“Learning to code builds other life skills”

Mar/19/2021 / by Melanie Fourie

Coding has become literal child’s play with the inception and roll out of Hackberry, India’s digital solution to the coding education. 

Often deemed as the new robotics, coding is globally packaged and presented to millennial parents as an essential 21st century skill. There’s also been a surge in online coding classes globally during the surfeit of virtual time provided by pandemic quarantines. When Ashni Dwarkadas learned that India lacked such classes, she put her entrepreneurial prowess to work.

“Learning how to code is like learning how to read and write in computer language,” she says. “Coding is the language of creativity that empowers children to create for the future.” SEEMA had the privilege of engaging with this prolific mom and business woman in an exclusive interview.

Was a career in STEM always something that you gravitated toward, or did you have other aspirations?

I did my undergraduate degree and my MBA from Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business. While there, I met a lot of interesting and very intelligent people, and saw some amazing work in tech, but I was always more inclined towards finance. After my MBA, I worked for several years in investment banking at a financial firm in Mumbai, India. I discovered that it wasn’t for me, and so quit that to work on an entrepreneurial idea.

Where did you grow up and what was it like there?

I grew up in Mumbai, India. My father ran a small business, and my mum ran a preschool. Education was very important in my family, and my parents always urged me to dream big and work hard.

Prior to Hackberry, you also started Koffeeplace, an inspiring and collaborative online platform for women seeking career guidance. How did that come about?

I decided to break from work when my daughter, Dia, was born in 2011. Three years and one more baby later, I connected with an old school friend. The conversation led to future plans. Anisha, my friend, was looking for inspiration, guidance, and direction for the next step in her career. I shared how difficult it was to stay in touch with my career when I was on a break, and how challenging it was to even begin the journey back to work. That’s how the idea for Koffeeplace was born.

How about the concept for Hackbery?

Anisha was looking for a coding class for her then 7-year-old daughter, but couldn’t find anything she liked. I didn’t even know that young kids could learn to code, and was intrigued. After a little research, we both realized the tremendous opportunity in this space, and decided to jump in. We quickly developed a program for the 6-10 age group and piloted with a group of kids who were close friends and family. 

After a few successful pilots, we decided to roll out Hackberry, an education company with a focus on developing a curriculum that was entirely concept-based. We now work with kids as young as 4 and offer a large range of programs suited to learners up to 15 years of age. We’ve just developed a very excited edtech platform as a solution for schools that would like to implement a high quality coding program at their schools. Through Teachberry, schools can train existing teachers, have access to effective, proven curriculum and teaching materials, and assessment tools.

Why is it important for children to learn to code?

Coding is basically how we communicate with computers, and what we use to build and run websites, apps, video games and so much more. Coding is an essential skill that prepares children for the future. Kids go from being consumers of technology, to using technology for creating and innovating. Learning how machines work, and how to interact with them, will be an essential skill for the future generation, no matter what career path they choose. And just like any other essential skill – math, language, and so on – it’s best learned early. And its not just that. Learning to code builds other life skills that are translatable to everything else. It drives innovation and creativity, builds confidence, develops problem-solving and computational thinking skills, and translates to success in areas like reading, math and science.

Hackberry collaborates with schools and your courses forms part of their curriculum. Could you perhaps about that?

Hackberry has been working with several Mumbai-based schools to deliver a coding curriculum. Our focus has been to teach foundational coding concepts students from grades 1 through 6, and build computational thinking. We’ve delivered our programs as a part of school’s curriculum, and as after school programs offered to interested students.

We’ve just launched Teachberry, a platform that allows schools to license our proven, effective curriculum, and implement this high-quality, cost-effective coding curriculum at their schools quickly and easily. We provide schools with everything that they would need to begin teaching coding – from training modules for teachers, teaching resources (including lesson plans, PowerPoint slides, videos and more), and assessments. Our platform also tracks student progress by mapping assessments to learning outcomes. We’re very excited about this product, and we hope to bring coding to every classroom across the country.

What is a typical day like for you?

These days, an early morning walk followed by breakfast, set up the kids for home schooling, and then get to work. We all have designated work spaces in the house now! Mornings are for work plus helping my younger son with any school task that he needs assistance. After lunch is usually reserved for online meetings. My cofounder, Anisha, and I connect multiple times in a day, and we’ve set up regular team meetings over Zoom, too, so we can all stay and feel connected. In the evenings, once I wrap up work, I take the kids outdoors to play, and spend some time with them. Dinner is with family.

Do you have a support system, and how do you balance your home life with work?

At home, my husband, my in-laws, and the rest if our family have always been very supportive. They have pushed me to work hard, cheered me on, been proud of what I am doing, and always been there to help out in any way that I’ve needed.

How has the pandemic affected Hackberry? For instance, has the quarantine lead to a surge in enrollments for online classes?

The pandemic has actually made us revisit our entire business. While before, we worked in physical classrooms, we had to reimagine how to move forward in the online space. We spent the first few months revisiting our curriculum and making it suitable for an online classroom. Once we launched classes online, we immediately saw the scope and scalability of a business like this. We now had the potential to reach students everywhere! And we could access teaching talent from everywhere too! We also developed Teachberry – our platform for schools to license our curriculum – with a vision to making coding education accessible easily to every classroom.

What is the way forward?

My kids continue to be an inspiration for many new programs at Hackberry. I would love to see our Teachberry platform bring coding to students across the country, at schools and beyond. We would love for this powerful skill to be accessible to everyone – and that’s what we are working towards.

Read about Komal Mangtani, a senior director at Uber, who teaches girls how to code.