Nirmala Sankaran - The Life of an Entrepreneur Is Like a Series of Mad Sprints and a Grueling Marathon (Co-Founder - HeyMath)

Whenever I am at a cross-road or felt stuck, I have relied on mentors for clarity. Good mentors ask hard questions, organize your thinking, and tether you to your long terms goals. They support you holistically and provide a safe space for expression and vulnerability.

Tell us about your background, journey, and upbringing.

My upbringing was based on the typical playbook used by regular Tambram families. Education is the #1 priority, 99% in Maths means you make careless mistakes, being risk-averse is a virtue, parties are a waste of time and always aspire to be understated.

Fortunately, I was able to circumvent many of these rules with the daring support and ingenuity of my North Indian friends. I spent a large part of my childhood in Chandigarh and Delhi. My dad was in the civil service and our weekend outings were to the British Council Library. 

So, it came as a shock to my parents when I told them that I wanted to pursue cricket as a career! There was an uncomfortable silence for days on end after much drama I knew that was not going to happen. 

So, I grudgingly accepted my fate and followed the herd to study at Delhi University followed by IIM Bangalore. The 2 best decisions in hindsight but thankfully I never lost my love for cricket.

After graduating from IIM, I attempted a Ph.D. at NYU’s Stern School of Business but after spending 2 years in libraries I knew I wasn’t really cut out for academia. Leaving Manhattan was painful but joining Citibank Bombay - one of the most dynamic organizations in the early 90s more than made up. 

The Citi truly never slept. The work culture was racy, you were surrounded by incredibly talented people, there were enormous opportunities for innovation and it was the best training ground. I spent 11 years at Citibank between Bombay, Bahrain and London.

The dot-com boom in 2000 ushered in a golden era for entrepreneurship. India had solved the Y2K issue and had earned its 5 minutes of fame. I was in London at the time and itching to do something new. 

The media coverage that grabbed my attention was the global shortage of Maths teachers and students struggling in numeracy. It looked like a large problem to solve. 

The solution was not clear at the beginning but the puzzle had 3 pieces: good teaching, the internet and India. Slowly, the idea started taking shape, ‘What
if we could digitize the teaching methodologies of the best teachers in the world and make that accessible to every student and teacher via an Internet-based platform developed in India. 

That was the birth of HeyMath and how I stumbled into entrepreneurship! Having an academic partner was critical to establishing product credibility. Our research
led us to the University of Cambridge - the mecca for Mathematics! We knocked on their doors to propose the idea. 

A series of back and forth trips between London and Cambridge, coupled with copious amounts of homework, culminated in the signing of collaboration and the start of intense product development.

It was an ecstatic moment when 5 years later, Thomas Friedman quoted HeyMath! as an example of Globalisation in Education in his bestseller ‘The World is Flat’. His New York Times op-ed where he described ‘HeyMath! as the Math Google’ was the biggest ‘high’ in our entrepreneurial journey. 

Over the last 21 years, HeyMath! has impacted over a million students and 5000 teachers in Singapore, India, South Africa, Brazil, Colombia, UAE, Malaysia, Tanzania, and the US. True to my Sagittarian spirit, I thrive on travel and have visited 35 countries.

When and how did you get clarity on what you wanted to do?

Clarity comes from the urge to solve problems you really care about. I find it useful to reflect on questions like & What fulfills you the most? What brings a spring to your step?

What keeps you in a state of ‘flow’? What achievements are you most proud of?

Often, people are held back by fear of the unknown. Interestingly in Hebrew, there are 2 words for fear - Pachad and Yirah. Pachad is the fear that you will combust if you step outside your comfort zone. 

Yirah, on the other hand is fear that catapults you to space larger than you ever imagined and puts you in possession of abundant energy. It is easy to connect the dots going backward. 

In 2000, I knew I wanted to do something radically different. The thought of taking an idea out of thin air and giving it shape was intoxicating. But only after embarking on entrepreneurship did I realise how much I enjoy dealing with ambiguity, solving complex problems and leading a team. 

The instinct to develop people and constantly learn is second nature to me now. As an entrepreneur, self-awareness helped me discover my strengths, shortcomings, and blind spots. 

Most importantly, I became clear about what gives me purpose. Whenever I am at a cross-road or felt stuck, I have relied on mentors for clarity. Good mentors ask hard questions, organise your thinking and tether you to your long terms goals. They support you holistically and provide a safe space for expression and vulnerability.

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What does your typical workday look like?

We live in exciting times with limitless possibilities for personal and professional growth. I am naturally wired to taking a bird’s eye and worm’s eye view of problems. 
No two workdays for me are similar. 

Some of my core activities are talking to school leaders about their challenges, running workshops for teachers, reviewing the UI/UX of our web and mobile apps, designing creatives for digital marketing, and preparing for sales pitches and
conference presentations. 

I make it a point to listen to podcasts by exemplary leaders, read a variety of media on technology and global affairs and write articles for LinkedIn.

Throughout the day, I also make time to connect with fellow founders, mentor entrepreneurs, counsel students, and chill with friends and family. I regularly explore new apps and try to push myself to go for a 5K run few times a week.

Several global companies have come out and thrown their support behind not needing a formal education. What is your opinion about this?

If you are from a privileged background, it is easy to say that you don’t need a formal education. But for majority of people, formal education is a passport to achieving success and is a leveller in society. 

I see education as a stepping stone to discover your interests, a fertile ground to develop social-emotional skills, and an opportunity to build a peer network. Many children don’t have conducive learning environments at home nor access to role
models. Often, formal education can fill that gap.

How do you handle someone who has lied on their resume?

Apart from fact-checking on education and professional experience, I don’t rely much on resumes to hire people. 

My interviews are based on open-ended questions like ‘tell me about a tough challenge you’ve faced in life and how you handled it, what is the one thing you would pursue if you had nothing holding you back, give me examples of situations
when you stood up for values you believe in, how do you deal with interpersonal conflicts, etc. 

Responses to such questions cannot be made up and reveal a lot about the individual’s character and mindset.


What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs or those eyeing the top job?

As an entrepreneur, your talents and passion come together to solve a problem that you really care about and there is no ceiling to the value you can create. 

However, entrepreneurship is an emotional rollercoaster with cycles of anxiety, euphoria, and feelings of isolation all rolled into one! The life of an entrepreneur is like a series of mad sprints and a grueling marathon. 

There are no shortcuts nor substitutes for old-fashioned perseverance. To build an enduring venture, you need to focus on a few essential lego blocks - an organizational culture rooted in values, autonomy, and ownership as the work ethic, leadership capacity across the organisation. 

Also, invest in a dynamic technology team, continuously evaluate product-market fit and business model resilience. I also strongly believe that entrepreneurs should pursue a double bottom-line - profitability and social impact. Zebra companies do that successfully.

Which is your favorite book and why?

One of my all-time favorite books is ‘Man’s search for meaning’. Borne out of extreme sufferings endured at Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl turned to the power of purpose and human kindness to find meaning in his existence. 

His profound realisation that, “Everything can be taken from a person but the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances” is a deeply spiritual thought and my crutch when dealing with setbacks. 

The book also teaches you the highest and lowest depths of character that human beings are capable of. I have recommended this book to several people since the pandemic.


Nirmala Sankaran is one of the Founders of HeyMath! - a pioneer in Online Math
education with a presence in Singapore, South Africa and India. Developed in 2000 in collaboration with the University of Cambridge, HeyMath! has positively impacted over a million students and 5000 teachers globally.

Thomas L Friedman quoted HeyMath! as an example of Globalization in Education in his bestseller ‘The World is Flat’ and wrote in his NY Times op-ed “HeyMath’s vision is to be the Math Google - to establish a platform that enables every student and teacher to learn from the ‘best teachers in the world’ and to also be able to benchmark themselves against
their peers globally.

” HeyMath! was also featured by the BBC & the Economist

Nirmala leads product design, innovation and talent management at HeyMath!. Prior to the venture, she worked for over 10 years in product development at Citibank in India, Bahrain, and the UK. 

Nirmala has an MBA from IIM, Bangalore and completed her undergraduate
studies at Delhi University’s Shri Ram College of Commerce. Nirmala is currently President of the Stanford Seed Transformation Network (STN), India.

Affiliated with Stanford's Graduate School of Business, STN is a powerful community of 160 MSME entrepreneurs, with a combined turnover of 3600 crores, spanning incredibly diverse sectors in South Asia.

Nirmala is passionate about developing women leaders and mentoring entrepreneurs. In 2017, she launched IIM Bangalore’s Women start up program - a joint initiative between NSRCEL, Department of Science and Technology (DST) & Goldman Sachs. 

She is a mentor at IIM Bangalore’s incubation center and IIM Udaipur’s Accelerator program. Nirmala Sankaran speaks regularly on global platforms on The Future of Education, Entrepreneurship, and Leadership for the 21st century.
She thrives on travel, cricket and problem solving.