What This Preschool Chain In Rural And Semi-Urban West Bengal Can Teach Entrepreneurs Small school gives some big lessons.

By Prerna Raturi

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Little Laureates

You don't always have to skim through reams of research data, or go for expensive brain-storming sessions at management colleges. Sometimes, the mantra to a successful enterprise means simply catering to a demand right under your nose. Consider the pre-school sector, for instance. From two-room "schools" in residential areas, to big reputed brands with high-decibel marketing, there's something for everything.

But do they cater to semi-rural and rural areas, where there is a nascent demand, but pre-school education as a concept doesn't even exist, and where the child spends her time at home until she is old enough to join formal schooling? Tamal Mukherjee and his brother Timir Mukherjee, co-founders, Little Laureates, have addressed this very simple need with the help of their social enterprise. Tamal, who held a job in the financial services sector while his wife was a franchisee for a reputed pre-school chain, saw the profit margins in the low-cost model and it fascinated him. "But with everyone venturing into metros and bigger towns, we saw a lot of opportunity in non-metro cities and district towns," says the 44-year-old.

Since its inception in 2012 when there were two centers, Little Laureates now has 100 early child education and care centers, of which 85 are operational. It has 2,500 students, and the company is looking at a target of 4,000 by the end of 2016. There are plans to venture into the district towns on Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa as well. "Our goal is to mark our presence in 275 locations in the eastern region of the country," says Tamal, with confidence.

Little Laureates is also one of the first digitally-enabled preschool chains in east India. Some of these centers are operational even on the panchayat level in West Bengal. And considering the market they are operating in, the fee is affordable, too – between Rs 14,000-Rs 17,000 a year, with easy instalments, covering all costs, with medical insurance for the child as well.

There's no compromise on quality, however. With an eclectic pedagogy, the pre-school curriculum is powered by the concepts of greats such as John Dewey,Lev Vygotsky, Dr Maria Montessori, Reggio Eilia, Rabindranath Tagore, Jiddu Krishmamurthy, Swami Vivekananda, with an emphasis on experiential learning. "Learning outcomes at Little Laureates are in a cyclic order – explore, understand, do, apply, and create. We have designed a learning environment that is child-centric, and emphasize on wellbeing and health, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive skills, communication and general knowledge," says Timir Mukherjee, who takes care of the enterprise's IT needs, logistics, and support to operational centers. Tamal, on the other hand, is involved with business development, and monitoring day-to-day activities.

All centers are company-operated and the founders want to keep a tight control of quality, which may be an issue in the franchisee-led model in rural areas. "We have enough challenges in the form of paucity of quality faculty. We are addressing this by starting teachers' training programs from coming April or May," says Tamal, explaining how the demand for quality faculty will be met from these programs itself. While a center can turn profitable within 16-18 months of starting operations, the founders are looking at breaking even as a company by 2019.

If Little Laureates' journey doesn't convince you of how a simple idea can click, consider the fact that funders and mentors have reposed their faith in the enterprise. The company has been incubated, seed-funded and mentored by TotalStart Entrpereneurship Ecosystem Developers, and has found an investor in Aavishkaar, the largest social impact VC fund in India.

Prerna Raturi is writer, researcher and editor for the past eight years and writes for a number of newspapers and magazines. She started her journalistic career with Business Standard, and has also worked in the field of women's empowerment. Her interests include reading, writing, and adventure sports.
 

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