Solving Important Problems
Meet two entrepreneurs who are building social enterprises focused on improving children’s literacy and women’s health in South Asia.
Creating a startup is challenging enough. So, when you want that startup to also address social problems, the pressure on entrepreneurs to succeed and scale can be even more intense. Meet Sadaf Rehman of codeschool.pk in Pakistan and Sarika Kulkarni Pathak of Cresa GreenTech in India, and hear how these two women entrepreneurs are struggling and striving to make the world a better place.
Many of the challenges faced by social entrepreneurs are no different than those of for-profit startups. Understanding who your customers are, the problems they face, and how you’re going to solve them — known as your value proposition — remain the same. But when you set out to improve children’s literacy and women’s health, the stakes are higher.
For Sadaf Rehman, the failing education system in Pakistan drove her to create a coding school to prepare kids for the modern job force. Rehman believes that “the education system has to prepare children to think. We have to retool how and what we are teaching our kids and who is teaching our kids as well. And so what code school is trying to do is introduce a programming curriculum for young children at primary and secondary school.”
Rehman reflects on the tensions of scaling to create impact vs. revenue: “I don’t think that as an entrepreneur or as a person, I would feel like I was successful if all I wanted to do is make money. If you want to scale really fast, an easy way to do that is to lower your revenue. But there are always these forces and tensions pulling you in different directions as an organization.”
Sarika Pathak’s masters’ study and work with Johnson & Johnson led her to make a 100% chemical-free and biodegradable sanitary napkin which dissolves immediately in hot water. Pathak explains why she’s so passionate about her business: “According to a survey, around 23% of girls drop out of school just after starting their period, just because of unavailability of menstrual hygiene products. And 56% of girls face urinary tract infections due to unhygienic conditions in the washrooms and toilets. And because of the social and cultural taboo, people are not ready to talk about it. If they don’t talk about it, how are these problems getting solved?”
Her business idea has an environmental impact as well. “India has 12 billion sanitary napkins to take care of every year,” she explains “and it’s very difficult to biodegrade any single sanitary napkin that takes 800 years to decompose. So, imagine the kind of waste that has been generated over the years.”
Listen to some of the obstacles Rehman and Pathak are facing — from targeting customers to managing supply chains — as they seek to build and scale their social enterprises.
Grit & Growth is a podcast produced by Stanford Seed, an institute at Stanford Graduate School of Business which partners with entrepreneurs in emerging markets to build thriving enterprises that transform lives.
Hear these entrepreneurs’ stories of trial and triumph, and gain insights and guidance from Stanford University faculty and global business experts on how to transform today’s challenges into tomorrow’s opportunities.
Sadaf Rehman: It’s not how much money we can make off this thing, because that’s very short-lived. If we can get this modeled right and show Pakistan and show the world that this is what a good coding for kids program looks like in a low-resource context, I think we can bring about tremendous change.
Darius Teter: Building a startup that solves important problems is one of the most fulfilling careers you can have. How do you build a business that does well while doing good?
Sadaf Rehman: Seeing kids that hated programming or didn’t know what programming was and see them pick things up and learn and take it much further beyond what we have taught them, that is one of the greatest highs that you can have as an entrepreneur, and that’s what keeps us doing this.
Darius Teter: Welcome to the second season of Grit & Growth from Stanford Seed, the show where Africa and South Asia’s intrepid entrepreneurs share their trials and triumphs, with insights from Stanford faculty on how to tackle challenges and grow your business.
How do you improve people’s lives? You could work at a nonprofit, volunteer maybe, or donate money. But what about having impact on a large scale? Few people have that much money. What if you made it your life’s work? What could you accomplish then? I would argue that, pound for pound, starting a social enterprise is the best way to serve the greatest number of people. They’re agile, responsive, and, perhaps most importantly, they need to earn revenue to solve problems at scale.
Who better to learn from than people that are actually doing it? On this episode of Grit & Growth, we’ve got two early-stage entrepreneurs, both piloting small companies that are addressing big issues. We’ll explore how they became passionate about solving problems and crafted solutions to meet their community’s needs. We’ll hear what they’ve learned from their own mistakes and how they’re positioned to grow in the coming years. Why don’t you introduce yourself?
Sadaf Rehman: Hi, I’m Sadaf Rehman. I’m based at Lahore, Pakistan, and I’m the co-founder of Codeschool.pk, a coding literacy ed-tech startup.
Sarika Pathak: My name is Sarika Pathak. I’m founder and CEO of Cresa GreenTech, where we are developing sustainable, eco-friendly menstrual hygiene product. I’m from India, and I’m a mechanical engineer.
Darius Teter: The first and most important test of whether a problem is worth your time: Does it spark your passion? Listen to how Sarika talks about feminine hygiene products.
Sarika Pathak: There is a lot of social and cultural taboo in India about designing napkins. This issue is creating a huge problem to girls especially. According to survey, around 23 percent of girls drop out of school just after starting their period just because of unavailability of these menstrual hygiene products; 56 percent of girls, they face urinary tract infection due to unhygienic condition in the washrooms and toilets. Because of this social and cultural taboo, people are not ready to talk about it. If they don’t talk about it, how are these problems getting solved?
Darius Teter: It’s important to follow that passion because you might be facing these issues for a long time to come. Even though Code School and Cresa are officially just over a year old, Sadaf and Sarika have been wrestling with their problems for much longer than that.
Sadaf Rehman: I mean, the story really just does start almost two decades ago. I’ve been working in Pakistan for 19 years in the corporate sector, but mostly in the nonprofit sector as well. Pakistan was facing an education emergency at that time. We had the world’s second largest out-of-school population. I think the next problem right after that was that the children that were in school could not read or write.
What I saw after working for around 15 or so years, we’re so caught up in just coming out of that emergency, kids are not in school, they don’t know how to read and write, but we’re not really thinking about the future. I mean, we’re so mired in these basic literacy and numeracy issues. What is happening to our children? Are we actually teaching them or equipping them for the future? The future of work comes up.
Twenty-first-century skills come up. I really was tremendously moved to do something, to be part of a solution, and not really just work towards someone else’s vision.
Darius Teter: My question to you is: Define 21st-century skills that you would teach in elementary or middle school.
Sadaf Rehman: There’s a very classic problem on how can a school train for a job that doesn’t even exist yet. Children today are going to graduate into a world where 65 percent of jobs haven’t even been invented as yet. But 21st-century skills are kind of like a blanket of things that we know are important in this digital world, and those skills are things like problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, resilience. There’s a bunch of these skills that are really, really important.
What I found really interesting was that most STEM programs, and coding or programming in particular, has these spillover benefits and does inculcate 21st-century skills. Programming for kids has been around for a couple of decades. It’s grown really big in the US. It’s really big in our neighbor, India. There are enough parallel markets to know that it works.
Darius Teter: You’ve identified now that the problem is that even though kids are getting educated, they’re not being educated for the modern job force. Your hypothesis is that teaching coding even to really young kids is a great way to start to build those mindsets and behaviors.
Sadaf Rehman: I saw an opportunity because I felt like in Pakistan, we weren’t really doing that at the private sector level, at the public sector level, at the policy level, in schools, which is not really having a conversation about tech skills or coding literacy. It’s even more important for us now because we have a very young population. We’re set to have 400 million people. If we don’t train our human capital or we don’t invest in human capital, it’s like a ticking time bomb. Where is Pakistan going to go if we don’t invest in the future of our children?
Darius Teter: Sadaf identified a key obstacle in her field by observing what had been overlooked during her 15 years of nonprofit work. But Sarika found the issue she wanted to solve in a completely different way. You mentioned Cresa GreenTech makes sustainable sanitary napkins. What’s the personal journey that got you to focus on this problem?
Sarika Pathak: During my master’s study, we got exposure to one of the industry-sponsored project from Johnson & Johnson company. They wanted some innovation in current feminine hygiene product. I came up with a circular shape pad, which when they open it, it becomes flat. Basically it was a pantyliner. They like the feel, appearance of the product in terms of looks, and aesthetic, so they grabbed the product and they patented it.
Darius Teter: After designing pads herself, Sarika couldn’t help but see the flaws of menstrual products available in India.
Sarika Pathak: After coming back here, I realized all the problems related to current menstrual hygiene product. The basic thing is due to its complex structure, it is very difficult to recycle these products, and that’s why there are so much health and environmental issues happening due to it.
Darius Teter: The initial problem from your perspective was environmental.
Sarika Pathak: And also the health issues. The sanitary napkins are made up of petroleum-based product. It is creating the issue in terms of comfort to women. They find it very itchy or uncomfortable. I thought that: What if we make a completely chemical-free and 100 percent biodegradable sanitary napkin, which will be very comfortable? It will be just like another cotton pad that they’re wearing.
Darius Teter: Does such a product exist in the US or European markets and it’s just missing in India, or such a thing doesn’t?
Sarika Pathak: Biodegradable sanitary pads are available in market, though they are claiming to be compostable under composting condition. But we have developed sanitary napkin which after application gets dissolved immediately in hot water.
Darius Teter: How are sanitary pads disposed of currently? What is the sort of waste/reclamation process?
Sarika Pathak: According to survey, 28 percent of the sanitary pads, they get disposed in normal routine waste. In terms of recycling, sanitary napkin waste is manually segregated by waste picker every day. This manually touching of this pad exposes them to a lot of disease-causing bacteria, which is not good for their health, or the dignity of workers to touch this pad by their hand.
Darius Teter: You’ve added two really important dimensions to the problem, the actual health and safety of the workers who deal … Frankly, let’s make sure we understand the importance of just their basic human dignity of dealing with this kind of waste in their job. One way to tell if your problem is important: ask, who is it helping? Sarika had identified a problem that had environmental, health, and social impacts in affected multiple populations.
Tell me, what is the scale we’re talking about here? How many menstrual hygiene products are being used every day in India?
Sarika Pathak: There are around 336 million menstruating women in India, out of which around 36 percent, that is 121 million, women use sanitary pads. Considering even eight pair per cycle, India has 12 billion sanitary napkins to take care of every year. Most of these pads are developed with plastic material and it’s very difficult to biodegrade. Single sanitary napkins take 800 years to decompose. Imagine the kind of waste that has generated over the years.
Darius Teter: It’s important to develop a deep understanding of your issue, because it’s that granular view of the details that will begin to shape your solution.
Sadaf Rehman: When I kind of looked at the programs that were working on the ground, I felt like programming was being taught like a subject that was even more boring than math. Traditionally, math is considered to be like the horrible subject and etc., etc., and programming has now kind of taken the place as being something that’s even worse.
Darius Teter: It doesn’t matter what the topic is. If you’re teaching pedagogy that’s rooted in old ways of teaching, you’re going to turn it into something boring. This is how you do it: memorize this, spit it back out to me. Congratulations, I’ve just ruined yet another subject for my 8-year-old kids. Basically, is that the story?
Sadaf Rehman: Absolutely. Just a very small example: there’s a chapter within ICD. There was a suggestion to put in binary. The textbook, kind of some of the chapters that I saw, the draft ones, were drill upon drill upon drill on making students convert numbers to binary and the decimal system to binary and binary to the decimal system.
Darius Teter: I mean, that sounds so awful. Honestly, I’d rather prang myself in the leg with a butter knife. I mean, God.
Sadaf Rehman: Why? The question is why. Why would you do this?
Darius Teter: As you begin to craft solutions, it can be easy to lose sight of the problem. You invented a hammer and now everything looks like a nail. That’s why we encourage entrepreneurs to develop a synced problem statement and to be willing to refine it as they learn. Your problem statement is the touchstone for yourself and others. But the bigger the problem, the harder it can get to craft a good one. I’m going to give you two sentences to describe the problem statement, the reason why Code School exists. What’s your problem statement?
Sadaf Rehman: Okay. I’m just going to take a second. You will hear some mouse clicks.
Darius Teter: Are you going to your slides?
Sadaf Rehman: I’m going to my slides. And not just my slides, my talking points. I take like copious …
Darius Teter: Yeah, but I don’t want you to use those.
Sadaf Rehman: Okay.
Darius Teter: I don’t want you to use your talking points. I want you to just… We’re in a conversation. We’re having a cup of tea in Lahore. You don’t have your talking points in front of you.
Sadaf Rehman: Okay.
Darius Teter: What’s your problem statement?
Sadaf Rehman: I’m an introvert.
Darius Teter: You’re reading. I can see you’re reading.
Sadaf Rehman: I’m an introvert. I need to prepare and think, and then I speak.
Darius Teter: No, that’s the point. But that’s the point, right? You don’t need to prepare. You’re passionate about this topic. Hit me with the problem.
Sadaf Rehman: I think we’re at the inflection point in education around the world where the education system no longer has to prepare children for careers or jobs. The education system has to prepare children to think. In order to do that, we have to retool how and what we are teaching our kids and who is teaching our kids as well. What Code School is trying to do is, through introducing a programming curriculum for young children in primary and secondary schooling, set the way in which education in the 21st century should be taught.
Darius Teter: I want to pause here for a second. Make no mistake, Sadaf understands the problem that Pakistan’s education sector faces. The issue is how to communicate that problem. A lot of entrepreneurs struggle with this because there’s no formula for communication. There’s no right way to share your story. You have to spend a lot of time outside your comfort zone to get comfortable with your own voice and rely less on scripts and bullet points and slides.
We’ll give Sadaf another shot at this at the end of the episode when she’s a little bit more comfortable talking to me, but let’s get back to Sadaf’s solution, which combines curriculum, methodology, and delivery.
Sadaf Rehman: We do this in three ways. One is who is teaching. We’re not picking up teachers. We are actually picking up technical experts and we are teaching them how to teach. The second thing we’ve done is we’ve made our curriculum fun and accessible in two different ways. One is we make games. It’s all related to game design. We teach very serious programming fundamentals like loops or variables, but we have games. I feel like play is the universal language and children will always learn or pick things up if they’re engaged and interested.
Darius Teter: What age group are we talking about here in terms of your students?
Sadaf Rehman: Ages 6 and up. Our average age is 9. The second thing we’ve done is we use prompt-based learning and prompt-based learning means that the teacher has a prompt that they have to share with the kids, and then the kids come up with solutions on how to solve that prompt on their own. It’s really very hard to rote-learn a solution when there are by design multiple solutions to that same prompt.
Darius Teter: Your core technology is your curriculum, right? That’s the part that you guys have built that’s unique. Because you’re not just connecting random computer experts to students, they are learning the curriculum and they’re teaching your curriculum.
Sadaf Rehman: Absolutely. I think the other main thing that we’re doing is identifying instructors. I mean, we often call ourselves Uber for coding. But I mean, the bar for teaching a child programming is a lot higher than perhaps getting a driving license and driving a car. Our role has to be in getting the right people in with the right skillset and monitoring them and coaching them along their teaching journey, just as we are monitoring and coaching students on their learning journey.
Darius Teter: Each facet of Code School’s solution can be improved and iterated on. This is key because you’re not going to get it completely right on the first try.
Sadaf Rehman: Our role has almost become in the middle, making sure that there’s quality assurance, the curriculum design, testing the quality outcomes, training the teachers on how to teach, getting feedback from parents and students. Our role really has been to be that person in the middle and marshal and get these people onto a platform.
Darius Teter: How do you know if your solution is a good one? There’s a couple of questions that together form a strong litmus test. There’s something called the value proposition — fill in the blank — and it’s: What’s your product? Who are you helping? What are you helping them do? Or what pain point are you resolving? How are you helping them and why is your approach better than the competition? Do you have a value proposition statement for Cresa GreenTech?
Sarika Pathak: Yes. We have developed a product which is 100 percent biodegradable, chemical-free, water soluble, and cost-competitive to current market product. Considering the current present sanitary pads which are available in the market, which take 800 years to decompose, we have developed the sanitary pads which get dissolved and disintegrated within 80 seconds.
Darius Teter: I mean, what’s interesting about it is that when you think of a value proposition statement, you’re identifying a market segment, but your product has social and environmental benefits far beyond the individual customer, right? It has institutional, it has national impact potential. At this early stage, a solution is really a hypothesis: “This is what I think will solve that problem.”
The best way to know if your hypothesis is correct is to test it. We call those early versions your minimum viable product, but actually building an MVP is its own challenge, as Sarika found early on. What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far just to get to this point of having an actual product that you’re testing with customers?
Sarika Pathak: When I came up with this concept, I patented it. And then I started working on the research part and how I can make a minimum viable product. I started exploring it. Through this journey, we thought that we would have got some more support in terms of R&D from suppliers.
Darius Teter: Why should they support you? I’m just curious, because I’m trying to put myself in their shoes. They’re a big manufacturing operation. You’re a compelling idea and an interesting product. Why should I be engaged in your R&D process?
Sarika Pathak: Because whoever we are dependent on in terms of getting our product into the market, they should look at it as an opportunity. If our product gets to be a hit in users in terms of impact, it’s going to be a good business for them as well.
Darius Teter: They’re not interested in doing small batch manufacturing of different versions of your product.
Sarika Pathak: Exactly.
Darius Teter: If you say, “Can you make me 500 of these so I can test them in the market?” they’re like, “Why would I want that tiny contract? Not interested.”
Sarika Pathak: Exactly. That’s what…
Darius Teter: That’s what’s happening.
Sarika Pathak: That’s the problem. Yes.
Darius Teter: Problems don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re a function of people, and different people sometimes require different solutions. Part of designing your product is deciding exactly who is it for. Sarika, it sounds to me like in your direct-to-consumer model, your target market segment is probably middle-income, reasonably well-educated consumers. Is that right?
Sarika Pathak: Our product will not be cheaper than the plastic sanitary pads, but they will not be so expensive like current biodegradable pads in the market. They will be in the medium, so that it’ll be affordable to consumer.
Darius Teter: In this sort of reasonably educated, middle to upper income users of sanitary pads, what do you think is the potential market size there in a D2C model?
Sarika Pathak: If 121 million women use sanitary pad, out of which the target is 20 percent of women who are in the urban areas, in colleges, and going to corporate…
Darius Teter: Tech savvy. They’re online. They order products online.
Sarika Pathak: Order products online, yes.
Darius Teter: Okay. It’s about 20 percent of 120 million. The current biodegradable pads are expensive or not really biodegradable. What’s wrong with them?
Sarika Pathak: Current biodegradable pads are a bit expensive. They are biodegradable only under composting condition, but here we are trying to provide end-to-end solution to the pads. Like right in front of their eyes, they can form a slurry and that can be flushed away. And by the time it reaches the wastewater treatment system, most of the pads are already biodegraded.
Darius Teter: It’s a really interesting question for the Indian market, which is whether that type of advertising works. Do Indian consumers care?
Sarika Pathak: Some of the consumer, they are more aware about sustainability. They want a sustainable product. But at the same time, the most important thing they need is performance of the product, usability of the product. That should not get compromised when you’re giving them an alternative solution that will be good for environment. We have kept our product … The first priority of that, they should not compromise the usability and the performance of the product on the cost of environment.
Darius Teter: This is a huge point. Do you know why your customers are buying your product? What are their priorities? Even if your product is a great solution in theory, it won’t change anything if it just sits on a shelf. Talk to customers. Interview them. Poll them. Get the data to revise your hypothesis and iterate. That’s what Sadaf did and it led to some unexpected revelations. I’m assuming your first customer is the parent, right? There’s no 8-year-olds out there signing up for Code School. You’re really selling to parents. How?
Sadaf Rehman: That’s a great question. Actually, one of the findings from the Seed Spark program, when we were interviewing all of the parents, it was one of the first assignments we had to do. I had so many surprise findings. I thought, I’m so close to the customers. I’ve been obsessively measuring and talking to them. A lot of them are people that I know. Even then, I had so many surprise findings. One of them was that even a child as young as 6 has a tremendous say in whether they want to continue an afterschool program or not.
We’re kind of in a space of almost edutainment where we have to be interesting enough for our youngest, toughest audience. But in terms of access, we have to sell to parents because obviously they’re the ones that are on social media, which is a huge platform and which we’re obviously leveraging for advertising. We also found out that we had been classifying a certain set of parents as non-tech parents, because we just assumed that we had gone beyond the early adopters and already started reaching someone further down the curve.
But everyone we interviewed was already sold on tech. We very, very quickly realized that we needed to kind of build a market a little bit more and we weren’t even scratching the surface on accessing parents that don’t know what programming is.
Darius Teter: Okay, going to stop you right there. You said something really interesting, which is you thought you understood your customer. You recognized the parents are the customers. You thought you understood them, because, when you started out, these were — some of them were your friends. The second thing I heard was that in market sizing, right, that’s the term, what’s your total available market and what’s your serviceable obtainable market, your assumptions about who might be in those circles were off.
One of the key reasons was that just because a 50-year-old parent has no idea about tech, it doesn’t mean they don’t understand where the world is going and want their kids to be ready. Those parents could be just as valuable a customer as a tech-savvy parent who’s further along on the curve.
Sadaf Rehman: We were assuming that a certain kind of parent does not know about tech, and so we thought we were doing a pretty good job at building the market and accessing a customer. But when we applied the framework and looked at the data, we realized that that wasn’t the case at all. We’ve had to do a lot more work on market building or explaining what is programming, doing things like volunteering as computer science technical experts, speaking at a lot of different forums, and so on and so forth.
Darius Teter: What you discover about your target customer will also dictate how you sell your product to them. What’s the business model? Is your primary interest … I mean, I’m assuming you’re driven by all of these important social and environmental considerations. That’s kind of number one, you’re trying to scale impact. But explain to me how you imagine this working as a business.
Sarika Pathak: Currently, starting awareness, we are exploring to more and more hostels, colleges, schools, hospitals, so that more and more women can have access to our sustainable product. But our main business model will be D2C, direct to customer, through ecommerce website, various ecommerce channels, so they can simply click and buy our product.
Darius Teter: How do you monetize this business? What’s the mechanism by which parents sign up for this and what do they pay? I’m just trying to understand the business model.
Sadaf Rehman: In essence, it just takes a $10, now $15, Zoom subscription to start because it’s a service and our revenue is coming from parents that are paying from all over the world.
Darius Teter: When a parent signs up, how long are they signing up for?
Sadaf Rehman: They’re signing up for a month. We have a subscription-based model where a parent can get discounts if they sign up for three months, six months, or nine months. On average, over 80 percent of our parents are on the nine-month model, which lasts for one academic year.
Darius Teter: As you iterate on your product, on your business model, and even on the hypothesis of your solution, you will make mistakes. Reality is messy and you’re not working with perfect information.
Sadaf Rehman: I think the biggest thing, whether we liked… I don’t know how it happened, but when we jumped into this, things scaled so fast, things were moving so fast that we were just kind of solving things, solving problems to kind of get stuff out there. It was a lot, very chaotic, even though Asad and I are kind of… Asad has been working for 15 years. I’ve been working for 19. This is not something that we’re new at. I’m very organized and structured in all of the previous roles that I’ve done.
But as an entrepreneur, everything is changing so fast. You’re adapting so fast. You’re getting feedback and feeding it into your programs really, really fast. Stepping outside and applying all of those theories that I already knew existed from business school, but having that time and mental space to apply those frameworks and actually just look at the data was something that was very, very different.
Darius Teter: I heard two key things here. The first is that going to business school is not the same as applying business school concepts and tools to an actual business, which when you think about it, is kind of parallel to your observation about how math and history is taught at a public school, right? Yeah, I understand the framework. I got an A on the exam. Holy crap! I now have a business, and oh my gosh, it’s a little bit different to apply them.
You yourself had to be the kind of non-linear creative thinker.
Now that it’s been a year and Sadaf feels confident about the Code School product, she’s focused on how to scale. You have 600 paying customers. Are they primarily in Pakistan? I’m trying to understand how you actually get your brand out there. It’s a giant planet. Where do you start?
Sadaf Rehman: This is all organic growth right now. I think what we’re trying to do is get more stable in our offering, our systems, the curriculum, getting our back end data backbone, and the app up and running. I think then we’ll be in a better position to scale.
Darius Teter: You’re pretty confident in your product. In a sense, with these 600 customers, you’ve done product testing. Presumably you’ve learned something and you’ve iterated as you’ve gone, but you want to make sure your back end and your platform are actually ready before you try to massively scale. That sounds like another important lesson for aspiring entrepreneurs. There’s this old saying, dogs chase buses. Well, what happens if the dog actually catches the bus?. Then what do they do?
What it means is: Beware of your own sudden success if you haven’t actually built the systems and are ready for it. Here’s another point of divergence from traditional business: scaling as a social enterprise means focusing on impact and reach and not just your revenues. What does success look like five years from now?
We should definitely have scaled our online platform globally. I think we should also have started experiments on brick-and-mortar classrooms. Because, at the end of the day in Pakistan, every child does not have a laptop and internet. In order for us to scale, there is no way we can do that without going offline. I think we also need to be sharing our learning and our curriculum with the system, which educates the largest number of children.
Darius Teter: I heard something really interesting there: success for you, you didn’t define it in revenue terms. You defined it in terms of reach and scale of impact, which includes going to places that don’t have internet and computers and influencing, presumably, the public teaching system, right?
Sadaf Rehman: One hundred percent. I don’t think that as an entrepreneur or as a person I would feel like I was successful if all I wanted to do was make money.
Darius Teter: The scaling impact and scaling revenue — are those goals compatible?
Sadaf Rehman: That’s a very good question, because obviously it depends on the speed at which you scale. If you want to scale really fast, a very easy way to do that is to lower your revenue. Then obviously there’s always a constant tension. It’s the same as scale and quality. The second you go to scale, your quality goes down. The second you are small, your quality stays up, right?
There are always these forces and tensions that are almost always pulling you in different directions as an organization. But yes, what will the revenue model look like? What will that relationship look like? Will it be sustainable? Those are questions that are yet to be asked.
Darius Teter: As someone addressing big issues, you will be pulled in a million different directions. From problem to product, you’ll have to stay focused on your mission. For Sadaf, there are no shortcuts to that.
Sadaf Rehman: For an entrepreneur, you just have to make those decisions, not just day-to-day, but think about three months, a year, two years, three years, where will this path take you and do you really want to be there? That’s just something that’s a lot of 5 a.m. wake-ups and meditation and thinking through things that need to be done to make sure you keep the big picture in mind.
Darius Teter: Part of that big picture is your own growth as an entrepreneur, something Sarika has noticed about herself.
Sarika Pathak: When Johnson & Johnson came to our university and this project, I used to be a backbencher. I’m not going to talk about it in public. I’m not going to speak about this kind of product. But then gradually, slowly, I adopted it. Like I said in India also, the awareness is so much increasing about this topic. Gradually it’s changing and people are talking about it very normally. That should be the case. That should be really the case in the future, that it should be just like another product because these are all normal things in a woman’s life.
Darius Teter: Another north star to guide you is the passion that launched the project in the first place.
Sarika Pathak: What has driven me until here is my idea and my passion to bring my idea into reality. I gave a thought that I have come up with this idea and I want to prove this until it comes to the market. That passion is driving me. Even my son, my 4-year-old son, he’s also like … Every day he listens to an entrepreneurship. My aim is to teach him all the entrepreneurial journey from childhood only so that he will grow up with the same attitude. He has developed his own startup in, like, a play startup. I feel it’s a good start for him.
Darius Teter: Sadaf clearly shares this same passion for her own mission. We wanted to give her another shot at her problem statement.
Sadaf Rehman: I think … I don’t think anyone … No, wait. How do I say it succinctly? This is why I need talking points, Darius.
Darius Teter: No, no, but this is good practice because you still need to work on your value proposition statement, right? You need to find a way to just say it. This is what I…
Sadaf Rehman: Again, I think this is coming across because communication and speaking well — if I had talking points and I can’t find them right now. There are too many of them. But I think what keeps me up at night and what helps me wake up in the morning is knowing that this is important to do because the future of Pakistan’s children seems to almost depend on this.
If we can get this modeled right and show Pakistan and show the world that this is what a good coding for kids program looks like in a low-resource context, I think we can bring about tremendous change. What helps me wake up in the morning is not how much money we can make off this thing, because that’s very short-lived.
I think what helps us understand or helps us keep doing what we’re doing is seeing kids that hated programming or didn’t know what programming was or joined our first course saying they wanted to learn about history and geography through our coding program and actually come in and see the spark in the kids’ eyes and see them pick things up and learn and take it much further beyond what we have taught them. I think that is one of the greatest highs that you can have as an entrepreneur, and that’s what keeps us, keeps me at least, keep doing this.
Darius Teter: Sadaf, you just proved that talking points are your worst enemy, because that was the opening statement for the podcast. Like that was perfect. You need to stop worrying about your talking points and stop reading and just speak from your heart, because you got this, right? That was perfect. If you were reading talking points to me, I’d be like, eh, okay.
I want to thank Sarika Pathak and Sadaf Rehman for their dedication to solving such important problems.
This has been Grit & Growth with the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and I’m your host, Darius Teter. If you liked this episode, leave us a review on your podcast app. It really helps us to share the stories of these incredible entrepreneurs with as many people as possible. To learn how Stanford Graduate School of Business is partnering with entrepreneurs in Africa and Asia, head over to the Stanford Seed website at seed.stanford.edu/podcast. Grit & Growth is a podcast by Stanford Seed.
Laurie Fuller and Erika Amoako-Agyei researched and developed content for this episode. Kendra Gladych is our production coordinator and our executive producer is Tiffany Steeves, with writing and production from Andrew Ganem and sound design and mixing by Alex Bennett at Lower Street Media. Thanks for joining us. We’ll see you next time.
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