AP Higher Education Fellowship Journey — Why, What & How!!

(Fellowship journey was covered by popular online platform Youth Ki Awaaz — http://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2016/08/quit-it-job-to-work-with-students/)

It was Jan 2016, after more than 3 years in the IT industry, I needed some introspection of what I had done and where I planned to be. Things were fine, however, happiness and satisfaction were clearly missing. Deep Inside, I was yearning for something more dynamic, challenging and impactful. After pondering for a long time, I decided to leave my job with no idea what to do next. I was scared, in fact I still am but as Steve Jobs famously said — “You can only connect the dots looking backward”, things are going ok.

Fortunately, just after leaving my job, I encountered an application for summer fellowship with Andhra Pradesh Higher Education Department. There were different projects and Improving Entrepreneurship and Innovation resonated with me. I believe that real value of technology is in upliftment of the masses and there is a sweet spot between technology and social sector where I wanted to work. I had the experience of working in the startup industry for 3–3.5 years and with my passion and interest, I believed I had the right mix of experience and exposure to work on this project. I applied and fortunately got selected. Little did I know, this experience would be truly life changing. Nevertheless, I got in and it was time to do something new and totally out of my comfort zone.

In total, 18 fellows were selected all from amazing backgrounds and I was really excited that after 3.5 years of desk job, I finally had the break to be in a dynamic setting with opportunities to lead from the front.

First week of Orientation

We had amazing sessions lined up for the whole week and the excitement was just getting better and better. Over the course of different sessions we got to understand different problems and challenges government face, pointers on how we can make these 2 months count and several motivational lessons from phenomenal speakers.

We were told to first identify problems, formulate solutions and figure out how to execute them and to do all of that in six weeks — a daunting task indeed!!

After the orientation week it was time to put all the plans into action. What followed were the most amazing 6 weeks of my life. I along with my colleague Ruchil Sharma, another Bitsian, would spend 6 weeks in Andhra university, Vizag to formulate, sensitise and institutionalise a sustainable framework for improvement of entrepreneurship and innovation. We both were a great team together with complementary skill sets but what made us really click together as a team was one statement which we made explicitly clear to ourselves and everybody else around us — “We are here to change something and not just to make reports.”

Before reaching the university, we tried to understand the problems and formulate possible solutions based on our assumptions. In the first few interactions with the students all our myths were shattered and there was lot unlearning and relearning.

Here are some of the excerpts from the initial interactions we had with students -

I am not interested in startups. Also, I am getting married soon and mostly I won’t…
“Entrepreneurship is a way to make quick money and become a millionaire”
“My parents just want me to get a job. Will this help me get a job?”
“I come from a farming family and my parents don’t want me to get into startups. I am just looking for a job”

Moreover, most of them initially didn’t interact much with us owing to low confidence in public speaking. We realised that we were dealing with multitude of problems ranging from their socio-economic background, lack of skills, awareness etc. After one week of such discussions we went back to the whiteboard and started formulating a framework based on our understandings so far.

Our framework was based on 4 ideas -

  1. Awareness
  2. Opportunity
  3. Sustainability
  4. Pedagogy

Awareness — After preliminary discussions with hundreds of students, faculty and administration we realised that their is lack of awareness amongst students in terms of what entrepreneurship is and how “being entrepreneurial” will help them in their respective careers, importance of soft skills, confidence, problem solving etc which are very critical skills to have today. To generate awareness and inspire students we conducted 3 workshops-

  1. Discourse and analysis of problems student face — We had a two fold agenda with this workshop. One was to listen to their problems and second, we wanted them to open up and treat us as their friends. It was critical for us to gain their confidence as their support was imperative for successful implementation of our framework.
  2. Understanding entrepreneurship and demystifying related myths — Entrepreneurship is often attributed to having your own startup or a shortcut to success which is completely wrong. It was important to make them understand what entrepreneurship is and what it is not. We also invited some of the local entrepreneurs from Vizag community to talk about their journey and inspire these students
  3. From entrepreneurship to “Being Entrepreneurial” and employability — It was quite evident from our discussion that most of them were clearly looking for jobs due to several reasons like socio-economic background, lack of opportunities etc and they wouldn’t go for startups just after graduating from college. Also, lot of students who came from different backgrounds like Pharmaceutical asked us very tough questions like how will it help them when eventually they had to cater to some patients in a hospital. We were contemplating how to galvanise them towards entrepreneurship and one line which brought us on track was “if not entrepreneur then be entrepreneurial”. We explained them how having an entrepreneurial mindset will propel them towards a better career. It worked spectacularly well and they were all interested in working with us and learning how they can improve and access better opportunities.

Opportunity — Now that we had core group of students we wanted to create some sort of opportunity through which they can learn how to create something from scratch, teamwork, communication skills and confidence. In the process, we conceptualised and created one of the biggest entrepreneurship fest termed-Audacious’16 in Vizag conducted completely by group of students from scratch to completion. The event was massive success with more than 250 students and startups participating. However, there are so many fest already happening everywhere so what’s so unique about this? We believe, following was the essence and impact of the event -

  • Whole event of such massive scale was planned and executed completely by a student body which was formed just a couple of weeks ago
  • Organising team of Audacious,16 which comprised of Andhra University students, also got an opportunity to work in the organising team of UC Berkeley Smart Village Challenge owing to the magnificent work they had done under our leadership
  • Opportunity for students to experience live pitching of products and feedback from Nasscom resource persons.
  • Top three teams of pitching competition in Audacious, were invited to pitch their idea in UC Berkeley Smart Village Challenge as well
  • Clarity of thoughts among students related to entrepreneurship and innovation
  • Platform for interaction between startups and students.
  • An Opportunity to take leadership roles and build confidence for the students to execute such event on a massive scale

Sustainability — Now that we had a great team of students with confidence, skills and a successful event behind them, it was time to institutionalise a student organisation which would be an umbrella body for all the entrepreneurship and innovation related activities. Thus, we established an Entrepreneurship Development Cell and the students who worked with us were selected as the core member committee. Right at the onset of our field work , we envisioned Andhra University as a hotbed for entrepreneurship and innovation. Thus, it was critical to have an entrepreneurship student body to carry forward the activities that we had undertaken. More importantly, the student body needed a strong core team which could be entrusted with such enormous responsibility. We tabled the EDC constitution with student body, advisors from faculty, administration and startup industry.

Pedagogy — No work is complete in our education system without changes in pedagogy. We have all been through this education system and how it is failing at producing next generation innovators and entrepreneurs. Thus, we along with our colleagues, Manoj who was working on E-Learning project and Robert, UPenn grad, working remotely with entrepreneurship team formulated and proposed a policy for skill based education in addition to classroom education utilising the power of E-Learning technology, in person seminars and practical experience. We termed it AltEd (Alternate Education). In the process, we identified the top skills which are in demand in the industry and where students are lacking and proposed a framework to inculcate such skills in the students. Since we believe this is the need of the hour, we as a team are working on setting up a not for profit organisation which will focus on skill based learning using technology for underprivileged students (We will share more news in this regard)

Learnings — To be honest, we learned immensely in those six weeks and the experience was completely different from what a corporate setting could ever provide.

  1. Appreciation from where we come from and what we had. There are lot of children who don’t get privileges we easily take for granted
  2. Socio-Economic background of a child plays a huge in role in shaping their mindset and thus, education specially for women is imperative for next generation to be better
  3. There is no dearth of talent. They only lack in awareness, skills and opportunities to demonstrate them. We need people who understand and empathise with these students and are willing to patiently work with them.
  4. Government is working hard to bring a change contrary to what most people believe. However, the scale of the problems and myriad issues of this massive system makes effective implementation a mammoth challenge. For any change to be visible, consistent effort for a sustained period of time is needed.

Don’t complain where this education system failed you rather take the opportunity to change it. Various state governments are coming up with opportunities to engage talented individuals and now is the time to take some risk, get out of the comfort zone and shape our education system the way we aspire it to be.

We would be happy to divulge any details or documents of our work. We are willing to present our work and experience at different universities to encourage young and talented students to take up opportunities with the government and do impactful work.

We have already given our first presentation at ISB Mohali and are in talks with other top institutions as well.

In case you want to connect with us, following are the details -
Neeraj Kumar, kn.neeraj.89@gmail.com, +91 7022359474
Ruchil Sharma, ruchilsharma894@gmail.com, +91 770999834