How Sriram V Ayer started NalandaWay Foundation
His NGO helped hundreds of underprivileged students in the city to study without the internet during the lockdown
Welcome back to The Chennai Emailer — a local journalism project that brings out original human-interest features & news compilation from Chennai. It’s run by me —Mohammed Rayaan😊
This newsletter is my passion project to highlight the best local journalism in Chennai after participating in this year's Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism (City University of New York).
There comes a moment in life when you ask yourself what you wish to achieve. You question if your career will impact the lives around you. Sriram V Ayer asked this himself following the Gujarat riots in 2002. “I was working there at that time and I witnessed how hatred can harvest anger and affect people,” he recalls.
Dressed in a dark blue kurta in his brightly lit office in Anna Nagar, Sriram chats with me to talk about the origin story of NalandaWay Foundation — a not-for-profit organisation he helms that works on children’s education.
I came across Sriram on Facebook. We were trying to schedule a chat several weeks ago but we couldn’t. In the meantime though, I kept reading his posts in my news feed. They were intriguing; he wrote short notes about the work his team does. Sometimes he shares photos of his passion for weaving.
I dug more about him and the foundation’s website said that Sriram has been “named by the Outlook Business magazine as one of the top 50 social entrepreneurs in India” and he has “received numerous awards, including the World Bank’s Development Marketplace award”.
Finally, we fixed a time for an interview. He gave a brief introduction of what NalandaWay does. They focus on children around three themes — holistic education, expressive arts, well-being and mental health.
Remembering the Gujarat riots, he says that fear plays a traumatic role in a child's growth. Therefore, Sriram wanted to create a safe space for children where learning and joy can blend together. And thus the idea for NalandaWay was born after he returned to Chennai.
👶🏽For a better childhood
Here’s a quick example of some of the activities NalandaWay does: For toddlers between 3-6 years old, the foundation conducts a programme by introducing literacy and numeracy through storytelling and art.
Another work they do is ‘Project Sakhi’ which aims at empowering adolescent girls from challenging backgrounds. Spread over seven years, it helps a girl to get support around learning, emotional skills, health and hygiene, and more. Their website says that this project is implemented in Chennai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Coimbatore, Thiruvananthapuram, Gurgaon, Pune, and Hyderabad.
There are more such unique programmes but a common theme in nearly all of them is the adaptation of storytelling and arts as a crucial teaching method. This unique methodology has made the foundation to regularly work with UNESCO, the State governments, the Union government, and several other regional stakeholders across India. But I was eager to hear about the activities they did during the pandemic when schools were shut down during the lockdown. So how did they teach kids?
😷Ringing up a solution during lockdown
As the Covid-19 pandemic infected Chennai, the hardest hit students were those without an internet connection or a laptop to attend online classes.
“Students who had working parents could use their parents' laptop or mobile only after they returned from work,” Sriram says. “The other issue was that without a teacher present physically, the performance of the students fell. They have lost their social skills too.”
His team quickly decided to work on a solution. After weeks of planning and research, NalandaWay decided to create a very simple syllabus that could be taught by a parent or an elder sibling of a student. Focusing more on long-term impact, they decided to cover a lot of math and english which was far more essential in the later stage of schooling.
“We wanted to create a solution that can be solved without the internet. Our aim was not to reduce the learning outcome in any way or make the students perform less academically,” Sriram explains.
Once the learning materials were designed and printed, the team partnered with local NGOs and other community-based organisations across neighbourhoods. They were also in touch with the Greater Chennai Corporation which had several government schools under its arms.
The materials were then distributed to families by officials who were out on the street for Covid-related duties. “Initially, there were about 800 students,” says Sriram. “Over 50 teachers were hired. And the classes were conducted two-three times a week over the phone.”
Parents would use these materials to brief their kids while the teachers would later connect and teach in detail. For students, it was like a live radio show — a teacher would call and read out the materials the students had on hand. Also, it wasn't a conference call, but a one-on-one audio call with the parent occasionally listening along with their child.
Sriram narrates an interesting incident. There was one student who could take part in the ‘audio classes’ only after 11 pm as his single mother, a food delivery agent, always returned home late at night.
Nevertheless, the teacher also called the student after his mother came back so he could use her phone. One day, when the teacher ordered a takeaway, the food was delivered by the student’s mother.
“The mother realised it was her child’s teacher and it was a very emotional moment for both of them,” Sriram smiles. Eventually, this programme expanded and it covered over 4,000 students across the city.
💻Managing a team
Having run NalandaWay since 2005, I wanted to learn about Sriram’s management skills. He speaks about the challenges he faced when he had to groom a new team.
“These days, I don’t find the patience among youngsters who want to do this,” he tells. “I’ve also noticed that many get into this field as they get bored of their 9-5 jobs. But trust me, this is quite hard! You need to think a lot before you take a career shift.”
Sriram also notes that when you work in the social impact sector, then you are bound to deal with government officials or others who may not align with your mission. “But that should not stop you to do what you want to do. Your frustration should fuel your goal but not yourself,” he says.
I was even curious to hear his thoughts on the recent thirst for edtech among parents.
“I feel it is like a gold rush but end of the day learning happens at schools,” Sriram says. “While technology can be used to teach children, it cannot act as a replacement to schools themselves.”
🚀Like running a start-up!
The conversation then shifted to money. How does NalandaWay fund its operations? “Right from the first day, we decided that this will be a non-profit,” he says. “It is almost like running a start-up — you need to keep speaking to potential investors or foundations offering grants that will help you run your organisation.”
Sriram believes that the best way to get the attention of such groups is by simply implementing a small-scale project and then assessing its impact and later presenting it to an investor.
“It could be any form of social initiative which you want to create,” he says. “But do that on a small scale — maybe in a school or your neighbourhood. Connect with local players and then try to create an impact through that initiative you are working on.” In this way, Sriram points out, you will have proof of your concept being tested in real life which may attract someone.
🏃🏽Need for grit
As our chat was drawing to a close, I wanted to know how can one become a social entrepreneur. “Success depends on grit and perseverance. You need to hold your ground to make a point as there will be people who will try to pull you away from your mission. You will also face a lot of self-doubts,” he says.
Sriram narrates how he started in this field without any experience.
“But when I look back now, I feel that if I did have a basic education or an understanding of this particular sector, then I would have avoided some basic mistakes,” he says and signs off with: “Just be kind to people more than necessary!”
(All photo credits: NalandaWay Foundation)
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