With Sahithya Anumolu, Co-Founder of the Inqui-Lab Foundation, we discussed ways to empower youth through problem solving and innovation.
Our vision is to nurture problem-solving skills in children.
Sahithya, can you tell me about yourself and your organisation?
I am Sahithya. I'm from India, a state called Telangana and city, Hyderabad. I have been in education since 2014, starting with a Teach for India fellowship – which was my first 101 in education and public schools. Right after, we co-founded Inqui-Lab Foundation in 2017 with two of my colleagues from Teach for India: Eshwar Bandi and Vivek Piddempally.
For the last three years, we have been running this organisation. Our vision is to nurture problem-solving skills in children. And, I am very excited about this conversation and looking forward to sharing more about what we do!
Can any student reach out to your organisation? Or, you have specific partnerships with schools?
As an organisation, we have decided to work with public school students from socially economically disadvantaged communities. So, with that mission in mind, we operate a lot with the public school system. Also, we keep in mind that we want to scale all the interventions we design through this system.
We witnessed students observing problems, coming up with creative ideas, and excited to test these ideas.
How do you foster student innovation?
Our organisation started by witnessing the kind of ideas that students were coming up with within our classrooms! For example, a student had said, 'my mother wakes up many times in the night because she has to rock my sister's cradle, and I want to make a cradle that automatically rocks as soon as my sister cries.' So, we witnessed students observing problems, coming up with creative ideas, and were excited to test these ideas.
From that starting point where we saw potential, we started looking at how best to equip students to innovate. That is where we segwayed into the design thinking process, for example, and thought about how we could teach design thinking to children between the age group of 10 to 15. How can we simplify the process for them? And, how can we teach it at scale in schools? So, we started researching and designing around these questions.
Can you tell me more about how you use design thinking?
We see it as a process for problem solving and have crafted our own four-step process to use it: find and understand an issue, ideate to solve it, make and test (step where you iterate on your ideas) and present. The last point consists of sharing your ideas with a larger group. This four-step process is inspired by what we learned through our research on design thinking and local and global education for children, including Stanford.
Design thinking is meant to be user-driven. So, you get feedback from users and iterate on your ideas. Keeping that in mind, we try to ensure that, within our program, students are not just thinking about building an end product, but the process and takeaways that they get through it are equally important.
The School Innovation Challenge was done in partnership with UNICEF [...]. We went from working with 3,000 students to 23,000 students by establishing multiple partnerships.
You mentioned that prototyping is an integral part of your four-step process. So, many of your students' ideas come to life through a prototype. Do you produce these prototypes at scale?
For us, scaling is at a program level. We have two flagship programs that we run for students.
One is called Think & Make. It is an in-school program, a weekly intervention meant for grades 8th and 9th. Through the two years, students do multiple units of innovation. In every unit, they come up with an idea and a prototype. What we scale right now is the intervention itself. We are currently reaching two schools; how could we take it to 5, 10, 25, 200, 5000 schools throughout the state? For the prototypes themselves, we are looking at multiple opportunities right now. They are currently making them in the classrooms and presenting them to their peers during the programs. However, we are exploring whether a great student idea can get further opportunities. Can it be implemented, mentored, funded?
The second program is called the School Innovation Challenge. We are running it as a result of COVID-19. It consists of online and in-school interventions where we codify a three-hour problem-solving course. During this course, students learn the basics of design thinking and problem solving. Then, they do a capstone project that they submit to us. This School Innovation Challenge was done in partnership with UNICEF and brought many learnings for us. For example, we went from working with 3,000 students to 23,000 students by establishing multiple partnerships. So, we understood what scaling means. This program was a highlight for us!
Congratulations! Can you tell me more about these partnerships?
I cannot imagine Inqui-Lab or any of our work without partnerships. For our School Innovation Challenge program, we had four main ones.
Since the beginning, we collaborated with the Telangana State Innovation Cell, a centre in our state whose mission is to encourage innovation at the school, college and corporate levels.
UNICEF trusted us with the program design and also funded its development. We also partnered with the Telangana State Education Department of our state, who were willing to roll this out to 5,000 schools during the COVID time. We trained around 5,000 teachers, which then helped us take this program to the 23,000 students.
The fourth partnership I would like to highlight is with makers. The top 25 ideas received mentorship and prototyping support from individuals working in NGOs who came forward and helped us. So, there is a lot of volunteering, which is a significant partnership component that we would like to explore. So, we had partnerships at every step of the program: funding, program design, implementation, and more.
We started developing our kit, which has electronics, hand tools, [...] and other materials. This is the part that kids are so excited about. They are always looking forward to the prototyping sessions.
Where do you source the materials and tools necessary for the prototyping?
In terms of materials, we are exploring two ways. First, for some of our programs, we partnered with another for-profit company that also builds kits. They have electronics that they donated to us.
However, we also started developing our kit, which has electronics, hand tools, small drill bits, small saws, wood, and other materials that they can use in their prototypes. This is the part that kids are so excited about. They are always looking forward to the prototyping sessions.
The main reason we started in-house design is because of the cost factor. No partnership could offer us the cost that we were aiming for the kit. We do not have a manufacturing unit; right now, it is very manual and human-resource intensive. The largest kit number we have manufactured is 300, but we will have to look at how we can ramp up our manufacturing process if we want to scale up programs.
Do you rely solely on donations, or do you have other sources of revenue?
From day one, we have been lucky enough to be able to diversify our fundraising. 85% of our operations depend on donors' funding, and 15% is raised through revenue via other activities, like workshops. Indeed, certain organisations were willing to pay us for the programs or kits we delivered for their schools.
In terms of our sources, we have crowdfunding, companies' donations (i.e. CSR), grants, high-net-worth individuals donations, and incubators. Every year we have had either a grant or incubator to support us. Many incubators help organisations that are at an early stage (between zero to three years). So, they have been of significant help for us from day one because they also provided us with mentorship. In this context, my two co-founders have been instrumental in diversifying fundraising and ensuring that the organisation has the funds to run from year to year.
Today, we are a 15 to 20-member team [...]. So, we are learning the ropes around that as the team is growing.
You are three partners. Does each of you has a specific role, or everyone does a little bit of everything?
It has changed year to year, but we have a major role that each plays – without having titles. For example, I focus on program design, curriculum design, etc. Vivek used to do a lot of the operations. Eshwar used to work on partnerships and fundraising. He speaks to many people, brings in mentorship, and inputs from the external world.
So, each of us has strategically taken on specific roles, but we had had all done everything as well – especially when we started (e.g. fundraising, program design, impact measurement, etc.). Today, we are a 15 to 20-member team, and it has been an exciting journey for us. Indeed, it is not just the three of us now, so we need to have certain processes in place, a lot of project management, remote working – which has been a new challenge for us this year. So, we are learning the ropes around that as the team is growing.
Many of our mentors say that you are a different organisation at every stage, so you will face other challenges if your staff grows.
How do you get from the starting point, usually a group of people who want to accomplish something together, to where you are now?
I can pinpoint two or three things. First, many of our mentors say that you are a different organisation at every stage, so you will face other challenges if your staff grows.
I can say that apart from your founding team, the following immediate people who join your team are vital. They need to be strong critical thinkers willing to question our vision and pivot our thinking in many ways. Indeed, as co-founders, we can get stuck on particular viewpoints. We were fortunate to get the right team at the very beginning. Every single person acted like co-founders themselves. They were able to bring initiative, ownership, and design to the organisation.
Secondly, as the team was growing, we also started to take on more work. At this point, we have to get right the resourcing across projects and say no to certain things. We still struggle a bit in this area as we take on more than we can, but we are trying to estimate better and ensure that the team is not taking on more than it can handle.
The third is just learning and development. We are a young team (between 20 to 30 years of age). Some people are joining us for their first year of employment. So, we have much responsibility to ensure that they have suitable role models and get the coaching they need – which we are learning in the process.
If you have to choose one thing – if possible – what would you say has been the most important point to pay attention to for the foundation to blossom?
I am going to keep the obvious finance fundraising aside because that is important. So, I would say a shared vision across all the team members.
Even today, we spend time to ensure this, especially as we have three people leading. For example, we have to be clear about what student innovation means to each of us. When we say 'we want to nurture problem-solving skills, we need to know what problem-solving skills mean to us. Or, on a higher level, what does success mean for Inqui-Lab? Our common understanding of that is critical, and it applies to the rest of the team too.
To be aligned on our vision, what we want to achieve, and our goals is essential to ensure everybody knows the most important thing to do when they get to the office every day.
When we hear stories like this, it is not just a success metric, but we see that students are beginning to believe that they can be partners in solving challenges around us.
What effects have you seen in the students' life as a result of your initiatives?
Students say that they now know that they can think about an idea when they see a problem. I have also seen students implement their ideas. For example, Priyavarshini, as soon as COVID hit, had to go back to her village as schools were closed. As soon as she arrived, she made awareness posters, masks with gunny bags and distributed them in her community. When we hear stories like this, it is not just a success metric, but we see that students are beginning to believe that they can be partners in solving challenges around them.
Another example is Abhishek, whose idea was rated second best among the 7000 ideas we received in the School Innovation Challenge. He worked alongside Rajesh and Venu to conceive a low-cost wearable made with old fertiliser bags to ease farmers' work. It was produced and distributed to three families who helped test the idea. He told me that when he started interviewing people to understand their problems, he understood the world around him more. Also, he got to meet the high-level dignitaries in our state, which is rare. Finally, he said that his parents, who were farmers, were felicitated at his school for his team's innovation.
Otherwise, usually, the students who perform well academically are the ones who get highlighted, and everybody else is blurred out in the background, even from the teachers' perspective. But, in our specific classroom, we started to see that the students providing the best ideas were not necessarily the ones getting the highest marks. So, we were beginning to see these students also shine. They were getting recognised for their ideas and prototyping skills.
Our programs must provide an inclusive and safe space for students. We also have a set of target skills and attitudes. For example, when we talk about problem solving, it involves design thinking, teamwork, risk taking, innovative mindset – which we measure during our programs as we consider them as impact.
To sum up, what brings me joy is when students believe in their ability to solve problems and value their ideas. They can then get recognition from others, and people around them start to see students as partners. As an organisation, we celebrate that as a significant milestone.
What is your vision for the years to come, and how do you plan to materialise it?
We have been designing for a while now. So, we will focus on scaling now. We are looking at how best to have partnerships and funding to scale.
As an organisation, we aim for a peer-led or student-led model – a highly scalable model. Also, we want the interventions to run without Inqui-Lab: let schools or communities run them. So, we think about incentivising them to run them and the ecosystem to support that.
Ultimately, we want to create an extensive network of young individuals who care about SDGs and are willing to do what it takes to build a better world.
How can people help you and support your organisation?
One is just collaboration with organisations for program design. The second is funding for student ideas as well as schools that would like to run our programs. Finally, makers who have the skills to turn ideas into reality so that students can see the full value and impact of their innovations, helping them become social entrepreneurs in their own right.
Next time, when you see a problem, ask a child what they would do about it, and you would be surprised by what they say.
Is there anything else that you would like to share?
Next time, when you see a problem, ask a child what they would do about it, and you would be surprised by what they say. Give every student a chance to be a problem solver!
Thanks so much for reading this post. I hope you enjoyed it!
If you are a social entrepreneur and would like to share your story, reach out to me via LinkedIn!