Pitch us on your solution
Parents who haven't been to school struggle to participate in their kids’ early development, resulting in low learning outcomes for these children. In India, 80 million children aged 0-6 years old are growing up in low literacy environments. Their full potential is yet to be unlocked.
Research proves a cost-effective approach to break this cycle of illiteracy: Support low-income / low-literate parents to nurture early childhood development at home.
Dost means “friend” in Hindi. We empower parents of any literacy level in India to take charge of their child’s early development. We use mobile technology, research-backed curriculum, machine learning, and behavior science to solve everyday parenting problems and nudge parents to nurture cognitive and socio-emotional development in their kids.
Our local language platform delivers a personalized learning experience for each parent, with the right mix of:
- one-minute podcasts deployed via phone calls (“Phonecasts”)
- digital parent coaching
- a peer-to-peer learning network
Embed your elevator pitch here:
What is the problem you are solving?
Neuroscientist Jack Shonkoff and Nobel Laureate James Heckman have shown that investing in early childhood development (from ages 0-6) can improve academic achievement, happiness, and earning power in adulthood. But there are millions of kids who need early childhood stimulation and do not get it. They live in low-income, low-literacy homes.
All parents are motivated to give their children the best education, but many struggle to do so, particularly during the early years. They are busy meeting the demands of everyday life, feel alienated from the learning process, and do not believe they can support their child’s brain development - because they themselves didn’t go to school.
Low‑literate parents do not have a support system that enables them to teach their kids simple things, like colors and shapes. Existing home education support tools are time intensive, extremely poor quality, require high degrees of digital fluency, or are unaffordable.
The scale of the problem is enormous in India, where there are over 100 million low-literate mothers. Without early learning experiences, only half of fifth graders in India can read at a 2nd grade level. This is a cycle of illiteracy, and we aim to break it.
Who are you serving?
Dost families are typically aspiring to middle class. Parents have a 10th grade education or less and live on $2-10 a day. They are highly motivated to improve their children's educational outcomes as a way out of poverty. Common jobs include domestic helpers, seamstresses, drivers, factory workers, etc.
Our solution has an inclusive feedback loop with families and teachers from Dost communities. We utilize a rapid cycle design and iteration process, in which we talk to 100 parent-users monthly. This process allows us to iteratively improve our platform's content and features. Parent-users have been co-creators of our entire program since its inception in 2016.
We have formed a peer-to-peer network ("Champions") of parents who were superusers of our platform. The Champions sign up new families for Dost, collect data about how and why families use Dost's offerings, and share data weekly to inform our design process. Data from these and other sources feed into a machine learning model.
What is your solution?
By providing comprehensive support to low-income parents -- those at the center of early childhood development -- our vision is to unlock every child’s full potential. Our model is built upon established research that highlights the impact of multi-generational teaching and of nudging parents of young kids towards specific actions. Studies show that when young kids are school ready when they enter the classroom, they are more likely to build stronger relationships, generate higher income earnings, and engage in reduced instances of violence as adults.
Our product currently has three main features:
“Phonecasts,” or one-minute podcasts delivered through phone calls. Parents sign up for daily Phonecasts by dialing Dost’s number. Immediately, parents receive daily, simple, bite-sized pieces of educational audio content on their phone. This content covers topics such as school readiness routines, positive parenting strategies, play-based learning activities, or developmental milestones. The phone call serves as a nudge and motivator, encouraging parents to act (e.g. point out these 2 shapes in your home to your child). Arushi, the "voice of Dost" is friendly, fun, and empathetic. Because Phonecasts are verbal and communicated through a call, they do not require literacy or smartphone access.
Digital parent coaching. Some parents want support beyond Phonecasts. We connect them with a Dost coach: a peer parent who is trained by Dost. The parent and coach discuss common problems, break down possible root causes, and together, explore alternative options to alleviate the child and/or parents’ concern. Typically, coaching covers positive parenting tactics, self-awareness of how parental behavior impacts child behavior, and an expanded definition of learning.
A peer-to-peer network. Dost grows its impact by employing “Champions” to sign up new families to join the Dost platform and build awareness of a parent’s enormous influence on their child during the early years. Door-to-door home visits, distribution of Dost-branded materials, and local events that reinforce key Dost messages support parents at the last mile and sustain the impact of our work in communities.
This three-pronged solution allows us to deliver a personalized experience over time. For example, one parent may require extensive coaching related to managing their child’s emotions, while another may want more Phonecast content related to pre-numeracy activities. Multiple data sources allow us to build this personalized platform, including product utilization data, demographic data, touchtone and audio responses from parents, and community survey data.
Select only the most relevant.
Where is your solution team headquartered?Delhi, India
Our solution's stage of development:
Select one of the below:
New application of an existing technology
Describe what makes your solution innovative.
We have witnessed the rise of mobile penetration - amongst food vendors, taxi wallas, domestic helpers and other low wage parents - over the last 5 years. However, digital access does not translate to digital literacy or comfort. Dost builds products and features that are tech-enabled and keep in mind the digital literacy of our users. What’s most innovative about Dost is how we integrate parent feedback into our product through a rapid-cycle design process. This is rarely practiced so consistently and actively in low-income settings. Here’s how we do it:
Through the Dost platform, parents provide touch-tone responses every few weeks to help us track whether their child has reached a particular milestone and if the audio content is easy enough for a parent to carry out the activity. Parents also provide audio responses by leaving us a voicemail to give details on specific issues related to child’s learning level and parental engagement (e.g. my child can’t do these activities; when I tried it, a problem arose). Dost Champions collect demographic data and impact data on the ground to understand how a parent’s knowledge and behavior are changing. All of these data are used to determine what type of further support individual parents need, and sometimes, contribute to the design of broader product features.
Describe the core technology that your solution utilizes.
Phones are a powerful mechanism to achieve scale for our target population.
The technology that powers the deployment of Dost’s offerings via mobile phones is the following:
Phonecasts are supported by our own web platform and analytics dashboard. The web platform enables us to sign up any number of parents at any time and deliver the right programming to the right person. Our platform interacts with the user database and Exotel (an Indian cloud communications platform, similar to Twilio.) Various data sources (touchtone responses, call data, etc) are coded, analyzed, and synthesized on our dashboards.
Our digital coaching platform is built for parents of all literacy levels; therefore, both text and voice are important features. The platform uses audio inputs processed with Speech to Text and Natural Language Processing techniques to surface useful techniques for the coaches.
Our peer-to-peer network of Champions use software on low cost tablets. The software uses on-device storage and syncing and is built for low connectivity environments.
See attached photo for a layout of our technical architecture for Phonecasts.
Select from the options below:
Why do you expect your solution to address the problem?
Dost’s theory of change is rooted in supporting low-income, low-literacy parents to create early learning experiences at home. With Dost’s help, parents improve the development of their kids, and ultimately, set their kids up for greater earning potential and success in adulthood. Through Dost, we expect that early intervention can have long-lasting, longitudinal impact.
Dost supports parents with awareness, knowledge, and nudges related to parenting and early childhood development. After using Dost for 20 weeks:
- More parents have knowledge on why and how to deliver early learning experiences to their children
- More parents take actions to stimulate cognitive and socio-emotional development
- More children reach development milestones before entering formal school
- More children from low literacy homes are more school-ready
Research shows that supporting parents with content and nudges improves learning outcomes for children (see 1, 2, 3). We surveyed 300 families and found that:
- Dost has significant effects on parents’ knowledge of parenting activities after one month of the program
- 60% of parents who use Dost practice an activity recommended in program
- 90% of parents would recommend the program to other parents
- 10% of parents use digital coaching support when offered the service
1 - York & Loeb 2014 - CEPA, Stanford. One Step at a Time: The Effects of an Early Literacy Text Messaging Program for Parents of Preschoolers.
2 - Romeo et al. 2018. Psychological Science. Beyond the 30-Million-Word Gap.
3 - Gertler P, Heckman J, Pinto R, et al. 2014. Science. Labor Market Returns to an Early Childhood Stimulation Intervention in Jamaica.
Select the key characteristics of the population your solution serves.
In which countries do you currently operate?
In which countries will you be operating within the next year?
How many people are you currently serving with your solution? How many will you be serving in one year? How about in five years?
Since 2017, over 35,000 parents have signed up for Dost. The platform has a low churn rate of 9%. In the past 12 months, we’ve also had 5,000 users actively call in to access content again or talk to a live coach. This month, 9,000 parent-users are active on the Dost Phonecast platform, of which 30% are highly active (defined by engaging in more than 50% of all content and features offered).
One year from now, we aim to support 100,000 more parents with parenting and early childhood support. By 2021, we aim to support 1 million parents, and by 2024, we aim to support 5 million parents.
What are your goals within the next year and within the next five years?
Our next milestones are to:
Reach 60,000 total families by the end of 2019 by expanding the Dost Champion Mom network and marketing our program
Run Dost Impact Lab sprints, where we measure program outcomes at the parent-level in 2019 and at the child-level in 2020
Turn 1 million under-privileged homes into early learning labs by the end of 2021.
After 2021, we anticipate being in a position to work with large NGOs and state governments to replicate our model more widely.
What are the barriers that currently exist for you to accomplish your goals for the next year and for the next five years?
Team capacity: We need to build capacity in machine learning, measurement and evaluation, and voice recognition and translation.
Distribution challenges: After 2021, we aim to replicate our model by working with state governments who are increasingly investing in early learning and caregiver support. We anticipate government relationship building and new policy dynamics to be volatile and challenging.
Evidence: Measurement of outcomes, given the high costs associated with third-party research related to assessing parents’ behaviors and preschool aged children’s development milestones.
Model: Adapting to changes in digital access by our target population requires constant iteration and innovation.
How are you planning to overcome these barriers?
Team capacity: We will utilize our networks to get advice and eventually hire, train and build our team's capacities. For example, our UC Berkeley, Mulago and Y Combinator networks are teeming with technology, AI, impact metrics and other expertise that we have yet to fully optimize.
Distribution challenges: We have already started working with government schools in 2019 to understand market dynamics, partnership requirements, and build relationships. We are also learning from larger NGOs with a wide footprint.
Evidence: We are interviewing third-party providers and consultants (e.g. MIT's own ID Insight) to ensure our internal measurement is validated by external data and processes every year.
Model: We are running 3 product experiments this year on smartphone apps to prototype what might work in the future for our target population as they become more comfortable with smartphones.
Select an option below:
If you selected other for the organization question, please explain here.
How many people work on your solution team?
6 full-time staff
12 part-time staff
For how many years have you been working on your solution?
3 years full-time; 4 years total
Why are you and your team best-placed to deliver this solution?
Through Sneha’s (CEO & Co-founder) work in the Indian education system 10 years ago, she knew that mothers are the most motivated advocates for their children but wondered why so many children started school behind. When Sindhuja (CTO & Co-founder) worked at Adobe in Bangalore building an e-learning platform for higher education, she wondered why tech wasn’t having an impact on the families who needed it the most in her community. When the two met at UC Berkeley in 2015, they decided to start Dost to address these challenges. They have the experience, skills, and drive to stay committed to solving this problem.
Sneha has experience designing programs for women’s empowerment and education globally, from Mumbai, Cairo, to Nairobi. Before Dost, she worked at Dalberg and Oliver Wyman, serving clients like the Gates Foundation and Goldman Sachs. Sneha received her MBA at UC Berkeley and her BA at UT Austin. She’s a Mulago Rainer Arnhold Fellow and Gratitude Network Fellow.
Sindhuja (CTO) is a purpose-driven hacker, using data science, product design and code to make an impact. Before Dost, she worked at Adobe, Samsung and Castlight. She received a Masters in Information Management and Systems from UC Berkeley and holds a Bachelor of Engineering in Computer Science from BITS Pilani (India).
Our full-time team includes engineers, teachers, and parents who have experience teaching in urban communities, handling customer service, and coding.
Part time staff are mothers who we met as parent-users of Dost and make up our "Champions" network.
With what organizations are you currently partnering, if any? How are you working with them?
1. Content partnerships
Atma Education - We are co-creating content to support families with children experiencing developmental delays or lags
Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis - CEPA shared their evidence-based SMS content for caregivers to promote socio-emotional skills in children
Vroom - Vroom shared their English language content focused on activities to support brain development
2. Channel/distribution partnerships
India School Leadership Institute - We work with 30 ISLI school leaders to introduce Dost to new communities
C3: Collaborate to Create Change - We work with C3 to support 10 government schools to improve home learning environments in Uttar Pradesh
IndusAction - IndusAction refers us to trained mothers who are candidates to join the peer-to-peer learning network
What is your business model?
As a non-profit, we believe it’s important to ensure the most marginalized families can access basic Dost functionality. We charge a nominal fee for our work at a sliding scale (based on payee's income level). This helps hold ourselves to a high standard of quality, garner buy-in from parents, and build a sustainable organization. We will also charge beneficiaries for any premium content and services (e.g. one digital coaching session is free, but we charge after that).
What is your path to financial sustainability?
Currently, 99% of income is generated by donations from foundations and individual donors who are multi-year supports and committed to the problem we are solving. Our goal is to cover 60% of our operating budget through earned revenue by 2024. To achieve this goal, we have experimented with a number of levers: charging beneficiaries directly, charging other NGOs who want access to our program for their beneficiaries, and charging other tech platforms who want to use our content (e.g. content licensing).
In 2018, we had one paying NGO customer. In 2019, we aim to have 10% of operating expenses covered by paid customers (NGOs and content licensing) and direct payments from beneficiaries who access premium Dost content and features. We are also open to exploring innovative financing, such as social impact bonds, pay for performance agreements, or corporate sponsorships.
Why are you applying to Solve?
Globally, there are 750 million adults considered “illiterate”, and at least 30% of them are parents to kids aged 0-6. We know we can not tackle all of their needs without a network of peers and experts working towards the same goal. Earlier this year, we were one of three winners of the NextBillion Edtech Prize at Dubai’s Global Education and Skills Forum. Thereafter, we saw keen interest from 8 other countries to adapt our model; however, we do not have a turnkey model that can be leveraged by others yet.
Through Solve, we’re excited to meet like-minded organizations who are both 1) using existing tools and research in the field of early childhood education and personalized learning and 2) innovating to achieve meaningful impact at scale in the hundreds of millions. We want to be able to access a broad network of content, evaluation and distribution partners in and out of India to scale our work.
We are driven to deliver a high quality, joyful, tech and research-driven solution that achieves clear outcomes for families. We want to scale quickly and are happy to “give away” pieces of our model to achieve that. Dost would be a success if we franchised our model to numerous countries and languages, and with Solve’s recognition and network, we can take a step in that direction.
What types of connections and partnerships would be most catalytic for your solution?
If you selected Other, please explain here.
With what organizations would you like to partner, and how would you like to partner with them?
Monitoring and evaluation
- ID Insight
- Ambedkar University or other universities focusing on caregiver support globally
- Indian NGOs like Educate Girls and Pratham
- Global institutions innovating for early student success like UNICEF, GEMS and Bridge International
- Government led preschool or caregiver support initiatives
If you would like to apply for the AI Innovations Prize, describe how you and your team will utilize the prize to advance your solution. If you are not already using AI in your solution, explain why it is necessary for your solution to be successful and how you plan to incorporate it.
With AI, we envision a vastly improved digital coaching experience. If we trained an AI model to transcribe and classify the voicemails, we could understand parent requests in real time within minutes (rather than days), automate “customer service” issue resolution, and get the right coach to the right user ASAP. AI could reduce coaching costs by two-thirds and result in more effective coaching conversations.
We do not currently use AI but have thousands of minutes of audio data to develop an AI model. Currently, 10% of our data is labeled and it will take 150 person hours to label the rest of the data.
At the moment, a Dost user leaves a voicemail for Dost with their issue. A staff member then transcribes the voicemail and redirects the issue (e.g. “I am worried my child isn’t speaking yet”) to an expert Dost coach. However, 80% of the voicemails are “customer service” issues which can be automated (e.g. user wants to update phone number or repeat a topic). Moreover, this entire process is manual.
Winning the AI Innovations Prize will enable us to demonstrate the feasibility of utilizing audio data to assess, diagnose and resolve user issues. As a result, we would be able to dedicate more resources (funding, people) to expanding the AI model’s applicability horizontally (i.e. other regions) and vertically (i.e. address deeper automation like automated counseling calls using the latest AI technology like Google Duplex).
If you would like to apply for the Innovation for Women Prize, describe how you and your team will utilize the prize to advance your solution.
At Dost -- which is led by female co-founders, where parent coaches are mothers, and where our scale has been driven by a network of mothers -- we know that women’s voices have always been there, catalyzing change. Technology is only making these voices heard louder and clearer than ever before.
In a world where AI- and mobile-led platforms are often designed by men and adapted based on usage data, products become more and more tailored to one demographic or gender. It is imperative that women are the architects and users of these platforms.
In many families, mothers and grandmothers take on lead parenting roles and have a disproportionate impact and influence on their child’s development and entire life. But these women are also more likely to be the least educated adults in a family because of generational gender norms. Our solution is inclusive of their needs.
75% of Dost’s current user base are women. In 2015, 70% of Dost users had feature phone access. Today, 60% of Dost users have smartphone access. As mothers gain access to smartphones and the internet, Dost will build content and product features that continue to meet their needs/wants.
The Women’s Prize will enable us to launch Dost’s smartphone-enabled parent support platform and impact over 100,000 low-literate mothers in one year by:
Building a voice & visually guided smartphone app for low-literate moms who are increasingly using smartphones, and
Growing the size of our parent coach and peer-to-peer network by 5X.
- Sneha Sheth Co-Founder and CEO, Dost Education