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Smita Deorah: Innovating pedagogy for inclusion at LEAD School

Smita Deorah has chosen to work within the school system, with her innovations now impacting over a million children

Harichandan Arakali
Published: Dec 16, 2022 10:15:00 AM IST
Updated: Dec 16, 2022 10:15:46 AM IST

Smita Deorah: Innovating pedagogy for inclusion at LEAD SchoolSmita Deorah, Co-founder and co-CEO, LEAD School

Smita Deorah’s entrepreneurial journey in edtech started with her curiosity about her domestic help’s home.

“I was just heartbroken” with the lack of access to good schools and teachers for such low-income households, Deorah recalls. She’d been experimenting with her own first-born, her daughter, with the latest research findings on how children learn, and “by the age of three, no one needed to read to her anymore”, she recalls.

“If my kids could do well, so could those of others,” with the right kind of intervention. That was the germ of the idea that eventually became LEAD School. The name is an acronym for Leadership in Education and Development.

Deorah and her husband Sumeet Mehta started LEAD 10 years ago with their own schools, but switched to partnering existing schools as a better way to scale their model.

Today the company partners about 3,500 affordable private schools in some 400 cities across the country, touching more than a million students. These schools use the LEAD System. And serving them are LEAD’s close-to-2,000 employees.

Smita Deorah: Innovating pedagogy for inclusion at LEAD SchoolThis system has two important components. First, a high-quality curriculum that is contextualised for students and teachers. Second, it is integrated with technology to move the teaching away from a linear, grading-oriented exercise to a comprehensive learning-oriented effort.

“Student outcomes are our North Star metric,” Deorah says, “with 1.5 years of English language skill growth and 70 percent-plus mastery across all grades across all subjects.”

The LEAD product includes innovations in pedagogy that “any graduate can pick up and become a good teacher”, Deorah says. She likes to describe this as “microwave-ready lesson plans” that teachers can use to just focus on delivery in the classroom.

At the school level, LEAD is bringing about habit changes, including going into minute details of the daily timetable. And data-driven decisions are integral to everything that teachers do.

Overall, “if you walk into a LEAD partner school, you’ll see it operating very differently from any small-town school that we are used to,” she says.

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Mehta’s parents were teachers and that influenced him strongly. For Deorah, it was the DNA of grit and hard work that she and her sibling, an IIT-Bombay graduate, inherited from her parents. College didn’t hold much attraction for her, and she was already working in parallel, preparing to become a chartered accountant, convinced by her father that it was a better track for her than engineering.

The CA’s qualification started her out with a PwC internship and the desire to apply her learning took her to Procter & Gamble, where she met Mehta. After several years at the FMCG giant, they came back from Singapore.

Smita Deorah: Innovating pedagogy for inclusion at LEAD School

The entrepreneurial journey at LEAD has tested her grit, she admits. It has also boosted her solution-orientation manifold over the last decade—she refuses to get into any negative space, she says, and always looks for opportunity in every challenge.

In 2017, Deorah and Mehta raised ₹10 crore in series A funding, led by Elevar Equity, a venture capital firm in Bengaluru. By January 2022, LEAD had hit its series E funding, with investors, including WestBridge Capital and GSV Ventures—that round also saw LEAD become a unicorn.

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Over the next five years, Deorah wants to partner about 60,000 schools, touching 25 million children.

“LEAD’s work is huge, for a socioeconomic segment [parents] that deeply values the importance of quality education, having missed out on it themselves. This is transformational for children, parents and communities,” says Sandeep Farias, founder and managing partner, Elevar Equity.

(This story appears in the 16 December, 2022 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)