IIt was nothing less than insane courage. A young NYU graduate from Kolkata got married in 2012, moved to Singapore, and opened her first kindergarten—Little Paddington—in July 2015. “It was indeed insane courage,” recalls Prerna Jhunjhunwala, alluding to the decision to open his school one of the great legacy preschool brands. “I mean who does? You’re up against the kindergarten Goliaths that have been in business for decades,” she says, adding that her childhood dream was to open schools. The early years of her education in Kolkata, where she taught the children of workers employed in her father’s factories, made her realize the need to democratize education and make it accessible. Access to education was a great privilege, it was the first great learning. “The second learning was that education can be a great equalizer,” she says.
Back in Singapore, it wasn’t just the location of a pitched battle that seemed puzzling, the weapon chosen was baffling as well. Little Paddington started teaching in English and Mandarin. Now, for someone who was not exposed to Chinese culture and language, teaching in a foreign environment meant two things. First, work overtime to learn the language. Second, Jhunjhunwala also needed to make sure that her lack of Mandarin experience wouldn’t make her look like an upstart.
However, she was determined to make an impression. The young woman used all her savings, took some money from her husband and started operations. In five years, she grew to five schools, employed more than 120 teachers, recorded a 40% Ebitda margin and sold Little Paddington to Singapore-based private equity firm Affirma Capital for $35 million. (about ₹180 crore).
Five years later, in July 2020, Jhunjhunwala was about to do something that was again called “senseless courage”. She now wanted to replicate her brick-and-mortar success in an online world. There was one small problem, however. The battleground this time was India. The pandemic, shutdowns and home learning have already provided fertile ground for the proliferation and flourishing of edtech players in the country. While there were biggies for K12 and test prep, a sea of smaller players were also in the fray wooing children in preschools.
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Undeterred, Jhunjhunwala decided to take a chance and launch his online learning platform for children aged 3-10. “I knew there were edtech dads, moms and grannies in India,” she says. What drove her was her vision to bring education to millions and her passion to have a deep and wide impact. “Physical schools had limited my reach and impact,” she says. While acknowledging that the Indian market was crowded, the founder had identified the missing link or supply in the early segment space.
What was missing, however, was serious child’s play. There was no big player in early learning. The only big one in the fray – Byju’s – had collaborated with Disney and used their characters to reach children. The move, she believes, had no emotional connection due to the alien nature of the characters. “There were no Indian characters,” she says. Jhunjhunwala launched Creative Galileo, rolled out its proof of concept in July, and launched the Little Singham app on the Play Store.
In six months, Little Singham made a giant leap in obtaining one million downloads. With zero marketing, zero customer acquisition costs, and zero advertising, Little Singham began to gallop at a breakneck pace. “We were pleasantly shocked, but it validated the power of character-based learning using Indian characters,” says Jhunjhunwala. From Little Singham to Golmaal Jr, Krishna aur Kans and Shaktimaan, Creative Galileo quickly built up a bank of desi heroes to engage with kids. Meanwhile, app downloads have steadily increased. In one year, there were 4 million downloads.
Fast forward to June 2022. The app has so far over 7 million downloads and over 7 lakh monthly active users, claims Jhunjhunwala. More than 10% of downloads, she adds, come from Nepal, Bangladesh, the United States and other countries. The early learning edtech startup raised $2.5 million in a funding round led by Kalaari last October, and added more characters such as Chakra, Young Baahubali, Tenali Rama, Kalia the Crow, Bal Ganesh and Ghatothkach. ECE (early childhood education) was ripe for disruption, she adds.
Last October, Kalaari noticed the trend. India is home to 271 million children and about 25 million are digital natives, children who are able to search for their favorite Peppa Pig and Masha and Bear video on YouTube, the venture capital fund pointed out in a blog post. Last year. This generation has become quite comfortable with learning from the Internet, which has greatly improved access to quality education. While YouTube Kids provides an extensive content library for parents, this only leads to passive consumption of content without any personalization or assessment of learning requirements, the blog points out.
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What gives Creative Galileo an advantage is its differentiated approach. Designed for learners everywhere, the edtech startup offers a playful multiverse to accelerate learning in an engaging way using familiar and well-known characters to build strong foundational skills. The early learning platform focuses on developing numeracy, language and literacy, motor and social skills in addition to developing creative expression and curiosity, according to the blog. Vani Kola, managing director of Kalaari, explained her decision to support the young founder. “Technology as a means of transformation led by passionate founders and designed for the next generation of young digital native learners is what Creative Galileo stands for,” she wrote on her blog.
Jhunjhunwala, for his part, maintains that it is still early days for his startup which has just started to monetize. Creative Galileo doesn’t have the pet peeve of the high acquisition costs that most edtech players face, which gives it an edge, while the fact that early learning still isn’t able to Penetrating Tier II towns and villages provides a massive margin opportunity for growth. The poor track record of early learning also provides reason for optimism. In India, she says, 27% of children drop out of secondary school. “In the IIT, it’s just 1%,” she estimates. Primary and pre-school education in India is extremely weak.
Can Creative Galileo change the scenario of early learning in India? Can Jhunjhunwala monetize fast enough to make the business sustainable in the long run? The founder believes that the startup has stepped on the accelerator, and is on the right track. It is still in its infancy and Creative Galileo is taking small steps.
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(This story appears in the July 1, 2022 issue of Forbes India. To visit our archive, click here.)