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When Stars Collide: Masai School Shows How Some Support Can Change Life's Course

The Maasai tribes believe that school education is not enough. What one requires in life is some skills to thrive.

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At the tender age of 15, Prottay Ray’s life, for all practical purposes, appeared to have reached a dead end. His father’s small business in Kolkata’s Barrackpore went through a bad patch from which it never recovered and the family could no longer pay the Rs 2500-odd monthly school fees for him to finish his studies.

As Prottay watched his dreams for his future disintegrate before his eyes, his school authorities swung into action to rescue the bright student from his gloomy fate. He still remembers the life-changing moment - even today he gets goosebumps - when his father got the call from the principal, informing the family of the school’s decision to offer Prottay a full scholarship including boarding facilities.

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Prottay’s Journey

For the next two years, the young boy put his heart and soul into his studies and finished second in his 12th board exams. To earn a little extra on the side to support his parents, he started giving private tuitions to his teacher’s sons, earning anywhere between Rs 2,000 to Rs 5,000. This money was what he gave to his parents, who owned their own house in Barrackpore but had virtually no other income.

The Maasai tribes believe that school education is not enough. What one requires in life is some skills to thrive.

Prottay Ray.

(Photo: Masai School)

Yet it was when he joined government-run Ashutosh College, where he could afford the low fees, that his life took a clear turn for the worse. After his 12th class exams, he lost the umbrella of protection his school provided.  The youngster sank to new depths of despair as he tried to navigate his long daily commute to college which involved the local train, metro, and walking. He’d reach college often to find classes were suspended as the professors or at times the students were missing or when they were holding lessons, the quality of teaching was, at best, of indifferent quality. Although he’d himself taken on more tuition to support his parents, his income from it was erratic, from highs of Rs 10,000 to lows of Rs 1000 a month.

In this dark phase - 2017 to 2021 - many other life’s realities began to sink in. He lost faith in the whole concept of extended family and relatives, most of whom changed their behaviour towards his family once circumstances turned adverse. He also realized that the parents of some of his own students tried to take advantage of his situation and were quite exploitative, insisting that he give more time but unwilling to pay fairly for it. Yet every once in a while, something small would happen that gave him hope.

In 2018, for instance, he was given a certificate of recognition for his academic achievements by the news daily The Telegraph which gave him a financial reward of Rs 10,000, a princely one-time sum for someone in his circumstances.

One day while he was idly browsing the Internet during the pandemic he came across the Masai School, offering courses in his field of interest. He found that while fees could be paid through monthly installments after one got a guaranteed job at the end of the course, the school was seeking Rs 10,000 as the initial registration which he couldn’t afford. Although the coding courses and the guaranteed job at the end sounded very much like a solution to his problems, he was certain that enrolling in it was beyond his reach.

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It took the lockdown imposed due to the pandemic to break out of this whirlpool. Finally in his second year, just before he needed to pay the fees to take his second year exams, he made a snap decision to drop out of his studies altogether. “It was as much to save the few hundred rupees that I needed to pay for taking the exams as much as an admission that this college degree would fail to yield any value or change my life in any manner”, says he. The relief he felt was immense: like a noose loosening around his neck.

It was during this time - March 2021 - that he came across Masai’s course offerings again and this time he noticed that the school was running fully online, had done away with the registration fee, and required only a Class 12 pass certificate.

Fortunately for him, he was selected as one of the 180 students for the batch and later bumped up into a high-performing group of 30-odd who would be in the salary bracket of Rs 8 lakh per annum and above. A Rs 15,000 a month stipend given by Masai for the six-month period helped him manage his expenses and he was able to concentrate fully on the course. Some of the high performers dropped out by the end but Prottay was one of 13 who finished.

To cut a long story short, he landed himself a job with a tech unicorn as a software development engineer, and now lives in Bengaluru in a one-bedroom rented flat with his parents - the Barrackpore family home is locked up as running two homes doesn’t make financial sense - and has many hopes and aspirations for the future. From his princely salary, he pays his EMI to Masai and is grateful to a whole host of people whose names (Lord Krishna included) he reels off including his co-workers and seniors at the start-up. For the first time in his life, he’s getting a whiff of the joys of financial security.

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Radhika's Journey

Growing up in a village in Bihar’s Gopalganj district, Radhika Gupta’s future - like millions of rural young girls - was, in some way, preordained. She would study till Class 12 and then a suitable match would be found for her within the village and community. She would have children, manage the kitchen, and run the household like everyone around her typically does.

Radhika however surprised or rather shocked many when she chose to study science - making her a rarity among girls in her village. Then upon not finding her college in Gopalganj not up to the mark, she took a Rs 4 lakh Bihar government education loan and headed to a college in Punjab, a path-breaking step that she was warned against. Post her radical decision, many rumours floated in the community including that she had run away with a Punjabi boy and many told her she would never be accepted in the village and its conservative setup again.

The Maasai tribes believe that school education is not enough. What one requires in life is some skills to thrive.

Radhika Gupta.

(Photo: Masai School)

For her, it was more the other way around. Now that she had tasted what the world outside had to offer, she couldn’t really resign herself to the life she saw her cousins and all the young girls in her village living. But contrary to what she’d hoped, although a trifle better than her Bihar college, the college in Punjab had regular teacher strikes and she eventually dropped out of it, quite disillusioned with college education per se.

It was in August 2021, living with relatives and working at an unpaid internship in Delhi that she came across the Masai School while scrolling the Internet and decided to join up. Coding was what she was keen to do but had no idea how to go about acquiring such a skill. Here was an option that didn’t bar her on any grounds.

In April 2022, she finished her course with Masai and was placed with a Noida-based IT company to begin with and then moved on to Valeo Wellbeing, a start-up in Bengaluru. Living as a paying guest, she now earns enough to not only pay her two loan installments (education loan from Bihar government and EMI to Masai) but to send money home regularly to help her father, a farmer who grows wheat, paddy, and sugarcane, and uses the money for the construction costs of a new house the family is building in the village. In addition, her exposure to the big, wider world has given her the confidence to turn entrepreneurial, set up a water purification plant via a private limited company in her village, and offer her villagers cleaner drinking water, adding a bit to her family’s farming income.

But Radhika has dreams that go well beyond just earning more money: she wants to eventually set up an NGO in her village to assist the old and infirm who are abandoned by their families and struggle to survive. That she tells this writer is her eventual goal, another unconventional feather to add to her cap: first girl to study science in the village, taking an education loan for the higher studies of a girl, moving out of not just her district but her state and further to another part of the country, living not with relatives but as a paying guest et al.

After seeing her success - she used to run a coaching class for students in her village - some of the villagers are more open to sending their girls out for higher studies and small, tiny waves of change are beginning to sweep the community. “Earlier all parents wanted their girls to earn the 10 plus 2 certificate so that they became more valuable in the marriage market. Now, they are thinking differently and even willing to consider letting the girls study higher and work outside Bihar”, says she.

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Prateek, Nrupul, and Yogesh’s Journey

The Maasai tribes that inhabit Kenya and Tanzania function on one fundamental belief: a formal school education is not the solution and instead more of a problem and that all one requires in life is some skills to thrive. That’s where the seed for the Masai School was sown in the mind of Prateek Shukla, a former IIT-Kanpur graduate.

India has 15 million graduating students every year, of which 1.5 million are engineers. A majority of them remain unemployed or employed in sectors they are not particularly drawn to, especially in the lower-income segments. While Prateek himself had studied at one of the best engineering colleges, how many could either aspire, secure, or even pay for an education in an IIT? On the other side of the coin, companies argue that the employability of graduates is very low and they don’t come equipped with the requisite skills.

Masai School launched in June 2019, offering students five courses including a course in full stack development or coding, data analytics, automation, and testing among others, and has a zero upfront fee policy. Students take a test, are interviewed to assess their interest and drive, and then admitted to the 11/11/6 course (11 a.m. to 11 p.m., 6 days a week) for six months, post which they are placed in jobs that typically start at Rs 5 lakh per annum.

The Maasai tribes believe that school education is not enough. What one requires in life is some skills to thrive.

Prateek, Nrupul, and Yogesh.

(Photo: Masai School)

The Maasai tribes believe that school education is not enough. What one requires in life is some skills to thrive.
The Maasai tribes believe that school education is not enough. What one requires in life is some skills to thrive.

The courses do not require a bachelor’s degree or any equivalent and have many college dropouts, it has no upfront fees and encourages students from non-science or non-tech backgrounds to take the plunge if they have the interest. Students are assessed above all on their motivation and drive and the school offers a stipend of Rs 15,000 a month to students who need it: this allows them to focus on the course rather than making ends meet. In some cases, it allows the students to buy a device, an Internet connection, a study desk, or even rent a small space to be able to devote the time needed for the course in a relatively less crowded space and environment.

Since inception, 4500 students in 40-odd batches have graduated and been placed with an average salary package of Rs 6.9 lakh per annum in close to 1500 companies including the likes of Infosys, TCS, Accenture, Ola, Swiggy, Paytm among a host of others. After the students are placed, they pay an EMI to the school - no fees unless the student is placed with a minimum salary of Rs 5 lakh - based on the salary, which is how it follows the “gurudakshina” model.

But more than placements, the school tracks the progress and promotions of its alumni. In general, in this market, it takes 2.5 years for a software development engineer to progress to the next level while Masai graduates manage to cover the same ground in less than two years (the school is tracking each student's progress). “The whole idea is that we have to work harder than our students and produce gems that stand out in the market”, says co-founder Nrupul Dev. The school’s curriculum is constantly being updated - to stay in tune with not just today but tomorrow’s needs.

Another goal of Masai is to allow students to break the conventional molds and move from one stream to another. Prateek argues that there is no reason why a commerce or arts student cannot do coding or any of the tech space roles if his or her heart lies firmly in it. So, the school is seeking to and is placing a pure commerce or literature student in for instance Infosys, TCS, Capgemini, or one of the more conservative tech firms with good results. “The mindset of CTOs and CEOs is undergoing a change as they realize that as long as the student has the interest and aptitude, what stream he or she belongs to is irrelevant”, adds he.

As a business that is yet to establish itself, the Masai School has raised US $ 18 million in external funds from a range of institutions including Omidyar Network India, Unitus and Alteria, and even HNIs like Bhaichung Bhutia. With over 250 employees, it aims to touch an annual revenue of Rs 120 crore this year and be cash flow positive soon.

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Nuggets And Learnings From The Journeys

Prottay says his larger message to society is that it shouldn’t look down upon students who fail to earn a college degree “as you don’t know their circumstances, what they have been through and why they couldn’t complete their studies”. After dropping out, he was constantly trying to defend his decision and it seemed like his future was hopeless - which now he in retrospect sees is not so. He’s also had a less happy realization for someone who is only 25 years old: that people change their attitude towards you based on your socio-economic situation and that appearances can often be quite deceptive. The world is more complex than he ever anticipated.

In a society where women’s roles and expectations are so rigidly defined, Radhika’s insights are even more fundamental: marriage is not her be-all and end-all goal and while she sees the advantages of lifelong companionship, she values her financial independence above all. She is also able to look beyond herself and is keen to fix a problem she has been acutely aware of since she was a child: the neglect of elders by their own family members, something she feels she cannot condone.

At 26, she has learned to ignore “what others think or say” about you and understood the value of remaining focused and committed to what you inherently feel is the right way forward: society is not always the best judge of how a woman’s life trajectory could or should be.

If the learners have pearls of wisdom to share thanks to their journeys, so have the teachers or, in this case, the founders. “It is possible for a pure literature student to be the best coder in the pack”, argues Prateek. The most important ingredient for success is hunger and drive. Throw in a bit of discipline and you have your recipe for success today.

Two, he argues, to solve the wider education deficit in India in particular for the next half billion - the five hundred million coming online for the first time via their mobile phones as Omidyar Network India (ONI) describes it - a return to the idea of “guru dakshina” concept is essential. The guru or teacher first invests in the student and his or her success depends almost entirely on the student’s success. Once the student performed well, the guru charged a fee or reaped benefits in the form of more students by word of mouth. It is this next half billion that can replicate Radhika and Prottay’s journeys with a little nudge and support.

Although all the protagonists in this story have many more gems to share, those go well beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that the journey of the Masai founders and its student population has just begun; not even the surface has been scratched by this vast and limitless ocean. Interested readers should watch this space.

(Note to Readers: This content was commissioned by Omidyar Network India. We are bringing readers an abridged version of the original.)

(Anjuli Bhargava is a senior writer and columnist based in Goa.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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