Berkeley’s 2015 Hult Prize winner Sneha Sheth discussed her work with Dost, a mobile phone platform delivering early education content and activities to Moms.
What inspired you to create Dost?
My journey with Dost started in 2009 when I was working in Mumbai with Teach for India. (It’s the same concept as Teach for America.) I was on the strategy team while they were in their first year of operations. I did a number of classroom visits and saw how students would come in to 2nd and 3rd grade with very little literacy and vocabulary. They were already behind – not having the kind of exposure to resources and parental interaction that kids of more educated parents would have. I observed that even if parents wanted to help, they didn’t really know how, creating a cycle of illiteracy. And yet, parents were passionate about making kids do better—they bought into the fact that education could pull kids out of this poverty cycle. I also observed something unexpected—in 2009, many parents had cell phones…even if they lived in a one room home in Dharavi. Today that number is up to well over 90%.
How did you move forward?
Ideas started brewing after that experience, but I didn’t know exactly how to proceed. Over the years, I realized I’m curious about market-based approaches to solving poverty and want to attempt international development by creating products that people want.
When “early childhood education in the urban slum” was announced as last year’s Hult Prize topic, I knew I had to act. I joined three other MBA classmates to ideate. We quickly honed in on the idea that if these phone-using moms knew what to do to facilitate literacy, even if they weren’t literate themselves, they could improve the quality of their children’s education.
After winning the Berkeley round of the Hult Prize competition and doing well in the regional contest, we received tremendous encouragement about the feasibility of the idea and viability of the revenue options. Using this momentum and with support from my friends and classmates, I took the leap and decided to develop the project further over the summer.
What happened next?
Traveling straight from IBD in Kenya to Mumbai was grueling, but also relevant, since our IBD project was centered on introducing Kenyan women entrepreneurs to Lean LaunchPad principles. Once in India, I hit the ground running with networks developed during my Teach for India days. Within a week, I hired an intern, a former teacher with connections to local families. I was able to pay for her thanks to an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign and the Rashell Young Fellowship. I employed LLP principles by prototyping and getting in front of the customer ASAP — I spent the most days in homes or community centers with urban moms, talking about their goals and understanding exactly how early childhood content fit into their lives.
By week 3, I became more involved in the Mumbai ecosystem and a NGO offered to support a pilot for 500-600 families. At that point, I was anxious to go so big, so I dialed it back to 100 families over three different community centers in Dharavi (a large slum in Mumbai). This gave me enough data to look back upon after the pilot was over, but kept it manageable in terms of interacting with users and getting feedback.
I also leaned on my UC Berkeley connections to set up the technology and get the content deployed. After piloting the curriculum for a month, my biggest surprise was that people loved the product and were sad when the trial ended. Moms who listened to the content could name many more activities to do at home with kids vs. those who were not part of trial. I was also surprised to find such varying levels of education among parents, which surfaced the need to customize and curate content based on a family’s situation…one size definitely doesn’t fit all.
What’s next for Dost?
When I got back, I knew I needed to find someone with an opposite skill set to make Dost a reality! That’s where a new teammate from the i-School, Sindhuja Jeyabal, came into the picture. We’ve continued to build on the initial pilot success through the Impact Disco Weekend and Social Lean Launchpad course. We’re focusing on making a great, customized experience for the user, including a better curriculum and an easy, scalable process to sign up for Dost. We are currently fundraising for a second pilot with 1,000 families with the goal of answering the question: What impact does Dost have on a child’s cognitive development?
How has your time at Haas influenced you?
The exposure at Haas to entrepreneurship – and social businesses – has been invaluable. When I arrived, I didn’t know what “MVP” stood for…honestly. Now, I know that getting out of the building (or country…) is the best thing you can do.
photo credit: Sneha Sheth
Dost test meeting – One of our users at a community center in Dharavi while we evaluated the pilot