Editor’s note: The following interview is part of an ongoing series for ThinkChange India where we interview social entrepreneurs firsthand. The ThinkChange India staff is committed to providing our readers with interviews with people we believe are at the brink of something special but have for the most part been overlooked by the mainstream media. Readers will be able to see other conversations under our TC-I Changemakers tab. The featured social entrepreneurs this week are working to improve education in India and around the world.
A few weeks ago, we posted on GlobalScholar — a Web 2.0 based platform that will make education more accessible to people throughout the world — and their current push to develop solutions specifically tailored to the Indian subcontinent. As a followup, ThinkChange India’s own Vinay Ganti spoke with GlobalScholar‘s CEO Kal Raman on this ambitious effort and to also gather more details on how the company intends to serve the Indian people. The following is a recap of the phone conversation between Vinay and Kal — all comments have been paraphrased unless set aside by quotation marks.
Vinay Ganti: Why did you start Globalscholar.com?
Kal Raman: The fundamental idea behind GlobalScholar is the use of technology to eliminate unecessary barriers to education. “We believe education can change a human being’s life everywhere in the world,” and it is Globalscholar’s job to figure out how to utilize technology to enable anyone to have access to such education. Right now many other companies are trying to address this problem in niches and we are very respectful of their accomplishments so far, but a lot more can still be done.
VG: One thing that seems to be unique about GlobalScholar is the conscious effort to provide means for parents to be involved in the education process, can you speak further to that?
KR: First off I want to say that other players in this market have taken great strides in providing tools for online education, and we greatly respect what they have done. GlobalScholar began by asking “”how can we create an ecosystem for education?” From this basic question, we recognized the need for including parents in the discussion on a student’s education, especially in the younger grades. Likewise, other players in education also need to be included, and so Globalscholar aims to bring together students, teachers, administrators and parents all under one platform. It is a huge undertaking.
VG: Calling this a huge undertaking seems like a huge understatement. Let’s switch gears then from the why and focus on how GlobalScholar intends to actually accomplish this goal?
KR: The GlobalScholar approach is to take Web 2.0 technologies and figure out how to implement them in a way that will meet the needs of our customers, whether that be the students, teachers, parents or adminsitrators. The key point here is that Web 2.0 tools are by nature collaborative and promote interactions among parties, so by using these tools we can provide ways for people like parents to participate where they previously may have had difficulty.
Doing this successfully is by no means easy, as education is a “complicated problem and a long-term problem.” We recognize that we have a long way to go. In the end we want to create a product that is “living and breathing” and evolves as new technologies develop. At the heart of this inquiry is “”how can we let community learning happen?” In the end, simply building the technology will not solve the problem, we need to make sure that the technology effectively addresses the issue of education access. “We use technology as the means not as the end.”
VG: Great. I know that GlobalScholar is making a huge push to create such products for India, and I am sure our readers would like to hear more about that.
KR: India is a great opportunity for GlobalScholar and also a significant challenge. I just returned from there and was looking to hire a new head of our India division. Hiring a leader is like finding a “head for a body” and so we are making sure that the person we choose will fit properly. For us India seems like a logical step, and in fact we have more employees in India right now than we do here in the US.
India is a very unique scenario. The very large population provides an excellent opportunity for GlobalScholar as many people could benefit from our products. However, the current lack of internet access for most of the population does serve as a significant challenge that we must figure out how to overcome. For these reasons and others, a generic solution will not work for India. In India “patience is a virtue, because chaos is common.” The best way to describe the country is as a fantastic challenge.
VG: Could you speak further on this fantastic challenge? What sort of specific hurdles do you face?
KR: It probably is best to use a comparison. In the US the broadband access is relatively high, which would suggest that there is a great market for GlobalScholar. However, the addressable population is rather small given access to public schools, tutors and other services. India, on the other hand, has a very high addressable population, but its lack of IT architecture provides its own challenges. Each country that GlobalScholar hopes to target is unique like this. Thus, while “the fundamental solution will remain the same, the actual implementation in each country will vary.”
VG: Have you fleshed out how you intend to rollout GlobalScholar in India? Are you focusing on primary education first? Secondary? Do you plan to start in the cities or in the rural areas?
KR: We will start in that niche where we believe we can get the strongest base, but we are by no means planning on limiting ourselves to that one demographic. One of GlobalScholar’s strenghts is the ability to customize it to meet the needs of our customers, and so we believe we can create products and services that can satisfy the requirements of all types of people within India. To limit ourselves to only one niche would “take the mojo out of the company.”
VG: What lessons or skills from your previous experiences do you feel have helped you build GlobalScholar?
KR: Before starting GlobalScholar, I was in high level positions at Amazon.com, drugstore.com and Wal-Mart. All of these experiences taught me that the most important aspect of any business is focusing on the customer experience. “Everything else is a means to that end.” The things that excites me is “solving the problem for our customers using technology, processes and people, and how we can ensure that we are focused on doing this through relentless execution.”
I also learned that in the end publicity is cheap, and that is why right now we have not really focused on getting the word out. Right now we are focused on making sure that every person that uses our platform will get the best possible user experience.
VG: Thank you Kal for taking the time to speak with the ThinkChange India community and sharing your insights into what looks like a great idea. I wish you the best of luck, and if there is any last words you would like to add about GlobalScholar please do so now.
KR: I just want to reiterate that GlobalScholar is in the business of providing the best possible solution for teachers, students, parents and administrators to address education, and nothing else besides that.