Knowledge Exchange

Inclusion in the EdTech Landscape - An Insider's Perspective

Sandhya Narayanan (Class of 2021)

Different, just like you!

Personal experience of the Indian Ed-tech landscape for neurodiverse individuals & why the need to build matters now more than ever!

With “diversity of thought” being a critical element of success in a global, dynamic market, supporting a neurodiverse workforce will be more important than ever in helping organisations compete. Neurodiverse individuals often possess astounding abilities in areas such as pattern recognition, memory, and mathematics. These skills are in high demand as more and more sectors of the economy become data-driven.

Decoding the beginning

It was one of those days, whilst in a pensive mood during intense report writing in consulting, that I realised that I wanted to shift gears. I wanted to build and contribute to products and businesses that made an impact – a social impact in the truest sense of the word. I asked myself one question, that continues to drive me today — are you in an occupation, a career, or say a position, where you can contribute to building, or help other people to build, or teach them to build? When this thought occurred and re-occurred multiple times, I knew I had to leverage my discomfort to pivot my career into something meaningful and fulfilling on a personal level. That is how my partnership with HashHackCode’s founder & CEO began.

Now, dreaming up remarkably with passion is fairly easy. What is difficult is the will to make things happen. When I met HashHackCode’s founder, I still had a full-time job and the start-up was still in ideation/proof of concept. We would spend hours and weeks of brainstorming sessions discussing the revenue and business model, and the kind of community impact it was capable of having. We knew something big and impactful was brewing. Within a year, we achieved 6x the revenue from when we began but increased our community 100x, and that, I would say, is the true success of building products for collaborative and inclusive learning.

Transforming education for neurodiverse individuals

By simple definition, neurodiverse individuals refer to individuals with autism, Down syndrome, Aspergers, dyslexia, those hard of hearing, or other learning difficulties. Currently, the tech education in India and the world, in general, is skewed towards the mainstream population, and those with different abilities are left to fend for themselves based on what is perceived to be within their capability. The flaw lies in the fact that capability is sealed, limited to, and decided before the individual can set out to explore their creativity, and the fact that the education system functioned as a hustle for a credential for the meritocratic, and rather not a lifelong learning process that is open for all, irrespective of the differences in learning styles.

The premise on which HashHackCode began was to embrace this diversity of the human brain and mind by providing an alternative education ecosystem that builds the potential of individuals with different learning abilities to learn coding, digital expression, fundamental mathematics, and computational thinking — the absolute essentials for this digital era. We hired hand-picked empathetic young college mentors and trained them with our unique curriculum and delivery of teaching methodology, who in turn mentored 1:1 to individuals with special needs.

Now, you may ask, is this necessary when the world is filled with online resources?

Absolutely, yes, and I’ll tell you why. Sadly because we haven’t built anything for what we think is a microscopic minority, but in reality it is actually a startling and dumb-stounding size. Let’s take autism as an example. 1 in 54 children in the US is diagnosed with ASD, which translates to more than 3.5 million Americans living with ASD, with the prevalence increasing each year by 6–15%. Now, let’s look at the participating workforce. Only 19.3% of people with different abilities were even seeking work, let alone working, and among the 19.3% who sought work, 12.9% remained unemployed. In the UK, only 16% of adults are in employment despite 77% wanting to work. Researchers believe that 1 in 8 people or 15% to 20% of the population exhibit atypical brain patterns but are often left undiagnosed. These numbers are even higher in India, China, Australia, and around the world.

Being denied the opportunity to learn is worse than unemployment. One can choose to remain unemployed at their will, but being denied resources that can cater to their individual learning styles and help them identify their capabilities was the problem at hand. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are a few organisations around the world that cater to neurodiverse individuals, but why do we still see such a shocking statistic?

In typical school settings, recognising potential can be difficult. Faced with dozens of students, each with their own needs and interests, teachers may not see every child’s intellectual gifts, especially when those gifts are obscured by a physical or social appearance that the teacher views as abnormal, or undesirable, or not ‘mainstream.’

The next obvious step for us was to understand the market. In our National Survey of Individuals with Autism, we realised there wasn’t enough that we were doing to build. We know one-to-one tutoring and mentoring can reliably increase education outcomes by two standard deviations (the Bloom two-sigma effect), and we can use the internet  everywhere, so why haven’t we built systems for learning difficulties to compound their curiosity and find their capabilities through AI? That’s the future we looked at, and thereafter there was no looking back.

How it slowly resonated with the community and received a “tribe” value among parents of individuals with special needs.

As a first step, we transformed the idea of the traditional education model into learning a skill set. The most valuable forms of learning are imagination, foresight, and innovation, which give you the ability to upskill independently — an asset for everyone in the working world.

Apart from the unique pedagogy, one-on-one mentoring, kindling creativity, and upskilling, one of the main reasons HashHackCode is successful in its mission of social impact is due to empathy.Sympathy allows them to settle, but empathy allows them to enthusiastically believe in their abilities, dream, and build a future not just for themselves, but for a world that you and I may never have foreseen.

My key takeaways:

  • You don’t need a ton of money to create your first prototype. Limited resources are okay. Sometimes it is a blessing in disguise to avoid wasteful expenditure. Offer something the market has seen never before and that they can relate to you in some way.
  • Pivot your path when you fall; standing still is not an option. We reasoned every scenario and brainstormed various situations. During uncertainty, we found alternatives, and always found a path that gave us newer paths and the virtuous cycle has continued. Yes, we have new problems to solve but that’s what keeps us going.
  • If you are in what you call “business” or an “entrepreneurship,” it is about striking a connection, not a transaction. One of the key learnings for me was the level of planning and emotional investment required in order to create a product that allows people to feel a sense of belonging, and commitment towards building a culture of empathy.
  • You are as happy as you think as you are. You are as successful as you think you are. You pick the person you are going to be. As an auditor early in my career, I would think, “You’re not going to find anything suspicious today in the accounts, are you?” As a consultant, I would think, “Oh I can never be as smart as that guy who plots financial models on a whim.” We say things to ourselves that we would never say to anybody else. When I changed my negative thinking into something constructive, and asked myself how to pivot into a sweet spot where purpose, passion, and capabilities integrate, I made a difference to my life. I would say my quest for integration still goes on, but I made a start!

Lastly, you do not even need to be a special educator or trained in special education to make a difference as a neurodiverse educator or mentor. To be able to witness the level at which learning and igniting human potential can percolate transformation in the lives of people from someone as common as you and I leaves me with a thought on how much more good the world could do with.

With a journey of a thousand and more miles to go, but with the belief that we have taken the first big step, I have one final thought for you: the real fun and sense of fulfillment is not found through  creating a multi-billion dollar success or in an overnight rags to riches story, but through impacting the way millions of people devoid of opportunity think and learn around you.



Pre-MBA Industry: Education Technology
Company: HashHackCode
Job Title: Product Strategy