Umesh Malhotra

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 2008
This description of Umesh Malhotra's work was prepared when Umesh Malhotra was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.


Umesh Malhotra’s vision is to inspire children to read more and improve their ability to absorb their education. His believes encouraging reading among, especially young children, will result in better learning throughout a child’s education. His approach is novel in crafting unique solutions for different socioeconomic classes to ensure that all children have the resources to become better and more engaged readers wherever they attend school. Umesh believes children want to read and to inspire them to read more, they must enjoy it.

The New Idea

Umesh’s vision is to inspire children to read more and to democratize the emphasis and practice of reading among children. Through his organization, Hippocampus, his Learning Centers, and Grow by Reading programs, Umesh brings the joy of reading to children and their families in an accessible, positive, and contextual manner. Umesh’s research leads him to believe that up to the age of eight, a child learns to read; while afterwards, a child reads to learn. Thus, the more comfortable a child is with reading, at a younger age, the better he or she will learn for the rest of their lives. A child’s reading skills are in direct correlation to their educational absorption. Umesh also realizes that, in the information age, better jobs and opportunities are available to people with better information seeking and processing skills. Reading also provides an opportunity for children to learn values and learn about the world, perhaps especially, as a leisure activity.

Umesh’s innovation lies in the holistic strategies he has crafted for different socioeconomic segments of the country to make Hippocampus and its related Learning Centers and programming a sustainable and replicable effort. Based on the available transport of the children’s families, Umesh has created programs to best meet their needs in varied socioeconomic categories. For each program, known as the Motorcar, Motorbike and Bicycle segments, spaces have been designed for the children, including vibrant, bright, airy libraries which provide access to world class books on a variety of subjects and topics of interest. Trained librarians guide children and discuss books with them, as well as lead games and activities designed to enhance experiential learning and comprehension in a safe and engaging environment. These games and activities are important in making the books come alive for young children and help to make reading fun.

Fees from the Motorcar program and the Hippocampus library help subsidize the costs of the Motorbike and Bicycle programs and the strategies adopted for different target segments of society are contextual and replicable.

The Problem

A study done by Pratham reveals that about 45 percent of children between the ages of seven and ten in government schools and 24 percent of those in private schools can not read words, let alone sentences. It also revealed that by the time a child finishes his/her “education”, he/she may not be literate. This has been validated by Hippocampus’s experience with children in standards V and VI still at learning at level 1 in most government schools.

There is also an inadequate ‘reading culture’ amongst children today. In the upper middle class of Indian society, children have many distractions, such as television and computers, and even while parents lay emphasis on academic performance, it is not on reading to enhance performance. Existing library infrastructure is often not vibrant or appealing to children and is not integrated into the school system to create spaces where children can learn to love and enjoy reading.

Children of families in the lower socioeconomic levels have less access to reading opportunities, as low-income households may not have extra money to buy books. Even government schools typically do not have functional libraries or librarians to guide and mentor children. Since most of these children are first generation literates, there is also often not a culture of reading in the families and communities.

All these factors have led to poor literacy skills early in life and result in a statistically significant relationship with later involvement in crime, lower job and life expectations, and with persons less likely to have IT skills or academic or vocational qualifications. Children with poor literacy skills grow up more likely to be excluded and vulnerable than their literate peers. Research has found that a love of reading is more important for children’s academic success than their family’s wealth or class. If a child begins his/her formal education with a love of books, he/she is more likely to succeed in school.

The Strategy

For the ‘Motor Car’ segment, the wealthiest of the students, Umesh focuses on making reading inspirational and fun so that children prefer reading to staying indoors and watching TV or playing computer games during their leisure time. The Hippocampus library is an exciting, engaging, and stimulating place for children to spend time with their peers; often their families accompany them. Hippocampus has engaged publishers across the world to bring the best children’s books to the library and make them available to children in Bangalore. Umesh and his team have also brainstormed and designed numerous fun activities that enhance engagement and ‘live interaction’ between the books and the children.

For the ‘Bicycle’ segment, the poorest of Umesh’s students, the challenge was to make reading fun and inspiring for children to read more, no matter where they live or go to school. To inspire meant to motivate the child from within so that he/she could pursue a habit of reading without the need of intervention. Since the children in the government, municipal, and CO run schools struggled to read words and sentences, it was critical to design a child-friendly space that would not intimidate or bore them. Hippocampus has designed the Grow by Reading Program and partners with schools to implement it. The Grow by Reading program strives to create an environment for students which provides a certain amount of freedom coupled with the presence of a mentor, or guide, to influence and direct children’s reading interests. The program is designed to address differing reading proficiencies and children’s interests, with the librarians facilitating the program. Six reading levels have been identified. Every child in the library is assessed to ascertain their reading level. Every book in the library is also categorized by reading level. This helps a child easily choose a book that they can read and increases their confidence and motivation to continue reading. Booklists are available for each level; with a variety of books to appeal to a broad audience of children.

Hippocampus also works with its partners to ensure that schools keep aside one hour a week as a library period for each class. Library classes are divided into reading or issue periods and activity periods. During the reading and issue periods, children are encouraged to read on their own. The activity periods focus on language skills and reading. The content and method of the activity are designed by Hippocampus and sent in every month. There is an enjoyable Library Day at the end of the academic year, organized by the children, in which the best readers are recognized and children are rewarded for reading ten or more books during the year. Hippocampus also invests in librarian training since they are important players to ensure that the library is a place children want to go to enjoy reading. The program strategy has evolved after trial and error and based on the feedback received. The Grow by Reading program seems to be working. It has expanded by partnering with COs with existing relationships in the community, schools, and other stakeholders. Hippocampus continues to be accountable for design, monitoring execution, and the impact of execution. This makes it a scalable model that is versatile and can easily be adopted by schools or COs across the nation. Currently, this program runs successfully in forty-five schools through seven CO partners.

The Motor-bike segment of Umesh’s programming was inspired by a conversation he had with his driver. Umesh realized that his driver had high aspirations for his children and was willing to pay a fee to ensure that they could access the best education and learning. Umesh also realized that private schools that cater to low-income groups tend to be no better than government schools regarding the quality of education. This conversation and insight led to his idea of the Motor-bike segment (a lower income group comprising salaried individuals such as drivers, vegetable vendors, etc). Umesh launched the Learning Center in October 2007 to address this need. He found that boys and girls were left to find their recreation and companionship in the streets after school since their parents were at work. There was also an increasing number of children at home with no adult care or supervision. The Learning Centre programs and services aim to fill this gap by promoting and enhancing the development of young boys and girls by instilling a sense of competence, usefulness, belonging, and influence. The Centers are a safe place to learn and grow—while having fun. The services his Learning Centre provides include the library (Grow by Reading Program), a computer centre (world-class multi media assets for education and entertainment), an audio visual room, homework assistance, and fun weekends which expose children to various forms of arts and crafts, performing arts, and theatre.

Additionally, the Learning Centers rely on a unique business model that helps to sustain the work of Hippocampus for all socioeconomic segment participants. Philanthropists, corporations, and donor agencies, provide the capital to set up and operate the centre for a year. Hippocampus Reading Foundation (HRF) operates and runs these centers with the goal of making each center self-sustainable within a period of twelve months. This is achieved through the revenue model designed by HRF that incorporates different fee structures for different sections of society within the community. Profits generated will be used for program development and scholarships. Once the business model is proven, HRF will expand the learning centers through a franchisee driven model.

One of the interesting and wonderful externalities of Umesh’s work is that as Hippocampus has enrolled children from the Motorcar segment as well as the Motor-bike segment and provided an equal platform for all the students, with children across different sections of society learning and playing together, they have blurred some of the class distinctions children are usually raised with.

The Person

Umesh was brought up in Chennai. Always a strong student, Umesh was very actively involved in extracurricular activities. Typically these activities centered around improving existing systems and situations where he was and wanting to help—whether it was as the Mess Secretary in IIT Madras, or the time he raised money for a deceased colleagues’ family at Infosys.

Umesh has demonstrated success as an entrepreneur in the business world and has applied his learning and insights to his work at HRF. It was when he and his family stayed in California from 1998 to 1999 that he saw the gap between the kind of libraries and books children have access to in the U.S., compared to those in India. His son was five years old and in kindergarten at a school that encouraged children to borrow books and take them home. There was a focus on reading at a very early age. Additionally, the community library was a very bright and spacious with a lovely children’s section. The effort of the school and the community to foster reading was a novel experience for him and his wife. His access to high quality libraries and books for children, with a desire to give something back to India, led Umesh and his wife to start Hippocampus.

Umesh acknowledges the key influences in his life as his parents, his wife, and the experience of educating his young child in the U.S.