Interview: Krishnan Subbaraman (ICE 2008)

Take us through your journey.

I graduated from the Department of Instrumentation and Control Engineering at NITT in 2008. I immediately went on to get a degree in Business Management at XLRI, Jamshedpur, majoring in Finance and Economics. I then worked at Axis Bank for three years across Mumbai and Hyderabad in their corporate banking team, specifically in the area of infrastructure project finance. My team was in the business of evaluating, financing and tying up funding for large infrastructure projects that were bid out by the government on a Public Private Partnership basis – sectors like roads, power, ports, airports etc.
After three years at Axis Bank, I decided to take a sabbatical and joined the Teach for India fellowship, where I taught full-time at a government primary school for two years. At the end of the fellowship, I decided to not go back to the corporate sector, and instead took up an interesting opportunity at Central Square Foundation (CSF), a philanthropic foundation focused on improving the quality of school education in our country. Currently, I’ve spent three years at CSF in Delhi as a Senior Programme Manager, and have definitely decided that I will forge a career for myself in the development sector.

What made you switch from a lucrative, conventional banking job to the education space?

Mid-way through my third year into my banking job, I started getting restless thinking about how linear my life had been up to that point in time. Educated in a CBSE school in a metro; good academic performance throughout; four years of breezing through engineering in a reputed college; an MBA in a premier B-School; a well-paid job in Corporate Banking; a promotion after two years. It was almost as if I was charting a preordained course, a path which had been set out for me and I was just ticking all the boxes mechanically.

At the same time, I was able to recognise that the very linearity that I saw as boring and predictable was out of reach for the vast majority of Indian children.

Even though I was acutely aware of the multifarious disparities existing in India, I lacked the skills or the imagination to do anything about it on my own. Hence, I joined Teach for India (TFI) as a 2013 fellow. I saw TFI as a soft launch into the development space for me. It was an organised, coordinated movement of like-minded people working towards a vision that I believed in – an excellent education for all children.

What were your experiences as a fellow at TFI?
At TFI, I got the opportunity to be the class-teacher for a bunch of 45 rambunctious fourth and fifth graders in a government school in Chennai – teaching all subjects other than Tamil.

It was an emotional roller-coaster for me – there used to be moments when I’d just want to quit and go home, but then there were also these moments of magic when I really connected with a child, or could see the process of learning happen in front of my eyes.

The fellowship also gave me an opportunity to understand the extent of the learning crisis in India. Though my kids were in fourth standard when I first met them, they were functionally not literate in either Tamil or English. And the concept of critical thinking and self-expression was alien to them. I still remember on my first day, when I asked them to write a page on the topic ‘My Family’, most of them were completely blank. And this one girl had just filled out a page with the words ‘My family’, copied from the blackboard about 50 times.
So, that was my focus for the two years – basic literacy and numeracy coupled with critical thinking. Starting from basic phonetic skills, I was able to get most of the class to a place where they were confident that they could read and understand their textbooks in two years. I also tried to provide my kids with a lot of exposure opportunities through volunteer-led extracurriculars, field visits, and guest lectures – in a way, activities through which most of us picked up many critical life skills.
I tried recording a few of my experiences in a blog during my time at TFI – here. Do check it out if you’re interested!

What problems plague India’s school education system, and what is being done to solve some of them?

India’s school education system is the largest in the world, with 260 million children, 1.5 million schools, and 8.5 million teachers. Govt expenditure increased 15 times between 1990 and 2010, and as a result, 97% of 5-6 year old children enter Grade 1 now. Essentially, we’ve largely solved the problem of getting most kids into primary school. Yet, increased inputs and access to schooling have not led to improvements in learning. The proportion of 5th grade children who could read a 2nd grade text dropped from 59% in 2007 to 48% in 2016 as per the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER). Some reasons for this include low government focus on quality initiatives, low quality human resources and poor governance and accountability mechanisms.
However, the focus is slowly shifting towards quality, and governments are paying more attention to learning. Clear benchmarks have been developed to measure learning and innovative models are being developed for low-income settings. A few state governments are focusing on holistic education reform, and a large amount of philanthropic funding is now directed towards education. While these efforts are promising, there is still a long way to go.

What exactly is Central Square Foundation, why did you take this up, and what do you do here?

Founded in 2012, Central Square Foundation is a non-profit philanthropic foundation working with the vision of ensuring quality school education for all children in India. We are driven by our mission to transform the school education system with a focus on improving the learning outcomes of children, especially from low-income communities. In order to achieve this, we partner with individuals and social impact organizations to develop and test innovative solutions in education, as well as work with the government to drive systemic impact.
I joined CSF because of the opportunity to get a bird’s eye view of the education sector, as our work involves interacting with a wide spectrum of stakeholders – early stage social entrepreneurs, experienced non-profits, researchers and academics, for-profit companies with innovative solutions, and of course, the central and state governments. Solving a problem at scale, at a systemic level, was something that excited me. And of course, the calibre, commitment, and the humility of the founding team and senior leadership was another major factor.
In CSF, I manage two critical issue areas, what we refer to as the book-ends of the school education space. One is the Early Childhood Education space where we focus on improving the quality and provision of pre-school education across the country. The other is the School to Work Transition (SWT) space where we focus on improving access to meaningful economic opportunities for 14-17 year olds.

What are the different kinds of profiles one could take up in the development sector?

Maybe, I’ll start by describing what people refer to as the development sector or the social sector. I would refer to any job that is driven by a need to solve issues that can play a key role in human development as being in the development sector or social sector. These could include education, health, water supply and sanitation, gender rights, livelihoods, affordable housing etc. While in past decades, the development sector was synonymous with either a jhola-wala ‘NGO’ or volunteering over the weekends, a simple google search will reveal that this is no longer the case. The sector has evolved at a really rapid pace in India over the last 7-8 years and provides a great number of opportunities suited to young people with different visions, aspirations and skill-sets.
There are multiple choices you need to make to find an ideal role for yourself in the development sector.

(i) The first of course, is of the specific sub-sector or problem that you’re trying to solve (health, education etc.). I feel this needs to be based on a combination of head (i.e. what is the highest need sector, what is being done already etc.) and heart (what issue are you most passionate about, what can you relate to).

(ii) The second choice is about balancing scale and attributability of impact, which often trade-off against each other. For instance, if you’re directly teaching a bunch of 30 kids in a remote tribal area in Chhattisgarh, you would presumably have a fairly deep impact on their lives personally, but you’re only working with a small number of kids. On the other hand, if you’re working for a funder that has financed many programmes and supports them to grow, you’re impacting more people, but more indirectly. There is no ‘right answer’ as to which is better, but it’s critical to figure out for yourself what you value more.

(iii) The third choice is about functionality and identifying specifically what sort of role you would thrive in – these range from field work, project management, data and research, program design and management, consulting, fundraising, finance, government advocacy etc., to name just a few. A lot of these require specific skill-sets, of course, and need to be built.

How does one go about making these choices that you talk about?

I’d say it is a combination of research, trial and introspection. There is a ton of material available online now for everyone to find out more about the different organisations and roles available in the space. And a lot of people willing to take out their time to talk to young people interested in the sector. Then, of course, the trial piece. I personally had the economic, social and cultural luxury of trying something new before deciding to take the leap of faith, and I believe most of the readers of this piece will, as well. I’d urge people to take up fellowships, short-term projects, internships etc. that help us decide for ourselves what we like. And then of course, comes the rather underrated piece of introspection and reflection. I personally believe that we all know deep-down what drives and motivates us; it’s just a matter of laying it out truthfully in front of ourselves!

What are some things to consider if someone wants to start-up in the social space?

This is a great alternative to consider if you are fairly certain about the problem you want to tackle and feel you’re also equipped to take it on yourself. Again, in today’s India, there are a lot of incubators and accelerators that provide the much-needed early support (financial and otherwise) to social entrepreneurs. Maybe, a key decision someone needs to make is whether to start a for-profit social enterprise or a not-for-profit organisation. There are different reasons for choosing either, but I believe the entrepreneur must be very confident of his/her choice, and what their vision for their organisation is.
At CSF, we also fund early stage non-profits which we believe will anchor the next wave of education reform in India. Some of the criteria we look for include commitment and capability of the founding team, evidence backing their hypothesis or theory of change, scale-orientation and impact-orientation of the idea and the team, distinctiveness of approach etc. Of course, we believe that while most good entrepreneurs know what problem they want to solve, they figure out the ‘how’ along the way and hence are very open to experimentation and learning in their early years.

What has it been like for you, working in the development sector?

For me, the main motivator in working in this space is the promise of being able to positively impact people’s lives through my work. While it does sound a tad presumptuous, I genuinely believe that out of the 20-25 productive working years that we all have, even if we are able to move the needle on development by a tiny bit, it’s probably worth our while. Some things I really enjoy about working in this space is my colleagues and professional network – many of whom are passionate and inspirational in their own way. And one thing I really don’t miss from my earlier workplace is the water-cooler conversations about ratings, increments and bonuses !
The only warning that a senior professional in this space told me, and which I agree with, was that there is a definite tendency to feel self-righteous and beyond accountability, just by virtue of being in the philanthropy / development sector. In a sector where no feedback comes automatically from the market, I feel the need to be extremely self-critical of my work and keep asking the tough question all the time – ‘Are we making any real impact by doing this?’

What are some entry points into the sector for people fresh out of college or early in their careers?

The ideal entry points still remain the fellowships – mainly because of the structure and hand-holding they offer. In education, for instance, there’s the Teach for India fellowship and the Gandhi fellowship. Then there are classroom programmes – like the Young India fellowship, and even the programmes offered by the Indian School of Development Management (ISDM). Of course, a degree in public policy or development economics (either abroad or in India) is also an option. However, there are still a lot of organisations which are always on the lookout for fresh talent and will be willing to offer entry-level positions to folks straight out of college or after 1-2 years of work experience – one just needs to do the research and apply online.

What is the one message you want to leave our readers with?

I think the key message is that it is indeed very possible to have a career in the social sector today – a full-time, sustainable job with decent remuneration and a structured growth path in a very professional environment.

While there will be some resistance from friends and family initially to your move, these will be easily overcome once they also get to see how much the sector has matured and professionalised of late.

Krishnan Subbaram was one of the five alumni interviewed for our in-depth coverage of what working in the development sector looks like. To know more, click here.

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