Kellogg student climbs for a better education

9 June 2016


By Tarun Varma

at everest base camp in 2011 resized for web

Tarun Varma at Everest Base Camp in 2011

From 30th June to 5th July 2016 Kellogg student Tarun Varma (MSc Child Development and Education 2015, MBA 2016) is climbing Mt Blanc and the Matterhorn to raise money for Streetlight Schools in Johnanesburg, South Africa. The team comprises Adam Storck (MBA, 2016), American Investor Whitney Tilson, and former US Navy SEAL Mark James. In this blog post, Tarun writes about the challenge he faces and why he has decided to climb for Streetlight Schools.

In 2014 I became the first 1+1 MBA to pursue the MSc Child Development and Education with an MBA at Oxford as a member of Kellogg College. Two years later, close to the end of my two degrees, I am wrapping up my time in Oxford by raising £18,000 for Streetlight Schools by climbing Mt Blanc and the Matterhorn. These two summits encapsulate two constant threads in my life – education and the mountains.

I am a middle class Indian boy. I had the privilege of a good education and opportunity accrued to me as a by-product of my parent’s success and their focus on raising children with good values. With these fundamentals it was relatively easy for me to start my career right out of University in 2006.

I was recruited into a fast track management cadre for a top five Indian IT services firm, I worked across India and was seconded to British Telecom in the UK. The exposure and a great boss gave me the confidence to co-found a startup. In 2008, two senior colleagues and I built Gaboli, a firm that put together technology systems for educational institutions in India. I led business development for three years. Both my jobs brought me into contact with many different types of people across job roles, sectors, countries and age groups. However, seen through my eyes they fell into two buckets.

In bucket one, fell people who were inspired and loved what they did. They were chasing mastery, were curious to learn and consistently tried to bring value to their teams. Those in bucket two seemed to shuffle paper to get through their day jobs. Work was a vocation and finding passion seemed out of question. I wondered why so many people fell into bucket two. My reading about curiosity, motivation and mastery seemed to point towards the fact that finding purpose was tough. One, it was a consistent battle and two, it started early. This was corroborated by the deans and directors of the higher educational institutions who voiced that problem solving and critical thinking was coaxed in the formative stages of one’s life.  It seemed most people did not have the chance to think critically about their skills, what they brought to the workplace and what made them ‘come alive’. And it was not their fault…

If critical thinking begins young, we do less and less to encourage it.  We put kids through a process of desk-based learning, feed them with information, tell them to go through years of school and then University and pop them into the world between the ages of 19–22 expecting them to find a career in a rapidly changing world. It’s like telling a trained swimmer to suddenly run and climb a tree! This system is failing us all around and is reflected in the near global lament about the state of educational systems. Not only do we need our schooling systems to be different. We also need to do this at a low-cost so that it can scale. We need systems that support teachers and learning. This noise was particularly loud in India, a country that sits on a demographic dividend of 350 million people.

In 2011, at 25, I voted with my time to become a part of the solution in revamping an education system that no longer serves our countries well. As a Teach for India Fellow, I transitioned to becoming a primary school teacher in a low-income school in New Delhi, India. Starting off in a dusty little classroom, my 42 children and I called ourselves the Explorers. We undertook eight field trips across Delhi to know the world around us. In year two, we transitioned to becoming ‘Responsible Explorers’, built a garden in school and took up school improvement projects. Although all of them made stellar progress and over 50% advanced multiple grade levels while I taught them, I realized I was not reaching every student at his or her level. I also had minimal impact as a teacher in one classroom. At the end of my stint as a teacher I applied to the 1+1 at Oxford to study Child Development followed by the MBA.

Through my two years at Oxford, I’ve undertaken empirical research in a London school, worked on a few business plans and spent six weeks in South Africa helping scale a chain of pre-schools. South Africa impressed me as a nation that is alive to the challenges of early years education. There are multiple entrepreneurial ventures in high quality learning and education (NOVA, SPARK, Launchpad Learning, Sifiso Learning etc). As a country of just 52.5 million people (remember my frame of reference is 1.3 billion) with nine provinces; cooperation between national and local governments and funders can create a model for change that can become a model for change that educational systems need.

Within this competitive market, Streetlight, is a high quality early years school in an under-served community in Jeppestown, Johannesburg. Streetlight works with children ages 5 and above to channel their self-directed learning. Streetlight’s teachers differentiate their learning for students. The model is play based and encourages children to conceive of and reach their potential. Critically, Streetlight is designed to be low-cost. From 2017, Streetlight will be eligible for government funding and will become self-sustaining. Our funds will endow the school budget for the year thereby letting them focus on operations.

My quest to find innovation in education is like my love for summits on mountains. I grew up in the Himalayas in India, the son of a father who climbs. My Dad’s ice-axe hung on the wall and I always wondered what in the mountains called my father away from us. In 2007, I read Touching my Father’s Soul by Tenzing Norgay’s son, Jamling . I decided to take up climbing to get to know my father better. In 2008, I completed my basic mountaineering course. In 2009, I climbed Mt Machoi (5,900m) my first mountain in Ladakh, India. I lived my ‘National Geographic’ moment when I trekked to Everest Base Camp in 2011 and saw the Khumbu Ice Fall – which was as real as it had been on film. In 2014, I went back for my 30 day advanced climbing course where I did well on ice climbing routes. I celebrated my 28th birthday on the course and sadly on the day of my birthday we had to turn back from a summit attempt of the 5,478m DKD2 due to high snowfall.

Seeing my children struggle through school inspired me to think about a target that would challenge me. There are only 14 eight thousand metre mountains in the world. For me, to climb one would take years of training, fitness, self-belief and technique. However, should I be lucky to stand atop one, I also knew it would mean I’d reached the goal I’d set myself – to stand close to the heavens and thank the world for a privileged life.

My attempt to climb Mt Blanc and the Matterhorn is the biggest step towards my eventual dream. Though no stranger to this altitude, these two technical mountains will test my fitness, spirit and technique. They are important pit stops in the journey to an 8,000 metre summit.

More than anything else, this ascent is an ode to my children. When I left them two years ago, I knew I might never see all of them together again. I also knew that my quest for education might keep me away from my country. But I promised them I’ll stay the course in the fight, that I’ll never forget them and come rain or sunshine, I’ll keep placing one foot in front of the other.

I am lucky to be on this climbing team with Adam, Whitney and Mark. Adam and I are raising £18,000 to fund Streetlight. Whitney is raising $100,000 for KIPP. £18,000 pounds sounds like a big number but  each £44.00 donation means a child in a high quality school for a month this year. £130 means one child has access to schooling for a whole quarter. Please use this chance to underscore your belief in education and donate to Streetlight.

Through my time at Oxford, when I have had the chance to pause I’ve been thankful for two things. That I have had the friends and family that I do. And that I made a switch into education. My path has an elusive summit. My work in education will probably never be done. I’ll need the belays of my friends and family. Hopefully I’ll be a strong climbing partner when they need me around. Walk these steps with Adam and me as we seek to make this climb a metaphor for the need in education.

Tarun Varma