Join me for the first episode of April and my discussion with Gunjan Aggarwal, co-founder of Learn With Leaders. Learn With Leaders is an educational platform designed to bring quality education to high school students around the world through networking and A La Carte education styles.
Gunjan is an advocate for Artificial Intelligence and the benefits of using AI to improve the quality and diversity of learning. In this episode we talk about how Learn With Leaders is challenging the boundaries of traditional education with the support of a number of prestigious institutions around the world.
Gunjan shared that she is a big fan of Ed Sheeran’s music and also likes to listen to the song "Something Just Like This" by Chainsmokers on repeat. She also recommended two books by Kai Fuli; AI Superpowers and AI 2041. As well as a book by Thich Nhat Hanh on Buddhist teachings.
"A Million Dreams" from The Greatest Showman is a very special song to her and believes it’s the song that gave her the courage to start Learn With Leaders.
To connect with Gunjan, you can find her on LinkedIn. To find out more about the Learn With Leaders platform, you can connect with them on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and their website. They have also been featured in two Forbes articles, The Learning Leader Entrepreneur You Should Know and A Borderless and Boredom-less Educational P latform Inspires Teens When They Need It The Most.
Hello and welcome to a new episode of narratives of purpose. My name is Claire Murigande. I am a scientist by training, a TEDx speaker and your host on this show. This podcast is dedicated to amplifying social impact by bringing you inspiring individual stories of ordinary people who are making extraordinary impact within their communities and around the world. If you're looking for a programme that showcases unique stories of changemakers, stories of people who are contributing to make a difference in society, and at the same time, you want to be inspired to take action, then look no further, you are in the right place. So get comfortable, and listen into my conversations.
It is a new month and for this first episode of April, we dive into a new theme of education. My guest of the day is based in Delhi, India. Her name is Gunjan Aggarwal. Gunjan is the co-founder of Learn With Leaders and education platform for high school students, bringing quality education beyond borders. In this discussion, Gunjan tells me about the international learning community, of mentors and educators from top tier universities, she built with her team, connecting them with young learners through various programmes. Please take a moment to rate and review our show wherever you get your podcasts. For now, have a listen to Gunjan's journey and her vision to disrupt the education system.
Hello Gunjan, how are you? Welcome to the podcast.
Hi, Claire, thank you for inviting me to the podcast. I'm really delighted to be here.
It's my pleasure, really. And I'm really looking forward to learning more about your organisation, which is called Learn With Leaders - You are one of the co-founders. But before we start into that conversation, please tell me more about yourself. Who is Gunjan? And how did you come up with this idea of starting this organisation? Just a few words of your background for our listeners as an introduction.
I have been an entrepreneur for the past 15 years, mostly in the education space. By qualification. I'm a chartered accountant, which is like a CPA, worldwide. I worked with Arthur Andersen and Ernst and Young then I did my MBA in a school business in Hyderabad in India, I was an investment banker with Citibank. But I quit my job because I just felt like it was not my calling to be an investment banker at all. My calling was really education. I didn't know what I wanted to do way back in 2005. But irrespective I quit my job. And I started a venture in 2007, which has come a long way. Learn With Leaders is an idea that I've been working on for the last five years, where I am personally pained by the education system. And when my three and a half year old daughter went to school, and I saw the kind of pressures that are gonna get put on them, the system had not changed. It just felt like it was time for somebody to stand up and do something. So that's where Learn With Leaders was really born in June 2020. So we're about a year and a half old. And currently we are in 80 countries, and we work with teenagers primarily across the world.
So just out of curiosity, you know, you spoke about your daughter, and that's somehow what sparked this beginning of Learn With Leaders. But where does this passion, you know, for the education sector, and also building global networks? Because this is what you do with Learn With Leaders? Where does that come from?
So Claire, that comes from my personal story. And as I was growing up, there were limited resources with understanding money, you know, everything. And I felt like if I had global networks, my career trajectory would have been very different. And I think people take networking as something very loosely put, but I think that's really the lifeline of how you shape up as a human being. So for kids, especially at an early age, it's about, okay, my parents have this network, or my school has this network. But how do you really develop that personal wealth of your own networks at a very, very early age, was where Learn With Leaders started for me, because at every point, I felt like I needed more networks, and why didn't somebody tell me to build those networks early on? And I feel like that is really the heartbeat of Learn With Leaders where we connect kids across the globe, not just as networks but also as the support system to get a world view of what is happening, and they don't feel alone anymore. Because when you speak to 10 students who feel the same in 10 different countries, you just have this feeling like, "Okay, I'm not alone. There are others who feel this way too. And I have a really close system that helps me deal with my situation today, or make me move forward or make better career decisions."
So tell me exactly, you know, what is it that you do? How do you put these young students? How do you put them into this network? Or how do you bring this network around them?
Well, we started with something called Coffee With Leaders with about 20 students. And these kids were all from different countries. So call them like, 'a session with a purpose'. And then they build networks from there, that was first. Second, I started bringing in programmes from centres where the students would do a programme which had a lot of group activity. So they were put into random groups from random countries, and they had a project delivery at the end. So not that they were just building networks, they were also learning real life, group work. And they had to present a project. So they were working different time zones, they were dealing with those challenges. And at the end of the day, they made great friends. At this point we have grown really, really fast. Managing the network of students was getting very difficult offline in the sense of the networking event we were doing. So we've actually launched a tech platform, called the Global Students League as well, where now all the students can actively network, they have access to building clubs, they have access to internships. So it's like their happy place after school where they can network with kids from across the globe.
Just as you speak, I'm thinking back as if I was a teenager, if I had something like that, how would that have impacted my own career choice, perhaps also, my way I see the world.
Yeah, and you know, also you learn your own strengths, Claire, because what happens is, with the current system of education, a child does not really connect with who they truly are. There are a set of preferences of the parents, teachers, environment peers, and they never reflect on what they can be. Because they don't even believe that there is "a somebody" inside them, the environment, or the peer pressure, or the family pressure creates a picture of who they should be. But when they start meeting these kids who are actually doing so many different things, they also start thinking, "okay, you know, maybe I'm just chasing somebody else's dream."
I also recall, I had a few conversations about education on the podcast. And we are really in a time where we're asking ourselves, because so many things are changing this whole transformation, especially with digitization, but also globalisation, it's difficult to see how a very old school system is supporting the growth and the development of individual younger people who become adults later on. I think it's quite an interesting approach. And I had done some research as well about a year ago, and there's so many different education systems out there, which are very much empowering the young students, I think this is also your approach, right?
Absolutely. And those education systems are empowering because they give a child a choice. And that's where I'm going towards, I feel the education system should be more 'al a carte', rather than a fixed system because each child is different. So a child may be very, very good at maths, but the other child might feel maths puts down their confidence. It's almost like creating a customised plan for each child, which may not happen overnight. But hopefully, with AI and a lot of technology intervention, the schools may be able to create these new paradigms of teaching. We are just trying to prove those models through different programmes at this point. But I just feel like judging each child in the same lens is a bad strategy. Because each human being, each child is unique, and we should respect them for their uniqueness and their strengths.
I just want to come back on something that you said before. So you work with different centres. You mentioned Stanford, MIT, Harvard, which other Institute's or centres do you work with just to have an idea?
We started working even with Wharton Interactive, which is coming up with very interesting simulation games, entrepreneurship, AI leadership, and we continuously keep working with newer organisations within these universities as well. So that brings in a lot of variety into what we do. And also, again, global networking is at the heart of what I do. So the more students they meet with, the better perspective they get of what they should be doing, and how they should be moving forward.
And so you speak about global networking and meeting different students. So are we speaking about also mixing the different ages of the students? How does that work?
All our programmes run in the age groups of 13 to 16. We do not believe in ages. We believe they should have a common purpose and you know, in an organisation when you actually go, you'll realise a team has people with different ages, right? It's never like the same age group works together. So I really don't think that that logic works. Because at different ages, kids are at a different mental level. So get in grade eight might be mentally compatible with a grade 12 person or they might be aligned on an interest. So for example, I had a group, which was suddenly very aligned on bio plastics, one child was an eight, one was in 10th, and one was in 11th. And these were three kids in three different countries. So we connected them for that project. And now they're working on a solution. But I don't think age has anything to do with their alignment to a purpose. So I really don't understand why school should also work like that. My ideal school would probably span across three years of age group, at least, where they're doing problem solving, because that's what they should be prepared for in life.
You gave us an example right there about plastics, just give me perhaps other examples or highlights of projects that you've had, and how did that impact the students that have benefited from it.
So in fact, recently, Claire, we run a fellowship called the take the world forward fellowship. It's an idea very close to my heart, I'm trying to bring in change makers at a young age who really believe in solving global problems into the SDG goals. Within that we had a project by a Harvard mentor on malnutrition. So you know, how do you solve malnutrition problems for kids in weaker areas? So they had to pack up food products into a small packet, which is easily distributable across villages. So it was a very challenging project. So these kids kind of did prototyping between nutrition tablets, but then the other thing was, it should also fill the stomach of the child in a village. So now they are working on a porridge recipe, which is full of nutrition, it's going really, really well. It's one of our top projects at this point. And we are at Learn With Leaders actively looking to actually scale up that project and getting into production.
You mentioned as well, that you work with mentors from these institutions, how do you connect with them? Do you have your own network? Or is it that the team within Learn with Leaders have their own network and you bring this all together?
So Claire, there are three founders of Learn With Leaders, and these networks have developed over time with a lot of organisations that commonly believe in our mission. So we have a team that continues to build up this network of organisations who believe in what we believe in, and that's how they come forward, to help students across the globe through Learn With Leaders.
How do you see the future of education? Obviously, you've mentioned that mixing the children in different age groups is one aspect. Can you give me a bit more of your perspective into the long term?
So Claire, as I mentioned, if I was changing the whole education game 1) I would digitise the whole education system, which is very possible with Blockchain today. And I mean, I'm talking about it right now. I think in the next one year, digital wallets will become a reality for schools. wherein this child has an al a carte option. What I mean is that the child has to do 60 credits in a year. And whether they choose maths, history, or an experiential project or a community service, they want to do it. Everything should be interchangeable. You know, it's like the Canadian education system as well, right. I do co-ops as well. There is a part of internships which I'm actively bringing to school students, projects, and volunteering, because the more experience they have, the reality of education starts becoming more clear to them. So it's all credit. It's the al a carte education with complete blockchain technology that can help everybody have complete ownership of what's going on. Because a lot of people say, "hey, how do I validate data on this project? How do I validate that?" So I think all of that can easily be solved through blockchain. And then the whole education system becomes a carte in terms of strength based education towards the child rather than grade based education. The way I see it is, and what I'm doing with Learn With Leaders, I'm bringing in the corporate university and school to connect together, it is a trinity of that, which will bring in the most efficient way to teach a child. So I have corporates stepping in. I have university stepping in because it's peer pressure, right? Schools are getting grades why? Because this university accepts its grade, or you will make it to this university because you're a high grader. When you go to university, it's the same story, right? I mean, if you have a certain CGPA, you'll get through Goldman Sachs. So somewhere that whole value chain has to change.
So Learn With Leaders is based in India, with the schools you work with, are they all in India or are you also present in different other countries?
So Claire, we are active in 80 countries as of now. And we get applications from about 80 to 85 countries across programmes every month
And you cover every continent? Are there places you still want to expand to?
We cover every continent. But yeah, I mean, we want to continuously expand and my ideal is to hit 192 countries by the end of the year. But I would love to see every single country in the world covered, how small or how big it doesn't matter to me because I think in each country, children have their individuality to bring to the table. And I think that's very important for me.
Tell me about perhaps one piece of advice that you would give to people who want to find their own organisation within the education sector, or perhaps just as an entrepreneur? What is your learning so far?
Claire, my learning so far is that no idea is audacious enough. And I think the space is so open and so new right now people say, "well, education space is saturated". I feel like we've not even got started yet. Because what we're entering is an absolutely new era of education. Everything we've done till now will become redundant, because with AI, people are underestimating how much education will change, I would say completely go berserk. Like purely think of any idea you want. And try it out. Because everybody is willing to try out new things today, as a parent, as a teacher, as a child, we are all willing to try new things.
I like the fact that you say every idea you have, every new idea, just try it out, because the space is still open
It's just not that the space is open, I feel it's also expanding and growing and creating new space on a daily basis.
So meaning that even today, we don't know what in perhaps, let's say five years from now, what the possibilities will be because as you say, if it's expanding, there's probably things we have no idea about today.
Exactly. You know, how many classrooms you know, are using AI right now in the classroom to customise better education experiences for kids? In the next five years, I think it will be in every school, I can guarantee you. Trust me, because they want to get the advantages of that. It's not possible for a human being to do that, as human beings, we have to use what we can do best, which is show empathy, show understanding and the ability to care, right, because rest, a lot of other things can be managed today, with technology.
By the end of my discussions with my guests on the show, what I like to do is to ask the same set of three short questions just to have an idea of, you know, what kind of books you're reading or what type of music that you listen to. So the first one is, what is the music that you're listening to often these days? Or perhaps, what is the book that you're reading right now, depending on what your affinity is either music or books?
No, I'm happy to answer both. So there is a song not getting out of my head right now, which is "Something Just Like This" by Chainsmokers. And regularly I listened to a lot of Ed Sheeran. And I listen to a lot of Hindi music. But that has gone down now because I think my daughter and my husband are both in between English, so they've got me. But Ed Sheeran really got me hooked. The Chainsmokers "Something Just Like This". I've been humming it nonstop for the last, I think two months. And the book that I'm reading, I'm reading lots of books at the same time. But, you know, one particular book that I'm reading, it's an AI book. So it's called AI superpowers by Kai Fuli. Kai Fuli also has one called “AI 2041”. So one is more like storytelling of what 2041 with AI would look like. And the other one is really how AI has changed the world. I strongly recommend some for everybody to read irrespective because it gives a very different perspective. I will talk about life. There's a book by Thich Nhat Hanh on Buddhist teachings, which I think is an absolute delight to read. So those are the two that I would strongly recommend.
My second question is, do you have a song or an album, a piece of music or perhaps even a book that was special for you at a specific time in your life?
Yes, when I started Learn With Leaders, just before that I hummed a song for three months non stop, which was "A Million Dreams" from The Greatest Showman and that song I think just brought Learn With Leaders to me. I strongly believe in that.
And my third and last question is do you have any recommendations, be it on the music side or in the book site for our listeners?
So books Yes, I just gave you the AI books and additional Buddhist teachings which have been life changing for me to share an additional 10 spoon I think is always like my go-to for everything, you know, even for managing stress for managing daily life. I think it's a great, great book. I would strongly recommend that I'm open to exploring music so I keep you know shuffling between a lot of different music styles, but I would I recommend Ed Sheeran a lot because I completely love you know the way he sings.
So Gunjan, thank you so much. It's been great speaking with you. And I am very much looking forward to staying in contact with you to see how Learn With Leaders is going to grow and expand. Would you have perhaps the last word that you'd like to share with our listeners today?
Thank you, Claire, for bringing me on this show. And I think the only last word I would say is to everybody that the only ideas not worth exploring are the ones that you don't explore. So you know, every idea, just go ahead and explore it, do it. What is the worst thing that could happen is you'll fail, but you will only learn from it. So don't be scared. Especially when people laugh at your ideas. Definitely go do it.
I like it. When people laugh at you just do it.
Yeah, and I think life should be about fun. And just living the moment, you know, just waiting that someday I will leave my job and do this. Someday, I will do that. It doesn't work. Start small. But start. I mean, you know, if you keep thinking there is no doing. It's always doing in every moment that matters, because that's all that you have.
Thank you so much for sharing that. And I could really not agree more than that. Because you know, I'm also very much you know, advocate of being in the moment, and especially dream big and start small. Because wherever you do, each step that you take is just bringing you closer to your vision.
Yes, absolutely. So I actually started boxing six months ago, and everybody was laughing in the house thinking like, "Okay, you're gonna go box", I just felt like I found my dream sport, or whatever you call it. And the one thing I realised is that if you're a fighter inside, then you put up a fight, right? I mean, you just put up a fight for everything in your life. So if you have an idea, go give it your best shot.
Great. Thank you so much Gunjan, and it was really nice talking to you today. Can you imagine what your learning experience as a young teenager would have been? If you had benefited from such programmes with what is considered the world's best institutions? Well, I couldn't stop wondering what mine would have looked like after this conversation. Perhaps your children or high school students you might know would be interested, so check out the website. learnwithleaders.com for more information. You will also find the link in the show notes. Thank you so much for tuning in today. I appreciate you taking the time. That was episode number 30. A Conversation with Gunjan Aggarwal . Be sure to leave us a review wherever you get your podcasts. If you like our show, remember to tell your friends about it and share within your network. You can also connect with us through our social handles or our website at narratives-of-purpose.podcastpage.io Until the next episode, take care of yourself. Stay well, and as always stay inspired.