The challenge of making learning fun - Extended Interview

Harish Mamatani runs a private school designed to help underprivileged students who are eager to learn with a better education than can be received elsewhere in the community in Hyderabad India.

Harish: The organization is called SEED Schools.

Earl: What are you guys doing with SEED schools?

Harish: So the whole philosophy is that it’s very difficult to change the syllabus in the way of teaching. It’s ingrained for a long time. One thing we felt we could change and make an impact was the culture within the school. So when most kids come to school, they’re nervous, they’re scared because it’s such a strict environment. So one of the things we started doing very early on was to say”, let’s make learning fun”, right? You know, they come and they enjoy the school. They’ll get engaged. And pretty quickly, we started seeing a lot of changes even in the teachers.

Harish: We started seeing the changes because they were also relaxed. They realized the environment was different. Grades are important because you have to be competitive. You have to get admission. It is a key part of our curriculum. But again that was the whole environment within the school is what we changed very quickly and we started seeing results. So even like after holidays like equivalent like know Christmas holiday in the U.S., right. We started seeing the kids were coming back on time. Typically they take ten, 15 days even after the Holiday to get back to school.  So we started seeing that sort of tracking some of the attendance.

Earl: And you attribute that back to the fact that they’re just having fun.

Harish: I mean, the kids are like some parents are like our kids want us to come back. Right. Not everyone and some kids as long.  And but we started seeing some changes. And also the parents got more engaged. So I don’t you know, I don’t know if it made a magnificent change, but we’re starting to see change within the school.

Earl: You basically have three is it three schools?

Harish: Currently we have three and we’re adding two more. One is going to be a new construction and we’re going a little bit different, sort of the state syllabus. We’re going to the national so called CBC.

Craig: Why do you do this? Like, why in the world? Honestly, there’s got to be a motivation here.

Harish: Temporary insanity.

Harish: No, I think look, we’re seeing that it’s difficult. It’s not easy by any means. And especially commuting back from the U.S. to India every other month, being away from home is not easy by any means. We’re going to get to the school. And I see the kids and I see how the changes are happening, what we’re supporting. Have we done everything right? Probably not. But I think we have seen a dramatic change within the schools and we’ve actually introduced some new things. There’s a big talk about now by the digital technology within the schools at Tech. It’s helping, but I’m not sure it’s going to replace the schools.

Harish: So we’re actually using some edtech within the classroom environment to help the teachers and then the teaching mechanisms. But still, I feel the brick and mortar schools are very well.

Earl: You’re not giving up on the teachers at all. So it’s edtech plus teachers.  And teachers are important to this whole learning experience.

Harish: Most students within five, 5 to 10% of students within a school will be self-motivated. They’ll get to the point of teaching themselves right then we probably have another 20% that will get there. Somehow remaining 75% or so are really struggling. We have to motivate them. We have to coach them to guide them, have them make it exciting for them. That’s where our teachers come in.

Craig: You have an incredible back story. What happens when you walk into that school and you see these kids and there happy? What does that mean to you personally?

Harish: From the story point of, you know, I came in when I was 14 and things happened and I was on my own.  The reason I didn’t go back was because of the education system. The six months in the U.S. was like, I’m not going back. And because it was so different and although there’s some very good things, the students are very disciplined compared to here. Here we were rowdy. We weren’t, you know, doing the things. If we had some discipline plus the US environment, I think US would be in a different place. We have the discipline, but we don’t have this sort of a fun environment in the school. So for us is that distinction that saying, hey, let’s make it fun, but keep the disciplined in the school, but give the kids where they can be engaged in the school.  So we would do one of these classes called Seeder, which is the digital technology in the classroom. I love going to these classes. I see these kids, they’re engaged. Her hands are up. You know, they’re giving answers. Wrong answers are helping each other. That’s what excites us. Right? Normally go to class. Kids are just sitting in a teacher’s writing on the board. They kind of.  They’re like, “when is this class over? So I can go to the next one.”  The kids actually ask us for the digital classroom. Digital edtech is important, but how do we use it within a school environment is going to be critical.

Earl: These guys are ready to give an answer.

Harish: I mean, yeah, the hands are up. Typically that doesn’t happen in the Indian environment.

Craig: How do you see yourself in that application of these schools?

Harish: Mean we’re doing our part and again, I think hopefully will be an example for other schools. They can come see what we’re doing and we’re also learning from other schools some things that are doing better than we are. So I think that combination of we can be that innovator in the school segment. Three schools, but within three schools of five, ten schools in our neighborhood also adopt what we’re doing. Then the multiplier effect.

Earl: So when you walk into a school, what’s the title that you have? What do they call you?

Harish: I don’t have a title.

Earl: Headmaster Mamtani comes in or whatever they call you.

Harish: So each school has their own team, right? Principal Headmaster.  So they know that. So they know that I’m somehow involved in the school team, you know that? And they see me there regularly enough.

Earl: Did they know your back story that the kids know your backstory?

Harish: No. I think the stat the team knows part of the team knows. And so the way we’re structured is we have a corporate team. And then we have school teams. So the corporate team definitely knows I engage with them very even. You know, when I’m in the U.S., I talk to them on a daily basis and they’ve been phenomenal. So they then help me run the schools and then the school takes the responsibility of the day to day affairs. Yeah. So my dad got a green card. This was in the late in the late seventies. So they basically it applied about a decade before that.  And they say that you go, oh, we’re going to take your name off the lists. And, you know, in those days, they were looking for engineers to come to the U.S. So my father came, tested the waters and got excited. And he work with a family member, came back and said, we’re going to go to the U.S. next year. I’ll go get us settled in. So he came the summer of 1980, and sort of got things settled in and somehow, you know, his own constraints and sort of having to restart at that age and with kids and responsibilities, he didn’t feel comfortable.  So for his own peace of mind and my mother’s like, he said “I’m not going”. So came back and told us that we’re not going. Believe it or not, you’re not going. I’m going. I don’t know how we’re going to do this, but I want to go. And you know, in those days, we didn’t know much about the U.S., right? There wasn’t other than what we read in the comic books or write books that we read. So that to me, the U.S. was the place to be and things were wonderful. And to my parents credit, I mean, I think, imagine letting a 14 year go right and reading. 

Indian kids are typically quite pampered and well taken care of. So my father called my uncle here and said, Harish wants to come. And so my uncle agreed and of things didn’t work out. And the option was for me to go back.  And I said, “I’m not going back” and it was because of the education system.

Earl: That’s the one reason you didn’t want to go back.

Harish: But it was very difficult, right? I’m on my own. I’m 14 years old. I left my uncle’s place. I kind of worked in motels late at night, 12 hour shifts, went to school during.

Earl: During high school?

Harish: During high school. So 9th, 10th, 11th grade and struggle, you know, some nights slept in the car some nights but you know I just managed.  And friends are also great, so a lot of my friends were also very helpful, stayed with them. Their parents were supportive. And in the summertime I worked multiple jobs. And summer before my senior year I became friends with this family. Their son and I became good friends and also to the family. And first week of my senior year, they called me and said, I want a mom and dad want to talk to you and invited me to come to live with them.  And it was a game changer, right? So I went from living in.

Earl: This isn’t just a game changer… This is a life changer!

Craig: Well, I think the thing that really struck me about your story is, like the kids in Hyderabad, they actually struggle the same way you actually struggled here in the U.S. to the point that you worked in, a motel. Working around the clock at age 14. I can’t believe that’s the case. But you struggled and you worked and you worked constantly and you educated yourself. So you actually identify with the kids in Hyderabad.  You didn’t start that way. It was not like you were a elite person to.

Harish: The reality is today, if I look at my whats helping me, it’s not the high school education, right? The college. I figured out what I wanted to do. High school helped. Certainly it helped me get to that level and keep, you know, some stepping stone. But it’s the other aspects, the work environment, the work experience, which Indian kids don’t get and being able to sort of deal with the public at that age. You know, those things are a lot more important than work in restaurants when I was in college and paid my way through college.  I think those things are so much more important. Education, health, yeah. You obviously need your expertise within a domain, but things are also changing, right? So you don’t require necessarily a college degree to work at Google or Facebook, right. And you can get very specialized degrees and you can do them online. So I think from the things that we went through, I think that if we can help these kids get to that level and specialize in, you don’t have to be good in every subject. You figure out where you’re good and start building that out. I think that’s what’s becoming very exciting for us now.

Earl: You have an immigrant story. You actually you came to this country from elsewhere because you wanted to be here as a 14 year old. You know, we’ve been all over the world and stuff like that. There’s several people that are here in the US, not because they want it to be there, they just happen to be here. Think about South Carolina, Brazil, things like course, right? You took ownership of your own life at a really early age. Of all the places that one could be, you’re here. What does this country mean to you?

Harish: One important lesson that I learned if you looked at me when I was in India at 14, 13, 14 years old, and you would have said, can Harish make it on his own? at 14? The answer would have been absolutely not!  Right? Yeah. But once I came to that environment, I wanted to do it. This is what I wanted. But I was willing to sacrifice and willing to. My parents sacrificed a lot, probably more than me. We don’t give kids that opportunity say, “hey, I’m going to go do it, I’m going to try it”. And good things could have gone very wrong.  Also, it wasn’t all that bad to be on your own at 14.

Earl: Not every not every decision at 14 is a good decision.

Harish: So I did a lot of wrong things, obviously. Right. But things could have turned very different. Luckily, because of the upbringing was good. I think parents had a good influence that we were able to get on the other side of it. We don’t know what we can do until we sort of push in that environment and keep trying. So, you know, even when I start things now, when I started SEED schools, I did very I mean, I’d been in that environment, did very little research other than that. So I’m just going to go do it. I’m going to figure it out. If I look at it too deeply, there’ll be enough reasons for me not to do it. So I’m going to jump into it and we’ll figure it out. And we’ve had hiccups. You know, we’ve had funding issues. We’ve almost had to shut schools down. Right. So we’ve sort of said the desire was there to do it.

Craig: Sometimes it is extremely difficult and you’re going to, you know, be put in a situation that you don’t even really know how you’re helping or if you’re helping.

Earl: I mean, there’s a billion + Indians out there, and I always wonder what makes one person succeed versus another person succeed. It’s not so much that you are super good at, you know, education. You had something inside of you that was a drive and you just said, you know, and maybe it’s dumb luck and maybe it’s just…

Harish: Hey, you don’t have to make it sound so bad.

Earl: Like, I had some of it. Just like it’s a 14 year old mentality of, like, the world’s my oyster. I don’t care who you think I am, I’m this is who I’m going to be.

Harish: I think the family that took me in, I mean, to literally take me off the streets and trust me to do live with them. It’s a big step, a huge step!  And I never expected anything out of me, just supported me without any sort of any selfish reasons. So I think this is a way to give back for me. And, you know, my wife and I talked about this. We said, hey, we want to do this. We never did it for whatever reason. I mean, this opportunity came. I said, Rupal, I want to do this. And she said, “You have my full support. I’m just not moving to India. But other than that, you know, because I have my life here. But other than that, whatever you need, I’m with you”.

Earl: What does success look like for your students?

Harish: Seems that it’ll be different for everyone. Right? And I keep I mean, some will get in trouble, some won’t make it. But I think if we can give them that platform to keep trying and share our stories and say, hey, we were in your same place, but this is how we did it.

Craig: I think that you are a person that they can look to and say, I can, I can do that.

Harish: You know, I mean, look, I think you have to try to do a lot of tough nights, tough days, you know, to go to school. And the nights that I didn’t have money and nobody, you know, bread with hot sauce on it.

Craig: Bread and hot sauce. Not too bad.

Earl: That’s all you got. That’s all need and that’s all you got.

Harish: It’s better than a lot of other kids, right? So many kids, even in the U.S., are struggling today. You know, 50% kids don’t have access to Internet in the U.S.. All right. So the issues are they’re everywhere in the magnitudes are different. I think, you know, the number of kids that don’t have it in India, they don’t have a support system. Those issues are here as well.

Craig: You are an American and you’re also a South Asian Indian. But what would you say to people who say, why do you care about the people of India?  I mean, you’re an American now, so why do you care?

Harish: See, if we don’t create global opportunities, even in the U.S., as you talk about, you know, people have made it… The beauty of the U.S. and at least in my mind was when I came in working at McDonald’s and I did that work in a restaurant, I could pay for my college, I could pay for my car, I could pay for a place to stay. And all of us did that. My all my friends who worked in the restaurants with me, we did that. We went through college. I’m not sure that’s possible today, to the same level. And if our community is not strong, we’re not going to enjoy the benefits.  And I’m seeing that that similar scenario in the U.S.. Is what’s in India. There’s a huge divide. It’s a huge gap. So to me, it’s very important for me to take care of my neighbors and and I just want the family that took care of me. Right. Right. I mean, they made my life right?

Earl: You won the lottery.

Harish: I won the lottery. I mean, beyond that, right?  And it’s I think that we don’t have the same environment, which I think is getting away in the U.S.. Right. There’s my fear. And I think if in the in India, we’re actually that’s actually getting better because now people are studying and able to get technology jobs. So it’s a competitive environment and I want to make sure that I can add value.

Earl: How many school age kids are there in India?

Harish: About 250 million.

Earl: How is it that one kid stands above any other kids in 250 million? I mean, we talked about the fact that it feels like you won the lottery.  You know, you made your way out. But there is a lot of kids that will never, ever make it out. So what makes the difference between one kid versus another?

Harish: So, one of the things we’re doing is we’re exposing parents also. There’s more beyond just medical and engineering. I’ll give you an example. So we had this one student and he came to me and he said, Sir, I want your phone number. Listen, he was just graduating and he said, I want to stay in touch with you. No one in the whole classroom had even had the courage to come talk to me.

Earl: Because you’re an intimidating figure.

Harish: Yeah, whatever. Right. But he had the courage to do it, right. And his father was pushing him towards engineering. Then he kept following up with me, like he would text me, would, you know, WhatsApp me and so forth and that sort of thing. And so I told his father, son, look, I said, he’s going to be a great sales guy, but you’re pushing him to engineering and great if he does it. If he wants to do it? It’s up to you. Where I see him, he had no fear when he came and talked to me. He came in one day and said, you know, came and shook my hand, said, welcome back, sir.

Harish: Good to see you. No one’s done that. Right. So and this I told the principal, I said, hey, you know, he came in, you know, kid came and talked to me and has been a few years ago, so I’m not remembering his name. So she said, oh, he’s a lousy student, you know, doesn’t do his work. So I said, Hey, I’m going to just raise a point. You know, the way student came in, spoke with me this morning was the way you should be addressing people and he should go do that. But I said, so I want you to teach everyone how you came in, address me, how you were not scared, or how you came and talked to me, shook my hand.

Harish: I said, That’ll be important for you to be able to approach people. And all of a sudden, this kid in the classroom, you know, his whole posture, change and demeanor changed. And so that afternoon, I’m waiting for the cab to come in and there’s a line of this entire class and I’m on the phone. They’re like. “Welcome back, sir. Good to see you…” You know, it’s like, hey, I got to call you back. The phone didn’t get addressed. I’ll so think about it right now. This one kid, his confidence level changed.

Look, we were in sales, right? We were in wealth management.  It was all about sort of getting clients. And, you know, I was intimidated to call on people who are doing much better than you. He didn’t care.  So those are the difference we’re making. You know, Craig. You can be in medical. You can get there. Phenomenal. But we’re finding I want the kids who are struggling because we want to find that something, some spark. So that’s what we’re trying to work on.

Earl: You haven’t screwed your life up at 14,i If you’re not on the track to be medical or engineering. I think about you and I and Craig, we’re not model students necessarily, but never losing the hope that you can be something bigger because you get to see that there’s opportunities that are out there that are nontraditional sometimes.

Harish: You know, look, I have a lot of friends and a lot of people I know who’ve done phenomenally well, phenomenally well. I’m part of this group called TiE, which is all accomplished entrepreneurs and leaders around the world. You know, you also have to be satisfied with your own self.  So I think that’s also critical to know this. What I want to do, would I be making more money in wealth management? Absolutely. But this is more important to me and I think we’re making a difference. And I’ve also had phenomenal, you know, friends who have supported us to the financially and morally to get to this point. And I think we’re at the trajectory where now we’re going to add more schools. I don’t want to do it in a rush. I think we’re at a point. We’ve got a good team and we’re adding more graduates.

Craig: Well, I think I can say on behalf of Earl and I, we admire what you’re doing.  Really admire what you’re doing, man.

Harish: Look, there are a lot of good people that are doing a lot of great stuff in education around the globe.  So I think and I want to recognize all of them also without without their support, we’re all creating this community which helps each other.

Earl: I think it goes back to this whole concept.  I’m just saying there’s there’s models that we hold out there that are not me or you or Craig. That are models of success.

Harish: But I tell you this, people that haven’t come to the U.S., who’ve been in India, haven’t got the education that we’ve gotten.  I’m very impressed with many of them. Not all of them. But, I see a lot of them really, really making an effort. And we have people come to us say, you know, hey, we understand this what you’re doing. Can you show us what you’re doing? Like, absolutely! Come to the school any time. You know, and we want to come to your school and learn as well. So I think that we.

Craig: Can tell all of their stories as well. But at the same time, you are from Atlanta and you are also from India. And you have understood what it takes to kind of motivate students to be better.

Harish: We’re trying to do our part. But, you know, again, phenomenal team, a lot of supporters along the way. So that makes a lot of difference.