New Delhi/Indore: Satya Narayanan R. never sits still. In a meeting, he takes notes, pen running furiously across the page, head nodding vigorously in agreement. If there’s no pen at hand, his fingers are running through his thick, black, wavy hair, or tapping the sides of his knees as a makeshift tabla. Occasionally, he tips his chair back far enough that it looks like he’s about the fall.

Nervous energy has fuelled a way of life for Narayanan, chairman of test-preparatory empire Career Launcher India Ltd. After starting a company that counselled business school applicants more than a decade ago and building it up to a Rs70 crore business, he’s on a new mission.

Seeking ideas: When Career Launcher’s Satya Narayanan wanted to take the company into the mainline education space, he brought in a consultant and polled his staff for their suggestions.(Photo: Harikrishna Katragadda/Mint)

For Narayanan, who loves all things to do with education, training and leadership, the solution is simple: just give him the schools.

Career Launcher started moving into so-called mainline education—preschools, grade schools and business schools—a year ago. Now it hopes to turn its five schools into 250 over the next few years, and rewrite the education playbook along the way.

A big piece of that plan is to build on the national curriculum framework published by the government in 2005, which shifted the focus of Indian education from memorizing content to understanding it. Career Launcher’s schools, too, focus on social skills as much as academics, particularly at the junior grades.

At the company’s Indus World School in Indore, for example, which goes up to class VI, everyone pitches in to help one of their classmates. Vedehi, a lower kindergarten student, wasn’t feeling well. Her eyes and her stomach hurt, and she thought she had a fever. “My ma and papa didn’t give me medicine," she says as she clutches her feet with her hands and squeezes her eyebrows together. “That’s why I’m sad," she tells her classmates. What should she do?

“Drink water, you can share mine," one offers.

“What about Pepsi?" another asks.

“Don’t go out in the sun," a third proposes.

It was a “quality circle time" (QCT) session, a tactic repeated in classrooms throughout the school on a daily basis. The idea is to build communication skills and empathy, and teach the students how to solve problems together and then, eventually, themselves.

During the so-called “QCTs", kids as young as four or five discuss everything from fights between children to troubles at home and offer any advice they might have. When another boy in Vedehi’s class said his mother was always getting so angry with him, for example, his classmates advised him to listen to her more, and suggested he might be watching too much television, or eating too much chocolate.

Other efforts to build emotional intelligence include “mailboxes" where the students leave notes for each other. (“Dear Saumy", writes Manvi, in another Indus World School class. “I happy with you because you share scekpen." She means sketch pen.)

The teachers and administration love to point out the differences in their style of doing things. At an annual day for parents at the end of the school year, one class even acted out Rabindranath Tagore’s Tota Kahini, a satire on Indian schools that puts the academic world and the real world on opposite ends of the spectrum.

Parents have voiced some concern about the atypical nature of the school—if there’s no numerical assessment, wondered one, what would happen if students need to transfer schools?—but for the most part, they are responding favourably. Sukhwinder and Gurmeet, who have two daughters at the Indus school, say thanks to its focus on social development, their daughters show a newfound confidence. “Now they are comfortable talking with outsiders about whatever they watch on TV, and what they do at school," says Gurmeet.

Now that Career Launcher has a few successful schools off the ground, Narayanan hopes to do more than just scale up the existing model. At Indore and other similar schools, fees are about Rs40,000 a year and most parents are professionals. He also hopes to create a similar network of low-cost schools that can charge as little as Rs100-150 per month. How to do that, though, is still an open question.

“Reaching out to the ‘base of pyramid’," says Parth Shah who heads the Centre for Civil Society’s school choice campaign, which provides the poor with vouchers to pay for school, “can you figure out a way to deliver quality education? That’s the challenge that companies like Career Launcher" face.

The company started testing out a public-private partnership model in a set of vocational schools. One of the company’s most recent projects on the vocational front was to team up with retail firms and their recruiters. The course trains potential sales clerks for three weeks in hopes that they can get one of the thousands of new positions around the country. The catch though, is that retailers wouldn’t pay for the course; the trainees would.

Narayanan orchestrated a system that left retailers outside the equation. He called on a microfinance group to loan Rs3,600 to each trainee so that they could afford the course. Once the sales clerk was hired, the bank would get the loan back over one year, spread over monthly instalments. Why not ask retailers to finance the trainings? Narayanan sums his reasoning up succinctly: “I don’t want to be a vendor to Reliance."

He hopes to do similar things in secondary education, and scoffs at the idea that low-cost schools, with students that can only afford several hundred rupees per month, might not be a financially feasible enterprise. “A 60-year-old will say that and a 40-year-old will say that," he says, “but a 20-year-old will not."

The 37-year-old Narayanan grew up in Hyderabad and went to college at St Stephen’s in Delhi. He started out his career in education after graduating from the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) at Bangalore and serving a brief stint with pharmaceutical company Ranbaxy Laboratories Ltd. His first line of business was the “personality development programme", where he would coach prospective business school candidates on the art of handling the interview.

It wasn’t a natural choice for Narayanan, who says he never even spoke to an audience before he started the company. “In my two years at IIM, I didn’t say a word," he says. But the field wasn’t crowded, since no other company focused on business school admissions at the time, and the price was right. “I just took four printouts," he says, “and started the company."

Some 10 years later, in 2005, Career Launcher grew into a 300-person, Rs50 crore firm, and Narayanan thought about which direction to take next. He was interested in moving into mainline education—“if someone gave me a few lakh rupees in 1993, I would have started schools". But he wasn’t sure if, suddenly, he was putting his personal interests above the organization’s.

Narayanan described the possible conflicts in this way: While education has positive associations for most people (pink flowers come to his mind), test prep usually conjures up more sinister motivations (“the guy with long nails", he says.)

Other people see him as a good person to bridge that divide. “I think Satya is a new and very exciting breed of entrepreneurs," says James Tooley, a professor of education at Newcastle University that studies private education in India. “His approach to education as a business—he has a very broad focus on education, from getting people careers to thinking about low-cost private schools—I think he’s really there at the cutting edge."

When Narayanan wanted to move Career Launcher into the education space, he brought in a consultant and polled his staff: If you visualize 31 March 2010, what does the company look like? What do we need to do to get to Rs500 crore? After considering, and discarding, many of the suggestions that came in, including films, shoes and book stores, the company settled on a few key areas. “It has to be about a person, her dreams, her talent," he says. And so Career Launcher chose to continue the school route.

Land, and more specifically its price, turned out to be the biggest hurdle. More than Rs20-30 lakh per acre wasn’t viable for Career Launcher, so the company settled on the relatively cheaper cities of Hyderabad and Indore for its first pilot schools.

As Narayanan and other education reform advocates try to create a model for large-scale, low-cost private education, they float ideas such as running schools in two shifts, renting out the school’s infrastructure to community events, and bringing in corporate sponsors to provide things such as computers. The key, they agree, might also be in the government and its bulging inventory of unused educational infrastructure.

A business school was a long-term plan, but once Career Launcher won a lottery to lease a site in Noida, it decided to proceed. “This tail called land begins to wag the dog," Narayanan says. The Indus World School of Business will open for its first class of around 60 undergraduate and 60 graduate students in July.

Instead of getting government approval, it went straight to the business sector to get company buy-in. Around two dozen firms, including Google Inc., AztraZeneca Plc. and Nokia Corp., have signed on with promises of internships and recruitment.

Career Launcher doesn’t expect to see any return on its Rs100 crore investment in the business school for another few years. “We want to make sure we focus more on Saraswati than one Lakshmi," Narayanan says. He expects the test prep business to grow at 30-40% per year, and vocational schools to catch up to test prep. The firm’s mainline education efforts, he expects, will start paying back only in 2012. The national coaching industry pulls in an estimated Rs500 crore per year.

Narayanan divides his Career Launcher work into a few key areas, and spends a portion of each week on the company’s core test prep business, its secondary schools and its new business school. But he prefers to work on the edges of the company rather than in the thick of things, pushing the limits of what the company can do outwards.

It’s the rest of this “unemployed time", as he refers to it, where he prefers to be, bringing his deputies along to constantly replace whatever he was doing the week before. “It’s like a management school in action," he says.

Narayanan seems almost compulsively blunt. He named a business leadership talent search as the hunt for the next “tycoon", and decries the phrase “child labour" as a “Western concept". (“The best way to learn geometry is by doing a bit of masonry," he explains.)

When a potential business partner asks for Career Launcher to buy back his investment a few years down the line, Narayanan tells him that if they went into business together, it would have to be “like a Hindu marriage", without a “pre-nup". When he thinks about the difficulties of cracking government support, he envisions a brighter future. “I’ve got 250 future IAS officers sitting in my classes," he says, “I’ll be the biggest mafia don."

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