Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

How SD Shibulal is breaking the poverty cycle with higher education

The co-founder of Infosys and Axilor Ventures, talks about the role of leadership, technology and philanthropy in India's education sector, and how his family office has managed to pull hundreds out of poverty by educating their children

Jasodhara Banerjee
Published: Mar 1, 2022 01:33:03 PM IST
Updated: Mar 16, 2022 11:53:28 AM IST

SD Shibulal, co-founder of Infosys and Axilor Ventures
Illustration: Chaitanya Dinesh Surpur

SD Shibulal, co-founder of Infosys and Axilor Ventures, and his wife Kumari started their philanthropic work in India’s education sector in 1999 through their family office. Over the years, through a scholarship programme, a residential programme and technology-enabled platforms, they have worked towards breaking the poverty cycle by enabling higher education, and providing training and mentoring to children from underserved families across the country.

Of the more-than-17,300 students who have gone through the scholarship programme so far, 90 percent are from rural areas, with 85 percent of them having parents who are in farming or working on daily wages; 98 percent of them study at government or government-aided schools. An impact assessment study by IIM-Kozhikode found that in the last three years, the programme was able to bring almost 100 percent of the students’ families out of poverty in one or two years, as the students earned three times the scholarship amount as their first year’s salary.

In an interview to Forbes India, Shibulal talks about the challenges that children face in getting higher education in India, issues concerning connectivity and affordability of devices in the interiors of the country, and how each one of us can become a philanthropist by educating a child. Edited excerpts:

Q. How and why did you select to work in the education sector?
We started our work in the education sector in 1999. We [wife Kumari and I] had just come back from the US, and wanted to start doing something in the social sector, and quickly concluded that education is the space in which we wanted to work. When we looked at our own lives, it was clear that we got where we got because of the education that we received. We both come from middle-class families; Kumari was the first girl from her village to go to college. We were blessed with parents who focussed on our education, and that defined our lives in many ways.

We got into the higher education space by setting up a scholarship programme called Vidyadhan. In 1999, we took two people from the school where I studied in Kerala, and over the next few years it became 10, and then a 100, and just after 2011-12, it expanded to other states. Today we operate in 10 states, and one Union Territory. We take about 1,100 students every year. Usually we get about 30,000 applications for 1,100 seats, but this year we probably will get more, for two reasons: There is more need, and the grades have been more liberal for various reasons.

The first criteria for this scholarship is need, not merit. Even then we get all A+ students. This means there are thousands of students who are struggling to get higher education even after performing extremely well in the school. They join our programme after Class 10, and stay for six years, till they complete their higher education, and get degrees in arts, engineering or medicine.
In 2004, we also started a residency scholarship programme because we found that despite our earlier scholarship programme, the ultra-poor were not able to participate in higher education. In 2009, it got integrated with the school system. Now it has 200 children in residential facilities, who go to the same schools as fee-paying children. It has been about 14 years, and the first batch of children will be completing their higher education now. Over the years, more and more children will pass out of the programme. We take children at the age of 10, and get about 300 applications for 30 seats.

A meeting of Vidyadhan Kerala alumni held in Kochi in 2019

Q What are the challenges in higher education in India?
When I look at the higher education system, I see three different challenges, of which we address two. First is an awareness challenge. When I go to rural India, I see that they don’t have many role models, and don’t understand the value of higher education, especially when it comes to girls. Through our scholarship programme, we have been able to increase awareness about the need for higher education. Our ratio is probably 52:48 [female:male students]. The second challenge is affordability, which we also address, and the third is accessibility.

Our programme has been enormously successful. Four years ago we did an impact study, and found that any child who successfully completes the programme, will bring their family out of poverty in two and a half years. In 2016, we wanted to further scale the programme, by building partnerships, and launched a campaign called ‘Each one teach one’, where we allow people to sponsor a child at zero administrative cost. That has been moderately successful. I fail to understand the reasons because when I look around, I can see easily at least 1 lakh people who can educate a child, which means 1 lakh children will be educated. It is a model that includes mentoring and funding, because one of the big challenges is that children don’t have enough role models.

Q. What new challenges were posed by the Covid-19 pandemic?
During the Covid-19 pandemic, our residential programme faced a lot of challenges. The children stay in hostels, and because of Covid, they went back home. And the home environment is not conducive to learning; they don’t have connectivity, they don’t have devices, they don’t have space. Many of them live in small huts, and find it extremely hard to remain focussed. There were issues with female students, because as soon as they went back to their natives places, many of them were married off. These are very bright students, with bright futures, and they left the programme.

Q What is the role that technology can play in the education sector?
Our programme called Shikshalokam was started in 2017, after about five years of experimentation. Through our experience we had realised that in the K-12 programme, a big challenge is leadership. It’s very clear that our K-12 system requires transformation; the National Education Policy (NEP) announced in 2020 is a great step towards this transformation, with focus on foundational learning, early childhood development. But to change a system, you need good leadership at all levels.

There is tremendous lack of leadership in K-12 education. So I wanted to build a programme for capacity building in leadership in the K-12 sector. It has been hugely successful. It is a fully technology-enabled programme, with a digital, open-source platform at its core. Around this we have built a co-creation, co-innovation layer, and an added amplification layer. We quickly realised that the real challenges are on the ground, and they are not the same in different parts of the country. It requires local partnerships, local thinking.

Shikshalokam is an example of how technology has been used to create scale, reach and democratisation. We have close to 4 lakh people registered on the platform, which sees about 700 transactions a minute; we have about 2,500 knowledge assets, and four different use cases.

When the Covid-19 pandemic started, and schools were closed, the first thing that the government had to do was communicate to the leaders about what needed to be done, and there is nothing better than a digital platform to do it. Shikshalokam saw a huge of uptake during the pandemic. In a challenging situation such as this, you need your leaders to come up to speed. And there is nothing better than a digital platform to do this.

a training programme for Vidyadhan Tamil Nadu students in progress in Chennai

Q. The pandemic has seen livelihoods and incomes of millions of families being affected. Has this affected the amount of money families can afford for education-related technology for children?

Our students come from the underprivileged segments, where the average income limit is ₹2 lakh a year, which is about ₹15,000 a month.
During the pandemic, we faced multiple challenges. The first was the safety and wellbeing of the children, which required numerous interventions. For instance, girls were married off, while other children were sent to work. There were financial issues, along with health and mental issues. We even arranged for food kits for some of the children. Our sponsors came forward to help. Connectivity is a big issue, and we paid for data for quite a lot of children.

So, while technology does allow you to scale very fast, there are challenges of affordability of the devices, of data itself, and availability of connectivity.

Different governments have done different things, by using other kinds of medium or offline methods to interact with children. This is not a problem that can be sorted out with a single intervention, or a single sector, or a single entity. All stakeholders have to come together: There is the government, which has a role to play; you have the education system that needs to look at innovative methods to make content accessible; and you have civil society organisations.
I read a report that said 30 million children are not online, and that number is substantial. It will create a huge disparity in education. Especially in a country where the demography is skewed towards young people, this will have long-term impact.

There is no reason why 1 lakh people can’t sponsor one child each and ensure their education. We should not limit philanthropy to the philanthropists and corporates.

Q. What role does leadership play in the education sector, and what is the nature of this leadership?
There is a saying, ‘Yada raja, tada praja’ [as is the king, so are the people]. A good leader makes the best out of the worst situations, and a not-so-good leader makes the worst out of a good situation. I am a firm believer in good leadership, and the education sector is no exception.

If you want to transform a sector and drive change, then leadership becomes even more important. There is a lot of effort that is going into teachers’ training, and rightly so. But, for example, I have seen in my own school, when the trained teachers go back to their schools with a lot of energy, the principal says, ‘That is not on my priority list’. So, unless you can build the capacity to drive change, it is very hard to change the system.

The NEP is an excellent document, but it requires an enormous amount of change in various aspects. So you need strong leadership at all levels. These are people who have the ability to sense what is required, make sense of it, and execute. Our systems have a long way to go, so the leaders need to make this virtuous cycle—of sending, making sense, and executing—by which they can create progress. The challenge is to build capacity at all levels.

This is where Shikshalokam comes into place. We believe there is no way for us to build capacity by sitting in Bengaluru. For, the problems in Bihar are very different from the problems in Uttar Pradesh, which we will not understand. Which means we will need to understand through our local partners.

Leadership is extremely important, but it is also very contextual.

Q. Can you give examples of how this works?

We have a platform called Samiksha. In Punjab we figured out there are multiple agencies—education department, welfare department, and such like—going to the schools to make observations. And they all are making the same observations. But by creating this awareness, they could reduce the number of visitors going to the schools, or at least make them exclusive.

In Delhi, the government wanted to create a school quality index by using Samiksha. They figured out that the biggest concern was safety. So they started setting up school safety committees. They used our knowledge portal called Bodh to let everybody know how to create these committees, how to operationalise them, how to ensure that they are getting the right outcomes.

We have another platform called Unnati for tracking micro-improvements, such as building gates and boundary walls for ensuring safety.

Q. What are the legacy issues, especially in government schools and colleges, that this new leadership can solve, and how can they be addressed?
Punjab had a serious legacy issue of students being taken out of government schools and being admitted in the increasing number of private and semi-private schools that are coming up. Slowly, the quality of the classrooms in government schools goes down, the school closes, the teachers lose their jobs. One of the interventions the government wanted to do was to conduct parent-teacher meetings to build confidence among parents.

There were 5 lakh parents and 25,000 teachers. They used the Shikshalokam platform to do a state-wide campaign for conducting and tracking parent-teacher meetings. They did thousands of these meetings, and were able to increase the enrollment by 4.5 percent. It’s an example of how technology can be used to address a legacy issue, by reaching out to the leadership.

With children being at home for the past two years, these interventions will become even more important.

Q. What are the ways in which philanthropy can contribute to the education sector?

We have about 1.5 million government schools in India, and a large number of private schools. There is an enormous amount of white space where civil society organisations can work. There are many things that can be done. For example, I am connected with Yuva Unstoppable in Gujarat, an organisation that is simply building toilets, because one of the big reasons why girls don’t go to school is because there are no toilets. Then there are other initiatives like Teach for India, and many others.

However, there aren’t that many people working to build school leadership. Most of the organisations that did work in this area actually looked at whole school transformations. They worked with the school for 24 to 36 months, and then handed the school back to the leadership, and moved on to the next school.

We have a programme called Edumentum, which is a three-year incubation programme for such organisations. It formalises their idea in the first year, prototyping it in the second year and scaling it up in the third year. We decided to work with 50 organisations in this space, and have about 35 so far. These organisations use our technology platforms, and get to network with and learn from all the 35 organisations working in all the other states. These organisations work with so many different things—building leadership and teacher capacity, helping schools understand how to create a budget, how to go after required resources, and working with governments.

We need a lot of civil society organisations who will participate in this transformation, people who will support them through CSR or other means. However, I also feel that there is no reason why 1 lakh people cannot sponsor one child each and ensure their education, and dedicate half an hour in a month towards mentorship. We should not limit philanthropy to the philanthropists and corporates.

(This story appears in the 11 March, 2022 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)