Social Entrepreneur Index Nominee: STiR Education
We talk to Sharath Jeevan, CEO of STiR Education about the inspiration behind his social enterprise, the challenges he faced and his plans for the future.
What does your social enterprise do?
In the world’s attempts to reach Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 4), we’ve built the garden wall of access to education. And we’re planting better and better technical seeds: reading programmes to adaptive learning software. But the motivational soil is simply not fertile: teachers have fallen out of love with teaching. Officials don’t trust their teachers and children don’t engage in learning.
STiR Education is the only organisation globally focused on making that soil fertile again – in order to realise the promise of education and the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4. We are proving that Indian teachers can fall in love with teaching again. And that officials can learn to support and trust their teachers. All so that Indian children can fall back in love with learning.
And we’re doing so at significant scale: this year impacting 200,000 teachers and 6 million children across 4 Indian states (Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu) and the national education system in Uganda.
STiR implements its approach through a model of localised teacher networks – think of these as ‘micro-finance groups for teachers’. Groups of 20 to 30 teachers meet every month and are exposed to evidence-based ideas for how to improve their teaching practice. But they aren’t told what to do. Instead they decide as a group what action plans to put in place in their classrooms, commit their actions to each other, and practise this in the meetings. Between meetings, they are observed in school (by a peer or headteacher) trying out the new practice and receive useful feedback for further improvement.
These teacher networks are run, managed and monitored by local government officials (at district, block, cluster and school level) right from the outset – so no dependency is created, since accountability and ownership of the programme are the responsibilities of the district. During the 5-year partnerships, STiR provides quality assurance, data, training and coaching support to a district with the aim of fully embedding the model into government systems, after which it retains only light-touch support.
What made you start your business up?
Many years ago, I found myself at a daunting career crossroads. I was a young, supposedly high-flying strategy consultant with all the associated corporate trappings – glamorous hotels, business class flights, and the self-ordained smugness of working on supposedly important issues.
The problem was the clothes didn’t really fit (including in a literal sense – I hated the ties). I didn’t see a huge amount of meaning in what I did. And so after a long flirtation with the international development sector, I decided to leave to work on a special assignment for the CEO of ActionAid. After gaining some more experience as Head of Social Ventures at eBay, I then started launching non-profits such as Global Giving UK and Teaching Leaders, which focused on developing a new generation of school leaders in the UK’s most challenging inner-city schools.
Through this experience, I began to reflect more deeply about the needs of the sector. I saw education ministers around the world investing heavily in new interventions without understanding how they would really help improve learning outcomes for children, while individual teachers could make a huge difference through small-scale changes. I wanted to give teachers around the world the motivation, tools and ecosystem to make sustainable change, so I set up STiR to try to make this happen.
How do you measure your impact?
We are committed to rigorous evidence. Two years into our existence, we ran a World Bank-funded randomised control trial which demonstrated a strong ‘business case’ to government: every dollar into the approach gave the government $7 in additional teaching time within a year. And our work across all government secondary schools in Delhi contributed to the state achieving its best ever learning results.
As a learning organisation, STiR uses evidence to continue to adapt and improve its model, to the point where it has now been integrated into the heart of state systems for teacher development. We are now building a mobile app to generate behavioural and outcome data at every level of education systems: officials, teachers and children. This data is shared monthly with state governments as a basis for continuous improvement.
We also use rapid learning cycles to test key impact hypotheses and swiftly act upon their insights, while we have started a 5-year longitudinal study to follow cohorts of officials, teachers and children over time. This will ensure the integrity of the big datasets and also help us to deepen our learning by going further into specific indicators, and conducting deep qualitative studies to understand the why and how behind observed changes in behaviours.
What help did you have to start your social enterprise?
As one of our founding partners, Ark Ventures (Absolute Return for Kids’ incubator) provided us with office space as well as legal and financial support in our early days. Furthermore, a number of mentors, such as Jo Owen who serves as Chair of our board, gave invaluable advice when manoeuvring the start-up phase.
We started with just 25 teachers in Delhi in 2012, and we have been very grateful for the support of partners such as the MasterCard Foundation, DFID and the UBS Optimus Foundation, which has enabled our growth. We now have 18 funding partners, all of whom have provided strategic as well as financial support to help us to where we are today.
How did you decide on what legal form would work best for your business?
From early on, we knew that our work with partners (from affordable private schools at the beginning to NGOs which delivered our programme and eventually governments) should be focused on learning and empowering rather than resemble a contractor relationship. STiR has now created strong government partnership contracts to ensure that all programme costs are covered by the government. Donor funding covers STiR’s costs so it remains independent. Consequently, every donor dollar into STiR leverages around $30 from state governments, and the full cost of the approach is only $0.50 per child per year – that’s 0.2% of what the Indian government typically spends per child.
What’s the best thing about being a social entrepreneur?
The story of a boy who was told by his own teacher that ‘the son of a donkey will always be a donkey’ has always haunted me. As the father of two boys I recognise that but for an accident of birth, my sons would be facing similar problems. It excites me that as a social entrepreneur, I can contribute to the fulfilment of the moral and economic imperative that every child, everywhere, has a teacher who cultivates the joy of lifelong learning.
What has been your biggest challenge when setting up and running your social enterprise?
The biggest challenge was finding our sweet spot for innovation and impact within government systems. In the beginning, we weren’t clear about where we best fit within government-run education systems. We kept thinking, “Let’s just get our core approach to sparking intrinsic motivation clear, and the system around us will largely take care of itself.” But while this worked for us in the short term, we soon realised that we needed to make changes to our model if we were to achieve a truly sustainable impact at scale.
At times, our adaptations have confused our partners and supporters—and even ourselves. We were also almost certainly too swayed by the dominant thinking on scaling in international development. But patience from donors, partners, and the systems themselves have allowed us to clumsily but earnestly discover, rather than design upfront, our true sweet spot – a System Learning Partnership. We recently published this article about our journey and hope our experiences can prove useful to other groups working in education and other areas of international development, who are trying to find their place within government systems.
What advice would you give to aspiring social entrepreneurs?
For recent graduates:
There’s no need to start out directly in the non-profit field and gain experience there prior to founding your own venture. A short stint in the for-profit corporate world could also be useful to build up skills that will make you a more effective social entrepreneur. Fellowships such as On Purpose support people in their shift from the for-profit to the non-profit sector.
For someone just starting out in social entrepreneurship:
At STiR, we found that systems change through a System Learning Partnership can open up the potential of positively impacting hundreds of millions of people. Whether or not this approach to scaling fits your social venture, you should be as clear as possible about your Endgame. This article by Alice Gugelev & Andrew Stern depicts an overview of different pathways to scale. Keep iterating and you’ll find your sweet spot for impact.
What information sources would you recommend to help someone just starting their social enterprise journey?
Acumen+ offers great online courses and a network for aspiring social entrepreneurs. The book ‘Drive’ by Daniel Pink informs much of our approach to intrinsic motivation but is a useful read for anyone who’d like to foster a culture of autonomy, mastery and purpose both within their organisation or entities that they’d like to transform.
What are your plans for the next 2-5 years?
By 2025, we hope to have provided 80 million children with an intrinsically motivated teacher in six major countries in the developing world:
Asia: India, Indonesia
Africa: Uganda, Ethiopia
Latin America: Brazil
By 2030, we will have worked with these countries to become demonstration hubs that help surrounding countries replicate our approach. In this way, 300 million children will have an intrinsically motivated teacher. And education systems around the world will recognise the need to develop this crucial profession.