Maximizing Impact in Education, Employability & Livelihoods: Insights from Alchemix™ Session 7

On Thursday September 19th, Innovation Alchemy, in conjunction with Mahindra Spark the Rise and with research and outreach support from the Center for Education Innovation (CEI), and Unitus Seed Fund, hosted the 7th installment of the Alchemix™ series.  The session, exploring innovations in education, employability and livelihoods, brought together more than a hundred innovators and entrepreneurs at the TERI South Regional Centre in Bangalore to engage with our passionate practitioner speakers and share learnings and insights on issues ranging from sparking creativity in children, to effectively working within governments, to disability and the challenges faced for employability.

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Technology helps us reach further!

In addition to our physical audience of 120, we had 764 people join us from around the world via livestream. And thanks to the efforts of our research partner CEI’s India Hub, Catalyst Management Services we had an additional 114 people, from 20 different organizations gather at livestreaming events in 7 Indian cities to watch the session and engage with us via skype.

Practitioner Insights From People Who Role Up Their Sleeves and Get to it.

As one of our viewers shared via Twitter, “This Alchemix™ session brought speakers with a ‘role up your sleeves and work’ attitude. Quite inspiring!” We couldn’t have put it better ourselves. Practitioner speakers Madan Padaki, Tapan Kumar Das, Ramji Raghavan, and Meera Shenoy engaged the audience with their passion, simple and amazing insights, sharing diverse perspectives on the challenges of an entrepreneur working in the education and employability space space.

Madan Padaki’s work at Head Held High Services Pvt. Ltd. focuses on fostering talent and identifying aspiration in modern India’s rural youth. Madan has coined the term ‘rubans’—rural urbans for this rapidly evolving demographic. In today’s growing economy, “…perceptions and myths of the rural markets are being shattered…with the emergence of a new breed of rural youth…these rural-urbans are morphing rapidly from the traditional definitions of rural, unshackling themselves from old societal dynamics, believing and looking for opportunities for growth.” Head Held High Services Pvt. Ltd works to understand the “economics and business models of these new rural-urbans and drive their economic prosperity” through intensive, residential skills training programs that spark passions and identify aspirations to make ‘rubans’ not only employable but entrepreneurial.

Looking at the issue of employment for differently abled youth across India, Tapan Kumar Das, co-founder of Youth4Jobs shared some interesting facts. According to reports by the World Bank there are between 40 and 80 million Indians with disabilities, a sizeable 4%-8% of the population, 80% of these people live in rural India, disconnected from market opportunities, and sadly, less than 0.1 million (1 Lakh) disabled citizens have successfully gained employment.  This is due to several mindset challenges, both from the perspective of the employer as well as the differently abled person.  From a very young age, children with disabilities (especially in socio economically backward households) are made to believe that there is little use for them in society.  Schools, and even families, don’t push them to excel.  Once they reach employment, persons with disability have low self-esteem, lack daily living and life skills, have poor English proficiency, low literacy levels, and lack of access to technology.  Moreover, employers have a skewed perception of persons with disabilities (PWD), believing they will be unproductive and hiring them would require extensive work on their part.

According to Tapan, some employers even admitted that they are even unsure about how to interview a person with disabilities – highlighting the extent of assumptions that exist in this context! In its two years of operation, Youth4Jobs has successfully placed 3,247 youth in jobs in retail, IT, manufacturing, and hospitality. This amounts to a 73% placement rate, with employees earning anywhere Rs. 4,500 to 10,000 per month. While the total impact so far may seem like a small number, given the cotext Youth4Jobs is one of the most highly effective programs for PWD employment in India and is ready to scale to the next level. Highghting an interesting insight, Tapan talked about the role of a BUDDY – someone in the corporate or work environment who is trained on skills that are needed to help a PWD adjust into a work environment. Often these buddies become a key reason why people stay on in jobs – a close partnership helps the buddy to build new life skills and the person with disabilities gets a sensitive and caring partner to help adjust to a new working life. Currently Y4J is partnering with Governments through initiatives such as SERP, MEPMA, and with State Governments (Maharashta, Gujarat, Bihar). The ‘methodology’ is built to ensure market linked skills are focused on.

Ramji Raghavan, chairman of the Agastya International Foundation shared learnings and stories from his journey as an entrepreneur. Disturbed by the dismal state of education in India, characterized by too many people who can “yes,” but too few who really ask “why?” Ramji and his team set out to change the mindsets.  With 75 mobile labs and 30 science centers around India, Agastya brings interactive science and maths curriculums to children in underserved Government schools.

Responding to a question on how he has managed to get the Government to give attention Ramji said “You’ve got to associate yourself with people that add a lot of value and help your network”. “Show them a sample of the work – let them experience it” With a Mobile Van parked outside a Government officials office, Ramji found ways for people to ‘experience’ the power of interactive science education.

By providing students with low cost, easy to implement, interactive science and maths activities that come directly to them via mobile labs, Agastya sparks children’s curiosity and gets them thinking big! Additionally, Agastya runs interactive science centers with more complex activities.

Ramji shared that the goal of Agastya is to shift behaviour of students from “yes to why,” from “text books to hands on,” “looking to observing,” “passive to exploring,” from “fear to confidence.” The Karnataka State Government has agreed to give Agastya the opportunity to create a version of the Ecosystem approach that Ramji evangelizes. He has ambitious goals for the organization planning a comprehensive education ecosystem with 20 creativity labs (1 per state), 600 science activity centers (1 per district), 3600 mini science centers (6 per district), and 6000 mobile labs (10 per district) to create a generation of curious critical thinkers able to tackle any problem.


The Live stream viewers had lots of questions for Ramji! Read some of the twitter chatter that occurred through the session here!

Meera Shenoy, Member of the National Skills Development Agency (NSDA) & Senior Advisor with the UNDP on skilling & Employment took the platform after Ramji. With her gentle voice, and modest nature she made the audience, both in the room and around the world, shake their heads in agreement with her passionate yet humble words.  As one livestream viewer shared via Twitter, “After Meera finished, I also started clapping just to realize that I was in front of my laptop, not in Bangalore!” Deemed “the social intrapraneur with governments” Meera has worked with both the Andhra Pradesh (AP) and Bihar Governments to set up skilling and employment training centers and create market-linked trainings with placements for India’s youth. In AP, Meera set up 210 training centers training 2,60,000 youth with a 75% placement rate, within a 2 year period.  She created a “supportive eco-sphere for scale” and used technology and third party assessment to ensure transparency of all the work.

In Bihar, she was forced to drastically change her approach after the failure of her first pilot in the state. What worked in AP was not working in Bihar.  In Bihar, Meera worked to create customized job fairs, developed migration resources for the 7 lakh youth migrating from Bihar each year, and worked with the Bihar Innovation Forum to pilot opportunities for new entrepreneurs in the region. Meera shared her “template for scale” with the audience.  It begins with her firm belief in the “latent talent of the poor.” Additionally, she engaged multiple key stakeholders—youth, parents, companies, and government for sustainable skilling and job placement.  Her work is targeted for the rural population, its her area of passion as she believes that since it constitutes 73% of the country’s total population – its imperative that focus be given to growing that section of our country.

In her pointers related to trends of the future Meera highlighted Technology, emphasizing the importance of applying technology to create transparency and thus build credibility for programs and initiatives such as these. Meera believes that the future looks bright for the education and employability space in India. Developments in technology will transform learning, vocational training, and job creation.  Providing people from any background and any education level the opportunity to engage with education through Massive Open Source Online Content (MOOC) providing all Indian youth with choices and the ability to shape their own futures.

With Meera’s deep association with the Government, an inevitable question was “how do you engage with the Government? Its so difficult to get anything done” – and in her charachteristic quiet humour and passion she said “Dunk your ego. Find an honest, progressive person within the Government and hold on to his coat tails tightly – not letting go!”  

Following presentations by our four practitioners, Vijay Kulkarni, director of CEI’s India Hub at Catalyst Management Services shared some of the organization’s research on the transition in the education space from a non-profit to for-profit models, emphasizing the need for more business-model solutions in education.  Mr. Kulkarni explains that the most significant changes in India in the last ten years “are the ubiquitous use of mobile phones and the emergence of private schools,” both of which he explains “demonstrate the potential of  poor communities who are also open and willing to pay for services”. This indicates that if you have a value proposition, people/ families/ households are willing to pay for them if they can see the benefits. This makes it an appropriate time for many more social organizations to take on entrepreneurial, for-profit, sustainable routes to reach scale.

After Mr. Kulkarni’s presentation, Parvathi Menon, Managing Director of Innovation Alchemy opened up the session for audience discussion.  The debate was passionate, with many audience members shairng stories from their work and perspectives on the topic.  In addition to the active audience in the room, our global audience were active participants via Twitter.  For a full compilation of Twitter discussions please visit our Storify board.

Thanks again to our audience for joining us, in Bangalore and around the world.  We are so fortunate to have such a passionate Alchemix™ community, and hope to continue to build it into a multi-dimensional platform to engage innovators, entrepreneurs, designers, creative minds, investors and engaged citizens from around the world.

Don’t miss our next installment of the Alchemix™ series exploring innovations in health and nutrition on 29th November in Bhopal.  To our audience that joined us in Bangalore and around the world, we hope you will tune in next time to the livestream.  To our community in Bhopal, we look forward to engaging with you at the next Alchemix™ session!

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