Nurturing reading, for the rich and the poor alike

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Umesh Malhotra | 44 CEO, Hippocampus
Umesh Malhotra | 44
CEO, Hippocampus.
Photo: Rudra Rakshit

Bengaluru-based Umesh Malhotra wished a decent library for his son in the city. He ended up developing one of the world’s largest low-cost pre-school learning programmes.

Malhotra, a former employee of IT major Infosys in the US, is now the CEO of Hippocampus — a for-profit project that specialises in providing knowledge and reading experience to school-going kids.

What started off in 1999 as a project to help nurture his son’s reading habits soon turned into a passion, and later a business proposition for Malhotra who was looking for a window to move out of the IT sector.

In 2003, he started the first Hippocampus library at Koramangla in Bengaluru. “Most 6-year-olds get only 40 minutes between their school, tuitions, hobby classes and television,” he says. “If I can give the children a choice between a book and a remote control, I’d consider myself successful.”

The library charges between Rs 10,000- Rs 6,000 for annual membership and there is a growing demand for such learning centres. Malhotra’s operations, however, are limited to Bengaluru and Chennai.

He has instead focussed on developing the Hippocampus Reading Foundation (HRF), which provides pre-school and after-school learning programmes for underprivileged kids from the 3-10 age group.

HRF also establishes libraries in government schools. “It was only when I visited these schools that I realised they do not have books or libraries,” he says. In Karnataka alone, HRF impacts more than 3,200 students across 78 rural centres.

In 2007, HRF started the Grow by Reading programme, which aimed at reaching 50,000 rural kids by establishing libraries in their schools. “It was decided over a cup of coffee and we achieved our target by 2009,’’ Malhotra says. Today, the programme covers 130 schools across Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

The programme has gathered so much critical success that the Union government’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan is emulating it. In 2011, the government of Karnataka secured Malhotra’s services in establishing and expanding 45,000 government school libraries. For Umesh Malhotra, Hippocampus is a commitment born from the desire to create something new. Even though his was a simple idea, his libraries have enriched the lives of thousands of kids.

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