Interview with Pavitra Bahadur Gautam on Karkhana and Education System
With years of prolonged activeness in entrepreneurship development, Pavitra Bahadur Gautam is the CEO and co-founder of Karkhana, a social enterprise nurturing a spirit of innovating locally to create a global impact. He has also been actively involved in the Nepalese Young Entrepreneurs’ Forum (NYEF) as a Member and Learning Co-Chair.
Let’s learn more about him and Karkhana here.
1. According to your LinkedIn and other social media profiles, we came to know that you are a programmer, robot maker, entrepreneur, and teacher. How would you introduce yourself if you are asked about your roles?
Generally, I introduce myself as an Engineer by education, Entrepreneur by work, and Educator by passion. I love all of these three sectors. I feel greatly valued working in all these three sectors so I introduce myself as the combination of these three.
2. Many of us are familiar with Karkhana as a co-curricular after-school program. What’s the reason behind its name and what are its core objectives, products, and its target groups?
Regarding the name, I guess history is a little bit important. When we started Karkhana, we didn’t start as an educational company or as a social enterprise that works towards education but we began as a product design company in order to build local solutions to solve the local problems of Nepal. Just like Mahabir Pun is building the systems, projects, and ideas providing the space by identifying the local problems of Nepal, we also wanted to do that back in 2012. And obviously, it was not a sustainable business back then as the companies don’t intend to spend more on Research and Development.
When Karkhana started growing, we came to the conclusion to teach the topics of innovation to the engineering students but moving forward from a product design company, we realized that there was no efficient ecosystem for innovation. One of the biggest problems we faced is the lack of mindset of Innovation in the product or else. And to build up that mindset, we realized that education is a very important component. We thought of giving training on these 21st-century skills through a design thinking process to the engineering students and when we tried to make them realize the icons of Innovation, we understood that Learning was not difficult, unlearning was difficult. And we felt that to develop such mindsets, one needs to learn from childhood and when one grows up, it will be difficult and that’s why we thought of working at school level.
Now, we are helping the students with different ways of the teaching-learning process by combining all the subjects together such as Science, technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics through the integrated approach. And that’s how Karkhana was formed with the motive of helping students build a better mindset in innovation through various learning processes. Rather than co-curricular, we design curricular programs and learning experiences for school. Our whole idea is how do we empower our schools and how do we empower students in better learning outcomes particularly in the topic of science and technology.
The Karkhana programs and products start from Grade 1. We send the designs and learning experiences in the schools through our Learning Kits, Digital Contents, and teacher training so that instead of us going to schools, teachers themselves can run the programs in the schools. Also, the core individual parents can buy our products online. Now we have started making our years of practice in a package form and that starts from Grade 1 to 10.
3. How did the concept of Karkhana come? As most of the academic institutions of Nepal are still focused on theoretical knowledge, how can Karkhana change this scenario?
The reason that Karkhana reached up here is that we did not come from a traditional teaching background. We came from the diversified sectors of engineering, innovation, and entrepreneurship. In Nepal, most of the time during their careers, people actually learn by doing things in their jobs. How much is the learning we did in our classrooms really translatable in the real world? Everyone understands that Gap exists. We also understand that practical and real-world challenges or real-world communications should be strong. But it’s a complicated problem that I don’t think anybody has actually tried to approach in a way that we have approached it.
Many are initiating this now and I feel it’s changing too. Many schools are conducting ECA and there are so many other organizations that are running extra-curricular and practical activities in the schools including tours, hiking, and many more. The practical-based initiatives on Science and Technology have just now begun. And when we started this in 2012/13, the concept was very new. And our full effort is “How do we make this effort more scalable and affordable?”
4. What reforms like the Karkhana-like enterprise bring upon the Nepalese education system?
Karkhana initiated the STEM Education or STEM Approach in 2012/13. During those days, most people didn’t have the idea of STEM Education. But now, the Nepal Government has started a policy on STEM Education and there have been new policies such as Nepal Education Policy and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy. There have been changes in the policy level and not only us but many have contributed their thoughts, works, and ideas amongst which our contribution also impacted to bring about that change.
On the other hand, the promotion of hands-on learning has improved a lot. At least, we have helped to introduce new tools and technologies such as Scratch as a learning tool. I think we have played a significant role in focussing on STEM Education by prioritizing teaching programming to the kids since childhood days based on a project-based approach and other child-centric activities. We have implemented the programs in the progressive private schools in the urban setting of Kathmandu but still, there is a lot more to do. This is just a small change in the overall education system. Moving on forward from this point, continuing the same path, our goal will be to make our work more affordable, more accessible, and more scalable.
5. What further programs is Karkhana planning to bring?
We started with STEM designing co-curricular programs. Slowly we are also designing curricular programs. One program is already designed and many are in the phase of Research and Development near to completion. Nowadays, we are doing a lot more collaborations as we realized we need the right partners to scale up. I think the Covid-19 pandemic has made us realize that the effective way to run a business in an uncertain environment is in the lean form. So there is a process going on how to make the business more efficient in lean form. Also, designing more curricular programs and introducing programs in the schools outside Kathmandu from Ilam in the east to Atariya in the west are going on.
We are also helping schools build Innovation Labs and STEM Resource Center within the schools. We are also further expanding the teachers’ training.
6. Where there is an entrepreneur, obviously there would be some sorts of challenges. Can you please tell us some of the hardest obstacles regarding the establishment or operation of Karkhana?
We are working on building a culture of human resources who can think creatively and critically solve problems rather than people with certificates only. The solution that we are trying to build, its problem is actually our problem. So finding the right people who fit into our mindset is very difficult in Nepal. Human resource acquisition or human resource onboarding is one of the biggest challenges. Rather than skills, finding the right people with the right attitude, the right mindset is very difficult. Also, they need to be skilled, groomed, and supported. If the work was practiced from the beginning, they would have seen it and could do but the work that has never been done before requires more preparation, training, and intensive support.
Working in Karkhana may be mentally heavy as we are doing something that nobody has ever tried before. We are trying to solve a very big issue so maybe it’s not a Cup of Tea for everybody. Another challenge for us is the lack of awareness in Nepal. Still, people believe that education is all about passing the examinations and grabbing certificates at the end. Such a mindset is still prevailing and changing the mindset instantly is taking time. So, for our growth, it’s a very big hurdle. Also, there are many uncertainties in Nepal such as Covid, political uncertainties, economic uncertainties, and surviving the business amidst these uncertainties is a big deal.
7. You have been associated with NYEF for more than 8 years. What changes have you felt in the entrepreneurial and startup ecosystem in Nepal?
There have been a lot of changes. There used to be the concept of entrepreneurship was only limited to the second, third or fourth generation from a business family but that mindset is changing. Now we see a lot more people getting into entrepreneurship not as a way to build a business but also as a way to make impacts and build solutions. And that mindset change is interesting. Many entrepreneurial activities are being held in the college and many support systems are being made. If there is an abundance of accelerator programs and basic infrastructures, there will be an improvement in entrepreneurship.
The kind of positive infrastructural changes in the last 8, 9 years that we have seen in the country has helped a lot for the entrepreneurs. There are Insta shops now and, 8 years ago, if I said I would run a shop online, that idea would be termed as stupidity. But now, it’s possible. Many have teams working on that. Such positive changes are brought by technology changing the mindset. There used to be no positive affirmations for the people who used to run small businesses but now there’s a lot of good vibes when someone says I want to do something on my own, I want to start something on my own, or start a startup. There has been growth in the ecosystem and support system along with improvements in the mentoring and investment cultures. The ecosystem has been definitely competitive but in a good way.
8. What is your perspective on the changing environment of innovation and technology in the context of Nepal?
Whenever we talk about Innovation and Technology in Nepal, we are so obsessed with screens and tech-things and people tend to think of Innovation as a very complicated technology. In my view, the positive parts of innovation and technology are how much it has helped to bring behavioral changes in the masses, how much the population has benefited from its positive impacts and how many big changes have occurred. I think innovation starts from What is the problem and how the current situation can be better tackled and technology is the medium for innovation. Sometimes we mistake innovation as being stuck in technology only.
For example, we talk about agricultural innovations like Drip Irrigation. The system requires joining the water tank with a pipe through the holes controlling water flow and distributing water to the required roots which don’t require any electricity. It’s one of the very famous techniques also used in Nepal. Isn’t Drip Irrigation an Innovation? But whenever we think of Innovation, we tend to think of electricity and screens. Now we need to broaden the concept of Innovation. For a long time, we saw big innovations on screens only that’s why we may have that mindset. But slowly, we have to view the screens as the medium only. So, it’s not the screen that’s the innovation but what happens in that screen and why it happens is the innovation.
9. Visiting the Karkhana website, we came to know about the Karkhanaughts. Can you please elaborate on this team?
In Karkhana, we are very big on our mission, vision, values. I rather see myself as a responsible Driver for this vehicle than as a CEO leading the organization. There’s a movement and I’m just one of the Drivers for a particular period of time. And the organizational mission is bigger and beyond me. We work as a part of a community trying to build certain cultures that help the ideas. Rather than indicating big and small, if someone is leading the idea, then he/she is the leader for that moment. Let’s follow that person. If there is a certain event and someone else is leading, maybe my responsibility is to support the person as a follower, not as a leader. Let’s give that person a space to lead. We need to let those people grow who begin the initiatives.
Where there are rapid activities, one should realize that if you don’t change the time, time will move on without you. It’s so simple to understand that in this rapidly changing world, Don’t be Nokia. You can be wrong by not doing anything wrong. So, we at Karkhana try to build that mindset with our values. We exist for our people, we push boundaries in everything we do. We share beyond to catalyze change and innovation. We give emotions through our work so these core values help us build our culture and at the core of it, we believe that change is normal.
Either you drive the change or you follow the change. If you cannot do either of these two, Change leaves you aside. And we try to build such mindsets in our culture and we understand that in this journey, some people come for short periods or long but as long as they are here, we try and make sure that things are happening in a mutually respectful way. I think having a comfortable space where people can voice out their concerns, thoughts, ideas, people feel safe to try new things, we promote that culture of experimentation here. And I suppose that’s the idea of Karkhanaughts.
10. So, who can get involved in the Karkhana team?
I think all kinds of people can get involved but in different ways. As school leaders, you can get involved in our work by introducing our programs in their schools. As teachers, you can get involved in the process by understanding the learning experiences and teaching-learning processes designed by Karkhana. We have various content on our website, Facebook and organize various teacher training programs so they can be part of it. Students can also be a part of it by accessing our materials, by being part of our programs in different ways through schools and premises of Karkhana too.
Youth can also be a part of it through engaging in Fellowship and Internship programs timely. We recently opened the applications for the Make a Mentor program. It’s a competitive program where we will select 15 to 16 young people and they have to undergo training for a month or more. Then, they get a chance to do internships within Kakhana which are paid. The program is for free but we train them and also provide paid internships. In this way, we introduce more young people into the education sector in a fun way.
And if you are trying something new with the amalgamation of innovation and education, you can contact us. Maybe we can do something together.
11. Any message you want to share.
For the last decade or probably one and a half decades, we have thought about making education more comfortable and easy but it’s getting boring. I find it triggering that Learning is never easy.
Learning can be fun but it has to be difficult but I think we are making learning fast that’s why it is so boring. So, my message to everyone would be: If you're having too easy time then maybe you are not learning. Maybe have a difficult time that you enjoy.
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