India’s SaaS Guru Zoho Founder Turns Teacher For Rural Kids, Starts School With a Difference


India’s multi-national firm empire which provides online business solutions to the world is currently providing offline schooling to children in Tamil Nadu’s rural village. Silicon Valley star Sridhar Vembu, founder of Zoho teaches at and runs a school called Kalaivani, chiefly attended by children of daily wage labourers.

The school was not on the cards when he moved to Tenkasi. Shuttling between Chennai and Pleasanton, California, and Austin, Texas (where Zoho has its American offices) for years, Sridhar wanted a quiet life. Seclusion was the way and Tenkasi turned out to be the destination.

When the pandemic struck, the after-effects of the lockdown opened him up to the true economic schism, that the taken-for-granted urban and class-limited conveniences like smartphones and Internet are hard to come by in the rural areas: “When the pandemic started, I noticed that the children had really nothing to do and they do not come from an economic background where they have phones or computers. So, for them, there is no real concept of online education. I started out by just asking them to come in and tutoring them…”

Now, the school serves over 100 children and has a staff strength of nine teachers. Proud of this ratio, Vembu is equally stoked by the new building that’s housing the school. Each day, the children arrive early in the morning and stay till 4:30 p.m. Between classes are served breakfast, lunch and an evening snack.

At school, one of the oldest and perpetuating problems in the Indian education system haunts Vembu’s venture too. Students in rural, underprivileged backgrounds drop out a lot more; some return to school after missing a year or two; many have an understanding of concepts not commensurate with the grades they should be in.

Vembu decided on an open schooling model. Students are evaluated first to gauge how much they have grasped; a perusal of their interests then guides which level they should be placed. The school sets many stores by projects; wherever possible children get their hands dirty, be it a science or a civic project.

Probably not a thought-out move, but Vembu has got the Zoho employees chipping in. From behind glass doors, employees have been taking the bus down to Southern Tamil Nadu to teach at Kalaivani. With Math, science and music being the sought-after choices for employees, students get a good mix of visiting faculty.

At Zoho, Vembu has made it possible for him to allocate less mental bandwidth for running the corporate. He doesn’t weigh in on day-to-day tasks but instead takes positions on which technology to back and which to stay out of, which product line to push and which to pull back. This decentralization has been key for his individual pursuits.

Going forward, Vembu wants to educate a child for every hire at Zoho. “So we only have about 130 kids, we want to go up to 10,000 kids…As we[Zoho] grow, keep this growing, that is our goal. And so, we are going to start in other villages as well..”

The larger picture of the school’s idea is actually economic. Vembu has plans to make economic linkages that form the contours of a self-sustained village economy, and education is the starting point. Education fosters innovation which can, in turn, empower rural communities to raise their profile economically.

“My goal for our rural initiatives is to link education, employment, particularly manufacturing, organic and natural farming, health, technology development, and R&D. We should not be thinking merely as just poor people that need to develop. It’s also a good place to live. A vibrant local economy, economic coordination, that is possible…”

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