This sponsored post, part of a series on Asia’s Young Social Entrepreneurs, is brought to you by DBS Bank. In partnership with the National University of Singapore, DBS is a proud supporter of the Social Venture Challenge, an Asia-wide competition for social enterprises.
What inspired Neil D’Souza to work on improving education around the world? Pink Floyd.
D’Souza, who grew up in Mumbai, was 12 years old when someone handed him a cassette tape that happened to have the song “Time” on it, and it changed his life. The song taught him to live in the moment. He started appreciating all the things around him, observing nature, and reading. He even got better grades in school because everything started to make sense.
“I had no interest in studies,” he said of his experience before encountering Pink Floyd. “I think the focus was wrong, the motivation was wrong.”
Because of Pink Floyd, he picked up a book about how the universe works and got absorbed into astrophysics. His dream was to work for NASA. And the way he knew how to achieve his dream was to study computer engineering in university and hope to work there as a computer engineer.
“I think four years of engineering made me realize it’s going to be hard to pursue, for many reasons, my dreams. And I had to be a little more practical with things.” So off he went to North Carolina to do a graduate degree in computer science, where Pink Floyd once again appeared in his life.
“There was a show happening in D.C. and I had no money to go, so I hitchhiked all the way up to D.C. to see the show. And I didn’t have a place to stay, so I discovered this thing called Couchsurfing.”
D’Souza was intrigued at the idea of staying for free anywhere in the world. At the time, Couchsurfing experienced a massive crash and was looking for volunteers to rebuild their site. So he volunteered and ended up with the travel bug.
“That gave me a better understanding of humans. How we all are very similar yet we have all these conflicts and differences we’ve virtually created.”
“Someone who impacted me the most was this guy in Greece. One of the things that he did was he would always treat [beggars] so kindly. He would take them to restaurants and sit down with them. He actually got to know people. That was something which I had never seen, even though I grew up in India and there’s poverty all around me. That sort of made a lasting impression on how I traveled after that and how I interacted with people in general.”
Upon returning to the US from travels, D’Souza worked at Cisco while mentoring at-risk youth in the Bay Area. He would work on computer projects with teens to get them interested in school again, and had this idea of trying to bring online education to orphanages in remote places. “Everything is donated to them. They get secondhand clothes, secondhand books, but there’s an opportunity where content is never secondhand.”
So without any real agenda, he took a one-year sabbatical and went to Indonesia and Mongolia to figure out why education doesn’t work, and eventually developed the products his company Zaya sells today.
Zaya’s approach to improving the quality of education is using a blended learning model combining instructor-led teaching, group learning, and technology-assisted learning. The problem with schools, besides the lack of technology infrastructure, is the lack of quality teachers. “There are two ways going about this problem. One is you get world-class teachers in every classroom. Or, you figure out a way that technology can assist that teacher, just like technology-assisted nurses in the medical field, to do their job better.”
D’Souza developed a prototype during his sabbatical which is a Wi-Fi device, storage, server, and battery pack combined in one. This device, loaded with an innovative learning management system for teachers and teaching content that can be delivered to Wi-Fi-enabled devices for both online and offline use, comes in Zaya’s Labkit, which includes tablets and a projector.
The company, now based in India, is working to provide low-income schools with their products and eventually expanding to places struggling to provide quality education.
“I think I want Zaya’s model to be copied by as many people, to be very honest,” said D’Souza. “And really solve the education crisis that exists not just in India but globally with low-income communities.”
It used to be a one-man project, but now D’Souza has established a team to help grow Zaya. He sent Ryan Rodrigues, the Director of Business Development, to Singapore for the Social Venture Challenge bootcamp, hoping he can pick up new business skills.
“That was a very good opportunity to actually gain some insights on how to build a pitch. When Ryan tells the story, it’s very crisp and he gets the message through very clearly. I think I’ll be sending him to do more of that.”
Today, Pink Floyd is still having an impact on D’Souza.
“I owe it to Pink Floyd. Because even now, when things go really hard – and things are hard as an entrepreneur – I always go back to it and just realize that living in the moment really helps.”
Watch this video to learn more about Zaya:
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