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'Indian entrepreneurs are really, really driven'

Last updated on: October 17, 2013 21:27 IST

'If you are driven, don't let anybody tell you what you must do or not do'

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Prasanna D Zore

'I love the fire in Indian entrepreneurs's eyes. I just hate how Indian society does not believe that entrepreneurship is a means to earn a living or create change. That limits us from doing or thinking beyond the ordinary.'

A winner of the prestigious ITU Young Innovators Award, Varun Arora tells Rediff.com's Prasanna D Zore how he plans to change the way the world gets its education.

"I live below the poverty line in the US," Varun Arora announces from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

He is proud about his economic status, he adds quickly, making you wonder if the 23-year-old winner of this year's prestigious ITU Young Innovators Award is mocking you.

Founder of OpenCurriculum, a 'proudly, consciously and loudly not-for-profit organisation,' that creates and shares K-12 learning material for free with whoever has access to the Internet, Varun and his team of five people are fanatical about the dissemination of open source education so that every child on this planet has access to quality education till Class 12.

It is this passion that won OpenCurriculum recognition from the United Nations's International Telecommunication Union.

Last year, just before going full steam ahead with OpenCurriculum, Varun -- who has a Masters in Information Systems Management from Carnegie Mellon University -- rejected a fancy job at Google.

"It was a crazy monetary amount. I just don't want to mention it because it undermines the essence of what we are doing here at OpenCurriculum," Varun says, when pressed with the kind of 'crazy money' he let go to enjoy the fruits of social entrepreneurship.

"It was Rs 70 lakh (Rs 7 million)," he says finally, after great persuasion.

It is not just money that Varun sacrificed in his quest for changing the way education is imparted globally. At an age when young people dream about fancy jobs and a hectic social life, Varun works from 8 am to midnight.

"I refrain from any social life since I know what my mission in life is," he says earnestly.

Chosen among 600 entries from 88 countries by the ITU, OpenCurriculum will take its project to the next level at ITU Telecom World 2013 in Bangkok next month.

"I don't look at this award (the ITU Young Innovators Award) as a major achievement," says Varun, who won the Google Zeitgeist Young Mind in 2011 when he was just 21.

"Achievement really is when you inspire people, when you create a huge impact on communities, when you make their lives happier or enrich them with knowledge," he says.

Each of OpenCurriculum's six team members currently live off their savings. None of them takes a penny in salary. "We pay ourselves in experience and moral satisfaction," Varun says.

"Money is not important when you start look at something bigger."

Based on the content that his team has produced so far, Varun believes that OpenCurriculum will change the way the world gets education in the next two years.

"As of today, it would be a stretch to say it is a game-changer. But we are setting the foundations for something much larger and it will be a game-changer in the next two years. We know we are in an industry which is slow to change," says Varun. "But we are preparing the ground for something that is much, much, larger."

Born and brought up in Muscat -- his father moved to Oman in 1983; his parents have lived there after their marriage in 1987 -- Varun pursued his undergraduate education on Carnegie Mellon's Middle East campus.

How did it all start for you?

Four years ago, I was deployed to Niue, a country in the South Pacific, to figure out how to best use laptops for learning within schools.

They had given every child in school a $100 laptop and as a consultant my job was to figure out why learning was not happening and creating an impact in the classroom.

It was easy to get a laptop in every child's hands and provide Internet access. But if there is no repository of local content from where they can actually learn from -- like if you are in Maharashtra, then you want something in Marathi; if you are in South Africa you want something in Swahili -- the purpose gets defeated.

There was no local content from which the kids could learn or for teachers to use in their classroom. That completely broke down the system.

That was how OpenCurriculum started. It has taken several years of conceptualisation and hard work in building a team, building a product, getting it out there.

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Image: Varun Arora, founder, OpenCurriculum
Photographs: Varun Arora

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'Entrepreneurship is built on grounds of meritocracy'

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Prasanna D Zore

What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?

When you try to come out with something audacious and ambitious in trying to challenge a question, challenge a paradigm of how an industry works, the people who run the industry, the gurus that you look up to, don't believe you; they don't think you know what you are saying because you are questioning their belief and work that they have done for decades.

They don't like change.

When you propose such a change that is fundamentally challenging for them and you get sort of pushed back from conceptualisation, you begin to question yourself. You ask, 'Is this even right?' 'Do I feel credible enough to question an entire institutional setting, the paradigm of the day, the status quo?'

That itself manifests itself into a lot of little challenges. It is difficult to the point of questioning an industry, but it is also difficult in a personal way where you don't get any support, whether it be financial or mental, to go against the odds and do it.

How did you overcome these challenges then?

Execution.

The beautiful part about entrepreneurship is that it's built on meritocracy.

The only way to convince sceptics is to demonstrate your ability to execute in bringing value to people.

How did you finance this project?

The project began when I was finishing my Masters at Carnegie Mellon. So, I wasn't really funding myself. What I was doing on the side pretty much became my full time job.

After I got done with my Masters in 2012, for the past year the entire team and me have been working without a salary.

We do have a little bit of funding from various ecosystems in the US that support social innovation, but we have been living on savings from several years ago.

I don't take any money from my family, so it is really, really, difficult from a personal standpoint.

You got to forego little personal gains or happiness to go for something much larger.

What motivates you and your team?

We pay ourselves in experience and moral satisfaction. We have all grown up in countries which are developing or poor countries and we have seen the state of education in these countries.

And we have realised what education has done to us and it is something that should do for everyone.

Access to education is sort of unequally distributed around the world. The very fact that we have grown out of circumstances from where we have come -- from very humble families from the developing world -- we realised that the best way we can put our skills to good use is to give back and give back not by doing charity and starting schools.

I think we have skills and abilities that a lot of individuals unfortunately don't have, so we feel we have to use these skills in being able to produce technology in building great partnerships, in building great systems, and give it back to the community.

How do you make a living?

About 18 months ago, I used to work for a tech company in Silicon Valley. The wages in the tech industry in the US are amazingly high. Back then, I decided I was not going to spend any of that money (his salary). I use that very amount to pay my rent and it's going to go on for a few more months.

We do have the funding of $50,000 (roughly Rs 30 lakh or Rs 3 million) that we will be able to use. We are not using this money because it isn't enough to hire great talent in the US. We have held it for operational needs in the near future.

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Image: Varun Arora, back to camera, with community heads from various countries.
Photographs: Varun Arora

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'Learning is controlled and dictated by the government'

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Prasanna D Zore

What does OpenCurriculum do?

If you want every individual in the world to have access to high quality education, then the most fundamental aspect is the learning material.

Unfortunately, learning material like textbooks, resources, worksheets are all controlled and dictated by the government, local, national, state streams and private publishers.

There is more monopolistic pricing and distribution under such an ecosystem.

Few publishers now have access to a large network of schools. The government mandates these NCERT(the National Council Of Educational Research And Training, set up by the Government of India to advise improvement of school education)-kind of textbooks and this impedes any kind of innovation in this ecosystem. There is no incentive for the community to change this.

Almost on a daily basis, when we talk to our friends, they say, 'Yaar, it would be so cool if our kids learnt about international peace, if they learnt how to work together in teams, if they became critical thinkers, if they became leaders....'

If you have this controlled ecosystem in distribution, production, licensing and content creation and nobody is even allowed to put inputs in it, then not only will you not be able to reach more people around the world with educational material, but you will also restrict modern ideas from entering this ecosystem.

You cannot have education flourish; you cannot live by these education models that were shaped in the early 1900s for the industrial era to work now.

Tell us about the impact OpenCurriculum has had had on subaltern groups.

Last month, we gave 10,000 individuals access to textbooks, worksheets, tests, supplementary resources than they have ever had before.

We know if anything, that the impact is much larger than these numbers because these 10,000 people are community leaders around the world. They are either student leaders, schoolteachers or administrators. These people take this material and technology to their communities.

So, OpenCurriculum as an idea will take concrete shape in the next two years?

It has taken concrete shape. It is like re-establishing the banking system. It has a long timeline. You are not going to see change overnight. It will not create an app on your smartphone. Those are easy events.

We are setting the infrastructure for something much, much larger.

One of the big changes likely to happen in the next two years is that you will start seeing open source Indian textbooks, completely free of cost, zero rupees, being published by mom and pop photocopy stores.

Some of the earliest ones will mostly likely be NCERT-compliant books. Yes, they will help students pass exams, but that will definitely not be their core purpose.

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Image: Members of social foundations share their feedback about OpenCurriculum's programme.
Photographs: Varun Arora

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'All those fears about job insecurity are unnecessary and unimportant'

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Prasanna D Zore

What advice would you have for social entrepreneurs like yourself?

Perseverance is really important. In India, we tend to go for much smaller wins. For us a job or the security of a job and quick pay seems so important.

But if you consider yourself in the larger context, the impact potential you can have in the longer term, I think all those fears about job insecurity are really, really, unnecessary and unimportant.

There are institutions to support your risk-taking ability in the short-term if you are able to demonstrate the potential of larger impact in the long-term.

So forget those quick wins. Live in a small basti, forget living fancy for a while, forget expensive meals and have a quick meal of dal and rice and it will pay off in the long run.

What lessons did you take away from your interactions with Indian social entrepreneurs?

Indian entrepreneurs are really, really driven. I love the kind of fire in their eyes.

I just hate how society does not believe that entrepreneurship is a means to earn a living or create change. That limits us from doing or thinking beyond the ordinary.

If I have to create radical ideas for changing a certain space, the first thing that parents will tell you is -- my parents haven't, but I have heard this very often in India -- 'This is not for you. Let someone else worry about this. You have to figure out how to pay back this loan on your head. Shut up and get back to doing something stable.'

Short-term thinking about stability is actually limiting your abilities to think in the long-term and focus on your goals.

If you are driven, then don't let anybody tell you what you must do or not do. Steve Jobs has this very famous saying: 'If you believe in something, don't let anyone in the world tell you you can't get it because the people who tell you this are the ones who haven't been able to change things themselves and they feel you can't do it because they couldn't do it.'

Get that crazy work ethic. I work 8 am to 12 am. I pretty much don't have any social life. Forget those short-term happiness things.

Your work will be your biggest happiness not just for you, but also for the larger community. There is nothing more gratifying than that.

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Image: Varun Arora, left, at the Google Zeitgist Young Minds awards
Photographs: Varun Arora

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'You learn empathy and social values from your Indian roots'

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Prasanna D Zore

Were your parents insecure when you took this path?

My parents have been extremely supportive. They saw me doing unconventional things from the very beginning. They always thought I was a little hatke (different from the rest).

Tell us about your Indian roots.

I grew up in Oman. It is full of expatriates. I pretty much grew up inside an Indian bubble, went to an Indian school all my life and studied through the CBSE system.

Our team identifies the challenges that people face around the world, especially India, because we think of India as a very important target demographic for us.

We work with organisations in Bangalore, Mumbai, Hyderabad. Understanding that (Indian) context is extremely important.

Growing up in the Indian ecosystem you implicitly learn so many values like honesty, perseverance, competitiveness.

You also learn empathy and social values which cannot be taught when you are in a business setting.

You learn to have high ethics and morals and that kind of stands out among Indian entrepreneurs around the world.


Image: Schoolchildren wash their plates before having their mid-day meal at a primary school in Brahimpur village, Chhapra, Bihar, July 19, 2013.
Photographs: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

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