Social Impact: CEO & MD at Central Square Foundation – Shaveta Sharma Kukreja, PGP 2000

There is no denying that education is a tool, if not a power, that can shape an individual’s life and have a significant impact on society. Early childhood education is the most discussed topic in global circles, as it lays the groundwork for a child’s future development, providing a solid foundation for lifelong learning and abilities, including cognitive and social development.

Ms. Shaveta Sharma Kukreja, CEO and MD at Central Square Foundation is working on making education an effective tool for learning. A firm believer in the power of education, it is people like her who become catalysts for big changes we see in society. In this interview with Ms. Shaveta, we talk about her role at CSF, journey and more.

Could you please tell us something about yourself?

I am a woman in today’s India- a daughter, wife & mother, with a career, dreams, opinions and a voice. Life started with a typical middle-class and rooted upbringing in Delhi, I was fortunate to have access to a great education- SRCC and then IIMB, which opened up a spectrum of opportunities that transformed my life with a thriving corporate career across BCG/ Citibank. My father grew up in a village and moved to Delhi after high school, and the role of education in his journey had also always inspired me.

I had grown up with “working for an NGO” as not just my standard response to the oft-asked where do you see yourself ~10/ 20 years down the line question, but also my belief. Post my long’ish sabbatical when I had my two kids, I got the chance to join the development sector as a founding team member of Central Square Foundation (CSF), and I am now the CEO & MD @ CSF. I am fortunate to have found my mission in leaving this world a better place than I found it.

What is Central Square Foundation, and what does it do?

Central Square Foundation is a non-profit organization working with the vision of ensuring quality school education for all children in India. We are driven by our mission to transform the school education system towards improving the learning outcomes of children, especially from low-income communities.

India has one of the largest schooling systems in the world with almost 25 crore school-going children and 10 lakh teachers and has made significant progress towards ensuring access and enrolment. However, studies have shown that ensuring that students are in school does not naturally lead to an increase in their learning. Schooling is still not equal to learning in India and many children get left behind without attaining the most basic skills in primary school. We work on critical areas of early learning FLN and EdTech (Education Technology). Our underlying principle is to work with the government system- scale and sustainability are part of the design.

What prompted you to become involved with an NGO?

My move to the development sector is a testament to the famous Paul Coelho quote, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it”!

Ever since I can remember, my long-term goal was to always work for an NGO and help in making a difference in people’s lives around me. At that time this came from the simple desire to see a more equitable world. I am from the generation where MBA and my corporate career was the default option, so I went with the flow. I knew of MSW (Master in Social Work) as a degree but had neither the vision nor the gumption to pursue it.

Fortunately, when I was looking to come back to full-time work post my sabbatical after I had my children, the childhood/ youthful dream of “giving back” could be channelized into a career. Everywhere I looked I found burning issues in society. As a girl/ woman growing up in Delhi, gender was an issue I felt most strongly about. I had seen issues of sustainable development, CSR, and the environment from a corporate lens. However, I landed on Education as a really transformative need of society. I believe all of us have personal experience of seeing Education to be a great leveller and a key enabler for uplifting not just an individual but a family. And I was fortunate to be part of the founding team when CSF was being set up in 2012 which enabled me to put that mission to work to drive systemic change in India.

What are the services/ programs offered by CSF? How does it work?

CSF works on FLN and EdTech, and our approach is anchored on

(1) Working with both Central and State governments on key issues & implementation of policies

(2) Partnering with organizations in the sector towards adoption of large scale and sustainable solutions

(3) Increase availability of research, evidence and innovative programs

For our work in FLN, we partner with 12 state governments which means we cover up to 70% of children in FLN grades. Our focus in EdTech is both on B2C adoption for at-home learning and B2G for right integration of EdTech solutions to support in-class teaching in government schools.

Can you please tell us about us some interesting projects that you are working on currently?

One of the most pivotal points in our journey was ~2017/18 when BMGF (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) selected CSF as their first and only country partner for their work in Global Education.

Currently one of our most interesting project has been playing a catalytic role to bring the issue of early learning front & centre. From building salience & collective voice with other sector leaders for FLN, to seeing it get the pole position in India’s National Education Policy 2020 (which was revised after almost four decades), and then the launch of India’s FLN Mission NIPUN. We are now seeing through the work on NIPUN from compliance to commitment to change across a portfolio of 12 states in India. Organizationally we have grown to 100+ staff with ~Rs 70crore annual budget.

What does Education, according to you, means in the 75th year of Independence and where should we be heading from here?

Education is a key enabler for all social change; it is an equalize/ leveller, and passport to a better quality of life not just for an individual but for the family. In the 75th year of independence, Education is the critical enabler for India to tap into our demographic dividend, and will be core to the aspiration of taking India to being a developed country by 2047. No country in the world has become a developed nation without fixing its education system. We have islands of excellence like the IITs/ IIMs for the top 1 percent of students and a vast system that’s failing the rest of the students. We need to expand Right to Education to Right to Quality Education.

What hobbies or interests do you like you pursue in your free time?

Spending time with my family; reading & traveling (both of which I wish I had more time for), Bollywood movies & music

What memories comes to mind when you think of IIMB, and how has it influenced your personal journey?

IIMB was the first space where I saw myself as an adult! From incredible faculty to a super smart cohort of batch mates who became friends, case studies & class participation to L-square parties & movie nights in the amphitheatre, team projects to campus placements- precious memories for a lifetime. Engaging with Vipasana Club on campus is also a stand-out memory!