Stories > The Code to a Better Life

2022 • Issue 1

The Code to a Better Life

A Singaporean uses tech to help marginalised children in India gain a brighter future.


Adrianna Tan (centre, standing) set up Gyanada Foundation along with her Indian counterpart, Rinsa Perapadan (front row, sitting).


s someone who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Adrianna Tan finds it near impossible to stay idle. But it could be argued that her condition is more a source of empowerment than detriment, for the 36-year-old leverages the restlessness within to make the world a better place.

For years, the Singaporean has been splitting her time between her day job as the director of product management for digital services for the City and County of San Francisco, and her other role as the founder of Gyanada Foundation, located thousands of kilometres away in India.

The foundation, she says, is a by-product of her love affair with India, which started after she was drawn to it at an early age through books, film and food.

When she was a political science undergrad at the Singapore Management University, she would spend all her summer breaks in various Indian cities, volunteering at non-government organisations (NGOs), writing for Indian newspapers, and meeting people from all walks of life.

Tan, an Indophile by her own confession, has been exploring the country for almost two decades, and feels that no two trips to India are ever the same.


“Being from Singapore, South India feels very familiar to me. But over the years, I have learnt more about the other parts of India and I have always felt welcomed by its people,” she recalls.

But Tan was not content to play the role of tourist. She wanted to make a difference in the lives of the local community. Her first volunteering experience at a women’s organisation in Kolkata, she recalls, got her thinking about how she could do something more impactful.

“In short-term volunteer work, you are always left feeling like your work is meaningful but not sustainable or effective. That trip to Kolkata made me curious about how else I could continue to do long-term work in a specific domain such as education,” she says.

Tan never lost sight of that thought. Over the next decade, she continued to visit India regularly, sometimes up to thrice a year. It was during one of her journeys that she was introduced to community educator Rinsa Perapadan, with whom she shared the vision of helping India’s underprivileged children gain access to a better future.

The result of that meeting was the birth of Gyanada Foundation in 2013. Based in Mumbai, the foundation provides education opportunities for underprivileged children from Mumbai and neighbouring regions.

The Gyanada Foundation works with local NGOs to identify girls who qualify for their Gyanada Scholar programme. The initiative focuses on empowering these children to pay it forward and be the changemakers of tomorrow.

One of its key offerings is Binary Story, an initiative that imparts useful computer skills such as programming and coding to children from economically weaker sections of society. But providing such lessons has nothing to do with the fact that India is the largest exporter of information technology products and services in the world. Rather, the main objective of Binary Story is to open doors to new opportunities and help children to pick up problem-solving skills.

“Teaching coding is about showing them that computers are interesting, that there is a certain way of thinking about the world that helps with problem-solving. If you know how to build things – whether it’s software or a bridge – then there are many other related things that you can do in life,” she says.

“Many coding programmes are aimed at getting people to become software developers. I think that’s limiting. Children can be whatever they want to be. The skills we impart to them, through coding, simply help them to pry open doors that may not be open otherwise.”

The non-profit’s mission is to empower local youths, especially girls, from marginalised and low-income backgrounds.

According to Perapadan, the programme is also aimed at addressing the issue of low digital literacy in the country. Some of the reasons behind this problem, she adds, is an outdated curriculum for young children, a lack of well-trained teachers, and the prohibitive costs of computers. For example, a basic laptop would cost about 15,000 Indian rupees (S$300), nearly the same as the average month’s wage in India.

“The main challenge faced when setting up the foundation,” she says, “was designing an engaging yet useful curriculum, as there was no pre-existing model that could be used as a reference.”

Coming up with a syllabus required the Gyanada team to put themselves into the shoes of the children and understand what would be beneficial for their development.

“We design the programme such that it empowers the children to be the agents of change in their community and, how this will ultimately influence to build a better tomorrow for the nation-at-large.”

Rinsa Perapadan, co-founder, Gyanada Foundation

Perapadan appreciates the dynamism that Tan brings to the programme. “Adrianna’s international entrepreneurial perspectives have added immense value to the programme, and her innate connection to India makes it feel like she is one of us,” says Perapadan. The foundation’s curriculum, which teaches computational thinking, coding and leadership skills, is something that Tan takes pride in.

Thanks to her years of travels to India, Tan (second from left) is deeply familiar with the socio-cultural issues that impact girls’ education in certain sections there.

“We have a culturally and technically relevant curriculum that is not just about translating content from elsewhere – it is about ensuring that the content is useful to the kids in the right context,” she says.

“If you translate content from the US, sometimes you’ll find content that requires one to use an iPhone to test the code. But many of our kids do not have personal computers, a home internet connection, and certainly not a spare iPhone.”

Tan shares that since the non-profit works with children who mostly come from lowerand lower-middle-class backgrounds, the use of high bandwidth web pages with lots of graphics is not feasible. “This is a disadvantage that rules out a lot of the coding games that are available for kids in developed countries,” she says.

To secure the computer labs for their lessons, the Gyanada team scoured the city in search of organisations that were willing to offer their computer labs. It also set up the Gyanada Fellowship programme where graduates of technology programmes serve as volunteer teachers and curriculum designers.

While the focus of the programme remains on technology, cultural cognisance plays a big role in the curriculum. “We design the programme such that it empowers the children to be the agents of change in their community and, finally, how this will ultimately influence to build a better tomorrow for the nation-at-large by addressing socio-economic, religious and gender challenges,” explains Perapadan.

“The students learn in pairs, empathise and look at multiple differing perspectives while creating projects such as games, quizzes and video stories that are personally meaningful to them, and align with the topics that are part of their core curriculum.”

The foundation’s other core programme is Gyanada Scholar, which sponsors the private education of girls who come from low-income families in cities such as Kolkata, Ranchi, Mumbai and Delhi. To identify the girls who qualify for this programme, the foundation works closely with local NGOs.

The non-profit designs custom-made curriculum and digital tools with locally-available resources that respond contextually to India’s socio-economic challenges.

To date, about 2,800 children have benefited from the foundation’s two programmes. Among them is Ajay Kumbhar, who attended the Binary Story programme a few years ago.

Presently a 12th grader at the S.K. Somaiya College of Arts, Science and Commerce, he is a shining example of how coding doesn’t necessarily only benefit the child learning it.

Around two years ago, Kumbhar and his friends put the knowledge they gained from Binary Story to use, creating an application called MAK BOOK, which made PDF copies of school textbooks accessible to those who cannot afford to buy the physical versions.

“In the future, I would like to become a computer engineer or an ethical hacker, if possible. This would allow me to use my knowledge about computers to benefit others,” he says.

“Those 25 days in Binary Story helped change my life and future. It was only through that programme that I got to learn more about technology and computers. I see many students my age confused about their futures as they don’t receive proper guidance for their future. I feel fortunate to have been provided with a future roadmap by the foundation.”

For Tan, who confesses to having a penchant for computers and solving problems, her future would likely continue to revolve around initiatives that focus on making a positive impact through tech.

Born into a family that has always been big on giving back to society, she says that the desire to help the less privileged is almost second nature. “My parents have strong beliefs in providing opportunities to those who may not have the same opportunities as the more fortunate among us,” she says.

“From an early age, I saw my dad giving free tuition to kids at hawker centres. My mum, as a nurse, ensured that people around her knew how to access medical help. It has never occurred to me to live outside this environment of generosity.”

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