In India, knowing English often directly translates to improved employment prospects and sometimes, better social acceptance. And with the Indian Constitution recognising it as a subsidiary official language, those who do not have the opportunity to learn the language can often feel disadvantaged. EnglishHelper Education Technologies (EH) hopes to facilitate this learning process through its innovative products. “We learn a language through reading, writing, listening and speaking. Not everyone gets a chance to practice this outside a classroom since English is a second language and hence, they struggle,” says Sanjay Gupta, global chief executive officer, EH.
The New Delhi-based company has two products – ReadToMe™ (RTM) and WritingAssistant™ (WA) that helps it users to read, comprehend and write better. Developed by Boston-based entrepreneur and innovator Dr. Venkat Srinivasan, who also founded EH, RTM was developed a decade ago and is currently in its 13th version and indigenised for India. WA has been in development mode for over four years and is currently being beta launched with select partners/client sites. It is a proprietary engine that intelligently suggests changes to make writing more effective. Currently, over 10,000 people use its product through a fast expanding network of government and private schools, adult learning and vocational programmes. In a quest to make it affordable for all, RTM is priced at Rs. 1/child/day for schools while its Helper series such as TeachHelper, JobHelper etc. is charged at Rs. 5,000 for 40 hours of training through its franchise centres. It has also recently launched a web version of the product with core features and is looking to bring it onto various smart devices.
Our social impact directly correlates to how successful we are. We simply base it on the number of people who have been touched by our products.
In March this year, EH received investment from Omidyar Network. The funds would be used to scale up its operations and push the products further in the market to generate enough revenues. “Our growth will depend on our ability to distribute efficiently and build credibility around the products,” says Gupta. EH has tied up with a leading publishing house that reaches out to 10,000 schools and an e-learning resources provider to integrate RTM as a part of its curriculum packages. It has also tied up with NGOs, including one in Karnataka that reaches out to 600 rural schools for running a pilot project in the Hubli district. The company is also reaching out to skill building / training organisations as well as to companies with large customer facing employee footprints.
Thus far, EH has relied upon word of mouth and customer referrals for building product awareness. The calling card of the products is its singular focus on English while most others concentrate on subjects, thus making them supplementary to other products. The company is majorly investing in these two products now. “Even if the revenue goes up by 10 times this year, it would still be outstripped by the investment in research and development. Hopefully, this should reduce in time,” says Gupta. While there is a dedicated team for R&D in Boston, content development takes place in its Gurgaon office.
RTM is its commercial product that supports varied features such as patented dual highlighting which tracks each sentence/paragraph as it is read. It also offers one-click access to word meanings/synonyms and personalised instructions backed by sticky notes, voice notes, inserted bubble notes, multiple choice and other test questions. Through its indigenisation, a neutral Indian accent and vernacular translation have been added.
Making a change
For a while, Gupta was living the highflying corporate life. He was the senior executive and India leader providing leadership oversight for American Express. Prior to this, he was based in New York and Singapore, heading Amex’s global financial operations and customer service across international markets respectively. Gupta also spent the initial part of his career as controller and CFO in companies like Pepsico and Motorola. “I got tired of the corporate life and wanted to move onto a role that made a difference and decided on education because of the gap it presents in our country,” he says. It was around the same time that Gupta ran into Srinivasan and soon realised they shared the same values. “I evaluated his products and realised it has great potential,” he adds. Before Gupta came on board in May 2011, EH had just finished its pilot runs and received good feedback. Once he joined, he put together a blueprint for its expansion, formed partnerships, expanded his team to 40, identified target segments and obtained investment.
Founder: Dr. Venkat Srinivasan
City: New Delhi
Investors: Omidyar Network in March 2012
“Building awareness was the biggest challenge. I had to rely on personal network to get the word out and tie-up with the right partners to improve our visibility. And learning to balance cash reserves with expenditure was important too,” shares Gupta. Also, finding a unique pricing model that would work in India was important to support its mission of bringing affordable learning technology to the country as well as dealing with price rationality of customers. To grow the team, Gupta decided to target women who can work with flexible work hours and now, over 90 per cent of the team consists of them. To gain ground, EH wants to build on customer engagement and sponsorship. It also hopes to rely on social media to spread the word. The product is mainly present in regions like Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and the national capital region. It has centres in Hyderabad, Pune, New Delhi and Gurgaon and will be opening one in Bengaluru soon.
Building on knowledge
Keeping its products affordable is crucial for EH to build both scalability and create impact. According to Gupta, about 80 per cent of the product’s customers are from the lower end of the economic pyramid. “Thus, our social impact directly correlates to how successful we are. We simply base it on the number of people who have been touched by our products,” says Gupta.
Presently, Gupta wants to build a brand and win customer loyalty. The company will also be launching WA soon. And it hopes to consolidate its presence in Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, and enter Bihar, Gujarat etc. In 18-24 months time, EH aims to target global markets. “Reach expansion is an on-going activity but never at the expense of customer satisfaction,” adds Gupta, on a parting note.
The key to making sure they meet their social impact objective:
Distribution and building reach is critical. Thus, partnerships are key. But it is equally important that EH products are gainfully used. Building reputation by ensuring effectiveness will be the biggest lever for achieving the company’s objectives.
Measuring social impact metrics:
There is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that EH products significantly impact learning. This is obvious from assessments and measurements as well as anecdotally supported by learner, teacher and stakeholder feedback. For now, EH has adopted a simple but powerful social metric i.e. number of people empowered by using its products.
Sanjay Gupta’s thoughts on impact investing:
Being on the advisory council of Acumen Fund for four years, I know that investing with a goal of social and/or environmental impact is a great developing segment. Though it’s a challenge to hunt down the right investment opportunity but the sustainability of the business, its uniqueness and the individuals who head it will be important to convince the investor. For instance, Ziqitza Healthcare Limited, which runs the ‘Dial 1298 for ambulance’ service in Mumbai, received investment from Acumen and is doing amazing work. For EH, Omidyar Network’s philosophy and investing ethos are perfectly matched with our vision to be a successful social enterprise.