Saurabh Taneja, today the CEO of a non-profit, The Akanksha Foundation was once a student of this very college, Textile and Fibre Technology, the batch of 2007. He worked a typical consulting job after graduation, but the feeling that something was missing gnawed at him. Thirteen years later, he has taught nearly a thousand students.
Q. Describe your life at IIT.
I used to be in Nilgiri. I was from Textile. Beyond academics, I participated in indoor sports mostly and a little bit of DnD (DnD used to stand for dance and dramatics, not Dungeons and Dragons.) I wasn’t a very active extracurricular student. I feel like there were many ‘big stars’ from Nilgiri who were better than me. My first two years were mostly indoor sports and chilling, then a little bit of DnD later on in my third and fourth year.
“SDA and Sassi Abhi bhi hai kya?” he asks me teasingly.
Q. You switched from consultancy to Teach for India suddenly. Why?
This was 11 years ago. I had done two years of a job after IIT. I had wanted to crack BCG McKinsey but managed to get into a smaller firm called KPO. It was an exciting place in those times. I used to volunteer on weekends with Anganwadi (daycare centers). During one of these anganwadi visits on a Saturday, I came across an anganwaadi worker giving rice to the children. When I spoke to the Anganwadi worker I learned that she brought the rice from her own home to meet the children’s nutritional needs, which were not her blood relatives.
When I dug deeper, I realized that the govt had failed to give the rations to anganwaadi for weeks on end. I was deeply moved. It left an indelible impression on my young mind when I was 24 years old.
Her compassion deeply touched me. This incident made me question what I really wanted to do with my life, and that was when the seeds for giving back to society were sown into me.
Teach for India in 2009 was just starting up at that point in time, and I did not want to take a job in an NGO away from education. I wanted to understand the field before moving up the ladder. Teach for India was an exciting opportunity with many young minds driven by the purpose to change. So I decided to join their team.
Q. How would you link your career choices together?
Between 2009 and 2011, when I was teaching in a govt school as a teaching fellow, I decided to dedicate my life to the education sector. The problems with education in India are complex and have many layers. After my fellowship, I wanted to figure out where I fit into this puzzle of solving the deep-seated issues with India's education system.
That brought me back to my hometown, Jaipur. I worked with Shiksha Samiti and UNICEF both after which I realized that my heart did not belong with large-scale government-level reforms. I believe that an excellent school, and an excellent teacher, can have a transformative impact on a student's life to the extent that is not possible by large-scale reforms. I started as a principal, one of the younger ones at one of the daughter schools under Shiksha Samiti. I served there for four years before moving into the CEO's role, managing the entire network of 21 schools.
Q. What is The Akanksha Foundation?
We run 21 schools in Mumbai and Pune in partnership with the government, where essentially we adopt dysfunctional or completely underutilized government school premises. Many of the government schools are losing children to private schools. We revive the school by placing our own teachers and principals then use the government's capital infrastructure to place our own teachers and software. We offer free education to all the children.
Our aim is to set up these schools as models of success to show that children coming from poor backgrounds can achieve big things in life. We have been running these schools for over 13 years and have increased from 1 to 21 schools in Bombay and Pune. We are serving over 10,000 students.
We are a progressive organization focused on what the students will learn instead of being focused on board exam results. We have many extracurriculars, enrichment clubs,
socio-emotional learning, and tech-based coding programs.
Q. How has COVID impacted the functioning of The Akanksha Foundation?
The last 6-7 months have been challenging. Still, we have been able to switch to online instruction. Our staff is driven for the cause that’s why we have been able to adapt swiftly. However, the children did not have access to cellphones. To tackle this we raised funding for 2500 Lenovo tablets that have been distributed to 10th, 9th, 8th-grade students.
Students in K to 6 are learning with the help of their parents' devices. We have managed to pivot to an online model; classes for 8th to 10th have been resumed. For the remaining grades, it will be a mixed offline and online model.
Q. Your model is dependent upon passionate teachers. How would you scale up?
A single nonprofit can not run 1000 schools in India. India is highly bureaucratic when it comes to setting up new private schools or running up new schools. We will not be scaling up by setting up more schools, instead of by transforming schools. Partnering with the government and working with their staff. We can not replicate the model with our team.
Our current budget is 40 crores raised from philanthropy. As Akanksha is a nonprofit It will be hard to sustain this when you grow to 100 schools, we need a more cost-efficient model.
Q. How many of your students go for higher education and to what extent does Akanksha have an impact on their lives?
Nearly 1100 students have completed 10th grade. We have 99.5% matriculation by the end of 10th grade. We teach students till 10th grade. However, students who opt for Junior College (Grade 11 and 12 equivalent at Maharashtra Board) are supported by scholarships. 91% of these students complete 12th grade. Enrollment in Graduation is 82%.
One of our students has recently cracked JEE and will be joining Kharagpur. 7 of our students are studying in the US, and 4 will be joining with a 100% scholarship. One of my students is the youngest daughter of a taxi driver and had never been out of Pune. She has now completed her undergraduate from United World College, Armenia, and is in her final year at Saint Olaf's, Minnesota.
Only two or three batches have finished graduation as of now. 75% of these students are either employed or have gone for post-graduation.
We have an entire Alumni wing dedicated to uplifting students out of poverty.
That is the kind of vision we have.
Q. At what age did you realize that you wanted to dedicate your life to education and to transform lives?
That's a tough one. I didn't know while in IIT back then, everyone wanted to enter an investment bank or consulting firm. Today, it will be tech companies or stuff that's in vogue.
The spirit of experimentation needs to be alive in your 20’s. People need to find their purpose and passion. Many people just go after their passion, and usually, the passion ends up equating itself only with money. To be able to find passion and purpose, both are critical.
If we have that lens while we are in our 20s and take some risks, leave our comfort zones. Only then is it do you discover that.
"Warna yeh sabh hamare school system or IIT system mein embedded kaha hai yaar. Yeh sabh saala uss time par koi sochta hi nahi tha. NSS ke 100 ghante pure karlete the warna degree ruk jayegi."
There are so many fellowships in India focused on the development sector that you can have a cushy experience where you are earning 40-50 thousand rupees. My advice to everybody is to experiment a bit in their 20's and not commit too early to making money or corporate.
It's just about pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and experiencing the world. Most of us in IITs are from the middle class, but there is also another class in our societies with less than what the middle class has.
Broaden your horizons.
Q. What do you think the institute gave you?
There is a level of confidence that comes to you after graduating from IIT that you will be fine in life. You automatically become one of the top percentage of the taxpayers and have a safety net over the others. It is liberating if you reflect on it and take that.
Secondly, it gave me a community of great friends who supported and encouraged me when I decided to make my decision. We were all together in Bangalore when I took my decision. A community of friends becomes a very critical takeaway from IIT.
The third is your problem-solving skills. Department or no department, you learn problem-solving because of the engineering background and experience. There is a particular element of competitiveness that creeps into you because of the years you spend at IIT. The question is how you use that.
Q. Memories or experiences close to your heart at IIT
The highlight of my time at IIT was my trip to the Czech Republic at the end of my second year in textile. I remember slogging my ass off in sem four trying to crack nehli at that point in time because that would put me in the top 5 who would travel to the Czech republic. Fantastic trip with 4 other batchmates. It made me completely a new individual.
"Woh joh three months ka foreign experience tha and the effort I put into realizing that dream and came back as a more mature person as it opened horizons for me."
The second is this tough fight for GC between Vindy and Nilgiri in my third year. Chuckles I can not even remember who won, but it was a very intense fight.
Academically, whenever my graduates come and ask me about IITs, I recommend them not to go to IIT because pedagogically, the teaching has remained mundane and stale. What shaped me as a person were the experiences I shared with other students.
Q. Anything from your side that you would like to add something that I might have missed?
I think all that I ask from everyone studying in IIT is to take risks and really engage with any developmental sector. Especially in the post covid world. Health, Livelihood, Sanitation, Water conservation wherever your heart is and whatever you feel like solving.
Really engage with that problem before committing yourself to the typical corporate life.
I think we need most of the smartest brains to solve complex problems in India. There exist so many fellowship models that allow you to test whether your heart belongs there or not.