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Madhav Chavan & Rukmini Banerji in conversation with the Harvard Business School

In an interview with Harvard Business School, Rukmini Banerji, CEO, and Madhav Chavan, Co-founder of Pratham Education Foundation, trace Pratham's journey and the need to address gaps in the education system.

Download the full interview transcript: https://www.hbs.edu/creating-emerging-markets/Documents/transcripts/Chavan-Banerji_Final-Transcript%20for%20Web.pdf

Interview Summary

Chavan and Banerji begin the interview by reflecting on their educations and early careers prior to Pratham. Both moved to the United States for graduate studies, obtaining PhD degrees in Chemistry and Education respectively. When Chavan returned to India in 1986, he intended to become a chemistry teacher. However, he was drawn to an adult literacy program started by the Indian Prime Minister at the time, Rajiv Gandhi. The adult literacy program later began to dissipate after 1991 following India's shift towards liberalization. In 1992-93, the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) began focusing on primary education with the goal of bringing business, government and the voluntary sectors together in order to understand and solve problems with the education system in India. It was in this context that Chavan co-founded Pratham in Mumbai, with the goal of implementing a new model and approach to the situation.

Banerji joined Pratham in 1996, while it was starting to expand by opening hundreds and then thousands of preschool centers around Mumbai. During her first years with Pratham, Banerji conducted a study to assess the math skills of 3rd and 4th grade students. The simple assessment evolved into ASER, the Annual Status of Education Report – an academic report that is widely used in India as well as other countries. She emphasizes the need to develop easily replicable educational tools and assessments that can stimulate policy action and change.

As India continued to develop rapidly in the 2000s, Chavan explains that the need to address gaps in the education system became increasingly clear, particularly to businesses which started establishing foundations dedicated to supporting education. As an organization, Pratham held a unique position as it worked alongside both government and businesses. They built partnerships with government at different levels, and Chavan emphasizes how that was important given that there is “no single thing called government.” He relates that working with different layers of government was comparable to “playing the whole court.”

Banerji and Chavan proceed by laying out the challenges that persist in India’s education sector, especially following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and the expansion of remote learning technologies. They discuss a need to look at education as a whole from a different perspective, utilizing technology to break down barriers to learning. This includes promoting the use of PraDigi, a digital initiative that provides tablets equipped with a learning app delivering high-quality, interactive educational content. Chavan underscores the importance of utilizing such technology to foster an easily accessible and open learning environment.

To conclude the interview, Banerji and Chavan address the question of leadership succession, as Banerji became Pratham’s Chief Executive Officer in 2015 after Chavan. While Chavan remains involved, he articulates advice for leaders who should “get out of the way of the next person,” preparing the organization and relationships within it for a new leadership style. While describing themselves as different when it comes to their approach, both Banerji and Chavan express a persistent commitment to expanding the organization’s mission further, by having “every child in school and learning well.”

This article was originally published by Harvard Business School. You can read the full article here: Madhav Chavan & Rukmini Banerji.