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This home for underprivileged coders will put the Indian government and IT industry to shame

Somewhere in a modest neighbourhood in Delhi, eight or so children of India’s underprivileged –from families of day-labourers, autorickshaw drivers, and sewer cleaners to name a few — are learning Python, HTML, and CSS. They all live together in a small three-bedroom apartment, share in the cooking and cleaning chores, and then are often up till 3 or 4 in the morning writing code.

Now here’s the kicker. While a tsunami of unemployment stories have begun to roil the Indian software industry, with everyone from junior level to senior staff being given the boot thanks to the invasion of bots, everyone who has graduated from this makeshift temple for coding — called NavGurukul, meaning “new centre of learning” — has secured jobs at leading startups and IT companies all over India.

It is a startling, magical, feel-good story befitting the best that Hollywood or Bollywood has to offer, but it is real — real enough to impart some serious lessons for India’s software industry whose employees are going through a crisis, or the Indian government which has been an abject failure when it comes to skilling its masses of increasingly unemployed youth.

Disillusioned by India’s bankrupt higher education system, Abhishek Gupta and Rishabh Verma started NavGurukul a few years ago and modelled it partly on a type of residential school in ancient India where students lived with their teacher in the same house. Another more immediate inspiration was the iconic firm Zoho.

Zoho needs a blogpost all for itself. It makes world-class CRM and business productivity apps and counts Salesforce amongst its chief rivals. It was founded by tech iconoclast Sridhar Vembu, who built a company with a market cap easily into the billions if it wasn’t private, without using a penny of venture capital money.

More pertinent to this piece, Zoho also picks up capable high schoolers and dropouts from humble backgrounds and gives them rigorous training in software coding over two years at its own school, dubbed Zoho University. 15 percent of a class go on to work for Zoho and today close to 15 percent of its 4,500 workforce are from its training academy with over 30 in leadership positions.

Deeply inspired by this model and committed to foment change, Delhi’s NavGurukul jumpstarted a year-long residential program a few years ago funded entirely by donations. A selection process involves a few tests to see if applicants have the wherewithal to take to software programming.

Those who get in tackle courses based on real-world projects or activities taught by volunteer professionals. Enrollment is strictly for the underprivileged and so serious are the founders about their mission that they have rewritten the entire course in Hindi to make it more accessible to their recruits. The two techies have spent about 70,000 rupees on each student over a year with the stipulation that this amount be paid back once the student starts earning to ensure the platform stays sustainable.

Colonialism, slavery, or the caste system — whatever may be the systems that have been used to oppress, humiliate, subjugate, monetize, and control humans continue to show very real scars visible in society all over the world today. Considerable, generational damage takes a long time to repair and in India, this is most visible in the shattered confidences amongst its poor and unprivileged.

So it’s not surprising to hear NavGurukul’s founders say that the biggest challenge they encountered in skilling their wards was in trying to reverse the lack of self belief. Along the way, students at NavGurukul also receive the benefits of a counsellor, learn meditation and yoga, and are exposed to the worlds of gender and LGBT rights via guest lecturers.

Why is this important? Take Capgemini India CEO Srinivas Kandula’s confession earlier this year that the vast majority of India’s existing workforce cannot be taught new and emerging skills. “I tend to believe that 60-65 percent of them are just not trainable,” he said, which if true, has shocking ramifications for India’s IT workforce.

To add to this stunning revelation is the even more stupefying fact that only 7 percent of its graduating engineers are apparently employable. Things are so bad that IT major HCL is starting its own academy to train their prospective employees and prefer those unsullied by the taint of a useless college education.

India’s government, which has a serious problem in its inability to skill and provide jobs to its tens of millions of youth, and Indian IT, saddled with unskilled employees in a period of great flux, both desperately need to learn from examples set by NavGurukul and Zoho.

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