Last time on WISE On Air we were joined by three 2022 WISE Awards Winning Project holders, Janhvi Kanoria, Susan Mtana, and Tyler Samstag. We brought these innovators on the show because we’re looking to decipher what does it take to unlock the potential of great ideas to transform education.
In a rapidly evolving world, it can be argued that traditional education models are being constantly disrupted with the advent of new technological breakthroughs. In 2023 alone we’re seeing massive strides with A.I. and machine learning for example. In fact, according to a report by HolonIQ, the global education market is estimated to reach $10 trillion by 2030, with a growing number of startups and investors seeking to revolutionize the sector.
As we navigate these changes, it’s important to understand what sets successful education initiatives apart. What can we learn from the ones that have made a real impact? In this second part episode, we’ll dive into some of the groundbreaking solutions that are reshaping education in different contexts around the world.
Following our conversation last time with Janhvi, Susan and Tyler, joining us are the other three 2022 WISE Awards Winning innovators Daniela Labra of Mexico-based project Educating for Wellbeing by AtentaMente, Andrew McCusker of Chicago-based project Opportunity EduFinance by Opportunity International, and Kuldeep Dantewadia of India-based project Climate Change Problem Solvers by Reap Benefit.
Together with WISE Awards program manager, Niamh Whelan, we discussed:
– The ‘eureka’ moment when creating their projects
– Balancing important stakeholders from beneficiaries to partnerships
– Key challenges they faced and how they overcame them
– And key lessons for other innovators looking to make change in the
Bassim: I’m joined today by my fellow WISE colleague, Niamh.
Hello, my name is Niamh Whelan. I’m part of the Innovation for Quality and Access track at WISE, which includes the WISE Awards.
Thank you, Niamh. And of course, our esteemed guests, Andrew, Kuldeep, and Daniela. We can start off this conversation, just getting to know each other a little more and letting the listeners gain a couple of insights on who you are and what drew you to education in the first place. Yeah, maybe we can start with you, Andrew. What drew you to education? What inspired you and ultimately your project that you’re involved with?
Yeah, so it was actually by chance, in a way, in my first trip through sub-Saharan Africa, I spent my time camping. And I don’t know if you’ve been to sub-Saharan Africa before, but it takes a really long time to travel anywhere by land. And so what that meant is that I was staying in really small villages in most nights, and it was the same story in many places across many countries that you would show up, like walk past a school at 10 a.m. on Tuesday and there would be hundreds or thousands of kids that would show up to school excited.
Like I grew up in Australia and my parents, like, couldn’t drag me to school, right. And like just the lack of opportunity. There was kids running around the classroom and they could have been learning. And I was like, I had this great corporate experience up until that time and just wanted to find some innovative projects that could work at scale.
And so I got my first job in Kenya. I’m working for a fellow WISE Awardee actually from 2015 called Bridge International Academies in corporate finance. Spent some time with them in Kenya and then London, and then joined Opportunity International about five and a half years ago working for the education finance program.
Amazing. Thank you, Andrew. Shall we jump to Daniela now?
So for me, I think it was a lifelong love for education, really thinking like Mandela says, that it’s the best weapon to change the world. And then there was something lacking in education. I studied biology. I cared about consciousness and about the mind. And I never saw any of that in education or anything in my education that taught me how to deal with my own mind and with my own awareness and how to better relate to others.
Those two things came together knowing that we were not really being taught these kind of very vital life skills that were so important. Then going through education and really trying to share with more people the capacity to be better and work with these skills and develop these skills in education. That’s when we went into social emotional learning and really trying to work and bring wellbeing as an academic goal.
And maybe you can tell the audience a little about the project as well.
Sure, AtentaMente is a non-for-profit we have in Mexico and what we have done is work mainly in education settings. So we’ve reached up to now like half a million teachers through the programs and inserting social emotional learning in the national curriculum and then through our own programs and reached maybe around 5 million students. But particularly our emphasis in why we got this award is for a program we call Educating for Wellbeing, and it’s particular version directed to pre-K education.
We’ve been working around 13 states in Mexico, reaching around 13,000 teachers, 300,000 students with this program. So we focus on adult capacities, and not just teachers. We believe in a systemic approach that addresses the skills of principals, teachers, so it will become protective environments where relationships are supportive. We’re actually are also consistent for children and where teachers, principals and everybody around can actually model the skills we want the children to learn.
I want to jump to you, Kuldeep. You know what drew you to education and ultimately, the project that you’re involved with.
So I think in a way, when I look back, it feels like I was being prepared to do this. Two big forces were, one was my own school and it was a very interestingly of schooling wherein whenever we went and spoke about a problem, you know, a water type is leaking or this garbage on the road or there is some other issue, we were almost told like to solve it by yourself, like you solve it.
So there was this whole culture built off, or if you see a problem, you own it and you try to solve it rather than pontificate or intellectualizing. Slowly it became a way of life. It never felt this was something different, or this is something unique. The second big influence was the city of Bangalore. I was born in Bangalore in India.
Very early on in my life, my father moved from a small town to Bangalore, and I think his only dream in life was to live in Bangalore. So as a young kid growing up, he would say, you know, this is such a beautiful city. This is such a great city. So everything about that city became mine. In a way I felt like the mayor of the city, you know, not even elected, but became the mayor of the city.
And I felt, you know, it’s my responsibility to own the city. So it just became a way of life. it was not something which was separate or different and things like that. From school when I moved to college, I felt very restless because in college, any time you would see a problem, people would intellectualize it. You know, the government should do this.
This policy change should happen. But my training was, yeah while that is equally important., what are we doing about it? These small, small micro actions or I was collecting these small, small dots all my life and I think suddenly connected together. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing at this point now.
Really interesting stuff. And you experienced that step by step throughout your life, but do you feel like there was a eureka moment that led you to ultimately what the project you’re involved with is today? Do you feel like there was a day where you just realized, okay, here’s the solution, and how did you come up with it?
I don’t know if I still have this solution, but I think what our work does is it at least helps us clarify and help us get towards the solution. What I think the eureka moment for me was after college, I was 21. Then I just decided to start collecting garbage or trash from 150 households in Bangalore. So I was a garbage collector for ten months and while I was collecting garbage from these households, I realized that if we have to solve complex environmental and social problems, we have to get citizens and communities involved.
It cannot be done by governments alone, nor big companies alone. In a way, I kind of committed myself to this mission. How do we get citizens involved. But citizens also is such a big term. The idea was how do we get young people involved and build this muscle? Because it’s a muscle. Solving something is a muscle.
I could say that was my eureka moment for doing what I’m doing at this point. But if the question is like, is there one silver bullet wherein we can magically change all the young people to solve issues? I’m not yet there.
Oh yeah, I mean, I could imagine that. Maybe we can jump back to you. Daniela was there a eureka moment when it comes to AtantaMente?
There was a moment where His Holiness Dalai Lama visited Mexico. I was helping organize that visit. And at that time he went to teach the teachers union. And he said something that he’s usually saying, and he’s always advocating for secular ethics and education. And he said, you know, cognitive isn’t enough. You have to teach emotion and compassion.
And this is, now you’re great at the cognitive aspect. You just have to do this. And I’ll be back in a year to see that you’ve done it. And we were like, okay. And I was there and the teachers from the teachers union came to see us and said, We want to do what His Holiness said. And that was the eureka moment for me in that it put together many things, like all the aspect of my life that, as I briefly mentioned, which came from contemplative training and understanding the mind from first person perspective in a like pretty scientific way that comes from, in my case, the Buddhist practice, and then education and the science that was already out there in terms of something that Paul Ekman and Allan Wallace put together in a randomized controlled trial teaching teachers contemplative practices and then from other people. So some guys had been then particularly who had been working or translating this work for children. So how do you actually train attention and empathy, emotional intelligence and working with your thoughts?
So I was like, oh yes, we can do it. We can train teachers, we can train children, we can put this together. And this needs to be completely secular. I’ve always believed in secular education. It’s a very big thing in Mexico. As Catholic as we are, it’s a very important thing for us to have. But I thought this is what we need. We need to bring knowledge that’s from the world to help the world. It doesn’t really matter where it’s coming from, as long as it is constructed in a way that’s useful and helpful. So that was this moment when I said, We can do it, we can just bring it all together.
A salient point and eloquently said, if I could say so myself, we could jump to Andrew’s eureka moment now.
Yes, there was no eureka moment for me in that the education finance program was really designed by parents who were looking for finance to send their kids to school and by school entrepreneurs, so people that owned and operated a school in their own community who were looking for funding to grow their schools. At the time, Opportunity International, the organization with which I work, had a microfinance institution in Ghana that was lending to other small businesses and to parents.
Or to people for consumer businesses. And at the time they had schools that started knocking on the door looking for funding to grow their schools. And so Opportunity at the time lent to those school leaders with a traditional small business loan. And what they quickly discovered is that the products needed to innovate, to meet the needs of schools, in that the schools have very different cash flow cycles to many other businesses in that they charge fees at the start of term and then pay those fees away in teacher salaries and other costs.
If you’re a financial institution and try to collect from a school owner at the end of term, there’s a chance that you won’t get that repayment. And so they structured the loan a little bit differently. Fast forward 15 years from that to now, and it’s now in 30 countries around the world. From these ideas that came from Central Ghana.
All the projects here are just really inspiring to hear about for sure. I’m very inspired ever since yesterday and actually I’ve known about you guys for a while, but I do have a question in the lead up to what we just mentioned here. You know, there are so many great ideas. There are so many eureka moments in this world, but not all of them reach the stage where your projects have reached.
So what’s if there is the secret recipe that led to the success of these projects? I think that’s what innovators really want to know. You know what distinguished your project and the work you’ve put in versus the breadth of ideas that have, ultimately, you know, I have plenty of ideas myself that I thought were great ideas and then eventually went down the drain. So, yeah, would anyone care to jump in?
I’ll maybe go first. So there’s two massive, massive issues in global education right now. There’s the lack of access and the lack of quality really for like our project. And I suspect many of the WISE Awards winners both this year and the last, having two components to an idea are pretty important. One firstly, the impact.
You know, if you’re not creating an impactful program, then what’s the point? And secondly, the ability to scale. There are so many impactful programs, but they’re not operating in models that have the ability to scale and be meaningfully like reducing the education deficit, whether that be in access or quality.
As you asked the question. Indeed, I think impact is great, but I would say for me it was the help or work of many people. No, like really believing in something and really being sure like the purpose behind it and then really knowing and being focused on the benefit of others and bringing others and so many people together. I don’t think there is something you can do that doesn’t imply the work and talents of many people, a purpose that joins people together, and a lot of hard work, you know, I don’t think you can get out of that one.
The framing of the secret recipe just puts more pressure on me. No, it’s an interesting question. And it’s also every time you reflect on this question, the response is different based on the context you are in. But if I look back, I think a few things which worked for us, and it might not work for everyone. But in general, like this is the only thing I have ever done.
I did this right after college, so the context was very, very different. I had no experience of working anywhere. My colleague, both of us started this together and we didn’t have much work experience. So one of the things when I look back, I think we had like high amounts of curiosity, curiosity to a point it bothered irritated and annoyed people and there was a certain amount of shamelessness we both had, like we were okay being curious to the point of troubling others. So with the last ten years I have realized that curiosity trumps criticality. It’s easy to be critical, especially the kind of work we all do. I would like to believe we faced more defeats than victories, right? Sometimes it feels like you are pushing this huge stone and most of the world is on the other side, right?
You want to go and tell people the benefit of social emotional learning, but people might still say, you know, we want to improve scores. So one is just curiosity. And curiosity, if it comes from the right space, it unlocks a lot of things in you. And this is one thing I’ve heard a lot of people say about us, about the organization of Reap Benefit.
That’s one thing. The second thing I feel is, like you said, ideas are cheap, Execution is very, very tough. But the best thing is like walking the talk. If you are walking the talk, or at least making the attempt to walk the talk. It unlocks a very different magnetic field in and around your team. People look at you, are observing you, and when you’re walking to talk, it is a certain invisible commitment of your emotion.
Right? And intention is a very powerful thing. It propels a lot of things. So we can have plans, we can have strategies, we can have frameworks around impact, but the intention is very important. So the second part, I think what makes all these WISE Awardees, why they’re here for ten years, 15 years is because I think it is walking the talk, actually executing and embodying what you are talking to people.
And I think the third learning I had, because I was very young, a mentor told me, is don’t assume or don’t defend. So sometimes you can get into your own bubble and you can start lying to yourself that you have a solution for the problem. The truth is nobody has a solution. But if you assume and you defend what you’re doing, you’re not listening to the stakeholder whom you are in service of.
You feel you know more than them. So every time when we were in doubt, Gotham and me, we would say, Let’s just go back to the stakeholder and ask her or him, what do they really think of what we are doing? And over the years I’ve seen this pattern across lots of very strong grassroots organizations, like they don’t assume, they don’t defend, almost only listening to the stakeholder.
They have one ear to the ground, they’re walking the talk. And the most admirable entrepreneurs for me were very, very curious, very, very curious. Almost like childlike curiosity. So if, somebody is listening to this and this works for you, please let me know – this is the magic recipe you’re asking about.
To be curious.
Yeah, be curious. Walk the talk and don’t assume or defend. I think this is the magic formula which has worked for us so far.
All great insights being shared here and all which, you know, make components of what the awards represents as a program. It’s some of the main elements or criteria that we try to gauge in terms of evaluating projects such as yourselves. Maybe Niamh, you can tell us a bit about the criteria that we work with.
Thanks, Bassim. Yes, I was actually thinking back to myself on the criteria, listening to the three of you talking and thinking about how, you know, different parts of each of your projects that we were able to see throughout the due diligence stage of what it is that’s not only innovative, but what you bring to the field of education, but also in terms of impact, as you were mentioning, Andrew, sustainability and scalability.
And it was making me think about how each of the projects that we have here today, you know, they’ve existed across different regions, different time scales, serving different beneficiaries. But I was just thinking to ask to each of you, do you feel that the story of your project has changed over time? Naturally. If so, what was it that maybe you feel you saw a kind of turning point in what it was that you were doing?
I think the core has not changed. When we started, the core was agency of young people, ownership of their neighborhoods and solving climate and civic issues. It was very clear. The packaging around that has changed over the years and because the context has also changed, initially we were told we’re building some change making skills, we’re like yeah okay, this is change making skills.
Then we hired some people from John Hopkins University. They did a research on us and they said, Oh, by the way, you’re building 21st century skills. When we read them, we were like, These are 19th century skills, but okay fine let’s call them 21st century skills, right? Like the core intent has not changed, but the articulation around that has become more mature.
Like we have also become a little more humble to realize that sometimes people have certain mental models their operating and it’s not worth fighting that battle and trying to change that mental model as long as you are not changing the core intent. Right? So that is one. A few learnings. Like when we were going talk to young people, we would say, you know, you have to solve climate issues, civic issues and things like this.
But what we were learning from young people was, yeah all these issues are great, but what about my self-efficacy first? So that was another form of articulation change. The question we started asking ourselves is okay, who are we doing this for? Are we doing this for ourselves or are we doing it for the stakeholder? And the young person is saying, yes, these issues are important, but where am I in this range of issues, the I then We and then Us, right?
So how does that transition happen? So that was another learning just from a stakeholder point of view. Then we realized, okay, self-efficacy leads to collective efficacy, that leads to system efficacy that leads to political efficacy. But seven years back I would have said the same thing. I just didn’t know self-efficacy and collective efficacy. And that’s all. So these kind of small things, but the core remains the same.
The articulation changes. It’s a trap sometimes because you are also mimicking what you’re hearing again and again. So you don’t want to change articulation too often. The good news now is in India we have the national Education Policy, which is focusing on skills for the future. So suddenly after ten years, we are not feeling left out in India.
We’re feeling now people understand our work, but it’s been almost like a decades journey to almost make people open up. Or even the word social emotional learning in India has only entered the last three, four, five years because of organizations like one of the WISE Awardees last year, Dream A Dream. They played a huge role in opening up that ecosystem. The narrative changes, but the core remains the same.
Or maybe from our side. Again, probably not much has changed in terms of the goal of the program to get more kids into better school. I think one of the things that’s become more apparent to us and also to funders is solving the access problem is only half of the issue, right? I mean, actually, if you talk about the global education deficit by number of kids, there’s more kids that are sitting in the class but not learning than are not in school.
And so I guess the way that the programs pivoted is that about five years ago now, we launched an education quality program to come alongside of the financial support for school leaders and teachers and say not just about getting more capital into schools, but about improving the quality of the schools. And definitely both are still very much needed in many of the markets that we work in.
I don’t think the core hasn’t changed, but the scope of the work has changed. Also, the maturing of what we’re doing and growing into from this like very core idea of like building your own social emotional competency for wellbeing and then really maturing to community now. So I think our focus and then the whole program and maturation is in this part of saying we’ve helped with teacher self-efficacy, but each of them feel that they’re capable and able to carry their work.
But how do we help community keep it beyond ourselves, build this autonomy, build this collaboration that could be integrated into schools that can prevail when we’re gone? I think this humility of saying no, the more you know, the less you know, somehow the more there’s to do, the more you have to learn from your stakeholders, the more we have to learn to listen.
And to add to that actually going back to sort of the criteria we work with at the Awards, sustainability is another component we sort of evaluate internally. And I think what you’re mentioning about partnership and collaboration, communities and so forth is a very important element that guarantees the long term life of a project such as the projects you’re working on.
Maybe you could tell me and a little bit to the audience about, you know, what it’s like to make partnerships successful in the work you’re doing and how do you approach the dynamics of the relationship in general.
So having mutually beneficial partnerships is the key, right? I guess similar to Daniela, like we don’t want to do anything that if our program stops operating in five years, we want that impact to continue. And so working through local partners is the most important thing that you can do. And having the incentives right for all actors.
So in our case, that means that the incentives right for the financial institutions or banks that are lending to the schools, incentives right for the schools to continue to operate, and the incentives right for the parents and students to continue showing up to school. And so we pay this balancing act between those three key stakeholders to make sure that the interests are all aligned in terms of their the business model that we’re trying to roll out.
I think for us, it’s because our partners are like our beneficiaries, our children indirectly, directly the educators in this case. We also work in health. But I haven’t spoken about that. I I’ll leave that out. But those are our direct beneficiaries. But then we work with our implementation allies, which are the ministries of education, and as a nonprofit we have to work with donors.
So really learning how to work and talk and make it significant to all parties for sure and then working. I think that respect, really listening to what the needs are at the different points and the different stakeholders and getting them involved. And I think it has worked a lot because when you work and listen, you know, for the, let’s say, Minister of Education, she or him, you know, so that’s one worth listening to what they want their own political ideas and it has to be in alignment for them.
There’s a balance to strike.
There’s a balance to strike, right. And then you’re listening to the teachers and what they need and what is happening at that level. So I really think that paying attention and trying also to build those bridges of communication and make those things align.
I think there’s a slight nuance of partnership and partnering, and I think Daniela actually really spoke about that. Partnership is a state you want to be in. You’re sitting in a room imagining how your love life should be. Partnering is the act of falling in love and, you know, being at it. Partnering is a very human exercise. So you’re working with humans, real humans.
And there are so many stages and states the partners are in, and therefore it gets very difficult. Therefore, we can talk about collaboration, but collaborating is a way more difficult muscle to build. What we have learned is a few things around collaboration is that, and there are different stakeholders. You have, you have the government stakeholders where there is already a power structure created.
Then you have civil society collaborations. In that you have two types of civil society organizations. Organizations which are smaller than you, where you in the power balance are higher up in the power structure. And then you have civil society organizations who are bigger than you. They’re higher up in the power structure. And finally the stakeholders you are working with, they are also a partner you are working with.
And what we have learned is three things around how to probably effectively partner. One is, at least in some types of partnering, the partnering does not work very well top down. So the founders can meet and shake their hands and say, you know, we want to partner. But the real magic is when people on the ground are coming together, that’s where the real magic will happen.
And therefore, building a team which knows how to partner is very, very important. Or else, generally what happens is the founder, the CEO, the leadership teams decides on partnering, and then we expect the team on the field to actually partner. Then we have seen that there’s a huge disconnect there because the realities are very different. The second thing, what we have realized is to be open to where the partner is.
Sometimes when we enter into a partnership, we have a certain rigid view. Of course there should be a value alignment, but I think openness and flexibility to understand where the partner is and kind of navigate around it. And the third, learning we have got is like you have different types of partnerships. Certain partnerships are emotional in nature, right?
Just driven by a certain value. Certain partnerships are just driven by a certain form of learning. So we call it learning partnerships and certain type of partnerships that are around finance or incentives. And knowing what type of partnership you want to do and when is also very, very, very, very important. So this has been our learning. So we have failed in a lot of partnerships to provide this kind of learning.
But like I said, the act of partnering is way more difficult than the thought of partnering. And these are the three things we have figured out. If you can more or less do this, your failure rate kind of decreases. You will still fail in partnering, but it’s at least more thought through. That’s what we have here.
Fail forward, as another Awards Winner said in our last conversation. All very interesting and insightful conversations we’re having here. You know I think we could eventually wrap this up. Maybe a final question, but before I jump to that, maybe Niamh. Do you want to jump in with any any reflections or questions from your end?
Yeah. Could we just what you were sharing on, you know, the magic happening on the ground? I just like to ask for those that are listening, how do you capture that magic, you know, in terms of impacts and what it is for that each of you are doing that.
It’s like I said, if I use the metaphor of love, how do you capture the magic of love on the ground? No, but I think a couple of things, some proxy indicators. One, for us to indicate that is how many partnerships are happening. That’s a very big indicator. So you know that you have a team which really values partnering because people who are on the field sometimes and I’ve been a field worker, grassroots worker myself, when you get two very competent teachers. While you’re deeply listening, but somewhere you also find that your pedagogical style is better than the other person there is that, right?
So I think one good proxy indicator could be how many partnerships are happening apart from the leadership team. Then you are exhibiting collaboration in action, you know, rather than talking about. So that’s one proxy indicator. The second thing in our case is we have a bias to action in Reap Benefit. And the reason why we have bias to action is because we feel like what she said at the start, there is more to learning and exhibiting learning apart from the cerebral part of it.
When you’re a young person coming from an underserved community in any part of the world, you’re carrying a lot of intergenerational trauma. You don’t have support systems and things like that. But action becomes a very, very good Democratic unit. You know, irrespective of the background I’m coming from, if I’m taking an action in my community, it is, in a way, the closest democratic unit you can have.
It’s almost like a sport, right? Once you are on the field, it does not necessarily matter what background you’re coming from. So what is the second indicator is are we able to show actions on the ground, which means that a young person is willing to break inertia, the young person is willing to go out in the community, the young person is willing to actually stake a claim in the community, and then the young person is willing to report back
that have staked claim in the community. So that becomes a second indicator that, you know, some magic is happening. And the third is, as soon as that happens, is there enough energy in the ecosystem to get them into communities together and are they willing to talk? So if these three things happen, you know you’re in the right direction because once the communities get started, then that’s a new loop of building, sustaining, managing, weaving, and orchestrating these communities.
But then you know that these things have happened but in our ecosystem if action is not happening and only quantification is happening. Well, again, this is good. This is intellectual, this is very nice. We can write a paper on this and write an article. All that is great and there’s value to that. But action is the Democratic unit that is showing skin in the game.
And for us, skin in the game is a very, very important part. If there is no skin in the game, then yeah, it’s nice, it’s cute, but nothing beyond that. So these are some indicators. So is that partners showing skin in the game? That’s also very, very important for us. If the partner is not showing skin in the game, then it’s sweet, but nothing beyond that.
Just talking in how we see people say, or our teachers say that this came like in the right time in my life. It really changed my life, my relationship, my family. Really, this is one. And seeing or hearing what’s happening in the classrooms with the children, the capacities they’re building, their self awareness, those stories now that are just so, so rich in what you can actually see in the transformation.
And one that’s the big jewel for me is this that I was saying, like for example, the indigenous Maya speaking teachers. Like hearing being there and them telling us like, AtentaMente has heard us, nobody hears us and you’ve heard us. And through that being heard, they came up, you know, with their own like narrative. They made their own stories that we helped them produce into little videos.
But it was there. It’s in Mayan, it’s talking about social emotional learning. And so by being heard, then they can do their own, and work on their own. So I think that the magic for in that way is this dimension of seeing the impact directly in the beneficiaries and then seeing things that are bigger which are like seeing how it’s the whole district, it’s a whole state.
It’s not like they’re already, and we’re saying, should we be able to get to 100% of the schools in this group and somebody saying 100%? But I have more schools than here. I want to go for other you know, when people just wanting to take it up. And I think one more thing that I would want to say that I think in part of this magic of collaboration and alliances is when people listen to you, when you have enough to say, enough experience that you can go to a minister in our case.
The minister of education and say, we want to work with you in the state and and they’ll take you seriously because your work has walked the talk now for them and for others and they know you’re there for what you do because it takes a lot for people to trust you. Because why? Why would we trust these guys?
What do they want? And so I think that is also part of the magic now that you walk the talk enough that people can actually trust you.
Especially when you’re working in a field like education, I mean, where things are typically traditional and rigid and not so change agile, I would say. I imagine walking the talk is is absolutely critical. You both have echoed towards each other. I’m going to ask two final questions, not one. If you could tell yourself something, five, ten years ago, as a young innovator, budding entrepreneur, what would that key lesson be?
Mine’s short. It’s find something that works and scale it.
Keep on working, keep on perfecting. Don’t stop, you know, like you found it or you think it works, but keep on going. There’s more depth. It’s like trust the process and keep on going and they’ll get frustrated by it, I guess. Like that’s part of it. So just find something, do it well, do it deeply.
If I had to go back and talk to myself. One, I would say is trust the process. Even if you have not found something, there is so much value to the process itself that was magic happens, the doors are open. So don’t take yourself too seriously. Like, I mean, you’re not the savior of the world. Don’t take it too seriously and truly find joy in this. At least I can go back and I had this certain imagery of an entrepreneur, you know, serious and grumpy and then things like that.
I probably read a lot of biographies of American entrepreneurs. And I was like, you know, this is the only way to, you know, operate. But if I could go back, I would say truly trust the process. You know, like, entrepreneurship is in a way like building a forest. You can’t plan how the forest grows. You leave the seeds and allow for the ecosystem to take over.
So one would be trust the process. Second, don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t come with this savior complex that you are changing the world. You are here because deep down you are doing it for yourself. And I think that’s something I would tell every young person, like, don’t give yourself that much importance. And third is just find joy.
Like there is so much power to joy and don’t be grumpy all the time. But I’m still grumpy. That’s a problem. I think I’m still a work in progress. If my team members hear this podcast, they will probably extract this part and in every meeting they would say, oh, somebody said be joyous and don’t be grumpy, but this is something I’m not walking the talk. Yeah, it’s a work in progress.
Well, we can wrap this up with the final question. Really, is that, you know, I’d like to go back to what I said in the beginning and say it again. Congratulations, truly. You’ve all accomplished really incredible work. What’s next?
Yes, so globally there’s 630 million kids that are either out of school or in school and not learning. I think we as a community have a responsibility to be chipping away at that as quickly as we can to improve both access and quality. The Education Finance Program at Opportunity International has been operating now for 15 years and through that about 36,000 schools have been financed.
So we’ve got to 11 million kids, which is great, and 11 million out of 630 million? We’ve got a long way to go as an industry. Right? And so, yes, we can push as hard to scale as quickly as we can, but we need other actors in here who are doing good work to improve access and quality of education.
And so there’s effectively two pieces of work we have. One to scale what we know is working as quickly and as efficiently as we can, but secondly, to bring others along on the journey. And I think, you know, WISE does a really good job of that.
I think for us, we’re at that point too. I mean, like that scaling. Because we want the systemic change. So we need something that can be strong enough and lasts enough to see changes that are more durable. So I think that scaling for me is this idea of maybe a statewide intervention, all teachers and you can actually be there for a couple of years consistently to build that capacity and that’s where we want to go. To build that capacity systemically at scale so we can just be happy to let other people do it all and not be the center of the world, which we never were. But yes.
It’s quite similar. This year. Officially, it’s our 10th year. I think the first thing is learning how to celebrate. That in itself is difficult. So that’s very high on the agenda this year. I’ve been very deeply reflecting what scaling actually means for the longest time. And I mean, there’s no right definition to what scale is. I think in our case, we have been asking ourselves, how do we scale the idea and not necessarily the organization?
I’ve been reading a lot of research around movement building. Research by this professor at Harvard, Erica Chenoweth, where she talks about what she calls the 3.5% rule. If you can create a movement with 3.5% of the population you’re working with, it becomes an irreversible movement and then it becomes a social change. So I’ve been obsessed with this 3.5% rule, you know, what is the tipping point and how we can do it?
So there are two pathways we have decided- sorry, three pathways. One is the horizontal, like how can we use technology to amplify our work smarter and better? Clearly, I have learned during COVID that technology’s not the silver bullet, but it is a great amplifier. So the two pathways using technologies, one, how do we make a thousand flowers bloom?
How can we make Reap Benefit become redundant? So how can there be more communities of young people self mobilizing and using technology and moving forward irrespective of the benefit itself? So that’s one pathway we are taking. And the other pathway is it’s an interesting time to be in India. How do we intervene systematically with governments so that, you know, we are leaving a more long lasting intervention in a system and being aware that it might not be the way we were imagining it.
So one is we’ll have no control working with the government, but at least it’s a part of a system and while the system moves slowly, we are somewhere there in the system. The other one is completely outside the system that in using technology, how can we have thousands and thousands of self mobilized communities through different parts of India, wherein young people are just doing it by themselves.
So even if the government intervention doesn’t work, you only have these communities operating all interconnected through technology. So three things celebrating the 10th year, using technology to grow, and intervening in the government.
And it’s good we always come to you towards the end because you have a way of wrapping all the insights together. Thank you all so much. It’s been a wonderful conversation and really, truly congratulations and thank you for joining me on WISE On Air.
Thank you so much for having us.