Spotlight – Dharmakirti Wakankar – On teaching, parenting, and much more!

Dharmakirti, or DK, as we’ve dubbed him, is the mainstay of Wunderbar Operations. When he joined us as a Director, he brought a whole lot to the table that we knew nothing about. Curious to know if he’s learnt as well, we’ve turned the spotlight on him this month! So here’s DK, talking about his life, parenthood, and what education in India should be.

Q. Let’s get the first and most obvious question out of the way – you were in a good corporate job – a great salary, fast-track growth  – the works. So why Wunderbar Kids?

I wasn’t in a corporate job just before Wunderbar Kids. It had been a couple of years post MBA that I was attracted to workplaces that seemed in some way unique.  My time at SP Jain was spent looking at not the next corporate job on the campus, but at what interested me, and what I found meaning in. One of the core philosophies of the institute – promoting value-based growth – deeply resonated with my ideas on what work should be like.

When I came into contact with Wunderbar, I wasn’t actively looking for a job. But just after a few meetings and a visit to a couple of schools, I was inspired to be a part of something unique happening in education, which itself is such a beautiful space to be in.  And the timing couldn’t have been better – that I was preparing myself for parenthood and learning more about kids both at home and at work didn’t hurt 🙂

Q. So here’s something you need to answer honestly. What parts of working at WK played out according to your expectations, and what parts didn’t?

 To be honest, before working here for a while, I expected to contribute towards the growth of the organization in ways I had contributed in my earlier roles, and more in line with my business training. So I expected to be working mostly on stuff I had already done earlier (only in the context of a start-up in a different sector) – expansion, managing a network of units, business . While I continue to do that, I realise a very different set of skills is needed here because the product here cannot simply ‘be delivered’ since it is a child’s experience and learning. The product delivery requires a great understanding of children, the way they learn and behave and need to be dealt with. It is continual, personal and co-dependent on the child’s interests, abilities and his psychological state. To deliver this product with quality, a very different set of skills, training and perspective is required and for people without a background in child development, it needs to be cultivated consciously. Every person in the organisation needs to have this understanding with varying degrees of proficiency. This understanding informs all our decisions and I believe the child should truly be at the center of what we do. I wasn’t personally expecting this to be the greatest area of skill development. It is totally new and hence exciting to learn so much about child development and psychology, philosophies and principles of learning and what good education should really be about.

I must say that what played out according to the expectations is the great energy, excitement and exposure within a start-up. In terms of learning, I haven’t had a richer one and a half years in any other organisation!

Q. So what have you learnt about people & culture since you started your Wunderbar Kids journey?

For me, capable and motivated people constitute the single biggest determinant of success for any human endeavor. This cannot be truer in something as personal as teaching and learning. From my school days, I can directly correlate enthusiasm for learning a subject with how engaging a teacher was. To an extent, the teacher made a subject interesting and what was interesting was easily learned. On culture, I believe so long as people’s actions are in consonance with universal values, it will evolve to form a dominant organizational thought and personality which will attract people who live by it and detract others.

Q. Do you mean like will attract like? Is this a good thing to have within any organization? don’t you always need fresh blood, blue sky thinking, someone to challenge your POV etc?

In terms of the values we stand by, yes, I think it will be a case of like will attract like. Living by a set of common universal values helps an organisation. There is an atmosphere of trust, collaboration and respect. This helps an organisation learn and manage without having too many bureaucratic processes. Over a period of time people start taking decisions/doing things intuitively rather than having to be guided by set procedures that sometimes delay results and demotivate people.

Liberty of thought and expression combined with an atmosphere of trust, respect and collaboration will promote ‘blue sky thinking’, diversity of thought and individual freedom, I think.

Q. When we think of companies of the future, what is your take on the 3 things they need to do today?

First, I think  they need to have a greater purpose than maximizing commercial results – which will be a natural by product. People buy the ‘why’ and not the ‘what’. I think my point will be well explained by the TED Talk ‘Simon Sinek – Start with why’. ( Click here to view it)

Secondly, they’ll need to focus a lot on talent acquisition and development. More and more, It is the people that make the difference, especially for such an amorphous (and emotionally involving) product as child development.

Lastly, any organization in any sector will need to start to allocate resources in a way that they reinforce product delivery or brand promise in a far better manner. There are two primary reasons why:

  1.  It minimises wastage and increases efficiency – everything you spend on improves everything you do, and everything you deliver
  2. It sends out a strong communication to the market about what is important for you; what is it you really care for.

Q. Here’s the million dollar question. Education companies in India- what are they doing right, and what are they currently getting wrong?

I think most education organizations, especially preschools, work with a ‘doing to’ rather than ‘working with’ kids approach. The idea of being facilitators and enablers of child development is new. Most companies work in a way of being ‘providers’ of development. Educational institutions in their current form are more likely to limit a child’s potential rather than maximize it. They seem to serving a supposed ‘market need’ whereas, it seems to me that the market needs to be educated on what education could be. I think we have become used to viewing learning with living differently and look at learning as something that we do separately in some dedicated space and time – like the hours spent in a class. It is something ‘we get from someone’. I think this idea seriously limits actual learning and confuses the process with the outcome. It tells us only institutional learning is learning. We start believing that first we learn – in institutions – and then we use that learning to live. We believe we can only learn ‘from someone’, ‘only somewhere’. Whereas learning is a life-long process. It happens all the time. When it is not natural , when it isn’t relevant, useful and self-directed, it becomes boring. In the present system of education, it is something about ‘doing to’ a child and not ‘working with’ a child. I believe the generally accepted notions about learning need to change and we at Wunderbar Kids should lead that change.

 Q. Companies you learn from all the time – what do you learn?

Fabindia – An innovative business model based on bringing the work of rural artisans to the organized market; focus on people who work with the company; great merchandising; great category extensions and a fantastic strategy of introducing all products that, essentially have a earthen and ethnic Indian feel.

Shell – The company has a very strong global culture that works beautifully with the less dominant, local culture in each country. Obsessed with maintaining the culture. It has a strong commitment to safety, ethics and diversity and inclusiveness. Delivers on commitments in letter and in spirit.

Dharmakirti has a hands-on managerial experience in diverse organizational settings including leading Fortune 500 companies as well as an interesting array of boutique firms. It was at SP Jain that he took a deep dive into the meaning and purpose of work. Among other things, it led him to interesting smaller companies, and later Wunderbar, where he could see his management skills and education make an impact. DK, as we know him, works on increasing the footprint of the organisation, school by school.