“Here’s Mr. Abhishek Gupta’s story, founder of “NavGurukul”- an organization that helps students from low-income and marginalized communities to learn Software Engineering, enables them to get a job and brings them out of poverty.”
How did you get started on your philanthropy journey?
I received my Software Engineering degree 5 years ago from IIT Delhi and I founded a Startup that built a conversation platform. The app allowed people to come together and discuss a topic of interest. It was acquired by a large company with $2.6M in funding and I was appointed as its CTO.
Eventually, I started asking myself, “What does money mean to me?”. I asked others as well, what would they do if they had a lot of money? Some of my batchmates had around 30-40 lakhs in their savings after working for 3-4 years. They wanted to buy a new house, travel abroad, etc. As such, they did not stop chasing after money.
“As we looked for a solution, we thought about what would work best for the students, would it be teachers, books, or infrastructure? We came to realize that what every student wants, is just access to a wholesome learning environment.”
I realized that I didn’t want to get into this race. I decided that I will make money later as the need arises. So, I quit my 2nd startup after 2 years and started working Mr. Manish Sisodia, an Education Minister from AAP (Aam Aadmi Party) in the Delhi government. I was working in the field of technology, aiming to improve administration and teach students. I’m skilled in creation and innovation, but unfortunately, I didn’t find the space to utilize them in the government and I decided to leave.
By then, I had started interacting with students frequently and I observed that even those who would score as high as 70-80% in their exams, were only aiming to become a data entry operator, an accountant or a beautician. I then realized how ineffective higher education is, and how something must be done about it.
My experiences only proved to strengthen that realization. I once visited one of the top-ranked colleges in UP. The professor there had no knowledge on either software engineering or the programming language which he was teaching. This is the standard of engineering education in most colleges. 93% of the students who graduate do not acquire the necessary skills for their vocation.
People who trust them and whom they can trust in return, so they feel encouraged. “You can do it!” and “I believe in you”; these statements can lead to a multi-fold boost in learning. Students need to have mentors who are their seniors by a mere 4-5 years and have also been through the same education system, as opposed to a teacher would have completed their schooling 10-20 years ago. This is can be very critical.
We realized that all these things are available for free through the community, so why should we wait for the government to do something when we can do something about it ourselves? It was then that I met Rishabh, with whom I had worked very briefly in my 2nd startup. On our second meeting we realized a mutual interest in using technology to impart education. We then went to Auroville for 2-3 weeks and finally came up with the idea of NavGurukul.
“Diversity is something we value here.”
Please tell us more about your organization
In NavGurukul, we teach software engineering to students from low-income and marginalized communities and help them get a job. This is a one-year residential course and we currently have two centers, one in Bangalore and the other in Dharamsala.
The one in Bangalore is a girls-only center. We have 45 students right now, but we can accommodate 90 students. Dharamsala on the other hand is a boys-only center that can house 60 students. We currently have 55 students there. Sometimes, there is an exchange of students between the centers, but we make sure that the boys and girls stay separately.
In NavGurukul, about 70% of the students enroll after 12th standard. 10-15% of the students might not have completed their schooling or passed 10th standard. We also have some students who are going to or have graduated college. We focus on students who are graduating from high school, who are typically 17-19 years old, but we also have students who are 16-17 years old, as well as those who are 26-27 years old.
We have students who are HIV-positive, differently-abled, transgender, as well as a girl who comes from a sex worker’s family. There are also two 27-year-old students, who have children and have moved away from their husbands because they were victims of domestic violence.
With students from 15 states, we have a healthy mix of religious and linguistic diversity too. Our Dharamsala center has boys coming from as far as Karnataka and Telangana. We have 15 students coming from Afghanistan, whose Visas we’re still working on.
To attract students to NavGurukul, we started partnering with local NGOs on the field. If we find an NGO working with schools, we ask them to tell their students about our course. We expect at least 5-6 students to join our school each year, with the help of our NGO partners. We have many videos and posts that we use to raise awareness around who we are and what we do. We also organize informative sessions, where we answer questions from students and their parents.
Our admission procedure includes an online application form, followed by a written test and two or three rounds of personal interviews. They are interviewed on topics like algebra, English, campus culture, etc. Once the students clear these processes, they plan their travel and come to our centers. It seems like a long process, but we try to finish it within 10 days for each student.
NavGurukul is very different from a traditional college. Since I graduated from IIT Delhi, I realized that the structure of IT education in colleges is not always effective. It was a learning journey for me, and I decided that I will never grade my students.
We have a Student Council, which is responsible for everything inside the campus and the members of which are selected by the students themselves. There are many responsibilities they have to take up like hygiene, learning processes, etc.
We have a Facility in-charge in the Dharamsala campus and one in the Bangalore campus as well. One of them works in technology and is an ex-student of NavGurukul. We want NavGurukul to be run by our alumni. We are increasing their capacity to do things by instating an Alumni Council, where we have Placement Co-coordinators, Training Co-coordinators, and Personnel Co-coordinators. In the year ahead, the Alumni will be the ones who will look after our campuses.
“So, we don’t have teachers, no exams, and we do not grade at all. Students work as a community, and they take care of each other.”
We have 3 phases in our 1-year course. Students have to complete 3 milestones in the first phase, 10 milestones in the second phase and 4 milestones in the third phase.
Completing the entire course could take up to one year, but some students complete it in 6 months and some of them take 18 months. We don’t pressurize them to complete it quickly. So, once the students cross the milestones and feel competent and ready for the job, then a couple of alumni interview the student, and after 5-6 attempts in which the student receive feedback, only then do the students apply for jobs. That’s how we do quality management as there is no exam. Through this process, a student who goes to the industry for a job would have been tested multiple times.
At Navgurukul, we make a conscious effort to not celebrate the outcomes. Instead, we encourage students imbibe values. The most important incentive in NavGurukul is living by values and sharing inputs. For example, in a normal Hackathon, the one who comes up with a fancy product is the one that is rewarded. But in NavGurukul, we reward the team that has worked the hardest, or helped other teams to achieve their outcome – this is an example of input. If the product made is the most inclusive to the community, it will be considered to be the best – this is an example of value.
“Our focus is more on pedagogy and culture. If the culture is conducive to growth and students will figure out a way to learn.”
The culture in NavGurukul is very different. There are many cases where students from disadvantaged backgrounds are appreciated more than students who may be smarter but, are less engaged with the community.
We are a small team with 3-4 core members. We take many breaks from NavGurukul, sometimes for as long as three months. Some team members will be on a break to learn new things for personal use or something related to Navgurukul. For example, our core member Rishab is on a break, he is learning agriculture and another member named Anuradha is practicing counseling and studying psychology. Typically, 2-3 people will always be in the core team to look after the operations. My work mainly entails raising funds and getting our students placed in jobs.
We have worked hard towards achieving a self–sustaining model over the last three years. Our aim is to help students learn meaningful skills and get a job. Secondly, they should be able to take care of themselves emotionally and physically. Thirdly, we want to ensure that these students realize their place in the society. They should know what is going on in society and what role they can play in it.
Please tell us about your success on this journey
Most of our students get placed in MNCs or Start-Ups. They are earning well, and their lives have been transformed.
There is a girl named Kajal, who lives in Delhi, her father is a rickshaw puller, and her mother is a domestic cook. Within six months of her training, she got a job in Mindtree.
There is another student named Shivam, he was working at a local bakery earning Rs 5,000 per month. He used to work 7 days a week, 2 hours a day. Now he works with GamingMonk in Delhi and earns Rs. 45,000 per month.
Amar is working with ThoughtWorks, he is from Guwahati. Savita works with operations team at CodeChef. She had severe mental health issues, but now she is working in a good environment. We admitted two girls at the age of 16, they are now working in Delhi, earning a salary of Rs. 30,000 per month. We were told by the NGO that if you don’t take them now, they will be married away by the age of 17.
For example – Mindtree conducts its training program for 4 months, but for our students, it was just 2 months, as they were already performing at a higher level. Our students are performing better than typical engineering students.
When our students got a chance to meet Subroto Bagchi, one of the founders of Mindtree, he immediately agreed to invest in us to start a new campus. The company was willing to fund 100 students in NavGurukul every year. But because of its acquisition by L&T, things got derailed.
We are trying to target some companies, where our students can easily get jobs in software engineering with the average salary ranging between Rs. 20,000 – Rs.30,000 per month.
“When our students got into Mindtree, it was a huge success for us, because we received very good feedback.”
There is a company named Eunimart in Hyderabad. They hire around 100 new employees every year. Six of our students are already working with Eunimart and they have been hiring our students, helping create a steady pipeline of jobs.
ThoughtWorks was not our ideal company for placement, as it offers 7 lakhs per annum to software engineers and its expectations are different. Our students can fulfill the requirements of a company offering around 2-3 lakhs per annum. We are in touch with companies like TCS, Infosys, and Accenture. Accenture cannot hire our students directly as they fund NavGurukul through their CSR program.
We spend around Rs. 1,00,000 per student, which includes, food, accommodation, internet, laptop, etc. So, once they get a job, we request them to voluntarily contribute funds to support other students in our centers. There is a social understanding that they should support the betterment of other students. As a benchmark, we say they should give back Rs 1.2 lakhs as the donation to NavGurukul. Many students have given back much more than that, but some say they can give only Rs. 50,000 or Rs. 80,000, which we accept.
Many of our students also shift from Software Engineering to Operations, Sales or Teaching. One student who worked in operations at NavGurukul, now works with DirectI. So, the curriculum is not important in NavGurukul, but the culture is key. The entire environment is supportive for all the students irrespective of the field of work they choose.
What challenges did you face in running this organization?
The first challenge we faced was starting the first batch itself. Many people from remote areas think that we take away students for kidney trafficking. It was hard to enroll girl students, considering it’s a residential school. We had a tough time convincing people that this is not an illegal organization. They ask us many questions like, “Why are you doing this?”, “If the students are getting free education, what’s in it for you?”, “Why do you fund the travel of students?” etc. For most of the people from rural areas, our work makes no sense, and so, many times we have to convince them that NavGurukul gets funds from other organizations and thus we can offer education for free. Changing the mindset of people and getting admissions was the biggest challenge.
“Initially, it was a challenge for us to get girl students. But now our female alumni are serving as role models and they help in driving admissions.”
The second challenge was convincing donors to fund NavGurukul. Considering this is a residential school, many donors were skeptical and were worried since we have girl students as well. They feared if something unfortunate was to happen, it will go wrong in a big way. Many donors said that they can support only boys and not girls. But lately, donors have been more forthcoming, and it has become a consistent pattern.
The third challenge was setting up a center in Bangalore. We got five acres of land near Nandi Hills. It was in a very bad condition but, in 2-3 months we were able to revamp the area. We spent a lot of money on it. But after an incident took place involving an intoxicated individual and we were asked to leave the place. Even police asked us to leave as it was a rural area, and if anything happens, they won’t be liable for it. So, we shifted to Electronic City.
Sometimes the girls faced a lot of eve-teasing and harassment outside the campus. But now these things don’t happen often. We have worked a lot to stop these incidents. So now our challenge is to ensure that such incidents don’t occur near our new campuses.
We believe in freedom for our students and don’t restrict them with regard to where they go, or what clothes they wear. But the girls decide some protocols on their own and they go out in groups of threes and fours. Accenture has also sponsored some cabs for students who have to travel for official reasons.
What are your future plans?
We want to scale up, so we have to work in an organized manner. We are planning to build a campus near Pune for about 200 girls. We chose Pune as we want to set up a campus close to the Hindi-speaking belt, in an IT city. We are looking for a 10-20-year lease in a rural area near Pune so that our students can connect with social realities as well. We are still looking for suitable properties.
“In India, we barely have 5% psychologists and they are mainly for the people who belong to the mainstream and are suffering from depression.”
We plan to buy a farm and do the entire construction of the campus ourselves. The only challenge is capital expenditure. All the organizations are willing to support the operational expenditure, but no one supports capital expenditure. We might even try to raise funds from individuals; we are still working on it.
We also want to expand into other courses as our pedagogy is very generic. We are working on 2-3 curriculums right now. We want to do something similar to an organization named “School for Justice”, which is training 19 students right now, who are victims of sex trafficking. They will be trained for 3-4 years so that they can crack the entrance examinations in law, police or journalism. The idea behind this is to flip the power equation.
Anuradha, one of our group members is a Counseling Psychologist. She is currently on a 6-month break to learn group therapy. We realize that group therapy is very important in discussing topics that are taboo like sex, menstruation, rape can be discussed. So, we want to introduce a two-year course in Group Therapy. Anuradha will lead this course.
The government will also give a diploma for our courses. So, our challenge would be to get our students into the mainstream field of psychology. We will be partnering with existing counselors who are building some of these courses for their organizations. We will train students with all the information required to be a good counselor.
Another course we want to introduce is Food Processing. We are working with some consultants and still thinking about this course. Most of the food processing organizations in India are centralized. We want a smaller, decentralized food processing unit to be owned by people, where they can process the food, as well as market them. We will have to train them end-to-end. But all this is in a very nascent stage.
We are already offering training in UI Design and Visual Design, but it’s happening on the side, if a student is interested in the subject. Maybe someday it will grow into a full-fledged course organically, but we are not consciously placing resources for it. If the students get trained on AI-ML by their employer, they might start teaching these courses in NavGurukul, but the core team is not focusing on these subjects.
There are many jobs in AI-ML (Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning) and RPA (Robotic Process Automation), but we don’t want to expand into this. We are putting all our energies into different verticals.
How can someone work with you or join you?
We work a lot with volunteers. We have a separate set of volunteers in Dharamsala. Our students are empowered, they are the ones who decide whether we should accept or reject a volunteer.
Students demand genuine effort from the volunteer’s side. Some volunteers have provided meaningful guidance, but there have also been few who have failed to do so. Mostly the volunteers are very dedicated and have good intentions. We discourage remote volunteering as it hasn’t worked very well for us in the past. If a volunteer is in the center, he/she can be approached easily, and the learning process becomes easier.