological developments, extensive educational travels, and community service as part of the learning process.

The idea to build Neev might have originated from her personal experiences, but it’s fair to say that the entrepreneurial dream was part of her DNA. Raised by an entrepreneur father and a resourceful, wise mother, right from a young age, she and her three sisters were taught to treat themselves as equals. A belief which she carried with herself, implementing it in every aspect of life including her entrepreneurial endeavour.

Her plan is to grow Neev organically, while remaining a not-for-loss enterprise, balancing the trinity of cost-quality-scale, and maintaining the diversity in the classrooms. In the coming years, she says, there are plans to launch a teacher training institute to grow the impact of the Neev-style learning and understanding. In addition to this, she also hopes to start a community school for under-privileged children bringing Neev’s education to impact children across socio-economic strata.

The goals are manifold and the challenges, numerous. But that’s what makes the journey worth all the effort. “These changing challenges,” as Kavita quips, “are hard but fun!”  

(Edited by Rekha Balakrishnan)