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Lunch with BS: Ashish Dhawan

Up the learning curve

Rajiv Rao  |  New Delhi 

The founder of private equity major ChrysCapital is busy figuring out a way to fix India’s education system.

Ashish DhawanI am meeting Ashish Dhawan, one of the most successful investors in India in the past decade, at Latitude, the restaurant he has chosen that lies perched above Good Earth in Khan Market. As I walk in, a group of 20 or so people are creating a din that would give a college reunion batch a run for its money. I choose a table tucked away on the enclosed patio and far from the madding crowd and wait for Dhawan who shows up 10 minutes later, writes Rajiv Rao.

I’ve known Dhawan for 18 or so years. I replaced him as a roommate in New York — Dhawan had maxed out his learning curve quickly at investment bank Wasserstein Perella as a mergers and acquisitions analyst and moved onto an LBO firm on the West Coast. I was about to embark on a middling career as a journalist at Fortune magazine. By the time I realised my career was going nowhere, Dhawan was already a minor legend in his circles, was finishing up at Harvard Business School and splitting his summer between working in Brazil and at the risk arbitrage desk at Goldman Sachs in New York.

Dhawan walks in, in his (now) trademark Gandhi glasses and we shoot the breeze and catch up on news. I vaguely remember hearing a story about Dhawan, who after acquainting himself with the various hops and fermented wheat products of Boston in an all-night jamboree, apparently walked into class very bleary-eyed and an hour late. The case being discussed was far from being solved. The professor threw it to Dhawan and 10 minutes later, presto, case solved.

We refrain from going near any hops today and settle in with some nimbu paani, a tragic sign of what has happened to us, and almost immediately launch into Dhawan’s current obsession, education. Dhawan is still full-time at the firm ChrysCapital, the firm that he founded. He has a full roster of portfolio companies to attend to and it is only after he winds down his commitments sometime next year that he will be able to launch himself headlong into his new obsession, which is how to fix the education system in a country that desperately needs a decent one in order to be competitive in the near future.

“In some sense I feel a sense of hopelessness. But this is also a wide open space where you can do things,” he says. What we need to do is to transfer best practices here, but we’re mysteriously closed to learning from the outside world, he adds. This can be lethal since we’re at the most critical point and time in our economic development. Dhawan says growth from low-income to middle-income is largely a case of factor input strategy, where you grow simply by copying. But no country has ever gone from middle-income to high-income without fixing K-12, or primary education.

We order. I discover to my horror that Dhawan is vegetarian, forced to convert because one of his school-going daughters has become one and has brought daddy to heel. “I’m definitely ordering a big fat steak next year,” he says, somewhat sheepishly. Sadly, I realise that this will never happen, while acknowledging a mild sense of panic on the realisation that something worse may be in store for me in the future thanks to my two (thankfully) small (but rapidly growing) sons. Dhawan orders the Check Sandwich while I eye the Jambalaya suspiciously, but then decide to go for it.

I mention the huge pool of labour that India needs now and in the future and that skilling is also a similar challenge confronting development. Sure, he says, but skilling is an issue today because India is hurting. Skilling is, at the end of the day, a “repair” business, but without fundamental gains in education, you will hit a brick wall in 2020, he says. Unfortunately 97 per cent of people in India end their education at the primary level. The government, meanwhile, has focused on access and universal education, not the quality of inputs, especially between grades I and V.

Curiously, Dhawan and I have something else in common — we were both teachers in New York: he, while teaching low-income kids in Harlem as an investment banker. I, while tutoring rich, Upper West Side prep school kids in order to keep afloat while in film school. Yet, teaching is something we both enjoy, maybe because we both had inspirational ones in school. For me, it was Mrs Chandran, my English teacher in Madras, who was tragically killed in a car accident in the US by a drunk driver. For Dhawan, it was John Mason, his headmaster at St James, Calcutta. Clearly, the magic in the classroom is the teacher, so human resources is a good place to start orchestrating the fix, he says. In Finland, South Korea and Singapore, the top quartile of students in these countries are choosing teaching as a profession, so little surprise that they are churning out good students.

The food arrives. Dhawan says his sandwich is quite good, which it should be considering the zeal with which he’s attacking it. I discover that while the Jambalaya won’t make New Orleans sit up and take notice, it is not bad, the sausages moist and savoury and the rice flavourful.

I ask Dhawan how he proposes to ape the success of countries like Finland and South Korea. He says he’s looking into starting an institute that provides teacher training, through a series of workshops and a coach. Here the focus will be not just on motivation but also on techniques. Without coaching, it becomes clear that teachers themselves can be lost islands. Principals would acquire slightly different training according to Dhawan’s plans. Also, it is equally clear that instead of scale, the focus is to set new quality benchmarks. Something that excites Dhawan as a benchmark for fixing education here is looking at the track record of Charter schools in the US — private initiatives, aided by the government, in which entrepreneurs get a licence to set up a school, typically in a low-income neighbourhood. These schools aren’t bogged down by governmental edict and operate outside of the unions — which means they have the ability to hire and fire and set their own agenda. The top 100 schools in inner cities in the US, for instance, are charter schools.

This will be another important step for Dhawan, since it will do many things — its autonomy will attract good people and having a few successful ones will provide his whole mission with a sense of possibility. But schools and teachers are seldom able to do their job well without teaching aids and Dhawan says creating public goods that can help teachers all throughout India is a necessity. For instance, there is no assessment tool for the lower classes, like the excellent Asset test, which effectively shows you which concepts children in the 3rd through 9th grades have mastered. “Data is irrelevant,” he says, “but assessment on the other hand is vital.”

Finally, a good lesson plan is key for any successful teaching practice and again, he doesn’t see why it shouldn’t be free. And with that, we slap each other on the back and leave. As I step out of Khan Market, I think that if there ever is a chance to fix education once and for all, it’s probably now since you’re not going to get someone with Dhawan’s intellect, determination and rolodex anytime soon.

First Published: Tue, November 29 2011. 00:08 IST