Why do we do the things we do? What drives our passion, the risks we take and the hope we cultivate?
• Tell us a bit about yourself.
Sankar: I grew up in a small rural town in Kerala, India. As a child, I lived in a large joint family, with more than 40 people dwelling in a sprawling mansion complex. Typical of the Kerala joint families of the seventies, we had a communal life where we did all of the daily activities together. I grew up with more than 15 cousins and we all studied, played and often fought together. We still remain very connected as a large extended family.
Typical of the middle-class, our family attached a lot of importance to education. I was thought to be good in Math and so it was just natural for me to be an Engineer. I did my Bachelors and Masters in Electrical Engineering. That was the time the technology sector was emerging in India and I started my career in a technology consulting firm.
In 1991, I went to Tokyo on an overseas assignment. Japan, with its unique language and culture, is thought to be a difficult place for foreigners to adjust to. But I instantly loved it, learned the language and immersed myself in all things Japanese — culture, food, literature.
My days in Japan convinced me to look at cultural exposure as a key dimension of my overall career goals. I ended up living there for eight years before moving to the US. We lived in New York for 11 years and then in Singapore for 8 years before coming to India two years back. I still keep my ties with Japan, visiting there every few years.
• When did you first feel the need to go back to where you are from?
Sankar: My story probably is different from that of a typical Indian returnee. My return to India was rather incidental. I wanted a career change, focusing on education, my interest for a long time. I thought that India was the best place for this, both in terms of opportunities and resources. Of course, I was also very happy to come back and relive my past here.
• How supportive were your wife and son?
Sankar: Throughout our life overseas, my wife and I had kept active links with India. This was through family connections, the Indian diaspora activities, cultural and literary engagements etc. Though my son had lived all his life outside, he really enjoyed visiting his grandparents and the extended family in India. The three of us were quite comfortable with the idea of returning to live here. In fact, our decision and the move were quick and relatively smooth.
• What were your fears and how did you overcome them?
Sankar: There were concerns about my son’s studies and how he was going to adjust with the system. So we made an upfront decision that we would go back if we thought it was not working out. Since I am on my own, keeping that flexibility was not difficult.
• How different was the India you went back to?
Sankar: Though we had come back after about three decades, we didn’t have a ‘culture shock’. We had been following the changes in India and were prepared. But with any such change, there is always a difference between perception and reality and you need to deal with that.
• Given a chance, what would you have done differently?
Sankar: You can never prepare enough for a big change. My business plans had to be somewhat altered based on the reality I found on the ground. I could have done more homework and also expanded my network beforehand, but this ‘wisdom of hindsight’ will always be there with any change.
• Where do you see yourself five years down the line?
Sankar: I want to continue to pursue my ideas on education. I still do not know what final shape it will take, but I will remain open and shape it as opportunities emerge. I also love to travel around, experiencing different lands and cultures. So ideally, I do not want to tie myself to a geographic location. With the connected world, I believe that is possible.
• What would you say to all those who want to take a mid-career switch?
Sankar: Though my story may not represent a typical career switch, I will share what I have learned. Apart from the homework and groundwork, the most important thing to have is a perspective. You need to be clear about your primary objectives (better career, chasing your passion, better lifestyle etc.) and be prepared to compromise on all others. Also, have an exit strategy. Be ready to switch back if it does not work out, and do not look at it as a failure.
• What drove you to choose the education sector?
Sankar: Through the various stages in my life as a student, parent, mentor and a teacher, I have always been intrigued by the question of what the most effective way of learning something is. Through my exposure to different countries and systems, I had seen numerous examples of both what works and what does not work in learning as well as broadly in education. With my Technology hat on, I wanted to bring all these into a form that could actually help effective learning across disciplines and geographies. I thought this could best be achieved with an EdTech company, and thus Silver Pi was born.
• Do you think it’s important for fathers to be involved in their children’s educational growth?
Sankar: Yes, absolutely. Children today have great many options to choose from for their learning paths and careers. But the world has also gotten extremely complex, making it difficult for them to navigate these choices on their own. Both parents, with their diverse perspectives, need to help the children, of course, without imposing their own views. Involving in your children’s education is also an effective way of bonding with them.
• Where do you see the world of learning and learners a few years from now?
Sankar: Learning will undergo fundamental changes – in what we learn, how we learn and why we learn. Technology will play a key role in this transformation. Learning will become more trans-disciplinary, going across arts, sciences and humanities. Ideas like micro and nano degrees, and build-your-own-degrees will become mainstream.
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