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What young India needs: My conversation with Ravi Venkatesan

Last year, UNESCO declared January 24th as International Day of Education to honor education and its centrality to human well-being and sustainable development. 


This International Day of Education, I spoke with Ravi Venkatesan, UNICEF’s Special Representative for Young People and Innovation, former chairman of Microsoft India and Bank of Baroda, to get his perspective on education.



Here are some of the highlights of my conversation with him.


Supriya Panchangam: What was your education like, the kind you received? 

Ravi Venkatesan: My education was fairly conventional - all of it pretty much about cramming for grades. Where I got lucky is that my parents, some of my teachers, others in my life encouraged curiosity, exploration, reading, and risk-taking. So even in pre-liberalization India, where none of us had very much, I tinkered a lot. I built a sophisticated chemistry lab at home that filled a whole room, I made myself a good microscope and a powerful telescope. Overall, I was super lucky that my early experiences and influences led to what we today call “learning agility” and a “growth mindset.”


S: Society today would view you as a successful person and yet you are in the business of changing the education system, that made you so. Why? 

R: Correction, I am not in the business of changing the education system. That’s too complex, and there are many excellent people already trying to do that. What we are trying to do in YuWaah! is address some of the primary deficiencies of our education system. This includes engaging young people in solving problems around them so they gain self-confidence, collaboration, and problem-solving skills - which are the foundation for success.


S: What, according to you, is the most critical challenge with Indian education today? 

R: Creating good outlets for our youth’s capability and aspirations is one of our biggest challenges. Today, the problem we must tackle is not how we find decent work for young people but how can we tap into the potential of this generation to create a massive army of change-makers, leaders, and problem solvers. Around 374 million Indians are between 10-24 years old, and they constitute a fifth of the world’s young people. We have the youngest cohort in the history of our country, and their talent and drive is our single greatest hope for the future. 


S: In a country as large as India, how can one go about solving these challenges? 

R: The first and most important thing is to re-frame the problem. Framing is everything, for the answers you get depend on the question you ask. One of the most powerful ways to speed up solve any challenge is to radically increase the number of problem solvers. Second, all stakeholders need to come together-  businesses, govt, youth organizations- to support young people in solving problems and becoming change leaders. Currently, the pathways from education to employment are quite broken. So we need to work particularly with businesses- formal and informal- to create many more pathways from school to different types of productive work and civic leadership.


S: How can we make education a lot more real and useful for all young people? 

R: Focussed efforts towards tinkering, invention, problem-solving, entrepreneurship and leading change will be critical - not just acquiring vocational skills and landing a job. Exposure to the liberal arts will be essential for complete development. These efforts should result in economic dynamism, more entrepreneurship and more jobs that can help reshape the opportunity landscape for youth in the country 


S: What would be your top recommendations for changes to the Indian education system?

R: A crying need is for effective career counseling and mentoring targeted at assessing the interests and aptitude of a person in order to guide them down pathways they may find rewarding. Another critical aspect is entrepreneurship. India needs millions of young people who can build businesses based on the problems and opportunities around them. To enable them to do this we need to expose every young person experientially to entrepreneurship in schools and colleges. An entrepreneurial mindset is essential to flourish in the VUCA world we live in. 


S: In a decade from now, what would you say “being educated” would mean? 

R: I would hope that being educated would mean having a curious, open, and reflective mind, the ability to think critically and problem-solve, and an understanding of what it means to be a citizen. I like what Einstein said, - “education is what remains after one has forgotten what one learned in school.” In other words, education should be about building character, developing a curious and open mind, and learning how to learn.  


Today, I am reminded of the call to action issued by Audrey Azoulay, the Director-General at UNESCO, "Because, now more than ever, we need to mobilize. High-level political authorities and citizens, States and associations, teachers and parents of students: everyone, in their own way, has a role to play in making the right to education a reality for all. It is our responsibility to future generations."


For those of you reading this, I encourage you to find a way to meaningfully contribute to young people’s lives. Volunteer, contribute, mentor, provide or enable a safe space for learning. Find a way to demonstrate - in action - that you believe in their potential.


For, they are the only ones who can lead us into our future. 


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