Hi everyone, Spiffy here, your one and only interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth. I’m thrilled to be talking to Namya Mahajan, an entrepreneur working to make the world a better place for our youngest children, through her start-up, Rocket Learning. Are you ready to be enlightened?
Spiffy: Welcome Namya! I’ve been eager to talk to you! Can you tell me about the challenge that you are addressing?
Namya: It’s great to be here, Spiffy! Early childhood care and education (ECCE) is one of the “greatest and most powerful equalizers” according to India's National Education Policy. More than 90% of brain development occurs by this age, and research from all over the world shows that access to better ECCE is related to lower rates of dropout from school, increased earning potential, and better life outcomes. However, low-income children in India don't have access to any sort of ECCE, either through institutions or through their parents at home. Our work at Rocket Learning addresses this education gap by helping parents better support their children at home through age-appropriate learning, nudges, and reminders.
Spiffy: That’s a lot of learning in a short amount of time! What motivated you to address early childhood care and education?
Namya: Well, Spiffy, if you grow up in a country where half the people around you are struggling, and you are more fortunate, you can choose to entirely disengage from the poverty around you. Problems seem too big for you to solve, and making a comfortable life for your family is hard enough. But my family never let me un-see the poverty around me, always showing me that I can choose to engage and that I can and should make a difference. I decided to live a life of impact because standing by in a world where the poor work so hard everyday and yet achieve no advancement, no human dignity, and no hope of a better future for their children, is intolerable. And because I have seen that change is possible when we refuse to stand by.
Spiffy: I totally agree! Can you tell me a bit about how your organization is working towards creating a more equitable world?
Namya: The need for early childhood education for low-income children in India is urgent and real. According to the latest research, amongst children in government and low-cost private schools, 43% can’t recognize alphabets and 35% can’t recognize the numbers 1-9 by grade one. This could be remedied if we had high-quality ECCE, but the current situation means that 30 million children in India are losing out on education by the age of eight. This becomes more and more difficult to change through remedial interventions later in life. Rocket Learning seeks to solve this fundamental inequality by leveraging technology, media, and content for 100,000 children currently in our network, and to one million children next year.
Spiffy: Wow! Those are stellar goals! Do you have any milestones that you could tell me about?
Namya: This sounds nerdy, but the initiative I am most excited about is a research study that Rocket Learning is doing in partnership with the Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) at MIT. The study is a randomized control trial—a form of research design for which J-PAL's founders won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2019. This allows us to understand how effective our intervention is for rural and urban parents, compared to very similar parents who don't get access to our groups and content. While it's a bit scary to evaluate ourselves so early (none of us like tests, right?), it's also incredibly valuable to know exactly what works and what doesn't. Allowing us to fix and amplify to impact even more children!
Spiffy: I’m curious if you’ve ever experienced failure. If you did, what did you learn from it?
Namya: I had been convinced since my teens that I had to work in social impact, but my two years at SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association), tested me deeply. I had a daunting task—leading an organization and building a new vision with a team that feared becoming redundant. This meant that I lived in a fishbowl as my every word and action was dissected, often wrongly. I also lost some team members. I was failing to take my team along. Then I began to model openness—embracing the Gujarati language and culture, having an open office where people could discuss their challenges confidentially, and conducting joint vision-building meetings. Eventually, the team built trust and opened up to change. My failure taught me what my leadership professor says—leadership is about “both poetry and plumbing”.
Spiffy: That’s a good one! Before we sign off, is there anything else you would like to tell our audience?
Namya: It’s hard being a young person looking to join the social impact space. You really have to think long and hard and decide if it is something that you really want to do. Then you tell someone else in your life and all hell breaks loose. Everyone from your peers to your parents to your neighbor’s uncle will tell you that you’re never going to make any money, that you’re wasting all your years of education, that all these NGOs are frauds anyway. I'm here to tell you —keep at it. Take it one day at a time, try not to get frustrated when things inevitably don’t go according to plan and savor the days when you go home feeling like you made a difference in someone’s life. Whatever your neighbor’s uncle might say, no other job will give you that.
Spiffy: That’s an amazing attitude to have, Namya. Thank you for taking the time to share your work, passion, and insights with us. It’s been an honor!
Namya Mahajan is a co-founder of Rocket Learning, an ed-tech start-up currently working with over 100,000 Indian children. She's also studying at the Harvard Business School and previously served as the managing director of SEWA’s (Self-Employed Women’s Association) Cooperative Federation, which supports women’s cooperatives in the informal economy. Before that, she worked in McKinsey&Co as a management consultant. She graduated from Harvard College, studying applied mathematics with economics. (Nominated by Harvard Innovation Labs)
© 2020 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Jill Landis Jha. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. Follow Spiffy’s stories of founders building a more equitable world at www.ladderworks.co/blogs/spiffys-blog