Let’s not teach towards the test

Monday, May 14, 2018 - 10:52

The greatest obstacle to entrepreneurs in India is the attitude towards education. There is little room for the outliers

“Why hasn’t India built its own Google or Facebook?” That’s a question perennially asked in technology circles. In other words, when will this country — which is rich in highly trained software engineers, English language skills, with such an entrepreneurial spirit, and with a vast market — develop the conditions to build a global tech player?

India has many of the essential ingredients that fertile tech ecosystems need. It has more young people than any other country in the world — as many as 600 million — with over half the population under 25 years and two-thirds under 35. By the end of this decade it will produce the highest number of graduates in the world, the second-highest number of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) graduates and double the number of engineering graduates as the US and China every year.

Indian talent is thriving around the world, exporting the country’s soft power and demonstrating the country’s pioneering approach to technology. Fifteen per cent of Silicon Valley startups are founded by Indians, and many Indians have reached senior management positions in US tech firms, including Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO.

Right ingredients

India’s vast population and shortage of job opportunities creates a competitive environment that requires energy and initiative — two essential qualities for entrepreneurs. Access to investor finance has also improved dramatically since around 2010. The old assumption that India’s creaking infrastructure makes startup creation difficult is outdated. Digital India has performed well; and the revolutionary Aadhaar digital identity and payments infrastructure beats any international competitor.

The real barriers to tech success are cultural rather than physical, internal rather than external. There needs to be a transformation, particularly among middle-class parents, on what is considered a successful career. The weight of expectation falls on young people to become either engineers, doctors or accountants — careers that offer prestige and security for their families — rather than the perilous but potentially vastly more rewarding path of the entrepreneur.

At Davos last week Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that he wanted young Indians to be job givers rather than job seekers. Currently, even those who enter tech prefer to work for employers such as Google or Microsoft rather than start their own company. Figures from the IIM-Ahmedabad show that of its 383 graduates, nearly half (46.5 per cent) pursued careers in finance or consulting. Only eight opted to start a business.

Change we must

Creating a visionary company requires grit and a willingness to defer financial rewards until long into the future. Most importantly, it demands that you ignore the insistent voices telling you to abandon your dream and settle on a career. Indian society does not give enough support to entrepreneurs who are on this arduous path.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to entrepreneurs is Indian attitudes towards education. Though education is revered, it is treated as important because it is the gateway to prestigious universities, which will eventually lead to a prestigious, established profession. Education is valued as the first rung in the ladder to a secure job rather than for its capacity to inspire creativity, critical thinking and knowledge for its own sake.

This utilitarian attitude also distorts subject choices: liberal arts, which are seen as less useful for a career, are treated far less seriously than the sciences. However, creating a successful tech business often requires lateral thinking and insights into human behaviour — skills that are honed by the humanities as much as the sciences.

Famously, Steve Jobs claimed the most important element in the design of the Apple Macintosh was a calligraphy course he attended at Reed College (a liberal arts school). Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter owe as much to sociological insight as technical innovation.

Jobs’ experience shows that inspiration comes from leaving students some freedom to pursue their own intellectual curiosities — which is the opposite of the preoccupation with ‘teaching towards the test” that dominates in India. With India ranking 94th in the world for creative outputs, according to the 2016 Global Innovation Index, Indian education must take the liberal arts more seriously.

Indian education must learn to leave room for the outliers: the freethinkers whose vision the start-up scene needs. Those young people who feel stifled by conventional education face the additional pressure of feeling they are letting their parents down. (I was one of those restless, short-attention span pupils who failed 8th and 12th grade). Such a narrow definition of success in the education system can be damaging because it can erode young people’s self-belief: a quality every entrepreneur needs.

Nurture entrepreneurs

However, much is changing in India for the better. The Indian tech diaspora, steeped in the culture of Silicon Valley and knowledge of what is required for global success, are returning home and applying their knowledge. A generation of Indian clean-living tech entrepreneurs such as Vijay Shekhar Sharma and Vinod Khoslahas been elevated to hero status for their financial success, civic-mindedness; and because, beneath it all, their work depends on hallowed science skills. This, in turn, is slowly changing parental attitudes.

It’s important that these role models from beyond traditional professions are discussed and showcased in our schools and throughout the media. One huge ratings success is the TED Talks India Nayi Soch show — a programme presented by Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan that profiled entrepreneurs that are tapping into new trends. It is being viewed by tens of millions each week.

The greatest sign of India’s readiness to create a global tech giant will not just be the familiar metrics on investment rates or internet speed — but when Indian society finds better ways to nurture its entrepreneurs. It is then that more and more young students across the country — from the academically gifted to the unconventional – will receive the support and encouragement needed that can inspire them to create an Indian global tech player.

The writer is CEO and co-founder of Blippar

Published on March 01, 2018

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