Umesh Malhotra – Igniting minds with books

Umesh Malhotra (BTech, MM/1990) is the founder of Hippocampus which is a network of libraries and schools that is attempting to change the face of rural education in India. He is an entrepreneur, a philanthropist and a Godavite at heart. Read on to know more about his vision behind Hippocampus, on occupying the all-powerful post of Quark Manager and the eternal feud between Saras and Godav.

Q.1 After 4 years in IIT, you took up a managerial position at Infosys. How did this decision come about?

When you join an IIT, you realise that there are a lot of people who are much smarter than you are. So you begin to realize that you can’t be in the same league as those guys because they are really good.

So I decided to just have fun in insti. Those days life was not as strict in IIT, and we had no attendance rule. Having said that, by the end of 4th year, my grades were so poor that I couldn’t even go for a management trainee job in Bajaj/Tata steel which were the dream jobs of 1990.

Fortunately there was this unknown company called Infosys that landed at the campus with less than 100 employees and a revenue of less than 1 crore. I liked Infosys mainly because they were based in Bangalore which had much better weather than Chennai. Secondly, the whole idea of working on computers in those days was pretty intriguing. Nobody could predict what it was going to be. There was a revolution happening in the world and I was getting a chance to work in it, so I thought, why not?!

Q.2 After working in Infosys you started Bangalore labs. Can you describe the company in short, and explain the vision behind it?

When I set up Bangalore labs, I had spent 9 years at Infosys and was nearly 30 years old. I was running 5% of the company, which included the entire sales of the company. The company had just gone public on NASDAQ. Google and Yahoo! were becoming big names and I was smack in the middle of California. I was 30 years old and already had a run with Infosys. So I thought let’s go out and experiment – try new things. But I was very clear about wanting to come back to India to do this. So in ‘99 I returned and started Bangalore labs.

The idea behind Bangalore labs was that the software services space was extremely crowded and there was no space for another generic player. We thought that there is an opportunity in playing in the IT infrastructure management space which primarily meant that sitting in India I could manage networks and servers, detect security intrusions, run ATMs, power grids, etc. We built India’s first network connection centre, where we had these flashy NASA like screens – a full wall of televisions. Different servers and signals would be beeping around, and you would know when a server was getting overloaded or when a hack was happening.

Q.3 What was your inspiration to suddenly turn to social entrepreneurship? What was your idea and vision behind it?

This happened purely by accident. When I was in the bay area in 1999, I was trying to convince my son to come to India. One of his complaints was that there are no good libraries for children in India, and so I am not coming there. So, without thinking too much we made a commitment to him saying that we’ll go and open a library for you in India. How do you convince a 4 year old to get on the flight? I’ll buy you a chocolate, I’ll buy you a pastry, I’ll open a library for you…

For me it was really exciting to realize that you can gift people so much joy by just giving them books

But this boy didn’t forget and a couple of years later he started bullying my wife asking for the library that we had promised him. So that was how my wife decided to work on a library for kids.

Also, it was during this time that my company got sold. So I was in the process of figuring out what to do next in life. The library opened and I went there to help them do marketing. At that time I saw children interacting with books. For me it was really exciting to realize that you can gift people so much joy by just giving them books. When you work in the IT sector, you rarely get to see customers having fun. So this was a completely new experience for me.

It was Nandan Nilekani’s wife, Rohini who exposed me to the appalling condition of the educational institutes in rural India. So I took the decision to spend some time trying to fix this problem.I jumped in with a great amount of confidence but within a couple of years we understood that it was far more complex than what we had originally thought. And I was spending a lot of time trying to answer this question –  How do I help make children in government schools better readers?

In 2010, we began thinking about building a network of facilities for education of the poor children in villages. So in 2011 we launched India’s first rural kindergarten starting at 17 centres, and since then we’ve been working on opening more and more kindergartens.

Q.4 Hippocampus differs from other libraries by using innovative methods like colour coding, sorting them by height etc. How did these ideas come about?

We started working in 2004, and by 2006 we actually had had no breakthroughs. We hadn’t accomplished what we had set about to do. So in 2007 after a lot of R&D and multiple failures, we came up with “Grow by reading” which sorts books by colours, levels and age. This makes libraries for poor kids work.

The idea was to basically turn a library into a learning hub. Children who study in government schools usually have uneducated parents who may not be able to guide them well. Our programme comes in here as it levels books based on the child’s reading abilities.

It was simple. The teacher’s job becomes to assign a level to the kid and keep changing the levels as they progress. By doing this we eliminated the need for an educated parent and created an active library.

Q.5 Why did you decide to make Hippocampus a non-free program?

We felt that people will make better use of something towards which they felt a sense of ownership. So we asked people to collect the funds while we provide the training, support and the programme which will make it work. This worked really well and gave us a lot of partners – people who were really committed and not blind donors.

We did many experiments to give more and more people access to libraries. In villages, we asked women there to start libraries. We gave them funding and training, and the only condition was that she had to bring the kids to these libraries. The kids were asked to pay a small fee, say 10 rupees a month, which goes to her salary.

Q.6 Where do you see Hippocampus in the future?

A few years back we moved from just running libraries to providing complete education. Today we run a huge network of 213 preschools and 2 full-fledged schools. In the district of Mandya (near Bangalore), 6% of the children use Hippocampus libraries to go through pre-school. We are trying for a massive adoption rate in order to improve the education system in rural India.

Our mission for the next five years is to educate as many children as the country of Finland

Currently we are operational in more than 10 districts and our mission for the next five years is to educate as many children as the country of Finland (the reason why we set this goal is that Finland is known for its high-education rate and we wish to compare with their benchmark).

Q.7 You’ve held the post of canteen in charge at IIT and you’ve set up a lot of restaurants in Bangalore – Civet, Hong Kong Hustle, Oye Amritsar,  Oye Shava, Saigon etc. How did your canteen and managerial skills help here?

The restaurant business happened by pure accident. When I was in Bangalore labs someone came up to me and asked me if I would invest some money in a restaurant that he was going to setup. I thought that it wasn’t a bad idea and gave him a cheque for 10 lakhs. A few years later he wanted to discontinue the business and then we decided to buy it back.

I was the quark coordinator when MGR died, the entire city was closed, and suddenly everyone in IIT was friends with me because I would open up quark and give cigarettes to them

At IIT I wanted to run Quark because I found entrepreneurial stuff very exciting. And those days in IITM it was the only entrepreneurial thing you could do. We could actually go to Taramani, hire people to work in Quark, we could buy the ingredients, decide recipes, fix prices etc. So we did a lot of stuff, and the best part about the Quark business was that if you lost money the institute covered it and if you made money the institute took it. It was like a game, even though you had to maintain and submit proper accounts. It was also a very powerful position because I remember very distinctly that I was the Quark Coordinator when MGR died and the entire city was closed, and the only place that had cigarettes in the whole of IIT was Quark! Suddenly everyone in IIT was friends with me because I would open up Quark and give cigarettes to them.

Q.8 Could you tell us about some of your most unforgettable memories in insti?

We used to do all kinds of crazy stuff. I was in Godav  and during Diwali we all used to use our aeronautical skills to fly rockets from Godav to Saras. We would buy fireworks and go to the terrace, arrange used up Pepsi bottles, beer bottles and rockets at the right angles so that we can light them together and launch them from Godav to Saras. It was just like playing war games!

During Diwali we all used to use our aeronautical skills to fly rockets from Godav to Saras

We also used to buy Hydrogen bombs and tie agarbathis to them and leave outside the window of whomever we wanted to harass that day. By the time the agarbatti finished burning and the bomb went off, we’d be back in our rooms, sleeping. Suddenly the bomb would go off at 2’0 clock in the morning outside the poor guy’s window and he would be completely shaken. Nobody would know who had done it because we would be already sleeping.

Another great memory I have is when IIT won the Inter-IIT cup in ‘88. Those days liquor was allowed very freely in campus and so the cup was filled with liquor and had gone for a trip around the hostels with the contingent, amidst Madhuri Dixit’s “Ek do teen” playing in the background. People would just stop the cup, take a few gulps and pass it on!

I also remember that we generally never had working showers in our hostel because of the water shortage in Chennai. There used to be a common water tub where we had to fill our buckets. So every evening we used to have a community bath where we’d go to the toilet, put a big bucket there and 10 guys would bathe in one go.

All these are memories that made insti life unforgettable.

Q.9 You’ve said that “I decided not to be an engineer at the end of my 1st year”. What would you advise people who are confused about core or non-core options?

There’s no right or wrong answer. I have many classmates who are enjoying themselves doing core engineering. I even have a batchmate who has become a leading neurosurgeon in the US !

I personally think that people who are cut out for engineering and technology and are excited about it should be engineers. They are the ones who’ll go and create cool stuff. Unfortunately for many of them the pay scales in core engineering are very different from other fields. Because of this core becomes unattractive and this pressurises people to look at other options.You shouldn’t let that happen and should follow your heart.The management job has more glamour, more money, but what I’ve noticed in my colleagues is that after some time they get bored, and aren’t excited about what they’re doing.

I also think that the current start-up euphoria is very good and that it’s super exciting to be in a start-up. Nevertheless, I’m not a believer in campus start-ups. There are ethics and values that one should follow in professional life, and these are not taught in college. So I would advise people to work in professional organisations for 3-4 years before starting up because this gives you a perspective on what’s the right thing to do.

Q.10 You said that you visited insti after more than 20 years. What changes did you see in insti when you came back?

I actually didn’t like the idea of a common canteen. In my time, each hostel had its own canteen, and it was a place where we would all get together, meet and socialise. It’s a lot easier to make friends with 300 people than with the entire population. I still remember that If you came to the mess and didn’t find your friends, you could go to the well of the hostel and call out for your friends to come down and have hourlong dinners .

Q.11 What are the things that people should imbibe from their college life?

One thing students should understand form a hyper competitive college like IIT is failure. They shouldn’t let failure bog them down. All of us who get into IIT were at least in the top 5 of our class in our school days. Then you get into IIT and see that everyone is a topper, and that  someone has to finish last too.

So what IIT does very well for people is build resilience. They should go and pick opportunities that will test them, build their resilience, and put themselves in zones where they aren’t very comfortable.  Eventually IIT is a safe place, because even if you come last in an IIT you are relatively safe. There’s no other place in life that is this secure. So people should take risks, learn from failures, do things they would never do.

Q.12 Would you like to say something to the students of insti?

I think these are some of the best times of your life because my time at IIT was pretty ‘wild’. It is a time when you can go out, make lots of friends, do crazy stuff , take part in all sorts of cultural activities, and just do stuff. So just go and have a great time!