Alum Ventures: HeyMath! – Nirmala Sankaran, PGP 1988

Founder of HeyMath! which has recently completed 20 years, Nirmala Sankaran leaves you with a feeling of awe and admiration. Her ideas on education and what it should necessarily do in each individual’s life gives a lot more as food for thought. Having conceived an idea with digitalization still seeming far fetched, she dared to do something different. Sucess of HeyMath! has yet again proven it’s worth to dare, take a chance and give it your all. And being quoted by a Pulitzer winner makes the deal all the more sweeter.

In a up close interview with Nirmala, a very vibrant individual with radiant personality.

Please tell us something about yourself.

I come from a regular tambram family where education was given the highest priority. Our weekend outings, when I was growing up in Delhi, were to the British Council Library! So, it came as a shock to my parents when I told them that I wanted to pursue cricket as a career! That was not going to happen. So, I eventually accepted my fate and like many of my peers joined SRCC and thereafter IIM. The 2 best decisions in hindsight but thankfully I never lost my love for cricket. Bunking school for test matches at Ferozeshah Kotla to watching the IPL finals at Durban count as my most unforgettable memories.

After graduating from IIM, I attempted a PhD at NYU’s Stern School of Business but realised after 2 years that I wasn’t really cut out for academia. The pain of leaving an exciting place like Manhattan was brutal but I decided to join Citibank and relocated to India. The next 11 years between Bombay, Bahrain and London were exhilarating as well as the best training ground in one of the most dynamic organisations. In 2000, I left Citibank and co-founded HeyMath!

I thrive on travel and have visited 35 countries. In 1988, I went on a backpack trip to Poland and the Czech Republic to witness the fall of communism. It was a chilling experience to be the only person in Auschwitz.

How and when did you get the idea for your venture HeyMath!?

It was 1999; the start of the dotcom era when commercial applications of the Internet were just discovered. India had earned its 5 minutes of global fame having solved the Y2K software issue. I was in London, feeling a bit stagnant at work and itching to do something new. The media coverage that caught my attention was students struggling in Math and the shortage of Maths teachers globally. It looked like a large and challenging problem to solve. Since this was venturing into education, we knew that having an academic partner was critical to establish early credibility. After some research, we stumbled upon a pioneering website created by the University of Cambridge – the mecca for Mathematics! We knocked on their doors and proposed a partnership to them. Once that happened, I did the bungee jump!

In the beginning, it was not very clear as to what the exact solution to the problem would be. But, the puzzle had 3 pieces : Math, the Internet and India.

Over time, an idea started taking root ‘What if we digitised the teaching methodologies of the best teachers in the world and make that accessible to every student and teacher via an Internet-based platform. And, what if the R & D center was based out of India’. That was the birth of HeyMath!

It was an ecstatic moment when 5 years later, Thomas Friedman described our mission as ‘To be the Math Google’ in his New York Times op-ed and also quoted HeyMath! as an example of Globalisation in Education in his bestseller ‘The World is Flat’.

What is HeyMath!? And what unique offering differentiates it from other platforms?

HeyMath’s mission is to upskill teachers and enable success for every student in Math. Our solution comprises digital lessons from counting to calculus, a large repository of problems and a technology platform that connects teachers and students through online accounts. We also have a personalised learning program (PLP) consisting of topic wise diagnostic quizzes, followed by lesson recommendations and targeted practice. PLP helps students bridge their conceptual gaps and serves as a better alternative to tuitions.

HeyMath! makes Math enjoyable through animations, games and engaging stories. Our methodology helps students develop an interest in the subject, build confidence and become self-directed learners. We also use lots of real-world examples to contextualise Math, make it inter-disciplinary and relevant for students.

Over the last 20 years, HeyMath! has ben adopted by schools in Singapore, US, South Africa, India, Brazil and Colombia. Our product has been localised for each of these geographies and curricula.  What makes HeyMath! unique is our high touch relationship approach, ongoing support for teachers, culture of continuous innovation and accountability for results.

What is the future of EdTech in India?

It’s an idea whose time has come!

The pandemic has caused a paradigm shift in the concept of education. Overnight, learning spaces have got virtualised, time has got virtualised, schooling itself has got virtualised – and all of this has happened at unimaginable speed and scale. The lockdown has forced schools to question the most basic assumptions like: does learning happen only in a classroom, why should content be limited to textbooks? What new skills would a teacher need to thrive in this new world?

The good thing is that new habits and routines have formed on their own in response to the ‘need for the show to go on’. Both teachers and students have had to rapidly adapt to virtual classrooms. EdTech which was all along perceived by schools as a vitamin have now become a pain killer. The vocabulary of teachers has changed; our conversations are now about flipped classrooms and real-time quizzes.

School closures have also brought the teacher fraternity together for the first time in a manner that has never happened before. There is a real sense of shared challenges, shared anxieties, and shared aspirations for professional growth. This is quite an amazing trend!

One other change that has happened is that all stakeholders in the eco-system are in much closer proximity now than ever before. Parents are literally part of their child’s online classes and this has implications for a facilitation role they could possibly play in the future.

For us, COVID is like a repeat of 2004 when SARS broke out in Singapore. We were one of a few Ed-Tech companies back then; and we helped schools transition to E-Learning to minimise disruption in curriculum time. Online teaching is now an integral part of a school’s contingency plan in Singapore because as a country they took the decision to never be caught off guard again by a crisis. A similar situation is playing out at a much larger scale today, and affecting the key geographies we work in. Even when schools re-open, 50% of the curriculum will be transacted online.

Role of IIMB in your journey.

The 2 years at IIM Bangalore were a defining period in my life. The institute offered several opportunities for intellectual and personal growth. We had some of the finest professors who were brilliant in their respective fields. They were approachable, believed in us and encouraged independent thinking. We learned about collaboration and problem-solving. Our batch was quite diverse and that contributed to rich and insightful discussions in class. I also developed leadership skills by taking ownership of student activities. The fact that several of my classmates went on to become successful entrepreneurs, academics and corporate leaders is an affirmation of the significant influence that IIMB had in shaping us. I am ever so grateful to the institution for providing me a fantastic foundation from which to launch my career. I also made some of the deepest friendships and even today our batch is a closely-knit group. My association with IIMB has continued all through the years, and I am happy to be on the steering committee for IIMBUE and a mentor at the NSRCEL.

Other amazing memories are randomly hanging around at Aunty’s over endless cups of chai, chicken roast on Sundays, smuggling in beer from Bilekahalli and the A Block security guard hollering announcements of surprise tests! The ambience of the IIMB campus simply cannot be matched by any other IIM!

What have been your learnings as an entrepreneur and what keeps an entrepreneur going?

Entrepreneurship is an emotional rollercoaster with cycles of anxiety, euphoria and feelings of isolation all rolled into one! There is no such thing as work-life balance when you are an entrepreneur.

Mentors are your life line to keep you sane!

Great mentors know your back story and support you holistically as an individual. They provide a safe space for expression and vulnerability around the challenges you face. They bring in an 80000 feet perspective as well as a tactical focus to problems. They help organise your thinking by asking hard questions and tether you to your long terms goals. Good mentors don’t try to change your core. Instead, they work around your inherent strengths and shortcomings. As an entrepreneur, self-awareness is very important in order to stay grounded. A good mentor helps you sharpen this quality and strengthen your ability to trust your own gut.

I’ve relied upon time and again on 2 mentors; both are men and I jokingly call them my agony aunts. One is my brother Arvind Sankaran and the other is my childhood friend Raghuram Rajan.    

The life of an entrepreneur is very demanding. It is like a series of mad sprints and a gruelling marathon. So, hitting refresh from time to time becomes very important to generate new energy and new ideas.

Another learning is to future proof yourself by regularly investing in your personal and professional growth. Towards that end, I recently completed a 12-month course called the Stanford Seed Transformation program It was one of the best gifts I have given myself. The Stanford Seed program is unique in its design; especially the way in which academic immersions are blended with experiential workshops run by high-quality facilitators. The fundamental idea behind the program is for entrepreneurs to take a hard look at their businesses to identify pillars and roadblocks towards achieving transformative growth.

Success to me is about enabling and nurturing people to raise their own game. This can happen when you create the right organisational DNA. The culture at HeyMath! is non-hierarchical, inclusive, empowering and one that promotes autonomy. At the entrance of our office, we have this quote ‘The 21st century is not about India vs China. It’s about women’!

I strongly believe that women leaders can be a force for good. A testimony to this is how countries run by women have handled the COVID crisis so differently and successfully.

Leadership in this century calls for authenticity, empathy, influence and collaboration. And, in order to raise the ceiling of your leadership potential, you need to extend your presence through the actions of others. This will be a focus area for me in the coming years.

A favorite quote.

You’re only given a little spark of madness. You musn’t lose it. Robin Williams

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