Lack of access to English language skills can be a severe restriction to higher education for many children of India. Pranil Naik, and his organisation Leap For Word, hope to remove this stumbling block by making English literacy accessible and sustainable on a large scale.
Having benefitted from a professional education himself, Pranil Naik was moved when he realized that low-income children from vernacular medium schools have difficulty accessing higher education, because the majority of college degrees are conducted in English. Further, unlike urban children, rural children have hardly any exposure to the language itself. There aren’t any English billboards in their communities, very few English TV channels, and no one in the community actually speaks English, not even the English teacher in school. A vicious cycle is created whereby students cannot learn English simply because their community does not already know English.
Pranil identified the main gap as the lack of high-quality English teachers in rural areas. To tackle this, he spent many years developing and refining a product that empowers any non-English speaking adult to teach children how to read, write, and comprehend correct English sentences within a couple of years.
The English Literacy Program is built on top of a translation algorithm, a set of linguistic rules that translate English into any Indian regional language, and vice versa.
Because of this, English is no longer treated as a language but rather as a subject, which means it can be taught in any language that is common between the teacher and the student.
Leap For Word trains and certifies the newly-trained teachers and assists them in setting up language learning centres in their respective communities. Parents pay these certified teachers a small amount as teaching fees. This approach ensures more education choices for children in rural Maharashtra and provides empowerment to communities, both in the form of education and employment.
So far, Leap For Word has trained a total of 1,500 teachers of various types, ranging from teacher entrepreneurs, government school teachers, and private school teachers to even tuition teachers. Leap For Word operates in around 80 villages across six districts of Maharashtra, and over 10,000 children have benefitted from accessing these English language centres.
However, like many leaders, Pranil did not set out with grand dreams to create large-scale impact. He simply acknowledged that he had been privileged enough to have access to basic opportunities that sprung from being educated, and wanted to provide the same for others.
Pranil says, “I think I am an entrepreneur in hindsight. I started out wanting to do something meaningful outside of my daily job. There was no desire to scale or build an organisation. Just the desire to spend every free minute doing something that I felt was necessary and ought to be done. I spent 4-5 years doing just that. Eventually, the decision to put a structure around that effort came up, and that was perhaps when the organization took form and the entrepreneurial idea really set in.”
Pranil has come a very long way from the accidental social entrepreneur he talks about being. When he first founded Leap For Word, he found a source of support and guidance in UnLtd India, an incubator for early-stage entrepreneurs.
His greatest struggle at that time lay in figuring out how to sustain a non-profit organization.
Pranil remembers the importance of being surrounded by other entrepreneurs who were either dealing with, or had overcome, similar struggles. “At the early stages especially, it was extremely vital to have a community you could lean on. People you could use as a sounding board for questions, doubts, and fears,” he says. He firmly believes that entrepreneurs act as each other’s best guides and confidantes, even when it comes to more personal issues like balancing family needs and personal aspirations.
Often, an incubator’s most successful and fruitful contribution involves making budding changemakers feel part of a network that can guide them through uncharted territory. Pranil’s struggles sometimes echo in the experiences of many younger entrepreneurs, and this makes his insights invaluable to them.
Aman Sharma, Deepesh Nair, and Nasrullah Adamji are co-founders of TEACH, an organization that provides higher education and English language learning programmes for hearing-impaired youth. Part of UnLtd India’s newest cohort of Fellows, they met Pranil Naik at a workshop. Aman says, “Pranil reminded us to be thankful to the people allowing us to serve. It is important to never lose sight of that humbling fact.”
Deepesh said that the most important piece of advice Pranil gave him was to “just let it come”. “I realized from talking to him that you cannot plan too much—it doesn’t work. When it comes, analyze it and work it out. This is important advice, especially coming from someone who has tried their hand at it. Their successes and failures are both learning points for us,” he says.
Being an entrepreneur is often lonely and grueling, and being a social entrepreneur can amplify that isolation. Having a network for technical and moral support can be very valuable, at all stages. Pranil and many other senior Fellows regularly share their wisdom and experience with new batches of changemakers. They lead sessions on specific skill sets they have expertise in, or tell their always-interesting and inspiring stories.
Pranil himself is a valuable resource to entrepreneurs working on product development and delivery channels in the education sector.
Leap For Word is now busy working to create arguably India’s first English-literate village. One of its longest serving teachers, Shyamlal Pawara, is working in a village (Joyada) in the Shirpur district of Maharashtra. He is collaborating with the Gram Panchayat, the Zilla Parishad school teachers, and the Leap For Word team. Pawara hopes to make every school-going child in Joyada English-literate.
This is a fairly tall task. There are close to 600 students attending five different Zilla Parishad schools in a 100 % tribal village. Additionally, not many parents there value the importance of education. However the challenge makes it exciting, and it is something that Pranil has personally waited to see for long. He says, “It’s been close to a decade in the field now, but there has never been a dull moment. To be able to contribute to such an exciting collective mission is a privilege that we remain grateful for.”
Applications for UnLtd India’s incubation programs are now open! If you are a social entrepreneur with an organisation and want to apply, please fill in our eligibility form here. For more information on Pranil and Leap For Word, please visit their website.