As the children of civil servants living in northern India, siblings Azeez Gupta (MBA 2019) and Namya Mahajan (MBA 2022) enjoyed educational advantages that millions of their lower-income peers did not—advantages such as high-quality preschools that focused on core academic areas like reading and math. They also had parents with the resources and knowledge to keep them academically engaged. Now the brother-and-sister team is trying to extend those same advantages to all Indian children through Rocket Learning, the edtech nonprofit they cofounded in 2020.

Both siblings did stints at McKinsey after undergrad. But Gupta also spent several years at the Pratham Education Foundation, one of India’s largest educational nonprofits—work that earned him a Horace W. Goldsmith Fellowship for social enterprise leadership at HBS. Mahajan, meanwhile, was managing director of the SEWA Federation, an Indian nonprofit devoted to supporting the millions of low-income women who toil in the country’s informal economy. Serving young people and working mothers, brother and sister each came to believe that intervening at the preschool and primary-school levels was essential to improving the lives of children and parents alike. “Our interests really aligned on early childhood education,” Mahajan says.

Recognizing that more than 50 percent of Indians have smartphones—and that mobile internet penetration is high, even among low-income groups—Gupta and Mahajan developed a low-cost strategy for leveraging existing technology and infrastructure to enhance the quality of early childhood education for disadvantaged kids. And while the state-run preschools and primary schools that serve this population may suffer in comparison with their private counterparts, the public system nonetheless reaches approximately 150 million children ages 3 to 8, making it an ideal partner for working at scale.

Rocket develops and delivers digital training materials focused specifically on boosting the skills of this group of public-sector educators. Workers in India’s Anganwadi centers—a national network of day cares that provide nutrition, health care, and educational support for mothers and young children—represent a particularly rich target. Rocket is currently working with the Ministry of Women and Child Development, which runs the centers, to help the country’s 1.4 million Anganwadi employees become more effective teachers. “There’s a big opportunity to really upscale and certify them,” Gupta says.

At the same time, Rocket provides educational tools and content that teachers can share with parents to reinforce foundational skills at home. Teachers set up WhatsApp groups for their classes and use them to deliver play-based exercises and quizzes to parents and children several times a week. Parents upload photos and videos of the results, and teachers respond with gamified feedback like smiley face–based report cards. “We work with groups so that they can motivate each other, and we use technology so that we can reach out in a low-cost, scalable way,” Mahajan explains.

Rocket targets the least educated and most impoverished families in India. Many parents earn between one and two dollars a day doing construction or domestic work, or tilling the soil as landless farmers. Consequently, the company’s materials are designed to be as user-friendly as possible. A parent might help a child with pattern recognition by having them tap out rhythms with household utensils, or teach them to count by having them play hopscotch with numbers.

Rocket currently reaches approximately 300,000 kids through 20,000 WhatsApp groups at a cost of approximately 10 cents per child, per year. The company has raised $1 million from institutions, including Harvard, MIT, and the World Economic Forum; venture funds such as Sequoia and Accel; and HBS alumni. (The startup’s backers include Central Square Foundation, an educational fund founded by board chair Ashish Dhawan [MBA 1997] and Siddharth Yog [MBA 2004], founder of the emerging-markets investment firm Xander.)

Rocket already works with public schools in the populous states of Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, and reached all first- and second-grade students in the state of Haryana by the end of last year. Gupta and Mahajan hope to engage as many as 10 million children by the end of 2022 by continuing to expand their government partnerships. They plan to roll out additional off-line teacher training even as they further develop the tech-enabled elements of their platform. On the digital side, for example, they are experimenting with machine-learning algorithms that can score exercises and quizzes automatically and “nudge” parents to keep them engaged in the program.

The pair hopes that by supporting teachers, parents, and students—what Mahajan calls the “three-legged stool” of early childhood education—Rocket will help erode the inequities that make it so much harder for poor Indian families to build better lives for their children.

“Low-income parents want their kids to do well; they know that education is the only route out of poverty,” Gupta says. What they lack are the awareness, the information, and the tools required to take a more active role in supporting their children’s early cognitive development—all of which are gaps that Rocket Learning aims to fill. “The idea,” Gupta says, “is to equalize the playing field.”

This article was originally published in the Alumni Bulletin.