Act of Giving: Ashish Dhawan’s Central Square aims to provide quality schooling to low-income families’ kids

August 14, 2011 by The Economic Times

Central Square Foundation could well pass off for a new mall around the block, jokes its founder AshishDhawan, who is better recognised as the poster boy of Indian private equity. Behind that misleading nomenclature is a startup that wants to set a new standard for the way school education is imparted in India: low cost, yet highest quality. And in large numbers.

That plan has been in the works even before Dhawan, 42, changed the rules of PE in India with ChrysCapital, the firm he cofounded in 1998. “I love teaching and I had worked out that I’ll have a second career in my mid-40 s,” says the founder-CEO of Central Square. “That time is now.” The name of his foundation, Dhawan explains, comes from the central meeting point in a town, where people have met and started reform movements.

“Central Square does not symbolize Tahrir Square (in Cairo), which is more chaotic, but a notion of change, reforms and exchange of ideas,” says Dhawan. The Central Square Foundation, started work in July with aRs 75 crore endowment from Dhawan and others.

What it wants to do can be broken into four areas: set up affordable schools, impart teacher and principal training, use technology and bring in accountability. Although these are areas where many entrepreneurs are working in, Dhawan wants to be different by being the “gold standard”.

“We want to build models of excellence,” he says. “Our focus is on kids who are getting a terrible education and that’s 50% of the kids. Overall, focus will be on quality-set new learning benchmarks and not fancier buildings.”

Central Square will either start non-profits or incubate them, as ChrysCapital did in the BPO business with Spectramind, with an initial commitment of Rs 50 lakh to Rs 1 crore per venture, and scale it up. “There will be an entrepreneur and we will play a key role in getting it started by working with the entrepreneur ,” says Dhawan. In each of the four verticals, Central Square plans to do five to 10 projects. “That way, we will be able to build scale and focus on multiple areas.”

‘KIPP’ Equivalent In India

Raman Roy, co-founder of Spectramind, recounts that, even when they were setting up the BPO in the late-90 s, Dhawan spoke about doing something that impacts India. “Having made an impact in PE, he is ready to make a larger one now,” he says.

“He is persistent with a high CPU (the central processing unit of a computer, or its brain) quality.” Dhawan’s shift from PE to philanthropy—though his business card still states ‘senior managing director , ChrysCapital’ —comes at a time when his PE firm is at the peak of its game. Since 1998, ChrysCapital has raised more than $2.5 billion, made 35 exits worth $1.1 billion from a portfolio of about 60 companies.

“My role model is Benjamin Franklin (an 18th century American polymath who was a painter, scientist, statesman , inventor, musician and author, among other things),” says Dhawan. “I don’t think I can do as many things as he did, but I can contribute in a more significant way and that time for me is now.” Dhawan sees education as a “fundamental building block of society”.

“If we aspire to be a high-income economy, we can’t get there without education,” he adds. He cites the example of the Asian tigers—South Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia and others—during the 1980s and 1990s, when they were trying to transition from being low- or middleincome economies to high-income economies. “Look at where South Korea is and where Indonesia is,” he says. “South Korea has one of the best education systems in the world and good governance.

Without education, you can’t transition from mid- to high-income category.” He makes two points, one quantitative and another qualitative. About 240 million kids go to school in India when the number should be 300 million . And, the dropout rate is high. Most schools in urban slums, he adds, are “cesspools of mediocrity” . Dhawan has spent the last two months in the US, looking at the ‘charter schools’ (non-profit schools) model.

The Central Square Foundation is looking closely at KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), which runs 6,000 charter schools in the US, the most, targeting children for low-income families. According to Dhawan, schoolgoing rates among children from those low-income families shot up from 10% in the mid-1990 s to 80%, accompanied by a spike in learning and later-life success.

“You need a gold standard because then there is something you can imitate or aspire to become,” says Dhawan. “Our goal is to create that KIPP equivalent in India—to spark a revolution.” Central Square is backing Mumbaibased entrepreneur Gaurav Singh, who runs a chain of schools called 3.2.1. Singh worked at Accenture and Teach for India, before training in affordable schools at KIPP’s leadership academy in the US.

Central Square is also funding Delhi-based Akansha, which runs 13 schools. Anurag Behar, vice-chancellor of the Azim Premji University, which is also active in the education space, is not sure a business-like approach alone will address the ills that plague school education in India. “You can’t be successful by simply importing business ideas to run schools. Much like you can’t have good parenting if you introduce business concepts for parenting,” he says. “Businesses can fund and start schools, but they must leave the business aspect behind.”

Quality With Quantity

Central Square’s other three areas of focus aim to flank the big scale up in affordable schools. Take teacher training, with its focus on practice rather than theory. “Our B.Ed (bachelor of education, the teaching degree) teaching is poorly delivered, without practicals,” says Dhawan. “You learn cricket by going to the nets, not by listening to Sachin Tendulkar. Teaching is similarly practice-oriented .

We need models of excellence in teacher training and to bring back respect to the profession .” He sees a professional managing schools, while principals focus on improving teaching. Technology to impart education is Central Square’s third focus area. Dhawan feels device prices will come down and more bandwidth will be made available.

“The inflection point might be three to four years from now, but experiments have to be done today to see what’s working ,” he says. The fourth focus area is accountability , where Dhawan says the idea is to make targeted communities feel ownership of what they are trying to change—for instance, getting parents on school bodies. Roy sees Dhawan as the “perfect bridge” to get funds and ideas going in education space.

“He is bright, systematic, passionate, focused, with a balanced head on his shoulders ,” says Saurabh Srivastava, the co-founder of Indian Angel Network who has known Dhawan for 15 years. And his PE past will be useful. “Some of the skills (from the PE world) are transportable—like research , increasing capital pool and selection process,” says Dhawan. “In both PE and non-profit ventures, you need strong research to succeed.”

The one thing Dhawan won’t miss from the PE and corporate worlds is their competitive nature. “In education, everyone has the same goal—children should do better,” says Dhawan. “There’s a greater opportunity to collaborate and share in philanthropy and education.”

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