It All Adds Up
Cuemath is trying to transform the way students learn basic mathematical concepts
In a Linkedin post that went viral last year, Jeff Immelt, the outgoing CEO of General Electric, declared that all employees of the conglomerate would need to know coding, irrespective of whether they functioned in sales, finance or operations. While not everybody would end up becoming a coder, the ability to do so is increasingly seen as a prerequisite in the 21st century job market and is the new form of literacy.
Coding requires mathematics, or maths, skills. India has a history of contribution to the global development of maths, right from Aryabhata inventing the zero to the contribution of mathematical genius Ramanujan. Today, however, a large chunk of Indian students end up disliking the subject. Manan Khurma, founder of Cuemath, believes this is because of the manner in which it is taught and wants to fix it. The son of university professors, Khurma grew up fascinated with the 'logical structure' of maths. "With dynamic technology changes and Artificial Intelligence taking over more areas of work, it will soon become imperative for us to start approaching problems and back them with logical thinking and creative reasoning. Hence, maths can be seen as a life skill," argues Khurma.
Catching Them Young
"The way maths is taught in schools leaves a lot to be desired. The focus is on memorising facts and formulas but not understand the logic and reasoning behind it. So, students end up hating the subject," says Khurma. He decided to address the issue by setting up Cuemath, a maths excellence program for students from kindergarten to Class VIII. This is an afterschool programme conducted thrice a week by a neighbourhood 'facilitator' trained in the Cuemath way. Instead of memorising formulas, Cuemath has puzzle cards, tablets and aids such as the Mathbox that consists of a number of learning aids to help students discover mathematical concepts better.
But why target kids in kindergarten? Cuemath believes in catching them young. Khurma taught his classmates before graduating from IIT Delhi. What started as an informal tutorial network was formalised in 2007 when he launched Locus Education, which focused on teaching Maths for the IIT JEE (Joint Engineering Entrance) aspirants. In 2010, he exited Locus by selling it to NHElite, a Shriram Group subsidiary company operating in the EdTech space. "I realized that by the time they are in college and training to take JEE, most students are set in how they learn maths. It was hard to reorient them in the time available." While the Locus experiment ended in a profitable exit, Khurma wanted to continue with his passion for teaching maths. This time round, he decided that the new venture would focus on three things - catching them young, emphasising multi-modal learning and having a strong offline component for that personal touch. After a couple of years iterating learning modules, he launched Cuemath in 2013.
The offline network
Khurma decided early on that there was no substitute to the role played by the teacher. While the curricula was developed in a multi-modal format which also involved students using tablets, the emphasis was on making kids learn the creative and logical side of maths, so they 'would start loving the subject.' However, for delivery they decided to tie-up with people who had the time and a little bit of space, which they could convert into earnings. Cuemath found several highly educated women, who were at home for family or personal reasons, keen to tap this opportunity. They had both the inclination to teach and earn. Also, it took just 3-4 hours in the evening three days a week. The acceptance rate to be a teacher is just around 1 per cent since Cuemath is deluged with applications. Today it has 2,500 teachers teaching 20,000 students across six cities. Each student on an average pays `1,800 per month (higher in metros), which the teacher splits with Cuemath in a 60:40 ratio, with the higher percentage going to the teacher. Cuemath provides the training, curricula and monitors the teacher's performance.
Parents of kids enrolled in Cuemath praise its effectiveness. Sandhya Srinivas, the mother of Srujan, a Class IV student at a prestigious school in Bangalore, says, "Srujan seemed to have taken an aversion to maths. While both of us are engineers, we don't have the time to coach him. Since we put him to Cuemath about five months ago, I am surprised at his increased confidence." Fazila Sultana, a teacher partner since April 2016, asserts that Cuemath is an amazing work from home opportunity for women who want to stay close to their family. "The work hours are convenient and I am there for my family whenever they need me. Plus, it feels great to contribute towards making kids smarter," she says. Just about 1 per cent of Cuemath's 2500 teachers are men.
Investors seem excited about this opportunity. Sequoia Capital and CapitalG (formerly Google Capital) have put in $19 million into the company. In FY2017, Cuemath says it had revenues of `10 crore. Abheek Anand, Principal, Sequoia Capital India Advisors says, "Cuemath's strengths are a unique distribution model combined with a powerful learning platform. This has resulted in a business with terrific economics and fast growth."
Khurma is unfazed by other players, like Byju's, who offer not just maths but also science. "Unlike others, ours is an integrated model which emphasises the offline role of the teacher. Others are mostly apps or purely offline. " he says. Khurma is also studying the international market. "Communication and maths are two necessary things in an evolving world. We intend to grow leveraging this," he says.
He clearly seems to have worked out his maths.