[ To Express, To Reflect, To Give Back ]

Khan way of Transforming Learning

Friday, April 1st, 2011

Listen, you want a glimpse of the future of education? How about Bill Gates vouching for it?

Even If you already know of Khan Academy, still take a few minutes to watch this latest TED Presentation. If you are patient enough, Bill Gates will join Sal Khan on stage around the 18th minute.

I stumbled upon Khan Academy last year, and since that time, he has gone from “somebody” to “the man”. His vision is rather unbelievable – educate the world for free on every topic! His story and rise to limelight is a worth a short film.

This story has been inspiring to me in many fronts. For one, he is making things happen for real. When million others are simply dreaming or talking about just ideas, he is out changing the face of learning, still one day or one video at a time. The realization of his vision in just the last few months is really commendable. They have create an innovative software to facilitate a non-invasive, individualized learning – augmented by the thousands of tutoring videos. Not only that, behind the screen, the software captures tremendous data for the teachers & tutors to evaluate a student’s performance and to have a constructive, thoughtful discussion for further learning and improvement. The best of today’s teachers are manually collating these type of data which takes away the time from focusing on their only goal of positively influencing the development of the students.

When most innovators are behind the startup wagon with a hope of making it big in an IPO, Sal is running this as a non-profit, a social enterprise as I like to think of it. I am certain money is never going to be an issue – even if Gates and Google don’t care for them, scores of philanthropists will line up to write a check for some who is truly impacting the lives of so many people across the world.

Let’s not forget, next to the gift of life, the second best gift to give anyone is education. If he can do that in a simple, easy way that anyone across the globe can use – I salute he is indeed “the man”.

Khan Academy already has a pilot program with Los Altos school district that is showing great promise. Now that he has assembled a fantastic team (I wish I could be part of this team and their mission!!), they are all set to fundamentally transform the way learning will happen in classrooms. No other company, including Microsoft, has been able to introduce this type of transformation. Which is likely why Bill Gates is backing Sal’s vision, besides using it himself to teach math to her daughter.

We need all the other dreamers to take Khan Academy truly global across languages and villages on a mission to educate the masses. Any takers from India?

Knowledge Park – Humble Beginnings @ Coimbatore

Monday, November 15th, 2010

It has been my wish for a few years now to open up a children’s library in Coimbatore around where I grew up. Having been exposed to how young children in the US grow up reading from a young age, I recognized the need to close that gap with children in India. While there are public libraries and even libraries at many schools, most children in India are not into reading, leave alone, using a library regularly. I had been wanting to do my part to close that gap in whatever ways I could.

Children at Inaguration of Library

When my parents visited US this past summer, I had proposed the idea of doing something about this and they immediately agreed to shepherd the project, host it in our house in Kavundampalayam in Coimbatore. I promised to help with getting the necessary stuff to them. I had introduced my parents to the local library here in bridgewater and their mindset expanded significantly after seeing what’s available for public here. After a couple of months of planning – the most critical of which is to find the right set of books at a price that we can afford (of course, personal money so far). I shopped around New Jersey for 100+ children’s books (used books is a great start!) and my father-in-law donated a box full of books from his well-kept library. Harini’s recent trip to India was timely to carry 30 lbs of books from US to India. With pains from family members in shipping and transporting books from US to Chennai to Coimbatore, and some planning and marketing by my mother to children around the area, we were finally set to make our wish a reality.

Makeshift Nameboard

On November 14th, on the eve of Children’s day, the library was inaugurated – under the name of “Knowledge Park”. My brother and his wife had incidentally made it from Dubai to be part of this humble beginnings. About 30 or so children from the neighborhood, along with their parents, showed up to start using the free service. I am told that children, in the age group 4 to 15, were excited to instantly read some of the comic books and young adult story books that caught their imagination – likely attracted by the title and cover graphic!. The kids assured my mom to continue to read from the library every day. Most of the children are from middle or lower-middle class with little or no access to books outside of school curriculum and hence their parents were thankful and appreciative of our efforts.

Thanks to family members and some friends, what was a simply a wish for a while is now beginning to take shape. Though it is tiny in scale (and that’s all two lonely elders in their 60s can manage and service)- my extended wishes for it to sustain its mission, grow in value, expand into more books in English and Tamil, and into other value-added stuff such videos, games etc, as we take baby steps in making this a meaningful venture.

My hope is that we have introduced at least a few kids to the habit of reading at a young age (who otherwise would grow up largely ignorant, naive and unaware) that will make them grow up to be better citizens of India.

From TATA Dhan Academy

Saturday, October 2nd, 2010

Some of you may have read my article about Tata Dhan Academy in ThinkChangeIndia. Today, I got a note from Ananda Mahto, an American, who has moved to Madurai, to teach English @ Tata Dhan. He has made some great progress getting the students to better express themselves via writing and producing audio/video materials. As part of the interview, I had the opportunity to speak to all the senior offices of the Academy who continue to inspire me to do more developmental work. Below is the note from Ananda and link to the student-created newsletter.

I just wanted to drop you a quick line to let you know that the students I work with have just re-initiated their student newsletter and the first new issue is now available. You can view it online here: http://tdapdm.wordpress.com/2010/10/01/spectrum-issue-4/

I’d like any feedback you might have to offer (and I’m sure the students would too). Also, if you know others who might be interested in the newsletter, please feel free to forward the link.

I was read the Interview with Dr G Paran Gowda and found this quote of Vivekananda striking:

“Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life—think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success.”

Nominating Babar Ali for Youth Social Entrepreneurship

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

Some of my readers know my interests in Social Enterprises. Ashoka is one of the organizations that inspires me and to my luck, I had one chance to meet with Mr. Bill Drayton, Ashoka’s Founder.

Ashoka is now looking for 10 youngsters from across the world to go on a TED-style stage (TEDx) to talk – and inspire the masses – about how they are changing in the world. The Staples Youth Social Entrepreneurship Competition is open for nominations.

On my part, I had nominated Babar Ali – who BBC called the youngest headmaster in the world. I stubmled upon his story in BBC a while ago and boy, he did touch my heart. When I came across Ashoka’s nomination request for young, inspiring entrepreneurs, Babar Ali immediately came to my mind.

Babar Ali's students Source:BBC

He may not have had a huge impact in Ashoka’s scheme of things, but his heroism and leadership is exactly what Ashoka is looking for. Imagine how many kids and adults across the world he could inspire if he gets 18 minutes on a world stage, in Washington DC, to tell his story about how he runs a evening school for poor children – while going to a government public school himself during the day. He teaches at night what he learns in the day. About 800 kids around his village are now able to learn and get educated, who otherwise stay at home to take care of siblings or or work during the day to feed their family. You can read more about Babar Ali in the detailed BBC report by Damian Grammaticas.

I would super excited if Ashoka picks up him! I have no idea who this boy is but I hope he will be too.

One way to make this world a better place

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

The other day I stumbled upon Daily Endeavor and EndeavorPrep. It posted a question “why so few people thrive in life while other’s don’t”. They arrived at an answer that “too fewer people discover what they want to do”. Is it really easy to discover what you want to do? Is it something that someone can help us discover?

If you are one of those lucky ones who knew early in your life exactly what you want to do and is now successful doing it, read no further. What I say here is not for you but for the rest of the unlucky world.

I do not think its easy to discover what you want to do in life. I do think it is possible but it requires a lot of soul searching and reflection. The world around has tuned us to believe and follow the “norm”. We are required to “go with the flow”. If we do certain things because that’s what we want to do, we might get chastised for “swimming against the tide”. [Jonathan Livingston Seagul, ]

How late is too late to discover what you want to do? What if I am 35, with a masters in chemistry with a job running research programs for a leading pharma and suddenly I “discover” what I want to do is to be a fighter pilot? I know many would argue that one is never too late to pursue whatever they want to do, but realistically speaking the earlier you discover the better off you are and the world will likely and greatly benefit from your discovery of our your own passion.

On the other hand, some think it might be too early to attribute a passion or pick a career for kids, when they haven’t had enough opportunities to explore every thing in the world.

Between these two ends is where most youngsters get side-tracked and simply pursue whatever they can get their hands at or whatever parents suggest.


Which brings us to an issue that is close to my heart, How can we – the grown up you and I who realize and acknowledge this gap – help younger kids (say 5th to 8th grade) to be more informed and ultimately make better decisions about what they want to do in life – careerwise or otherwise?

I believe we can and should. The world of “work” is getting complicated as economies evolve from industrial to service to knowledge to creative. To make choices about what type of jobs and careers to pursue is painstaking hard so most youngster skip it outright. To expect someone coming out of high school to figure all this out is akin to dropping them in the middle of amazon jungle and expecting them to make their way back.

Career guidance programs in schools as well as government-sponsored career exploration websites seem somewhat incomplete, though certainly very useful. The labor department classification of jobs and careers is no good either. Today, a position described as “Business Analyst” likely has a few hundred variations to it depending on the industry or company or department. Job roles and job titles are invented on the fly many leading to no correlation between the actual work and the meaning the title implies. Ultimately, no one can figure all this out.

So sites such as Daily Endeavor (treat it as sort of Wikipedia for careers) are trying to directly address this need by cataloging and documenting 21st century job roles and what it means to be on these jobs. Others are trying to cater to this need through books, video [check The Futures Channel] and cable and online series – check PBS Design Squad, . The hope is to that the younger generation and mid-career changers will have more clarity to match their natural skills and passions to what jobs and careers to pursue.

I strongly believe every child and every individual has certain innate potential to be good or even great, in some things, using which they would make this world a better place. Majority of us never get a chance to know what this potential is – we just float like a leaf in the river and get by life doing whatever we can. Some realize it too late to impact the world with their greatness, even if they get to excel in their passion. Very few realize it and make the best out of it.


The best bet is to provide a conducive environment as early as possible so a 10-year old kid can independently and consciously recognize and realize his or her innate potential. It will require a holistic ecosystem of products (books, DVDs), services (online video, interviews, offline guidance, school support, parental support), tools (assessments, tests, coaching), organizations (placement services, scholarships, financing, job searches) and many passionate people to make it happen. Daily Endeavor and EndeavorPrep are definitely step in right direction. But we need more and I have come to realize that is what I wanted to do in my life. In my view, the developing countries need such services more than ever. Without such early intervention and nurtured guidance, they will end up with millions of computer programmers or hundreds of thousands of half-baked doctors, engineers and lawyers whose tomb might read “I had no idea what I wanted to do with life – so here I am”

PS: As I was writing this, it reminded me of Richard Bach’s Illusions. The hardback edition comes with a handwritten story of creatures who clung tightly to the bottom of a river. When one of them decides to let go, he is thrown over others into the deep waters. He goes off saying something like, “The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare to go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.”

Firing the hungry spirit of rural children

Saturday, February 6th, 2010

My next article for ThinkChangeIndia is available here. This time I had the opportunity to speak to another Ashoka Fellow, Ramji Raghavan, who runs the Agastya Foundation in India. He has started an organization that directly serves rural children’s creative needs. Among other things, Agastya operates mobile science museums, an innovative idea, since the core problem is the reach. Agastya takes the science museums to the children in rural schools, instead of expecting them to visit them. You can read more in the article and through their website.

Article of DHAN Foundation

Monday, January 11th, 2010

My next article for ThinkChangeIndia on DHAN is online. I had not heard of DHAN before and it was edifying experience to research and write about them. For over two decades, they have been doing some phenomenal grassroots work, getting thousands of people out of poverty. I had the pleasure of interviewing some of the senior staff there, including the head, Mr. Vasimalai and I must say it was an eye opening few hours worth of discussion. The extended version of the article and recording of the interviews is available for anyone who might be interested (email s k c h a r y @ y a h o o . c o m)

Classes in Boxes

Saturday, December 26th, 2009

I wrote an article about the Digital Study Hall project for ThinkChangeIndia. Its a fascinating project that is attempting to blend digital technology with rural classrooms in India. I know it sounds far-fetching, but its actually working. You can read the full article here.

I had my 30 seconds with Bill Drayton

Friday, December 18th, 2009

Last night, I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Bill Drayton at a speech he gave at Princeton University. He is one of my role models and I don’t think its an exaggeration if I see him as a modern day version of Gandhi. He is on a mission to identify, encourage and support “changemakers” across the breadth and depth of human society. These ‘changemakers’ are working on the ground solving pressing social problems and Mr. Drayton ensures that these changemakers get whatever they need to do their best and sustain their impact. We need more Draytons and more organizations like the one he is pioneering: Ashoka. If I have a choice to be someone, I would like to be Mr. Drayton someday. Seeing him yesterday talk and spending a few seconds that close to him has reinforced my faith that I will be able to do what he has done, and more.

Mr. Drayton is credited for bringing social entrepreneurship to the forefront of America. During his speech yesterday, he pointed out that social entrepreneurs and their enterprises existed for centuries (so all we are doing is just finding more and more of them and shedding some global light on their work). He said we might just be reaching a “tipping point” of getting social entrepreneurship to mainstream. Many other organizations and individuals have dedicated their lives to direct welfare of society, but Ashoka has done it differently, in my humble opinion. I say it because I see their model as based on what I call ‘McKinsey of Social Enterprise’. When I graduated from NYU Stern, I seriously considered working for Ashoka. There were many personal reasons for not pursuing it rigorously. But the desire continues to deepen. That’s part of the reason why I showed up right away in Princeton, when I got a google alert that Mr. Drayton is speaking there.

He speaks so softly that folks at back couldn’t hear everything clearly but he spoke with a good sense of clarity regarding whats required to make meaningful changes in the society, for good. He was speaking to an audience of about 100 students from the Princeton’s engineering school, particularly those enrolled in Gordon Bloom’s Social Entrepreneurship program. The fact that such courses are already being offered to under graduate students and that Mr. Drayton’s latest Youth Ventures is reaching out to younger generation to be “changemakers” speaks for the “tipping point” of social entrepreneurship. On the topic of leveraging human potential, Mr. Drayton has also written an insightful article recently on the topic of how flight of increased productivity year after year is causing the depletion of natural resources and why the world must wake up soon to “engage people and to retire things”.

When I look back at my own life growing up in Coimbatore, India, I had been a “changemaker” in a real sense. I was an active member for many years in a social service club (Rotaract)and was also the president of the club during which we won awards for some innovative service work. I felt good doing that type of work, even while hanging around with my best buddies. However, I never consciously thought about what I was doing and if it will have any inherent relationship to what I will do in future.

I remember vividly the times I had spent with the Handicapped Children Society. We loved the smile on their faces so much that they became our default place to campout every other Sunday and do some gratifying social work. I can’t forget how much the children enjoyed a Sunday afternoon of Rajnikanth movie. There was this one boy who really wanted to grow up to be like Rajinikanth. I hope he is doing well somewhere.

My life, however, moved on after I graduated from Engineering College and commitments from the family front required me to stay focused on earning. It reminds me of the opening scenes of ‘Forrest Gump’; I went with the flow just like a feather caught in the breeze, moving to Chennai and then to US, building a career that I didn’t think much about. I hate to think this way, but I did lose sight of social work for quite sometime, until it dawned on me again.

Just around the mid point during my 2.5 years in NYU, I figured I had pretty much ended up where I am in life, by sheer ‘go with the flow’ mentality without thinking through what I really want to do or be. This is not to say I didn’t have commitment. I worked very hard to be where I am and grateful for the people and opportunities that helped along the way. But, as they say, ‘you know when you are on a mission’. I knew I was not.

I enrolled for a Social Enterprise class with Bill Shore. I was one of the just 5 guys in about 30 students who enrolled (guess more women cared about society, than men, at least in Stern, that year!). Stern is known for Finance majors and I wasn’t surprised that there were only 30 students. In fact, it’s the opposite, the 30 students really knew what they were getting into and possibly why. So it couldn’t have been a better setting. Having read Bill’s book prior to start of the sessions and sitting through the classes, guest lectures and case discussions made me feel like I have somehow found the deepest core of who I am and what I want to be. Perhaps, it goes back to my high school days of social work around Coimbatore and I do think experiences from childhood, one way or other, returns to remind who you really are. At last, I found something that just was always there for me for the taking. I want to be a social entrepreneur. A big, audacious changemaker.

I truly believe God has placed the seed within all of us. A seed to become meaningful persons and play particular roles in serving the humanity. The seed grows and symptoms of its growth may manifest more clearly during childhood, but somewhere along the way due to family and social settings, the growth is inhibited. For many, the seed gets buried deep enough that it takes a lot of time and energy to unearth it. But the fact is, the seed is there for us to find, nurture and make a beautiful tree out of it.

All said, how to get to from where I am today to where I want to go, is going to be work in progress. It starts with the faith, the rest must fall in place. I must continue to do what I need to do.

Meeting the education problem head-on

Friday, October 31st, 2008

This coversations network podcast speech by Wendy Kopp is inspiring. This is yet another proof that all great things start with a moment of thought. An undergraduate thesis idea is becoming a national movement that is on a march to change the face of American education. Teach of America, the brain child of Wendy, is already a powerful movement impacting many American schools. At least, 10% of graduating college students sign up with Teach for America (ToA) to volunteer their first two years after college to teach in under-privileged schools. With ToA Alumini now at influential government and private positions, Wendy believes the large-scale impact is just beginning! Though it started off as a dent in the educational inequality issue, scaling this program each year is now a key aspect of realizing nationwide, systemic and lasting impact.

Listen to her talk for more : http://sic.conversationsnetwork.org/shows/detail3646.html

Channel 19 – a Stern venture

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

If you have been my regular reader, you know my interests in using film for social change. I pointed out at Echoing Green yesterday, and now I like to drag your attention to Channel 19, a community production program (also available online) that produces ‘Video News Magazines” to drive social change. Channel 19 provides a voice for the common people, when mass media can’t/won’t. Currently, Channel 19 is operating from India through six Community Video Units (CVUS), but I see the concept just as good for any country or society that needs a social voice through media!

An obvious next question (that my wife asked when we first talked about it) is how does the videos reach the “mass”. This is indeed a challenge to not only meet the supply side of it, but also the demand side of community videos (who wants to watch community media in India, when the Zee, Sony and Sun TVs flooding the mass with “drooling” reality shows and Saas-Bahu c(rap)onspiracies?) While Ch19.org also hosts all the videos online, the primary distribution is through screening the videos on a regular basis in the slums and villages, creating awareness across the affected society. It may not reach the “mass” but it reaches the locals and perhaps, will reach the district and state next and eventually the mass media. The videos not only highlight a social issue but also present solutions to issues these communities want to or should take action on. It is a tall order to make a meaningful impact, but absolutely a start. So I wholeheartedly support them!

Another thing I am proud of Channel 19 is, it is a Video Volunteers product. And Video Volunteers is a NYU Stern 2007 business plan competition winner!

Echoing Green

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

I was back at NYU Stern campus last night after almost 3 months. For the first time, I was visiting as an “Alumni”. Ah! just to say it feels nostalgic. I met a few of my classmates and a bunch of Alumni and almost all the 08 graduates were just excited that we are done with it! but still figuring what next to do…

In my chats with another alumni, I heard about “Echoing Green“, an organization that selects and funds social entrepreneurs targeting social issues around the world. I am writing about it now because I took up social entrepreneurship as one of my specializations in business school and took up a very eye-opening course with Billy Shore and Sarah K. Chiles. It was an excellent exposure, especially to Bill and his thought process. He is the visionary behind the non-profit “Share Our Strength” and the author of “The Cathedral Within”. Apparently, Echoing Green supported Billy Shore and Share Our Strength in its early development, through another grant program.

The 2008 fellows of “Echoing Green” sounds like a promising list and at least one of them matches with one of my core desires to make a difference. I will be reaching out to them soon to help in any way I can. If you like any of the ideas, You shoud too!

As an end note, this quote from Echoing Green website grabbed my attention and is worth mentioning here.

“…it is important to realize that the world does not depend on you. It will go on its own way, and you shouldn’t expect anyone to be thankful for the work you’re doing. If you decide to do something, it is because you want to do it, and nothing more” – as mentioned by Rahul Panicker here.

Big Picture TV

Tuesday, July 1st, 2008

BigPicture TV

I was looking through some of the online short film contests and came across Big Picture TV. It is a neat project conceived and executed by Marcus Morell. Simply put, he has reached out to some of the leading thinkers and advocates working on environmental and social causes to share their insights. It is a worthy cause and demonstrates the power of new media and how it is leveraged to connect the movers to the masses. The website is neat and elegant though I was having problems with playing the videos.

Most of the people speaking are unfamiliar to me. Not surprising, I haven’t heard of many of them, given the momentum and breadth of support that environmental movement has and of course, my lack of awareness too!. I guess what matters is their insights and ideas more than who it is from. If you have heard of Cradle to Cradle, you should listen to Bill McDonough. I have read that book through my brothers recommendation and his ideas are fascinating and much needed. You should also check out his speech at the TED conference.

Kudos to Big Picture TV for bringing ideas into action! It goes into my favorites!