Aman Srivastava and Sanskriti Dawle, computer science graduates of 2016 batch from BITS Pilani, Rajasthan, India are among those very few new age students who dared to break free of the herd mentality of Indian middle class opting for so called safe career in corporate or government job sectors right after completing their studies. Rather Aman and Sanskriti took up a social innovation project as a social enterprise for profit. They came up with an innovative idea that can solve the low literacy and employment problem of the millions of visually challenged people – a big social issue worldwide and especially in India, when they were in the third year of their college. During their visit to Devnar High School For The Blind in Hyderabad in January 2015, which is one of the biggest English medium schools for the blind in India, they realized the limitations of conventional braille teaching and its constricting impact on the employability of the blind people in a wide range of jobs. “ During our interaction with the class X students at Devnar school for the blind, we found many of them had pretty high ambitions. A couple of them told that they wanted to pursue mechanical engineering. But their poor Braille literacy was proving to be a big impediment to that,” said Aman. “In fact the Braille literacy in India is just 1% whereas it is 10% in the US and 4% in the UK”, he added.
That is how Project Mudra – a ‘braille teacher’ was born, which aims at aiding braille learning intuitive “by using an accessible mobile app which acts as an interface between the user and the raspberry pi based braille hardware using speech recognition”. It also makes braille teaching more efficient – by making teaching to multiple students at a time, possible, with greater access to content and enhanced monitoring by the physical teacher.
Project Mudra was born as a BITS Pilani edu-tech start-up to create an ecosystem for non-visual apps, software and hardware. It has won several awards such as Great Tech Rocketships by UK Trade and Investment, Best Social Innovation at intech50, 500K BIZ Launchpad by Sandbox Satrups, Deshpande Foundation, Conquest 2016 : International Startup Conclave among others.
But the most memorable moments were when Aman and Sanskriti pitched their flagship device in the presence of the Duke and the Dutches of England during their recent visit to India and the royal couple successfully typed their son’s name George in it.
Today Aman and Sanskriti with two other fellow students Dilip Ramesh and Saif Shaikh from their college have formed a private limited company called Thinkerbell Labs based at Bangalore.
They are in the process of patenting the prototype of their flagship device called Annie, a braille dicta-teacher, named after Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher, which deals with the basic problems of learning reading, writing and typing faced by the blind students by attaching a box with six pegs to a Raspberry Pi. The pegs move up or down as words come through the machine’s headphone jack.
“We always wanted to do something new, interesting and innovative. Typical corporate or IT jobs didn’t attract us. We didn’t even sit for campus interviews as we didn’t want to get sucked into the comfort zone of a regular salaried job,” says Aman. While they got immense support from their college in the research stage of this project, especially from the New Venture Creation Course (NVC) of BITS Pilani, incubating most of the start-ups from the institution, converting it into a career choice was not easy.
Aman’s father works in the Indian Defense and mother is a teacher. Although both his parents are very supportive of his aspiration, initially they were apprehensive and unsure of the prospect of this project and hence worried about Aman’s decision to skip even campus placement and pursue this as an entrepreneur. They wanted him to first join a job and gather experience for a couple of years and then do his own business. They are concerned and anxious to see him “stand on his own feet” – a figurative expression for a person being economically self-sufficient – often used by Indian middle class families to their children.
“Though my parents are entrepreneurs (both of them are civil engineers and run a consultancy firm), they too first wanted me to do my Masters’ degree and then take the plunge in business,” says the co-founder of Project Mudra, Sanskriti.
But the fresh graduates are very confident of their idea and determined to follow it through to success.
“We were very clear about not doing a ‘me too’ kind of startup or aggregator model of business. We wanted to create an IP – unique and useful,” asserts Sanskriti.
Besides garnering the confidence of their respective families , keeping up the spirit of entrepreneurship through the constant roller coaster of trial and error, the determination to push their way through the challenges of acquiring investors’ confidence and funding, sacrificing the lure of happy-go-lucky life, curb the urge to let their hair down and have fun, do not come easy.
“But the idea of doing a social good through technology based innovation, putting in our skill sets to best of its use and creating a scalable business model is far too gratifying than all that,” affirms a beaming Aman.
In this time of job crunch and socio-economic problems plaguing India, more and more students should take to social entrepreneurship as a career. That seems one of the most feasible ways out to inclusive progress, employment creation and innovation, propelling development and prosperity. Parents, families, government and the society at large need to change their mind-set of short term, self centered goals, and encourage and support the new generation in this direction for the creation of a better world.
Photo Courtesy: Aman Srivastava