“We want to expand this to 15 schools, may be the entire taluka, and then some day the whole district,” his eyes sparkled with intent and excitement. When we, at Vibha, a completely volunteer-driven organisation, met E.S.Ramamurthy for the first time in 2006, he had just retired from his long career in sustainable energy. He was pursuing his calling in our focus area. Of children. Of education. Of scalable solutions.
After studying the primary education ecosystem in remote and rural Karnataka, Ramamurthy founded Sikshana to improve the quality of education in the public school system, in a sustainable and replicable model through adoption of modern management concepts and techniques. He sought to create a paradigm shift in K-12 education in remote rural India. The idea was to develop simple but effective supplementary and complementary solutions to roadblocks in the existing government-funded education system that stood between children and their empowerment through learning.
At this time, Vibha was maturing as a Social Venture Catalyst. For 13 years, Vibha took the approach of financially and strategically supporting a project for an entire year before analysing its long term sustainability as well as scalability. By 2008, we had developed a framework for evaluation of scalability, sustainability and replicability of solutions. Our team of volunteer project stewards had acquired a keen eye for solutions that work; ideas that Vibha could seed, grow, scale and most importantly, create stakeholder accountability and engagement.
Each year, this project team reviewed hundreds of new proposals and continuity reports seeking high impact initiatives that align with our three mantras. Initially, we tripped and stumbled. We learned that true scalability can only be accomplished gradually over the years by empowering teachers, inspiring students, enabling the local community and engaging the State. If any one of these four pillars were unstable, true sustainability was hampered. Variables outside of our control of presented challenges to projecting long term impact of an initiative. “Are we investing in the right approach? Will this bring about the impact we want? How many children will escape the cycle of poverty? What if we fail? Some questions always crossed the thresholds of our daily updates and weekly calls, and percolated into our every awake moment,” said Dr. Murthy Munagavalasa, Director of Projects for Vibha.
Despite these questions and shifts in economic, political, technological, and philanthropic scenes, Sikshana demonstrated steady progress. Progress not just in scaling solutions originally identified, but also piloting a dozen new programs, with support of Vibha’s seed, grow, scale model.
Mr. Ramamurthy’s three decades in sustainability initiatives with quasi-governmental organizations and the United Nations had instigated a keen sense for identifying truly sustainable and scalable solutions. After extensive analyses, in 2008 we identified Sikshana in Karnataka and Door Step School in Maharashtra as scalable models. Within a year of partnership, we were supporting 65 schools, 50% of schools in which Sikshana was operational.
Once we established scalability, Vibha set out to measure the model’s replicability. Would Sikshana work in the cultural and political ethos of other states? How could we scale it? To answer these questions, in 2010, we invited 20 other non-profit organizations from all over India to understand the Sikshana model and evaluate its fit to their needs. Soon Vibha was able to implement Sikshana in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and in Maharashtra with the aid of corporate partnership. The process yielded valuable lessons that guided Vibha in further refining the Sikshana model into a scalable, sustainable and replicable solution.
Vibha sought and obtained over $100,000 in grants for Sikshana from Yahoo and Broadcom foundations. “We helped Sikshana with their very first Dell grant worth $143K” says Anand Aravindan, Vibha’s Bay Area Action Center leader, erstwhile lead for Vibha’s Grants team.The Vibha Grants team applied for the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation in 2008, at first unsuccessful, but eventually resulting in an investment of $300,000 (Rs. 2 crores) in Sikshana in 2012.
Vibha is at the confluence of Silicon Valley’s spirit of innovation and Gandhian philosophy of volunteerism. As a venture catalyst, Vibha constantly nudged Sikshana to innovate. While it steadily drove down the cost per beneficiary maintaining the impact , the giant leap was in 2015 when Vibha sponsored Sikshana Accelerator. This disruptive rapid experimentation model gave birth to more ideas, greater impact, and larger scale, at less time and cost.
"Vibha funded our first proof of concept model at the taluk level and most recently the Sikshana accelerator model at a district level which proved to be vital in showing impact at scale,” reminisces Prasanna Vadayar, technocrat based out of Cupertino, California, the current CEO of Sikshana.
Seeing the data-based insights from these experiments, the Karnataka State Government confirmed what Sikshana and Vibha had known all along; motivation was the main ingredient in improving the quality of education. A public-private partnership was announced and Sikshana had arrived.
The trajectory that Sikshana has followed over the last decade reflects Vibha’s mindset shift from a typical nonprofit to a harbinger of innovation and systematic change. Today Sikshana supports over a thousand public schools, reaching over 100,000 children in two entire districts of Karnataka, India. It is not surprisingly a choice partner for us at Vibha.