Navgurukul coders shine amid jobs nightmare

Twenty kilometres from Pune, a part of a college building is bustling with activity as it prepares to host over 200 girls from different parts of the country. They are coming in batches due to quarantine compulsions induced by the pandemic. It’s Navgurukul’s third residential training centre and the second such facility for girls. On January 1, 2021, another set up for 190 girls will become operational in Bengaluru. The startup’s growth spurt is an emphatic endorsement of its job-oriented education model that evolved from its first two campuses — — one in Dharamshala for boys, the other in Bengaluru for girls.

For the uninitiated, Navgurukul is a non-profit initiative that trains students from humble backgrounds in software programming, primarily coding, in a fully funded one-year residential course. “After the training, we make sure they get a job that pays at least Rs 20,000 per month,” says Abhishek Gupta, co-founder and CEO of the four-year-old company. It’s the third venture for Abhishek, an IIT-Delhi alumnus who gave up a lucrative career in the IT sector to power the aspirations of a Young India that lacks the necessary tools to come up in life. The other founder Rishabh Verma, a young achiever who was part of the founding team of Airwoot that was bought by Freshworks, stepped down as Navgurukul’s COO last year to explore “interests around sustainability, permaculture and generally on building regenerative solutions for the planet”.

Scaling up

Before the lockdown, Navgurukul had a total of 100 seats in its two campuses. Soon, it will have the capacity to put up 600 students. And, before long Abhishek plans to scale up even more, taking in 800–1200 students by setting up more campuses across the country. Given the corona scare and the reluctance to travel long distances, he admits to being initially hesitant about launching the Pune centre. He was pleasantly surprised at the growing demand from girls who wanted to enrol in this skill-development programme to transcend their hostile circumstances. The lockdown had seen a spike in gender violence and a lack of proper training opportunities added to their distress.

As part of scaling up, Navgurukul has also brought some of their teaching techniques online. In view of the pandemic challenges, the startup recently launched a mobile app called Meraki that has already notched up a few thousand subscriptions. “It has several interesting features. Subscribers need to buy a bluetooth keyboard worth Rs 400 and connect it to the application to learn typing. There is no need for a laptop or a desktop,” says Abhishek, adding that Meraki is an initiative to support jobs around digital literacy, technology, and programming. “The goal is to reach a million subscribers next year,” he says.

From January next year, the Pune campus will conduct a one-year residential course on graphic designing that has been drawn up by advisers from the National Institute of Design (NID) and Symbiosis (Pune) along with industry experts.

Spurring growth through jobs

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Navgurukul is silently powering the Indian economy, albeit on a small scale. The government, corporates, startups and the non-profits are increasingly looking to employ coders, so there is a massive scope for employment. After getting a job, these young coders send most of their salaries back home in villages and small towns, fuelling consumption. “What’s even more encouraging is that much of this growth in the rural economy will be catalysed by young women in a patriarchal culture,” says Abhishek as he draws attention to the New Education Policy that proposes to introduce students of class VI to computer coding.

The Navgurukul model has spawned several success stories. Annu who came to the Bengaluru institute from Kishanganj, a small village in Bihar, is now employed with Mindtree, drawing an annual package of Rs 4.2 lakh. Ravina, whose father is a marginal farmer in Bihar, earns Rs 3 lakh a year at Rootbridge Academy in Bengaluru. Some of these girls even plan to set up Navgurukul in their villages to support more girls.

The one-year intensive residential course for the boys and girls goes easy on theory. Its closely connected with the needs of the industry unlike in hundreds of other institutions that churn out thousands of unemployable software engineers.

Fostering inclusion

The average age group of students at Navgurukul is 19–22. Admission is a multi-stage process. The first stage tests one’s basic communication skills in English. The second hurdle, based on class VIII mathematics, looks for logical reasoning. Finally, there is culture fit and privilege check. The former is to ascertain if the students will fit into the institute’s culture as they have to manage cooking and cleaning on their own. The privilege check pertains to the family’s socio-economic status. “The students come from diverse backgrounds, including girls who are HIV+ or whose mothers are sex workers. We emphasise the need for a continuous dialogue on integration to genuinely make everyone feel at home. The idea is to consolidate the student community so that they learn together and support each other,” says Abhishek.

Typically, one out of 10 applicants is selected. “We partner with grassroots organisations from across the country who recommend the students to us. Many of them have already taken admission in colleges or enrolled in a distance-learning course and come to us to enhance their knowledge and performance,” he says.

Navgurukul’s biggest challenge was to ensure the safety of the girl students and convince their parents to allow them to stay on the campus. The promise of a respectable job was the deciding factor for many families because of their financial condition.

Guru-shishya model

The institute has a guru-shishya model wherein the senior students on the campus act as mentors for the newcomers. When these new students become seniors, they do their bit for the junior batch. The seniormost pupils are coached by the alumni and external volunteers to familiarise them with industry mores. Towards the end of the year-long programme, an interview board camp trains them on how to work and conduct themselves in companies like Unacademy, Mindtree, and Thoughtworks that hire Navgurukul students.

It’s a win-win situation for all, including corporates as they have access to a pool of competent workers. No wonder the Pune campus was sponsored by Microsoft and the institute’s long-time patron Accenture. Since Navgurukul bears the expenses for food, lodging and training, the alumni does its bit by paying for the new students’ upkeep.

The startup’s growth can be attributed to a faulty education system that fostered inequality, encouraged learning by rote and paid scant attention to skilling, thereby denying millions of students the chance to improve their quality of life. Today Navgurukul is big enough to look at hiring a CEO and several other people in senior positions to further streamline its functions.

Social Alpha’s role

At various stages in this four-year-old journey, Social Alpha (SA) has played a catalytic role.

When SA first met the two founders in 2016, the startup was operating from a flat in Delhi-NCR with a handful of students. “That’s when we came to know about Navgurukul’s model and the larger vision. We came back impressed by the dedication and commitment of Abhishek and Rishabh. What struck us most is also the desire to make the model sustainable by encouraging graduates of Navgurukul to payback their tuition fee in instalments from their salaries post job placement — a thought process quite uncommon in the non-profit world.” says Srikanth Prabhu, Investment Director in SA. A few months later, flush with the success of the students it was coaching, when Navgurukul was contemplating expansion, the founders met SA once again.

The success of the early-stage model underscored the importance of technology and scalability — the twin imperatives for SA. In 2018, the association was formalised with SA providing seed capital and incubating Navgurukul. In the next two years, Navgurukul set up centres in Dharamshala and Bengaluru with support from SA and other corporate partners. “Initially, we helped them with their business model and go-to-market strategy. We also reached out to corporates and philanthropic donors to raise funds for implementation. We managed to partner with Accenture in the early days of our association with Navgurukul that enabled them to demonstrate the model at scale across two remote centres. This has helped them to raise further funds to replicate their model across India. We continue to leverage our India-wide network of development sector partners to help Navgurukul mobilize deserving students for their residential programme,” says Srikanth.