‘Stay focused. Develop a strong strategy and stick to it’

Bhagya Rangachar has helped children in Indian villages learn better using technology. Her advice for other NGOs: "Stay focused. Develop a strong strategy and stick to it"

Bhagya Rangachar - entrepreneur

Her advice for women entrepreneurs 

“Stay focused. Develop a strong strategy and stick to it. That helps you tremendously. And if you find it difficult to determine a strategy, hire someone who is good at that.”

 

 In many Indian schools in the villages, teaching goes something like this: an under-qualified teacher copies texts from a book onto a blackboard. The children then copy those texts into their notebooks. There is zero interaction and not much teaching. Indian entrepreneur Bhagya Rangachar decided this had to change: “All Indian children have a right to quality education.”

 India has 1.2 million shortage of teachers and rural schools are affected most. Most schools do not have qualified Science and Mathematics teachers, the subjects most kids fail in.“Learning the science subjects is crucial for the course of their school career. If they don’t master those, they can never successfully finish their high school,” says Bhagya. That is why – with her CLT India Foundation – she has developed digital, interactive teaching material for grade 5 to grade 10, for STEM subjects and English grammar. “Our content is used in more than 10,000 classrooms of government schools in disadvantaged areas, spread over three States and in three local languages. Children now like going to school better, they’re more motivated and most importantly: they’re gaining vital knowledge.”

Beautiful red-brick building

 Bhagya’s office, on the edge of a suburb in the north of Bangalore, doesn’t look like your standard office building. Instead of a concrete block it’s a beautiful red-brick building with lots of timber features and mustard-yellow window frames. Bhagya’s office is on the ground floor. Certificates line the walls and there are two desks: one for herself and one for her Chief Strategy Officer, Omar Wani, formerly a Corporate Executive.

 It’s actually not that surprising that Bhagya is committed to technology in education. She always had a penchant for the STEM subjects. “My brain really likes these subjects,” she explains. When she was eighteen, the age most children start university, she’d already earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and science.

 ‘That was indeed extraordinary. But it was just the way it was: I liked to study and it was easy for me’

 Bhagya grew up in a conservative Brahmin temple town in Karnataka, a state in South India. Her childhood was spent in the three streets surrounding the temple. Until she was seven, she received home schooling from her father who was also a teacher and she was placed in 5th grade at the age of 7! For him, good education for his children was a top priority. “Yes, now that you say it like that,” Bhagya ponders out loud, “That was indeed extraordinary. But it was just the way it was: I liked to study and it was easy for me.”

 After graduating, Bhagya married an Indian man who lived in the United States and worked for the World Bank there. She moved to the US state of Maryland with him. Bhagya was exploring a masters degree in Mathematics, but she realized the opportunities for Technology related trainings and pursued them, instead. “I was immediately hooked. I lost myself in it.” She followed her heart and decided to pursue a career in Software Development.

 Evening classes

She had three children while working as a programmer analyst for ICT companies, but her thirst for new knowledge wasn’t quenched. She enjoyed being part of academia and would continuously upgrade her skills in the evening classes.  When her mother died in 1997, Bhagya’s father had moved to Bangalore City and she moved to India, with her youngest daughter,  to spend time with him for a year. But that worked out differently in the end.

 ‘I thought: I should start a free school lunch for the children’

 She connected with a group of construction workers’ children in her neighbourhood during her visit. “One morning, out of curiosity, I followed a group of children into a building. It turned out to be a government school. Every day hundreds of children, the children of day labourers, went there for their lessons. It was an eye-opener for her to see that the children had no lunch. Neither the parents could afford it nor the government had a budget for it. This was so in the entire State of Karnataka and many other States in India at that time. When I heard that, I thought: I should start a free school lunch for the children, so they may continue their schooling. I always felt an urge to do good and this seemed to me something I could set up and continue to support financially when I was living back in Maryland again.”

 ‘I am not someone who looks back a lot or thinks a lot about decisions that have been made’

 Arranging hot lunches turned out to be more difficult than expected, partly due to complex regulations. Once it was all set up, the year that Bhagya had planned to stay had already passed. “And I felt that I could contribute more in India than in America. I decided to stay, and my husband and son came and joined me.” She never returned to the US and that sounds like a big decision, but for Bhagya it was not a big deal. “I am not someone who looks back a lot or thinks a lot about decisions that have been made.”

 STEM subjects

 In the twenty years, CLT’s activities have grown and evolved, but the target group has always remained the same: the schoolchildren in under-served communities. “CLT was the first to launch school mid-day meals in Karnataka for 10 villages and it was great to see that it had become a State program 7 years later. We learnt during this period that there was an acute shortage of qualified teachers, in particular for English and the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). “This made rural pupils start out with a big disadvantage. They had huge gaps in their education, so their chance of finishing high school with a list of good grades was very small. “That really had to change.”

I always thought: this can work’

 “We decided to set up a network of more than 100 ‘Master Teachers’, who would design innovative digital STEM resources, mapping it to national curricula. Over the years, we had developed more than 15,000 videos in multiple languages and thousands of PDFs and live experiments. In the beginning, the content would be used on computers and internet for distance learning. But, none of these models were sustainable or cost-effective. We also wanted the teachers to be the key players ”. Bhagya’s rational viewpoint came in handy during those pioneering years. “We had developed a low-cost technology delivery model on android platforms for the rural school environment. I never doubted the success of our idea. I always thought: this can work.”

 After years of research and development, CLT produced their “plug & play” Digital Learning Box with Data Analytics to track usage, that would store the content.  Teachers at government schools in the states of Karnataka, Maharashtra and Rajasthan can use this content in a variety of ways: online and offline, , apps, mobile phones, and on Android tablets. The mission of CLT is to make the content available for five million Indian students in 2021. These students are approximately 50 percent male and 50 percent females.  CLT has plans to customize it to children with auditory or visual impairments.

 Air Occupies Space

 In order to show what that content looks like, Bhagya takes me to a large room where one of her colleagues opens the app on a big screen: it explains step by step, in accessible language and with contemporary illustrations, why a scrunched up piece of paper remains dry when you put it in a glass and sink it into a bath of water upside down to demonstrate the concept Air Occupies Space. “Many teachers then do that test themselves in the classroom too which immediately creates far more interaction than in a traditional classroom. Research shows that children remember things better and are more motivated when taught this way. There are even children who catch up to their grade level  within a few months.”

 ‘Stay focused. Develop a strong strategy and stick to it’

 For money, her foundation depends on funds. “Money is scarce and it can be tempting to focus on issues that may not fit into your vision because you can get money for them. For example, I have sometimes been asked to set up a sanitary project. Fortunately, I have never given in. We have always remained true to our vision.” Her advice for other NGOs is therefore: “Stay focused. Develop a strong strategy and stick to it. That helps you tremendously. And if you find it difficult to determine a strategy, hire someone who is good at that.”

 Bhagya still often thinks about her father. He was alive to witness the first eight years of CLT. “He never asked me lots of questions; he was more of a quiet observer. But I remember his advice well: ‘Don’t be distracted. Stay focused. And if you do your work well, the rest will follow’.”