How One Woman Is Changing Access to Education in India

Indian school children

Photo Credit: Jaikishan Patel/Unsplash

Teachers strive to make learning more creative and interactive, but what happens when you have limited resources? Sowmya Lakshminarayanan — who is from a small town in southern India — set out to solve this challenge early in her career. She is a scientist, educator, and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) specialist who founded Lead by Design in 2019. 

Most of Lead by Design’s programming centers around SDG 4, which strives to provide access to quality education around the world. Students work on projects related to other SDGs, such as identifying reasons for food waste (SDG 2: Zero Hunger), and mitigating unnecessary water usage (SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation) by brainstorming ideas and executing solutions in their community. Some of these have even resulted in physical devices, such as composting units (SDG 7: Affordable and Clean Energy).

Before creating Lead by Design, Lakshminarayanan was a member of the Indian chapter of Girl Scouts, known as the Bharat scouts and guides. She earned a bachelor's degree in biotechnology, and a Ph.D. centered around cell biology while at the University of Padova, Italy. With her Ph.D. in hand, she returned to India and joined a teaching fellowship, teaching children from marginalized communities. According to Lakshminarayanan, those two years strengthened her understanding of how vital access to quality education is, and how education is defined by others in the current world. 

We wanted to learn more about how Lakshminarayanan’s experiences helped push her boundaries to create this important SOCIAL ENTERPRISE:

CA: What drove you to study science, and incorporate it into your career?

SL: My passion for social change began during my college days. Moving amongst my peers during this time, I recognized that not everyone had the same educational opportunities, either financially or based on their gender. This difference both in gender and financial abilities particularly played an enormous role in my interest in STEM fields.

I wanted to try and lay the foundation in bridging those gaps. I applied for a Teach for India fellowship in 2017. The fellowship gave me an opportunity to understand the grass-root level challenges in experiential learning, particularly in the lower economic communities in India. 

CA: What led you to create Lead by Design after doing Teach for India?

SL: What I witnessed during my teaching days was that children — irrespective of their socio-economic conditions and irrespective of their academic performances — have so much creative potential within them. When a conducive environment is created for them to express their creativity, children want to help others; they want to use their creativity to change the world around them.  

I wanted to spread this message to others; I was fascinated by how the children that I taught expressed their creativity, and how they wanted to help others. So I set out to start my own SOCIAL ENTERPRISE, Lead by Design, in 2019. The idea behind Lead by Design is to bring creativity and innovation back to schools, where they belong.

CA: How does Lead by Design help kids embrace their creative side?

SL: We have a three-phase approach: 

  1. Exploration of creativity through art and hands-on activities. This phase is primarily for children to unwind from the traditional unilateral way of thinking that schools impose.

  2. Exploration of critical thinking through hands-on activities and challenges. This phase is for children to enhance their problem-solving abilities. 

  3. Design thinking phase. This is where children enter into their communities and go through the five-stage innovation process: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. 

In the past year, my experience with children has only strengthened my understanding of how they use their creative potential to solve some of the complex challenges around them. My team and I conducted after-school intervention programs, where children explored their own creativity and critical thinking, and then went through the five-stage innovation process. 

Through this process, they not only identify and solve these challenges, but also learn about their own community, especially about the resources and the positive qualities their communities offer. 

CA: How has COVID-19 impacted your organization’s work?

SL: As a part of [our] COVID response, rapid changes are happening in the education sector. Our children are currently working on solving one of the biggest challenges faced in India: How might children from rural areas without tech access get quality education?

We are super excited by the solution that they have arrived at, and are currently in the implementation phase. 

CA: When it comes to your work, what are the biggest challenges, and the biggest rewards?

SL: The biggest challenge has been the buy-in from adult stakeholders in schools — for them to see creativity and innovation as a fundamental part of schooling and not as an auxiliary part, [and] that children can change the world. But I guess the more proof-points we have around us where children lead with compassion and courage, the more we can change the narrative. I am quite positive about that.

The rewards have been many! The biggest reward I would say is the people involved. I have received spontaneous help from many people to conduct projects, feedback about the work, and connections who can help me out. People are willing to go up and beyond to see children’s projects come true. 

Lead by Design is a bootstrapped start-up. That has also been a reward: how to put the best use of what few resources that we have. It is helping me to constantly innovate, and I am loving it.


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