Sowmya Lakshminarayanan: Experiential Learning Inspires Creative Collaboration in the Classroom
Hi! It’s me, Spiffy the interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth with the latest scoop on entrepreneurs making a difference in education! Today’s rockstar is Sowmya Lakshminarayanan, the Chief Exploratory Officer of Lead by Design, a company that is inspiring children to be creative and involved in their learning experience. Let’s see how she’s doing it!
Spiffy: Welcome Sowmya! It’s so great to have you here today! Can you start by telling me what kinds of challenges you’re addressing through your start-up, Lead by Design?
Sowmya: It’s a pleasure, Spiffy. Education is supposed to inspire young people to equip them to work, earn a living, and help solve the great challenges in their villages, their country, and the world. The problem is, mainstream education in India stifles creativity and fails to prepare young people for work or life. The substandard education, an explosion in the working-age population, and ever-more-urgent challenges facing the world put India on a collision course for the future. But there is a way forward. Experiential learning puts an emphasis on creativity, innovation, and collaboration. At Lead by Design, we enable young people to unlock their creative potential to build an equitable, resilient, and thriving future.
Spiffy: That sounds exciting! What motivated you to unlock kids’ creative potential?
Sowmya: I had the privilege to teach the young minds of the country through a prestigious teaching fellowship. I taught 8-year-old children in a school in Chennai that was associated with destitute and orphaned children. The children were all at different learning and emotional levels. What was common amongst all of the children was their creativity, their need to feel a sense of belonging, and their desire to actively contribute to their school. When I brought design thinking into the classroom, and provided the opportunity for children to actively participate in the development of their school community and utilize creativity, every person in the classroom was able to contribute. This enriching experience led me to start Lead by Design with my co-founder, Anna Maria Geogy.
Spiffy: That sounds like a major turning point for you! I’m curious how you are working to create a more equitable world through your work with Lead by Design?
Sowmya: At Lead by Design, we apply a human-centric design approach to build equitable and high-impact solutions. We believe that an equitable world starts with young children in the classroom. We create cost-effective products and associated services that encourage children to express their creativity, and even more importantly, build inclusive classrooms. Here's an example of one product we have developed. In such inclusive spaces, we enable children to take action and build local solutions for global challenges. Here's an example of what happens when such inclusive spaces are provided to children.
Spiffy: I can start to see where you’re going with this, Sowmya! Can you talk about a recent milestone you’ve achieved and the kind of impact it will make?
Sowmya: We recently learned that our student ambassadors were selected to represent India in the "Be the Change" Global Conference conducted by Design for Change. Their project on reimagining education for and by children got chosen. We are absolutely thrilled! We see this as another opportunity for children's voices to be heard and show what is possible. Another milestone we are excited to share is that Lead by Design was one of five finalists in the global Social Design challenge conducted by UMO Design. Our project in bringing creativity and wellbeing through the i2i box went to the finals! For a small team such as ours, this kind of recognition helps keep the energy going.
Spiffy: Can you tell me about a time when you faced failure and didn't give up? What did you learn from failure?
Sowmya: When I started my journey as an entrepreneur two years ago, I was a part of a three-member founding team. As we progressed through the first eight months of the journey, we realized that each of us had a different version of how the organization should look and grow. Our priorities were quite different and we had to go our separate ways. My mentors asked me if I still wanted to continue. When I thought about the children that I had worked with, I knew that I still believed in the cause and I wanted to continue working to make a difference. Through this experience, the most important lesson I learned is that communication is crucial. Setbacks also help us also find conviction and strengthen our purpose.
Spiffy: Before we sign off, is there anything else you’ve learned that you’d like to share with our audience?
Sowmya: I’ve learned about the power of language that we use in our everyday life. I was addressing a group of 6-year-old children and asked them to imagine one superpower they had. A little girl opened her eyes and asked me if she was only allowed to imagine one superpower, or if she could imagine herself having more than one superpower. To me, this was profound and reminded me that it’s really important to be aware of how we address each other and to understand the narrative and language we use with each other.
Spiffy: That is a profound lesson, Sowmya. It's obvious that you're making an impact! Tanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today, it’s been an honor.
Sowmya Lakshminarayanan, Chief Exploratory Officer of Lead by Design, is a researcher turned entrepreneur. Sowmya is deeply passionate about young children and their immense creative potential. She was inspired to start Lead by Design, a non-profit venture, to build cost-effective products and services to bring creative, accessible, learning avenues to all children aged 6 to 15. By providing such spaces, Lead by Design harnesses the power of creativity to reduce inequality, enable inclusion, and increase the positive impact on planet earth. (Nominated by Shakti—The Empathy Project. First published on the Ladderworks website on October 15, 2021.)
© 2021 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Jill Landis Jha. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. Follow Spiffy’s interviews of founders building a more equitable world here.