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Lokvani Talks To Kumari Shibulal

Nirmala Garimella

Mrs. Kumari Shibulal, together with her husband, Infosys Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer S.D. Shibulal, works on several philanthropic ventures. She serves as the chairperson of Akshaya, a charitable trust they founded to help needy children in India by way of scholarships and funding paediatric care. Another wing of Akshaya administers an old age pension scheme in Kerala. Pursuing their commitment to the field of education, Akshaya sponsors a fellowship program with TIFR that funds visits by eminent scientists and provides travel grants to young scientists from TIFR. "What we do is nothing but a drop in the ocean and if we do not do it the ocean is only a drop less," says Kumari Shibulal of her Akshaya Trust.

I met Kumari at a mutual friend’s home and in the course of our conversation was intrigued when she told me that she runs a private school, the Samhita Academy in Bangalore that has a unique component; it integrates children from the underprivileged sections of society into the school so they have the same access to education as their privileged peers. The Indian Government ambitious RTE act stipulates this with all schools which is rarely adhered to but here was one example.  Present here is an interview with Kumari where she explained to me what the Academy represents.

Tell us how you started Samhita Academy and the idea or approach behind it?

The Samhita Academy (TSA) in June 2009, a quality school built on an inclusive model of education. It was created with a vision of building an institution that will groom productive, socially conscious and responsible citizens out of today’s children. These children, we believe, will be the empathetic future leaders of tomorrow across different sections of the society. Our tagline – “Creative Education. Caring Environment. Future Leaders” encapsulates our core beliefs. TSA’s unique inclusive model brings together students from economically underprivileged backgrounds (25% of total intake through residential scholarship) and regular applicants (75% of total intake as day scholars).  All students are provided the same level of care and access to all educational facilities. Our vision is to provide quality education to students in an environment that is cheerful & caring and also provides them the freedom to explore, question and create. Today, The Samhita Academy has two campuses, one each in Bangalore and Coimbatore with a total intake of 600 students.

Your current role in its day to day activities. How often to you go to India

Three years ago when we started the school, I was extensively involved in the day to day activities of the school. This was a new experience for all of us and we were involved hands-on in every aspect of the school’s operations. Today, we have a dedicated team that has manages these day to day activities very well and has put all the moving parts in place. We have qualified and passionate staff and teachers who do their job really well. They have put their hearts into the task and this makes all the difference. I am happy to say that we have ironed out the pressing issues.

Although I still spend a lot of time with the teachers discussing matters of importance, my interaction in the day to day activities of the school is on a need-to basis. I spend more time in the hostels talking to the students.

Whenever there is any crisis or decision making involved related to the school activities or investments Shibu and I are more involved as that is where our time and presence is really needed.

What has been the response from a: Teachers , b: parents and c: students when they learn that there  is integration in the school system

In the beginning we were a bit anxious about how such a model would be received by the parents, teachers and students. We would have long discussions with the parents and teachers while getting them onboard to help them understand and share our vision. Today, all those anxieties have been put to rest. The response has been positive all around. In fact the inclusive model is one of the key reasons why teachers join us and parents send their children here. They believe that such a model is very beneficial to all. Clearly, there is a lot of excitement all around.

Of course, there are challenges that come with this model that are unique to us and we proactively prepare for it. It is a journey and we keep learning along the way.

The responses from each of the stakeholders were different.


§  They truly appreciate the ideology behind the school and have put their hearts into the job. They join the school because of the ideology

§  They understand that students from different backgrounds have different challenges and they are sensitive and prepared for it

§  They pay closer attention to students who need more support and ensure that each child is cared for


§  Initially, they were apprehensive about what impact it would have to bring children from different economic backgrounds under one roof. The model was new and hence they wanted to better understand it.

§  When we talked to them and explained our vision, they were very happy. They realized that we knew exactly what we were doing, what were the challenges involved and how we intended to overcome them. They admit their children because they believe that the inclusive model will positively influence the value systems of their children

§  Today, parents are very happy that they are sending their children to our school. They are our brand ambassadors


§  The students do not know the difference. No student is discriminated or given any special privileges and hence it is just like any other school in that respect

§  Our students are the best part of the school. Children, as we all know do not have any biases or prejudices. They love and share equally. This is something that we need to learn from them


Share with us a story that touched your heart of any child in your school

Our students from poorer backgrounds, who stay in the hostels, go home twice a year. Recently, one of these students, in her trip home got burnt in an accident. She had close to 60% burns on her body. Fortunately, the parents called us in time. Immediately, we were able to ensure that she received good medical attention in a good hospital. I was in the U.S. at the time and would speak to her regularly. She would cry to me when she spoke and I could not hold back my tears either. Today she is recovering well and the cries in her conversations with us have changed to smiles of joy.

The reason I shared this particular story is to highlight the fact that we share a strong relationship with the students. They are like our extended family. The positive impact of our association with our children transcends the boundaries of the school. Everybody involved with the school affairs has their own stories and bonding with the school.

Since you offer schooling till the 7th grade, are these students able to pursue their higher studies elsewhere later?

Like several new schools would do, we too are taking baby steps, one step at a time. We have been adding one grade every year, from the 4th grade when we started the school. By the time the students of the 7th grade graduate, we will start admissions the 8th grade. We plan to increase this gradually until the 12th grade.

What are the challenges you have faced?

Setting up the school itself was an uphill task despite having the financial resources needed. The process of acquiring land and the various other approvals was tedious. Secondly, recruiting the right talent of staff and teachers in the required numbers continues to be a challenge. This is a peculiar challenge because we use a holistic approach to teaching. We focus on experiential learning in an environment that is cheerful & caring and also provides them the freedom to explore, question and create. This requires people with a different mindset and capabilities. Finally, when it comes to students, we realized that students from the poorer sections needed additional English language support to help integrate them better and faster with the eco-system.

Over the years, we have realized that an inclusive model of education comes with its own challenges and we have to be proactive in preparing to address them. We have learnt from all these experiences and are much better prepared to handle these challenges today. It is a journey and we keep learning along the way.

Finally your thoughts on the present day educational system with the RTE act and what both government and people can do better

There is no doubt that India produces world-class engineers, doctors, scientists, lawyers and other qualified professionals. Our education system is certainly one of the largest and amongst the best in the world. However, there are several challenges:

§  The education system, particularly the school system is very competitive and focused on academic excellence. The focus on all-round development (academic, extra-curricular, emotional etc.) of students is lacking. The need of the hour is for schools to focus on "teaching so that children understand" rather than "teaching so that syllabus is completed"

§  The available educational infrastructure is heavily focused in urban India. Several regions in Rural India lack access to basic education. Illiteracy, currently at about 35% continues to remain a challenge

§  There is a huge shortage of teachers at all levels

The RTE act is a step in the right direction. However, it has several implementation challenges. We need to improve the communication at all levels so that there is more clarity on the act. Educational institutions need to know the role they play in implementing the act and citizens, particularly from poorer backgrounds need to know how they can benefit from it. We have seen stories in the media where qualified students from poor backgrounds who should have been given admissions into schools based on the RTE act were denied entry. On the other hand, there is also the problem of schools being ready to admit students based on the RTE act but the seats going vacant due to lack of applications. Clearly, the RTE act has the right intent but the government, academia and citizens have to identify means to work together to implement the act effectively.

What are your other philanthropic activities you are involved in and how do you balance work and family?

If you love what you are doing and you are passionate about it, then there is no question of work-life balance. Hence, I have never felt the need to “balance” anything. However, when you have a loving family that supports your every decision and stays by your side, it gives you the ability to give your best to everything that you do. I am thankful to them for being this support in my life.

We have two foundations,

§  Sarojini Damodaran Foundation (SDF) which was set up in 1999

§  Advaith Foundation which was set up in 2004

The focus of the activities of the Foundations has been on young adults’ education and healthcare. The two organizations help young adults in healthcare, finishing education and improving their employability. This is done through a variety of ways.

On the healthcare side, SDF works with hospitals in Bangalore – with Narayana Hrudalya and Manipal in supporting cardiac surgery, with St Johns in areas of urology and nephrology and with Manipal in areas of intensive care. Between 1999 and 2009, the SDF sponsored the travel of students abroad and international scientists to visit India through its program with TIFR, Mumbai.

On the education side, there are several programs, many of which have been running for over a decade now. This includes a scholarship scheme in Kerala which supports between 500-600 children in covering their study from class XI to higher studies. The Finishing School program, run in association with Vidya-Poshak, works towards improving employability and has supported over 1000 young adults over the last two and half years. In Alleppey, through another program over 1000 children get awarded books and bags.

In addition to the focus areas, the foundations have also supported several other projects in Kerala.

§  Supporting AITREE on a special project in Alleppey to look at environmental issues of Vembanad lake. There are multiple interventions programs focused on creating  awareness, monitoring health of the lake, influencing policy and building consensus

§  Supported the establishment of Pratyasha Cancer Centre near Chertala

§  Instituted an All-Kerala award for organic farming over the last 4 years

§  Supporting an old-age pension scheme covering over 200 elderly people for the last many years, in Muhamma

§  A mid-day meal program for anganwadis in Muhamma

§  Supporting and sponsoring athletes through the P.T. Usha School of Athletics in Kozhikode for participation in global competitions, including the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics

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