At just 9 months, Ajay Gupta was diagnosed with polio, which left both his legs and left hand paralysed. Today, he has a 70 per cent locomotive disability. He faced many setbacks in his childhood, the biggest one being that he couldn’t attend school till he turned six, as there weren’t any facilities then.
Going to school was no walk in the park for Ajay. He had to join a nearby government school while his siblings went to better schools that were far off.
He was accompanied by a helper from home who would carry him to school. The same helper would assist him to the washroom at school too.
“This continued for seven years. Luckily, my schoolmates were helpful and also assisted me. Sometimes, when there was a delay in someone coming from home to pick me up, my friends would escort me outside and wait with me. When I started growing up, it was difficult for anyone to lift me. So when I turned 13, I started using callipers and crutches and used them for 33 years,” the 52-year-old tells The Better India.
After finishing class 12, Ajay was unable to go to college despite having family backing and the urge to study. The reason – lack of accessibility.
“Even today, schools and colleges are not accessible for the disabled. Imagine the situation more than three decades back. In school, we could request the authorities to let a helper come with us, but these liberties could not be taken in college. Therefore, I did my graduation through correspondence,” adds Ajay.
However, he did not let these obstacles hinder his progress.
He utilised his time to the fullest and started trading in shares at the age of 16. He attributes his entrepreneurial spirit to his class 9 Commerce teacher.
“In our first class of Commerce, our teacher spoke about what is needed to be a good businessman, in which he spoke about risk-taking ability. I was sold on the idea that day itself, and decided that I would be a businessman,” says Ajay.
While pursuing his graduation, he started working at his family businesses, which included a sweet shop and an exports business. By the age of 24, he set up a string of successful businesses, including some chit fund companies, computer education centres, etc.
But it was in 2002 that Ajay found his true calling – education.
Improving playschool education
When Ajay had children, he noticed a gap in pre-primary education, especially in playschools.
He realised that it was only the very affluent who were able to access quality education at the playschool level.
“I could not attend playschool. Several decades later, when I enrolled my children in playschool, I was not happy with the quality of education being provided. And I always wanted to do something in the field of education. Finally, I had my breakthrough in 2002,” says Ajay.
He started the groundwork for building a playschool chain in 2002 and worked on it for two years. He felt that there was ample space in the education sector.
“The playschool industry was not that established, there was no curriculum. When I saw my daughter’s preschool book set, I felt cheated. There were only one or two books. This motivated me to research for two years and make playschool education more reliable and justified. I then developed a curriculum, content, and educational toys. We also conducted teacher training, and were ready for launch in 2004,” he says.
However, Ajay faced a setback in setting up the playschools, as he wanted to set up a franchise network.
“I had a clear business model in mind. I didn’t want to set up one or two playschools, I wanted to build a chain across the country. The beginning was very tough, as people were apprehensive about taking up our franchise. Even my family and friends thought that my plan was wrong. However, we started with a school in Delhi, then Punjab, and once the schools started doing well, there was no looking back,” says Ajay.
Today, Bachpan Playschools are present nationwide, with 1,100 franchisees, teaching almost one lakh students.
With this, Ajay says, they have taken quality education to Tier-II and III cities.
Urmi Dedhia, a parent of one of the kids at Bachpan Playschools says, “There is a 10-year age gap between my two children. When I put my son in playschool some 12 years back, I was unhappy with the quality of education provided. There was just one book, and he wasn’t being taught anything substantial. I enrolled my daughter at Bachpan two years ago and I can see the difference in their curriculum, the books they provide, and the toys. It is fun and very useful for the growth of the child.”
Since then, Ajay has also set up Academic Heights Public School, which has more than 100 franchises. Then, he ventured into higher education by establishing Rishihood University.
Empowering the disabled
While setting up educational institutes and travelling across the country, Ajay’s health took a major beating.
Having spent more than 30 years on crutches and callipers, his shoulders had become weak. He then had to shift to a wheelchair. But he used this as an opportunity to help those like him.
“About six years ago, I had to switch to a wheelchair, because my shoulders had become weak. As I used the wheelchair, I found out the challenges faced by others using it. Although India is doing a lot for the disabled, accessibility still remains a major challenge. I set up an NGO called ‘Hum Honge Kamyab’ to empower disabled students,” says Ajay.
The NGO conducts seminars and is working towards the education and equal accessibility for disabled children.
“Disabled children face many hurdles. The first is acceptance from family. Families should not think of them as a burden and must encourage them. The second is societal acceptance. The third is accessibility in schools and colleges. Our Rishiwood University is completely accessible, we need more universities like that,” adds Ajay.
The author of the book ‘Decoding Business Minds’, which is for budding entrepreneurs now dreams of training para-athletes.
“The sun shines on everyone equally; the possibilities are unlimited and you only need to recognise and grab them,” says Ajay.
Edited by Yoshita Rao, Images Courtesy Ajay Gupta
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