iDiscoveri Education Private Limited - XSEED
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distributed during XSEED School of Tomorrow Conference 2013 on August 3, 2013 at Bangalore, India. Further use without permission is
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iDiscoveri Education Private Limited
“An enterprise with a mission to renew education in India”
JULY 2012. GURGAON, INDIA. Ashish Rajpal had come a long way toward reaching his goal of improving
education for Indian elementary school students. After 10 years of hard work, he and his team had convinced more
than 800 public and private schools—representing more than 3 million students in grades K–7—to adopt
iDiscoveri's system for effective learning (Exhibits 1 and 2). He also took satisfaction in the fact that tests had
shown his system for educational improvement to be effective. Equally important, the business had demonstrated
scalability, was cash flow positive, and was nearly profitable.1 Even more encouraging, many adopters of the
iDiscoveri's system (XSEED) had become outspoken promoters of the system to other schools and their
administrators. Their endorsements, and existing momentum, would surely move the company closer to Rajpal's
intermediate goal of better educational outcomes for one million children.
iDiscoveri's five-step experiential learning system (Exhibit 3) had been developed in consultation with the world's
leading educators and was built on a recognition of (1) differences in the ways in which individual children learn and
(2) learning by doing. It effectively replaced the traditional one-step learning process of “telling.”
This case was prepared by Professor Iqbal Quadir and casewriter Richard Luecke as a basis for class discussion rather than to illustrate either
effective or ineffective handling of an administrative situation.
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The company offered a set of coordinated products and services:
Detailed curriculum manuals for teachers. These addressed every concept covered by the Indian
state school system's curriculum for grades K–7. iDiscoveri's manuals contained detailed activity
based lesson plans, and each followed a learning cycle that included experience, reflection,
analysis, and application. This was very different from the “teacher talks, students memorize”
learning model practiced by most Indian schools.
Teacher training. Teacher training was designed to support use of the iDiscoveri system. Trainers
explained the learning cycle and how teachers should implement the company's “minute-by
minute” lesson plans.
Student workbooks. These provided activities for students and a mechanism for progress assessment.
Assessment. The company's “Learnometer” was a skills-based test administered each trimester to
measure every student's progress in mastering critical skills.
Together, these products and services were making a difference for a growing number of India's elementary
school students. Users of iDiscoveri's system were measurably more successful in understanding core concepts
and demonstrated higher communication and reasoning skills than did students who followed the traditional
“chalk and talk” rote-learning method. Perhaps as gratifying, 85 percent of schools that used the system for the
first time readopted it in subsequent years.
Looking forward from where things stood in mid-2012, Rajpal saw no impediment to his goal of reaching one
million students. But one million was a tiny fraction of India's elementary school population. And millions
more in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia needed help. He wondered if his product/service, business
model, and organization could be scaled up to the point of meeting the needs of these larger populations. He
also wondered about his future role. Since the beginning, he had been involved in just about every aspect of
iDiscoveri: business development, product design, sales, recruitment, financing, and more. He knew that this
could not continue as the company grew. His role would have to change.
The Entrepreneur and His Big Idea
Ashish Rajpal, born in 1968, was one of three children in a middle-class family. Raised in Delhi, his life was
comfortable but not privileged. His father had been a refugee from Pakistan during the Partition of the late
1940s. The elder Rajpal was a self-made man who had attended an Indian engineering school and later the
University of Pennsylvania. He did not place a high value on material possessions and expected his children to
make their own way in the world, as he had.
Ashish Rajpal's way would lead through undergraduate and MBA degrees, then on to a rising corporate career,
first as a product manager with Procter & Gamble (P&G) in India, then to positions with Sun Interbrew in
Russia, and finally to Paris as worldwide marketing director for Groupe Danone, a French food company.2
His first boss at P&G, Ravi Chaturvedi, remembered the young man he hired, first as a summer intern and later
as an assistant brand manager:
He was very bright, creative and driven. And he knew how to get things done.
He was also restless. So after a few years he left my team in India and went off
to a brewing company in Russia, and then on to Danone in France. We kept in
touch during those years. He was living the middle-class dream, but it was
clear that he wasn't fulfilled by what he was doing.
By age 31, Rajpal was living a life that anyone on the planet would have envied. When he wasn't jetting around
the world on business, he and his wife were living comfortably in Paris, just a short walk from the ChampsÉlysées. However, something was missing from this seemingly perfect life.
Rajpal had always been aware of differences in Indian society. Delhi's pockets of prosperity were islands in a
sea of urban poverty. And summer trekking adventures in the mountains had opened his eyes to what life was
like for poor rural villagers. As a college student, summer internships with nongovernmental organizations in
the northern state of Uttarakhand had further raised his awareness. But the idealistic young man was, as he
would later put it, unable to find examples of quality work, role models, or scalability among those nonprofit
ventures. And, as a freshly minted university graduate, he was not ready to grapple with the ills of society; he
needed to make a living.
The births of his two children in 1997 and 1999 led to a watershed in Rajpal's life path. How, he wondered as his
offspring grew, could children with the same biological parents and living under the same roof be so different in
how they learned? That unanswered question intersected with an earlier experience in childhood learning. In
1996 he and several business school friends (Ronny Gulati, Lokesh Jindal, Tarun Chandana, and Gaurav
Saiklani) had started an outdoor company called Youreka, which operated a summer camp for children in the
hills of India. Youreka's two-to-three-week programs shaped those children through outdoor adventure and
hands-on learning. Parents were amazed by the transformations they observed in their children after a session
at Youreka. Rajpal was equally amazed and also inspired by the experience.
With those memories, and eager to do something that would make a difference in the world, he applied for
admission to the Harvard Graduate School of Education. On acceptance, he resigned from Danone, relocated
his family to Delhi, and headed to Cambridge, Massachusetts USA, to work toward a master's degree in
education (EdM). There he found inspiration in the works of many Harvard scholars; in particular, Howard
Gardner's landmark study of multiple intelligences.3 While most Western-influenced education focused on
and rewarded analytical and linguistic intelligence, Gardner believed that intelligence took many valid forms,
including spatial, musical, kinetic, naturalistic, and interpersonal. If those different forms were valid and
worthy of development, Gardner reasoned, not everyone should be expected to learn in the same way.
Gardner's theory answered Rajpal's question about why his own children were so different in how they learned.
Studying in America opened the entrepreneur's eyes in other ways as well. Accustomed to India's tradition of
rote learning, scribbling lecture notes, and memorizing textbooks, he was delighted to observe how his
Harvard peers asked questions, shared ideas, and worked together in teams to tackle practical problems. This
was a new and exciting experience.
The Indian system of elementary-level education in 2012 was huge, serving nearly 300 million children
through some one million government schools and an estimated 300,000 private institutions. Government
schools were funded and controlled either by the national government, the individual states, or, in some
instances, by municipalities. National or state educational authorities likewise determined the subject matter
covered in school curriculums. Education provided through these government-run schools was free for
students ages 6–14.
India's vast public sector education system, however, was seriously under resourced. Schools suffered from
inadequate infrastructure and technology and from high student-to-teacher ratios (37:1 on average). Teachers
were poorly paid and often poorly trained, and absenteeism was high. As a result, learning outcomes were poor.
Many elementary school children failed to master the core concepts required t0 move on to higher learning and
rewarding careers (only 30–40 percent of children even went on to high school).
Disappointed with the poor quality of public elementary schools, a growing number of Indian parents opted for
private schools, which had a reputation for small class sizes, better-trained teachers, and superior results. The
cost of private education, however, limited enrollment to a minority (7 percent) of India's total elementary
school population. Few of the country's low-income families could afford the tuitions and fees of these private
schools. However, many in India's rapidly expanding middle class were willing to pay the price for a quality
education that would prepare their children for the challenges of the future. Many poor families also
recognized the importance of education and were sacrificing to send their children to better schools. One chain
of low-cost private schools (Empathy Learning Systems) had already emerged to address the needs of these
families.4 As Rajpal stated, “Everyone has recognized the connection between education and doing well in life.
[So now] everyone wants his child to go to a good school and to learn English, but the government hasn't been
able to meet that demand.”
For Rajpal, widespread dissatisfaction with educational quality and a huge, diverse market represented an
appealing opportunity. And so, with his Harvard EdM in hand and personal savings in the bank, he hatched a
plan with Anustup Nayak, a like-minded fellow student in the Harvard program who would become his
business partner. Said Nayak:
The first blueprint for [our] plan was drawn on a paper napkin at a cheap Vietnamese restaurant we
frequented in Harvard Square. On it we scribbled a hub-and-spoke model on a map of India that
represented the spread of know-how for a 'new education' that would go into schools in every district
in our country and create visible change in the way children learn. The basic principles of this
education would be built around the idea of differences in children and learning based on doing. . . .
[Furthermore] Ashish was very clear that a for-profit economic model would be our means, one that
would go to scale and sustain itself over a long period. . . . India was littered with well-meaning but
unsuccessful initiatives that dried up due to insufficient donor funds or the disinterest of nonpaying
The two men returned to India in mid-2002 to pursue their mutual passion for improving education through
an enterprise they organized as iDiscoveri Education Private Ltd. They were joined by a handful of like-minded
colleagues, men and women with first-rate educations and business experience who shared the same
commitment to educational improvement. Their passion for education and social improvement had inspired
them to forego better-paying corporate jobs. The core talent pool included, among others, Anustup Nayak
(National Institutes of Technology; EdM, Harvard; MS in public policy, Georgia Tech), Shweta Anand Arora
(EdM, Harvard; MBA, Indian Institute of Management), Tapaswini Sahu (Jawaharlal Nehru University and
Cambridge University), Himanshu Joshi (MBA, Indian Institute of Management), and Rakhi Soni (Master of
Counselor Education, New York University). Most came with work experience at blue-chip corporations. Ranu
Kawatra, who joined later, brought invaluable business development skills from his work with Cadbury India
and Gillette India.
To his colleagues, Rajpal seemed the ideal person to lead the effort. As described by one member of the core
team, Rajpal was exceptionally gifted in the areas that would make iDiscoveri a dynamic venture—visioning,
managing people, running the business, and teaching children in the classroom. She could not imagine anyone
else having those gifts.
Teaching the Teachers
The founding team was convinced that the best way to improve elementary education was through teacher
training. Teachers in India were the product of a bachelor's in education program that was long on theory and
short on practice. Newly minted teachers were thrown into overcrowded classrooms with no practical
experience or guidance. Their natural response was to do what their own teachers had done: stand in front of
the class, teach from the textbook, and expect students to listen and learn. This one-size-fits-all approach failed
to engage many children.
The iDiscoveri team aimed to change this model through teacher training. Getting school principals and
owners to pay for teacher training was another matter. Rajpal's and Nayak's education degrees from a brandname institution opened doors, but few potential customers were buying. As Nayak later wrote, “Many kept us
waiting outside their offices for hours before dismissing us as 'young people with ideas that would not work in a
real school,' especially with teachers who were set in their ways.”6 Eventually, however, they got a break from a
highly credentialed headmaster who hired iDiscoveri to run a 10-day workshop that featured simulations,
learning activities, and discussion of multiple intelligences, childhood development, and personal growth.
That engagement was successful and led to three years of fee-based teacher training, during which time close to
2,000 classroom teachers participated in one or more of the company's programs. Other related work
followed. In 2004, owners of some private schools asked iDiscoveri to help them in the physical design,
branding, and staffing of their new schools. That work attracted many former teachers and principals and
young people with degrees from top-tier universities to the venture. Their expertise and passion for the cause of
better learning added to the company's bank of human capital. Like the original team members, these new
recruits took pay cuts to join the venture. Monthly salaries for the top people were $1,000 USD7 or less—far
below what these well-educated and talented people could have earned elsewhere at the time.
Beyond Teacher Training: XSEED
Teacher training and special projects such as school startups occupied the company for its first three years,
gradually producing enough revenue from fees to cover most costs. But these activities had two problems. First,
they were labor intensive, making scale-up difficult. The second and more critical problem was the long-term
effectiveness of the company's teacher training. As described by Nayak, follow-up interviews with school
principals often produced feedback such as,
Your training programs produced a momentary high for our teachers. They came back charged and
excited and felt that the experience was one of the best in their lives. Yet, little changed in their
classrooms. The more motivated ones started a few new activities with the children [but] for the less
capable ones, the training made almost no difference at all.8
The company's investigations confirmed that its training programs were having a short-lived impact on
teachers. In most cases, teaching quality would rise measurably—and truly outstanding and dedicated teachers
would maintain most of those gains. However, the majority of teachers who went through iDiscoveri's
programs quickly reverted to their old ways, and teaching effectiveness tumbled toward pretraining levels.
This finding disheartened the team. Many wondered if their mission to improve education on a grand scale
would be fruitless. The remarks of one young third-grade teacher to Rajpal underscored the problem:
This teacher said, 'I like the things you talked about in your training program, but can you do a better
job of teaching my class than I do today?' I was taken aback and embarrassed. I had no idea how to
teach that lesson better. On the way home it dawned on me that unless we could build a better
mousetrap for her—something that actually worked in the classroom—we had no right to preach in
our teacher training programs.
Something had to change if the mission was to be fulfilled. But what?
To find the answer, the core team and a group of new hires sequestered themselves in a room at company
headquarters and brainstormed possible solutions, including:
Create a network of company-owned schools with small classes and handpicked teachers who
would follow the principles of experiential learning. This was an attractive option; it would allow the
company to control instructional content and delivery. Also, the team already had some experience
setting up and staffing new schools. However, several factors made this alternative unattractive: (1) it
would require major capital investments; (2) it would not scale up to the size of India's massive
educational problem; and (3) some private school operators were already doing something similar.
Establish a teacher-training institute for aspiring educators. The young company now had several
years of experience in training educators. However, experience demonstrated that teacher training
seldom produced lasting change. In addition, a thicket of government requirements and poor revenue
prospects made this option unappealing. Nor did the team feel that they had the project management
skills to do it well on a large scale.
Reach out to parents with materials to supplement what their children were already learning in
traditional schools. Unfortunately, this approach would not address the fundamental barrier to
student learning: the way schools taught Indian children.
None of these alternatives were acceptable to the team. What was needed, they concluded, was a learning
system that was (1) compatible with state-mandated curricula and (2) within the implementation capabilities
of existing schools and their teachers. Such a system would not require a fundamental overhaul in the
educational establishment—an impossible task for a small enterprise such as iDiscoveri. Instead, it would aim
to work within the existing world of Indian K–7 education.
Months of work by the iDiscoveri team produced a solution that met those requirements: a complete system for
good teaching and improved learning that India's current schools and teaching population could implement.
That system, branded the XSEED Living Knowledge System, would have five main components:
An academic plan that clarified the objective of every topic taught in each subject (English, math,
science, and social science) for grades K–7.
Curriculum manuals for teachers with detailed lesson plans for teaching every topic. Each lesson plan
would be developed by an experienced subject-matter expert and would describe, step-by-step, how
that topic should be taught within a 45-minute class period using iDiscoveri's learning framework
(aim, action, analysis, application, assessment).
Student workbooks that provided students with opportunities to apply their skills to real-life
situations and to demonstrate their mastery of each concept.
A “Learnometer” student assessment program—a test administered each trimester to measure
progress in learning the curriculum's critical skills.
Several days of teacher training for schools that adopted the XSEED system. The focus of the training
would be on implementing lesson plans via iDiscoveri's learning framework.
The components of XSEED were designed to act like legs of a chair, with each leg supporting the others.
Together they would provide a complete system that would inspire teachers to move beyond “chalk and talk”
and move children from “hearing to learning.” The company hired education academics and skilled teachers to
create the system.
XSEED was based on educational research that demonstrated that learning through experience and
experimentation produces the best results. The system was designed to ensure that each class began with the
goals of the lesson, followed by an experiential activity, teacher-student reflection and analysis, application of
learning, and assessment. Field tests documented XSEED's effectiveness: it produced a 100 percent
improvement in concept mastery over standard teaching methods. And lagging students (as defined by
pretests) benefitted the most.
One educator, the principal of a school in Bhopal, described the system's virtues this way: “To my teachers
XSEED means liberation from the stranglehold of dead habit. To be able to do things differently and get from
students that rare 'aha' moment repeatedly. . . . To parents it means hope that their children will learn to think,
decide, reflect and judge independently.”9
At its current rate of growth, iDiscoveri Education was within striking distance of its goal of improving
education for one million Indian school children. The company had proven the potency of its business model,
and experience in the Middle East and Bhutan confirmed that the model could travel. One million, however,
was a tiny percentage of India's large and growing K–7 population. And beyond India's borders were billions
more. Rajpal and his associates found themselves wrestling with a number of strategic questions in the
summer of 2012: Was it time for the company to raise its sights to a higher goal? Should it consolidate its
position in the K–7 market or expand into high school education? Should management sell iDiscoveri to a
company with the greater resources needed to carry the dream forward?
Success also brought them face-to-face with two important scaling challenges: one was operational; the other
involved human resources. In order to serve its rapidly growing customer base, the company had to expand its
employee headcount, update its information technology capabilities, acquire more physical workspace, and so
forth. According to board member Lokesh Jindal, iDiscoveri was outgrowing its operating systems every 12–18
months. Keeping pace with expanding operations would demand more and more of management's time and
Human resources represented an even greater challenge. Customer schools could not properly implement the
XSEED system without training and a certain amount of handholding by competent and committed iDiscoveri
personnel. But recruiting quality personnel who shared the founding team's vision and enthusiasm for
education was difficult. As Ravi Chaturvedi explained, “Attracting and retaining well-trained people is a
challenge for every growing company in India.” To solve its recruiting challenge, iDiscoveri prospected for job
candidates through normal channels but also began to recruit directly from university campuses in India and
the United States. This practice placed the company in direct competition with multinational corporations and
consulting companies, which offered much greater monetary rewards.
Rajpal's continued involvement in the business—and the nature of that involvement—was also uncertain. Like
the enterprise he had founded, Rajpal had experienced transitions and, at only 43 years of age, was bound to
pass through others. His professional life until 2012 had already gone through two: Ashish the corporate
manager and Ashish the founder/managing director of iDiscoveri. The latter Ashish wore both CEO and COO
hats, working on the creative product side of the business while laboring to keep all of its internal mechanisms
running smoothly. Would Rajpal “version 3.0” appear soon? One of his advisors believed that Rajpal would
eventually have to let go of operational details. “When that happens, he'll be better able to focus his energies on
the broader vision of educational improvement.”
Rajpal concurred that his role would have to change: “Every company eventually needs leadership renewal,” he
told the Legatum Center. But as of mid-2012 he had made no conscious plan. “Perhaps in three years, five
years” he said. “Who knows?” He confessed to keeping his eyes open for a potential successor. “Whenever I
meet people these days,” he told the Legatum Center, “I'm looking for a potential successor—a person with four
qualities: intelligence, the right values, a results orientation, and a willingness to learn from mistakes. I often
find one or two of these qualities in the people I meet, but never all four—at least not yet.”
The company would have been profitable in 2011 if less of its revenue flow had been directed into
new-product development and growth-supporting staff expansion.
Dilip Thakore, “The XSEED Revolution,” Education World, March 4, 2010. Accessed at
Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (New York: Basic Books, 1983).
Empathy Learning Systems Private Limited is building a chain of high schools and elementary schools to
provide low-cost private education to low-income Indian families. The company was inspired by the work
of James Tooley, who had studied successful models of low-cost private schools in India and Africa.
Empathy’s operating model is built on a proprietary curriculum, innovative pedagogy, and teacher training
Anustup Nayak, with Shweta Arora and Himanshu Joshi, “A Million Children Now!” Innovation 5,
no. 2 (Spring 2010): 31–51.
Unless otherwise noted, all monetary values in this case are stated in U.S. dollars ($).
Thakore, “The XSEED Revolution.”