Passing on the Cultural Baton with Shoonya

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“Our children don’t have heroes that show cultural representation. Can we create a platform for all languages and cultures to have representation?”

Rashi Bahri Chitnis made sure the answer to that question was “yes.” She is the CEO and founder of Shoonya, a Santa Barbara-based company creating edutainment content to introduce and expose children to various languages and cultures. The app currently has five languages: English, Spanish, Hindi, Marathi and Telugu.

From Hollywood to Edutainment

Chitnis began her journey back in India in the television and film industry. After being heavily involved in theater during undergrad, she landed the job as host on the breakfast show “Subah Savere,” launching her television career. From there, she became a TV journalist with ZEE News before coming to the U.S. to earn her MFA from Florida State University. Chitnis then moved to Hollywood and worked as a producer and director.

But, Chitnis said, she became aware of the lack of resources for her children to learn her native language, Hindi, or her husband’s native language, Marathi. After speaking with other parents and realizing the issue was not isolated, she was inspired to start her own edtech company to come up with a solution.

Chitnis said the pivot from working in TV and film to founding an edutainment company was not as unrelated as it might seem.

“There’s lots of parallels because the fundamentals of creating engaging content is still the same,” she said. “We’re still doing storyboarding, animation and sound design.”

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A promotional image for Shoonya (image courtesy of Rashi Bahri Chitnis)

Shoonya

The company, which was founded in 2017, began by creating diverse characters and games on an app, Shoonya Kids, with Chitnis’ own children doing the voice overs. With the backing of impact investors, the company grew, launching a subscription-based model for the five featured languages. The word “Shoonya” means zero, a mathematical invention believed to have been discovered by Indians, which provides the inspiration for the name.

Chitnis said it was important to her to focus on exposing children to languages and cultures rather than focusing on teaching all of the small mechanics of each language. Her method is also proven to be more effective in teaching children the language, emphasizing teaching vocabulary in “bite-sized themes” such as farm animals or colors. Once the children complete a subject, they earn rewards, which can be redeemed to customize their own avatar.

“They can dress up these avatars with clothing from around the world. When we create a hat, we don’t just do a baseball hat or a cowboy hat — you’ll also see a pagri,” Chitnis explained.

“We put in a lot of different design effort into creating aspects that represent the world. Those are the subtleties we are building.”

Shoonya is one centralized platform for children to learn multiple languages, something that Chitnis said parents were requesting. But she also wanted to ensure that children were learning about various cultures as well, so they could get an exposure to the world around them.

“If we expose the children to languages and cultures, that itself is quite enriching for them,” she said. “Our mission is to have one single platform where all cultures and all languages have representation for children.”

Chitnis’s children, who are trilingual at the ages of just 8 and 11, are examples of the efficacy of Shoonya. She said creating the app and involving her kids in the creative process was “[her] way to teach them the language.”

My Life’s Mission”

Shoonya began in Chitnis’ garage with a small team of animators. Now, the company is ranked #2 in Education on the iOS App Store with many five-star reviews and positive testimonials.

Chitnis said the team is working on launching an Android release, as the app is currently only on iOS. They also plan on scaling up the company to include more than the five languages they currently have. Through adding additional languages, they can also add additional cultural aspects.

She also praised her team — including a University of California, Santa Barbara professor, a researcher and educator, an animator and her impact investors — for their passion for the company and its mission as they look toward the future.

When asked what Shoonya means to her personally, Chitnis replied, “It has become my life’s mission.”

“We’re all in it together for our love for creating a platform for children with a unified message,” she said. “The mission is bigger than us, and that’s what drives us.