From Ajmer to Africa to America, Hey Math! has opened up the world of numbers to kids. Founders Harsh Rajan and Nirmala Sankaran talk to SHONALI MUTHALALY about their mission

You don't expect the office to be so large. Or the staff to be so young. Or the founders to be so charming. Sure, Harsh Rajan and Nirmala Sankaran's ‘Hey Math!' is a globally recognised e-learning programme that currently reaches half a million students in 50 countries. But this is an idea revolving around Math, right? Given how dull algebra was in school, you'd expect its story to be rather, well, dry.

Far from it. The office pulses with energy. A rainbow nation of employees are bent over computers in cubicles decorated with bright arithmetic posters, and in one case a puppet named Ralph. Nirmala borrows him for the photo shoot, explaining how his owner, a student from Cambridge, uses the puppet as a teaching tool. Meanwhile, Harsh asks someone to bring Ralph a Hey Math T-shirt. “Yes, we have them that small,” laughs Nirmala. “Catch them young, remember?”

Thomas Friedman in his international bestseller, The World Is Flat: A Brief History Of The 21st Century, wrote a chapter on Hey Math! He describes it as the “math Google”. Founded in May 2000 by Sankaran and Rajan this privately funded company's mission is to create a flat world curriculum by finding, understanding and using proven best teaching practises from curricula, teachers and parents around the globe.

The couple running it, however, aren't mathematicians. Nirmala went to IIM Bangalore, after which she was recruited by Citibank. She quit to “attempt” a Ph.D. at NYU. “Eighteen months into the programme, I realised I wasn't teaching or research material. I like meeting people, solving problems.” She went back to Citibank, and rejoined them in India, where she met Harsh, whom she subsequently married.

He went to Rishi Valley School, and dropped out of a B.Sc. programme to do his Chartered Accountancy, before joining Citibank. Eventually both of them found themselves working in London. And both realised they were bored. “There was a lack of challenge,” says Harsh. “It's frustrating when you have so much more energy than what a large corporation can handle,” adds Nirmala.

Besides, Harsh adds, this was the year 2000. “The world was changing. The Internet was sparking ideas of what was possible.” Nirmala says, “With the Internet as a medium, people realised you can touch anyone anywhere.”

It took them six months to find an idea that they were confident would work. “We zeroed in on the education space. It's a long-term business model.” Nirmala says the idea was sparked by articles they were seeing on the shortage of Math teachers in the United Kingdom and America. “Math scores were declining and firms were trying to recruit teachers from India.” The world was beginning to notice that Asian children consistently did better at Math. Nirmala and Harsh set about finding out why. “Maths is non-negotiable in India. Here, regardless of economic status, people spend money on education,” she says.

They decided to move slowly. So Harsh quit first. “I hesitated because this was a new life,” says Nirmala. “But you can't do something well unless you jump into it completely. There's no option besides being in the trenches.” They quickly realised this would not be simple. “We had to understand curricula, to understand that every child learns differently. We had to establish pedigree, get the right advisors, tie-up with universities and colleges. Learn how to work with the school system.” They connected with the University of Cambridge — started by teaching a few thousand kids, with the help of graduates and teachers providing support from India. Very quickly, the company and its mission began to grow. “I think we were ahead of the curve. We started with a homework helpline but had to pivot out of that and become more of a curriculum support,” says Harsh.

Chennai seemed like the obvious place to base Hey Math! “There's better talent. A strong work ethic. The culture. Then there were the personal ties — both our parents lived here. We had a three year old — so there was the support system,” says Harsh. Engaging with city schools helped too. “Padma Seshadri integrates math with history, dance and music,” says Harsh, adding, “We also worked with Shishya, to develop the programme so it caters to ICSE.”

“We're able to attract high quality,” says Nirmala discussing their bright multi-cultural team, “The Hey Math! DNA is free thinking. We're not bureaucratic or regimented.” Recruits come from as far away as Cambridge and Stanford, besides IIT and Anna University. They're mathematicians, scientists, animators, programmers and web designers.

All recruits spend time in classrooms to understand the concepts children struggle with. Then they adapt the best teaching practices from around the world, using interactive animated visuals. The idea is to explain ‘why' as well as ‘how.' To make Math approachable, exciting and practical.

“Because we started early we had the luxury of making mistakes along the way. Today you can't afford to do that,” says Harsh. Today they reach every kind of school. In Westport, America, where they are considering moving to online textbooks, the Staples High math department has shown the way by using interactive textbooks for the past five years through the Hey Math! programme. In a panchayat school in Ajmer, Rajasthan, the same programme is used to teach the children with just one computer. In Africa, where the company had a Johannesburg office, Harsh says their impact is ten times more than in an equivalent private school.

“We can work with schools that are all wired up, and with schools that have nothing. Our tech guys have figured out how to scrunch the entire program into a USB stick. This way we can deliver the curriculum on a low cost,” he says. Nirmala continues, “It's exciting to be in so many different geographies — enabling learning centres in Singapore, building teacher capacity and improving quality in India, helping children struggling with the same issues from Africa to Latin America. Harsh agrees. “Math, after all, is a universal language.”