Every time someone introduces Akshay Saxena at a gathering of young entrepreneurs, the descriptor ends with the optimistic sentence — “Saxena is on a leave of absence from Harvard Business School.” This month, the leave has lasted a whole year.
Instead, Saxena is running around braving Mumbai’s monsoon, wearing the look of a man who has “solved a very difficult problem” — enabling children from low-income backgrounds to share that dream of millions, clearing the IIT’s Joint Entrance Examination (JEE).
Saxena, a navy kid, was always aware of class distinctions and how they affected children’s capabilities in the classroom. The difference became more glaring than ever while preparing for the IIT-JEE; where the cost of coaching classes typically ran into lakhs of rupees, and took up 13-14 hours a week for every student.
“The inequity had always been visible, but at this point it became really irritating,” recalls Saxena. A friend and classmate, Krishna Ramkumar, shared his irritation. By the time Saxena headed off to Harvard after his graduation in 2010, the two of them had already conceptualised and started the earliest version of Avanti — a centre at the Navodaya School in Puducherry, in a room where 70 children sat all afternoon coaching and testing each other.
Over the next two years, Avanti began to tie up with more centres for after- school peer-coaching programmes. Teachers and parents were waking up to the fact that even with just 3-4 hours of coaching a week, facilitated by a subject expert (often a science or math teacher from a different country, teaching on Skype), children were out-performing students from regular coaching classes.
“We knew that studying together was more beneficial than tuition, so the idea of peer mentoring seemed like an obvious choice,” says Saxena. “We never realised the scale at which this could affect to-be engineers.”
This May, 51 of Avanti’s 89 students have cleared the IIT-JEE mains. These children were mentored at 13 centres in various cities, including Mumbai, New Delhi and Chennai. While three of these centres in Mumbai and two in New Delhi make profits (even at a fee of Rs 2,000 per month per student), the others work in collaboration with public schools with the sole aim of inculcating the capacity to reason among children from poor families.
Avanti must restrict itself to after-school programmes because neither Saxena nor Ramkumar is interested in applying for the number of permits, licences and bribes necessary to start a high school. “Combine this with a completely outdated curriculum, a flawed model of testing and correcting; and you can see why Indian students are left so far behind when it comes to basic logic and reasoning,” says Ramkumar.
The greatest pay-off has been the immediate gratification of seeing a student’s eyes light up in understanding after a class, instead of appearing dulled by sleep, as their own eyes usually were, after coaching. “The other day, one of our young boys from Mumbai came up to me and started arguing about abstract mathematics,” says Saxena. “It was deep stuff and I was pretty confused, but I think he was even more confused by the fact that I couldn’t stop smiling.”
Harvard will have to wait.