‘If TikTok can be free, why should not Padhai be’: Adil Meraj

Co-founder of Gurucool Adil Meraj | Photo by arrangement

Gurucool is an educational networking platform that offers a suite of phygital (physical+digital) tools to connect learners and educators.

Mohd. Umair Yunus | TwoCircles.net

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NEW DELHI — Gurucool, an educational networking platform got into the limelight when its founders Adil Meraj and Khansa Fahad, the two alumni of Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI), secured pre-seed funding of Rs. 1 crore ($150,000) from the Indian-American angel investor, Parvez Jasani (CEO, Zulie Venture Inc.) and Aqib Hussain of FreeFlow Venture Builders at the end of 2019. The ed-tech platform is estimated worth $ 2 million.

Gurucool is an educational networking platform that offers a suite of phygital (physical+digital) tools to connect learners and educators. The founders of Gurucool got into the limelight when they raised (around 1 crore rupees) in November 2021. The platform launched the Padhai app in the first week of August.

In an interview with TwoCircles.net, Meraj discussed his expansion plans including working with the madrasah education system and his conversations with governments of Bihar and Telangana to launch Padhai app. 

What is Gurucool and what is the inspiration behind it?
Gurucool’s vision is to personalize the world’s education and make it universally accessible and empathetic. It is an educational networking platform that offers a suite of 25 phygital (physical + digital) tools to learners and educators for personalized learning, networking and fun. On the platform of Gurucool, people are either learners or educators, or both. We are advocating for an eduverse. If you are using any social networking platform, you are equipped enough to use this educational networking platform. And that is our targeted audience. We are currently in the Beta phase and have connected about 4000 learners with about 1000 educators. We have launched the Padhai App, it is one of the tools of Gurucool. 

Adil with Gurucool team During the opening of its first ‘India’s Next Gen Coaching Classes’ November 2021. | Photo by arrangement

Tell us about Gurucool’s journey from 2019 to 2022?
When we started Gurucool in 2019, we came up with the idea to combine the online and offline learning together—something the ed-tech sector is doing post-pandemic. We understood that physical learning has its limitations. Digital is necessary for the democratization of education because it brings all the content pool and all the necessary tools available throughout the world. But it kind of lacks the soul. 

We built and launched a tuition tool in March 2019We decided to formalize home tuition services like Uber formalized taxi services. We planned to provide packages to learners like giving them a multi-tutoring system, attendance system, study material will be given, doubts clearing sessions, online learning, etc. Similar to what Netflix offers to customers, we offered a “Choose your tuition plan” to learners. 

We wanted to have an office space to work but we did not have the money to rent a space. We acquired a cafe in Abul Fazal Enclave which was shutting down in Abul Hence and Cool cafe came into being. 

We realized that schools are mostly empty after school hours. Inspired by Airbnb, we started home and school hosting in April 2019. In-home hosting, we looked for homes of a kid big enough to host a bunch of 5-6 kids living nearby of the same grade so the educator can visit there and teach. It reduced the cost five times. At a nearby school, the first course we launched was a crash course for cracking Jamia Millia Islamia’s IX class entrance. 

In July 2019, we started building Gurucool physical educentres. In usual coaching institutes, there is no personalization in the way education is imparted. Those in Kota have up to 200 students in a class, and in Patna, there are up to 1000 students in a class. 

How are your educenters any different from normal coaching centers?
One is that it is conference hall-based coaching – not rows and columns-based classroom structure. We put kids in clubs of 6, 9, and 15. It brings the student-teacher ratio to 1:15. The students love Gurucool so much that they like to stay here. The class is live streamed online and its recording is stored on Google Drive. So, the students who are absent for any reason can look up recordings and learn whatever they have missed. 

We organize workshops like robotics, UI/UX, etc to make them capable. These workshops are taken by anyone who has competency in that field. For eg: the Robotics workshop was given by a tech start-up and UI/UX workshop was given by someone in Quint. 

How did you get the funding?
We were in talks with Aqib Hussain and Parvez Jasani simultaneously. But, surprisingly both of them gave acceptance to invest in Gurucool on the same day in November 2021. We were not validated in terms of worth. All we had was our team, our vision, the work we have done, and a model for the future. 

Evaluation is most sought by investors to invest in a start-up. But the evaluation we quoted to our investors, we received the funding based on that itself. When investors asked me about the value of Gurucool, I valued it at USD 2 million and we raised USD 150k. 

What is Padhai and who is it helping? How can one become a member of Padhai?
Padhai is a tool amongst all the tools that Gurucool offers which has around 3000 curated and embedded free courses for learners like courses and edX have around 3500 courses. 

We have taken these courses from the best of open sources and educators that are out there like Khan Academy, MIT open courseware and at the local level from experts in Graphic Designing, Coding, etc. Our Academic team is the biggest one, they research, they index, and they curate courses. Some courses are created as well. The fun part of the Padhai app is called BITS. It’s similar to Youtube shorts or Instagram reels. The content in BITS is edutainment based, and includes travel videos, cooking, and creativity. 

Who creates these BITS?
Many of these creations are done by our team. One of the series that we are working on is ‘Get Started with’ which includes Get Started with Coding, Get started with Start-ups, etc. BITS has two types, one is stand alone and another is a BIT thread like a Twitter thread. They act like super short 15 min courses. You can personalize your feed. No algorithm controls your feed. You are the one in control. These BITS are for one minute but the thread goes up to 15 mins. 

We also curate scholarship data, study material, live master classes, and workshops in Padhai App. 

You belong to a Muslim community and you have built this start-up within the confined spaces of this community. The Sachar Committee report shows Muslims are the most marginalized community in India. What steps are you taking to uplift their educational and employment status? What are the challenges you faced?
When we were starting, a teacher of mine told me that you are going to start a start-up but the market will see me as a Muslim. And I told him that you are right but “par mera Allah bhi mujhe Musalman hi dekhega (Allah also sees me as Muslim)” 

There was this thread that we noticed online about Gurucool where we were being abused by some Hindutva extremist elements. They were speaking about our Muslim identity. “Inko bloom nahi karne dena hai, ye madarsa chap” etc 

Being a Muslim starting a start-up in a Muslim majority area, you will have members wearing Hijab. They will look like Muslims. If you start a start-up in Punjab, it is common sense to see the team members looking like Sikhs.

Starting a start-up from here, we gave employment opportunities to people here to become leaders of the future. If we have around 120-150 team members and if Jamia Millia Islamia was house-full on the day of our recent event where we had called our investors to talk about the start-up culture. That is the ecosystem we want to build. 

It is a loss to India, that a community of 230 million is not empowered. If they are not empowered, India is not going to be empowered. It is said that if you wish to empower a country, empower its underprivileged people. So, you can not ignore or stigmatize Muslims. 

If we say that we are underrepresented in civil services, business, politics, etc. It is not just that the government has not been supportive but also that we are not taking enough initiatives. So, we at Gurucool can be a catalyst to help those who want to take the initiative. 

Muslims should not take themselves for granted. They should take charge of their situations and their lives. It is not wrong for me, as a Muslim, to take initiative for my marginalized people. 

Is it wrong for a Dalit to talk about empowerment of his community? So, why is it an issue when a Muslim speaks for a Muslim? I work ethically with no bias where everyone can learn from each other but I also believe that there is marginalization, discrimination, and injustice happening and I stand with the oppressed and not the oppressors.

Gurucool is not just building for Muslims but if Gurucool starts from this community, it is first going to solve the problems here. 

See, most of our team members are Muslims but not all of them are Muslims and these are the people who are solving India’s problem of education at large. But we are not spreading Madrasah culture as mentioned in the thread. 

There is a huge chunk of boys and girls who are getting their education from the Madrasahs and Madrasah focus on religious education, but they also focus on other aspects of education. But the syllabus of these institutions are very old. Have you ever tried to come in collaboration with them?
When we were in Bihar, we had a meeting with the head of the department which oversees Madrasah education in Bihar. We found out that its curriculum is being developed by some professors in Jamia and AMU in collaboration with the Govt of Bihar. We also talked to them about the digitalization of education in Madrasah. When we go back to these talks, we will, In Sha Allah, find possibilities and collaboration with Madrasahs in Bihar as well as Uttar Pradesh to help them with our tools and Padhai App. 

I had a meeting with Telangana’s Minister of Minority Education. He is very interested in Padhai. We have those interests and leads. We will build something.

I believe that Madrasahs, which are seen as outdated not just amongst the people of other communities but also the Muslims, can be modernized. Their education syllabus and structure can be revisited.

Does Gurucool have plans to work with Madrasahs?
Given the opportunity Gurucool would want to work with Madrasahs too. How we can contribute can be decided once we get into talks. From an outsider’s view, I think the syllabus can be revisited, skills-based learning can be initiated and education can be phygitalised. How can Padhai classrooms be created in Madrasahs? Students of Madrasahs should be celebrated. But when they come out of their Madrasahs into the world, they are looked down upon and treated as an outcast. For a good number of years, they were not part of society and they are not equipped enough to function in society. 


Umair is a fellow at SEEDS-TCN Mentorship Program.