Dost: Helping the 150M Low Literacy Women in India Support Their Child’s Early Development
The familiar Skype ringtone sounded, and Sneha Sheth and Sindhuja Jeyabal found themselves face to face. Between them lay a screen and 8,834 miles. They’d never spoken before, but a friend of a friend at Berkeley had recently introduced them due to their unique shared passion for education in India. “You both talk about education a lot,” he said, “you guys should meet.”
What started as an informal chat between two women who could not have been more different on paper quickly became an intense discussion about the power of education. Having seen inequity across the globe, the two were motivated to change how women could access high quality education.
The call was enough to convince Sneha to fly back from Mumbai to the bay area, where they were both in grad school at UC Berkeley, to determine if Sindhuja might be the right co-founder for her new venture, Dost.
The Big Idea
Parents are your first teacher. Dost’s 1 minute-podcasts empower parents to set their children up for educational success.
An Engineer’s Perspective on Education for All
Sindhuja’s grandparents worked as weavers in a village in south India, earning less than $1 a day. It was hard work for little pay, and with seven children Sindhuja’s grandmother constantly stressed the importance of education. She knew if her children didn’t receive a good education, they would likely end up in her shoes. Her determination paid off, and Sindhuja’s father went on to attend university and become the chairman of a bank. While Sindhuja’s family lived a financially-secure life in India, she always knew that her father’s success was unique. She recalls, “seeing before my eyes what education could do.”
Sindhuja decided to pursue computer science. After graduating, she landed in edtech building tools for educators in corporations and well-off universities. Sindhuja eventually realized this wasn’t the kind of impact she wanted to make. Rather, she wanted to build tools for motivated individuals like her grandma who had little access to educational resources. Sindhuja enrolled in UC Berkeley Graduate School and quickly got involved with social impact organizations. She knew there was more out there than building fast moving tech.
Changing How Kids Learn During Early Childhood
On the other side of the planet, mere miles away from where her father grew up, Sneha sat in a tiny Mumbai home with a group of women who could have been her sisters. Sneha had decided not to take a traditional MBA internship, and instead raised $7,000 in Berkeley scholarship funds to pilot Dost. In just four weeks, she’d had conversations about early education with over 100 women who could not read or write. Sneha remembers one of these women sharing, “I stopped going to school in fifth grade,” and now, when her third grade son comes home from school, she said, “I feel like he’s smarter than me. I don’t have the means to support my child or make him better at school.”
Through a series of experiences like this, Sneha came to recognize that the education problem in India was systemic. There was a gap between the important role women wanted to play in their children’s lives, and their ability to do so because of their education level. Literacy challenges start early for kids. In fact, 90% of brain development occurs before the age of 6. Empowering mothers, Sneha thought, could make a huge dent in the persistent education problem. While resources catered to low literacy mothers didn’t yet exist — basic feature phones did. And 65% of women in urban India own a cell phone. That’s when things clicked, and Sneha began building Dost.
Dost — A Mother’s Friend
… Which brings us to six months after that first Skype call. Sneha and Sindhuja agreed to go all in on Dost.
Dost is an audio-content platform delivering daily 1–2 minute phone messages to Indian mothers. The goal is to help them with parenting in the form of fun and “easy to apply” tips. An example of one of the messages includes coaching parents on teaching their children cognitive skills like “big versus small” by changing the size of their rotis at dinner. Another walks mothers through engaging their children while cooking — ask them to count the lentils.
And they’re seeing incredible results. In the last year, Dost has grown from serving 300 families to 15,000, and plans to reach 30,000 parents by the end of the year. Remarkably, 80% of parents say that their children’s discipline and ability to follow instructions has improved after using Dost. Additionally, parents who use Dost can name on average 3–4 more specific educational activities to do with their children compared to non-Dost parents in the same community.
According to the Dost team, mothers love receiving the messages. For many, it’s the only call they’ll receive all day (did we mention that “dost” means “friend” in Hindi?). In fact, 95% of Dost users are active weekly, meaning they listen to at least one message a week. Dost teaches parents that their small actions have a big impact on their children’s development.
One of Dost’s favorite user stories was when a mother told Sneha, “I never used to talk or sing to my son in the morning, but Dost taught me that singing builds vocabulary. Now in the morning, I sing. My son says I’m not a good singer. He laughs at me and finds it hilarious.” Sneha asked if she was going to stop, and she said, “No. It makes me happy to know I’m doing something that will grow his brain. If he notices it that’s even better!”