In conversation with Nidhi Anarkat, CEO at NavGurukul
Nidhi, tell us about your early life and the motivation behind pursuing an entrepreneurial life.
Growing up in Ahmedabad, I realized the stark differences in education quality and opportunities across geographies, families, and cultures. This sparked my interest in education; I realized that I was privileged yet the information asymmetry was high. After completing my undergraduate degree in engineering from a tier 2/3 college in Ahmedabad, I began working in the education sector, including at Educational Initiatives and as a part-time professor at CAT coaching institute.
My passion for education led me to pursue a graduate degree at Harvard, where I focused on developing a startup for 21st-century skills. After graduation, I worked for an adaptive learning company called Newton for 1 year and 9 months. I then took a sabbatical and returned to India to do consultancy work with higher education organizations, and to teach and travel. Eventually, I founded EmpowerEd, which had two products: an end-to-end reasoning skill learning platform for CAT/GMAT/GRE and an end-to-end job skills platform for low-income colleges and ITIs focused on employability skills like critical thinking and interview preparation.
My experiences have led me to have a socially-minded perspective on entrepreneurship, influenced by the teachings and examples set by my family. My grandfather, in particular, was a giving-focused person who worked hard, changed the fortunes of our family, and donated a lot of money to help others. This has translated into my work in the education sector, where I have tried to create socially-minded for-profit ventures.
My passion for education and social impact led me to volunteer with NavGurukul, where I was able to apply my expertise and experience to help young people from underserved communities gain access to quality education and employment opportunities.
How did NavGurukul start? How did your product evolve over the years?
NavGurukul aims to provide access to jobs in the technology industry to communities that typically do not have such access. The organization was started in 2016 by Abhishek Gupta, who had previously done two startups. Abhishek had a degree and experience in computer science, which he believed was a valuable and ‘signalable’ skill. He wanted to create access to technology jobs for communities that were typically excluded from such opportunities.
Initially, NavGurukul started with two residential centers in Delhi and Bangalore. The founders of the organization anchored one of the centers each. Resources were scarce, so NavGurukul relied on the founders' own resources and a "do whatever it takes" attitude to get started.
Slowly, NavGurukul’s organizational design evolved to create a self-reliant campus for students. Students were taught to be independent, to negotiate with the communities, to resolve conflicts. The organization also developed a self-paced pedagogy, which was a full plunge into self-paced learning and was not limited to one day a week or one period a month. NavGurukul’s focus was on creating learning outcomes for students and preparing them for the job market.
NavGurukul's approach to education and its success in preparing students for the job market attracted attention. The Maharashtra government took notice of NavGurukul's success and offered to partner with the organization. NavGurukul began working with NGOs and government departments in non-financial partnerships to ensure their students' placement, safety, and security. Today, NavGurukul has partnerships with several government departments and has expanded to ten centers with 1,300 student capacity. It is also launching in 75 schools in UP, MP, and Haryana.
The organization has also started a design school, which teaches graphic design and digital media to 10th standard graduates.
What is the state of NavGurukul work today and what are your scale ambitions going forward?
NavGurukul is currently working towards expanding its residential program by establishing 50 centers across the country, in every 300 km radius, in the next three years. The organization aims to educate 10,000 students who will be able to secure a minimum salary of ₹ 20k, with an average salary of ₹ 25k upon completing the program. On average, NavGurukul has observed a 20% increase in year on year incomes, and plans to do rigorous studies to confirm the same.
A lot of the work at NavGurukul is not about teaching programming. The organization focuses on enabling its students with a life of agency, self-independence, and dignity. This includes teaching life skills, working on mental health, confidence building, and finding one's place in society. NavGurukul also aims to break the gender barriers and encourages its students to have conversations around topics such as traveling solo, marriage, and other issues that affect their lives.
NavGurukul also runs the Meraki program, which aims to reach 1 million users across the country and have positive outcomes on learning and life. We have also started the CodeIndia fellowship, which has the potential to scale much faster than the residential program, which is limited to 30 students per school.
More than 600 students have been placed in startups and SMEs with monthly ₹20,000 to ₹60,000 salaries. Currently, NavGurukul places 50 students every month. It has 90+ hiring partners, including organizations such as NatWest, Accenture, KPMG, etc. NavGurukul also provides Lifetime Alumni support for jobs, professional growth etc and ₹ 30L+ have been received from alumni as pay- forward.
NavGurukul currently has a budget of ₹12-15 crore and has over 130 full-time employees.
What will it take to achieve scale?
To achieve scale, NavGurukul is focused on building deep interventions that are scaled in partnership with the government. At scale NavGurukul envisions the government as the doer, and itself as a consultant.
NavGurukul has identified different areas where they can achieve scale. NavGurukul’s residential program can reach a certain scale by reaching a large number of students who are post-school or school dropouts. The Meraki program can reach millions of learners in a few years, providing financial income right away. The Code-India fellowship aims to transform learning outcomes within the government education system, not just online, but through offline mediums.
In order to achieve scale, NavGurukul will need to continue to identify what works and what can be scaled effectively. We will also continue to build partnerships and collaborations with other organizations and the government.