Imagine yourself as the owner of a multinational tech company in the Silicon Valley. How will you find time to set up a ‘rural school start-up’ in a village in Tamil Nadu, India? If the answer is impossible, there is someone who had made this possible. Sridhar Vembu, the founder of Zoho Corporation is the star of the headlines, when he utilized his lock-down days to provide free education and food, a model that doesn’t believe in marks or degrees or conventional affiliations for certificates, or “credentials” as he calls it.
Sridhar Vembu is the founder of Zoho Corporation and a tech typhoon valued by Forbes at nearly $2.5 billion, for the rest of the world. But for villagefolks in Tenkasi, Tamil Nadu, he is a star and more of a teacher wearing the traditional veshti and moving around on a bicycle in Mathalamparai.
What started six months ago as home tuition for three children that took up “about two-three hours” of his spare time, Vembu says he now has four teachers and 52 students in the fold, mostly children of farm labourers from the village.
“This has become a serious project. I am also doing part-time teaching. We are trying to put it together as a model now…busy preparing papers, getting necessary approvals,” says Vembu, to the media over phone from Tenkasi. He is clear though that his “start-up” will not seek affiliation with the CBSE or any other conventional educational board.
But the challenge in the village, he says, was different after the Covid curbs came into force. “Practically, it was not possible for them to attend classes (online after the lockdown)…some parents had smartphones but cheap models. I had enough time, and we did some physical experiments, I taught them a little Science, Mathematics and English,” he says.
On September 13, Vembu, who is an active Twitter user, posted: “Within few days, my social distanced open-air class swelled from three kids to 25 and kids got unruly and I was struggling (smiley) and realised how hard it is to be a teacher.” According to Vembu, policies made in Chennai or Delhi with good intentions get diluted when they reach villages. “There is not enough ground talent to do the implementation,” he says.
“There are different categories of students among the rural poor. Some who really want to get credentials, and many others who are actually planning to drop out at one point, after Class 8 or 10,” he says. Retaining the dropouts, he says, is the challenge.
“Another challenge is that teachers do not live in the village. They come and go from a town about 30-40 km away… When people who can afford to send kids to private schools even in rural villages and when teachers of rural schools refuse to send their children there, it is the kids from poorest families alone who end up in the government schools”, Vembu says.
Before the school, Zoho, which clocked an operating revenue of Rs 3,300 crore in financial year 2018-19 with more than 50 million clients, opened over a dozen rural offices in Tamil Nadu during the lockdown to take software engineers back to their villages.
“My only demand was to set up offices in rural areas. They decided the locations. We will open 10 more offices in three months, opening more in Tamil Nadu as well as Kerala and Andhra, each with a seating capacity of up to 100 people,” he says.
In Mathalamparai, Vembu says, he has made many friends over the last year visiting tea shops and playing cricket with children. “They were very warm. They were curious but still very friendly to a stranger,” he says.