I’m Madhumita Halder, Co-Founder of MadRat Games, and this is how I Lead from Within
Madhumita Halder is the co-founder of MadRat Games, considered one of India’s most innovative startups. A computer-science graduate from IIT-Bombay, she left behind what seemed like an obvious career in technology to find and carve her own path in nurturing the young minds of India through creative learning.
The immense power of play, which she got to experience with her now co-Founder, Rajat Dhariwal, at Rishi Valley School, where they taught without textbooks for 4 years, became their foundation for creating the world’s first Hindi board game called Aksharit, and the inspiration behind a whole host of other games, now reaching more than 3 lakh children in 3000 schools.
Based on the idea that it is more important to teach kids how to learn rather than what to learn, MadRat Games strives to inspire parents and teachers “to look beyond accomplishments to help children discover their calling in a more creative and restful way” and “allow children to be spontaneous, raw, curious and imaginative over being prepared, polished and perfect.”
My Professional Journey
I always did well in school. I was a topper all throughout school. Because I was good at science, everyone felt engineering would be a natural next step. I got into the computer science program at IIT-Bombay. Once I landed there though, something just didn’t click. I didn’t understand the whole thing altogether. There were others who understood the classes or the courses, but I just felt a mismatch. Somehow, up until this time, I had never really questioned what I really like, and what I would enjoy doing.
After college, I did a couple of jobs in the creative field. I worked for the Mumbai branch of Rhythm and Hues. It was a fine field. I was surrounded by creative artists, but at the end of the day what I was doing was programming. As months passed, I just started hating going to work. Something inside me just said this is not what I am here for; I need to look for something deeper.
All my life people kept telling me to get good marks, go to a good college. But, I felt lost. I started questioning everything in life. I started wondering what my real purpose in life was. The funny thing is, in school, if you want to know what 2+2 is you are taught how to come up with the answer, but no one teaches you where to go looking for answers when you begin your inner journey. Rajat, my classmate at IIT-Bombay and now co-Founder at MadRat Games, was in a similar place.
We decided to explore the education system as we thought that would be a good place to make a change. We started looking at alternative education and found the Rishi Valley School in Andhra Pradesh started by the philosopher J. Krishnamurti. We started teaching there and got the most beautiful insights about teaching, learning and also about ourselves.
The biggest thing we observed was the creativity and fearlessness that came through in the kids when they were playing sports. Even the weakest student academically was determined to hit a goal. That is when we realized the power of play. When you are playing, you know you could win, you could lose, but either is ok because it’s just a game, so you give it your best shot. We decided this is the same attitude we have to bring back into the classroom.
We started making learning fun, teaching kids how to learn, not just what to learn. Instead of teaching from textbooks, we started using games and activities. Before we knew it, we had students expressing a genuine love and curiosity for subjects like science. They may not have been the best in class, but they were willing to do their best, and that’s all we wanted, for each child to do their best.
Once we saw creativity in learning working, we decided we had to scale this concept and take it to more students across the country. So, we founded MadRat Games. Our first game was Aksharit, which is like Scrabble and is the world’s first Hindi board game. It’s played by over 3 Lakh children and is in 3000 schools. More recently, we have consolidated all games under a brand category called Madzzle.
When I first started Madrat Games, I just embraced everything. I was so happy I was doing something on my own, I didn’t see anything as too mundane. I did everything from finance to legal things, and I did them wholeheartedly, because I knew it was good for the company. I didn’t wait for someone else to do things. I think constantly pushing myself to do things that I didn’t think I could do at first made me more and more confident over time.
I think perseverance is one thing. That has been the case throughout my life. If I know I need something and I need to get somewhere, I’m very patient and I’m ready to turn any stone that needs to be turned on the way, and I’m not afraid. I think I’m quite fearless that way and I really love that about myself. The bigger the challenge, the more fearless I get. I don’t know where all that comes from but just that’s the way it has happened with me.
The other thing is honesty. I think I’ve led a very honest life. Most of all, I’ve been honest with myself. I’ve never tried to fool myself. I could have fooled myself by continuing the job I didn’t like or I could have fooled myself by thinking I can take teaching to a different level to reach more kids. I was very honest there and I told myself and I told the school that I think it’s time to move on, there’s no point, I cannot contribute here any longer. I knew I could do so much more in a different setting.
I’m also a people’s person. I love interacting with everyone at work, from my office admin to the person who is doing sales. I would love interacting with everyone at school as well, from the principal to the teachers to all the kids. I love to see different aspects of different people, and observe how people think. That’s just something fun for me. It’s keeps me going.
My Biggest Entrepreneurial Lessons
One of the biggest lessons for all entrepreneurs is that cash is key. You have to ensure that there’s cash coming into the company. You can make all kinds of flowery products but the moment there’s zero balance in the company, your company is at risk of shutting down. Ensuring that there’s somebody in the company whose ass is on fire for cash, who is tracking cash flows and when the next sale is happening etc. is very important.
The other thing I have learnt as an entrepreneur is that it’s very important to have a good understanding with your co-founders. It’s like a marriage. You have to be committed to implementing the idea together. There has to be a lot of trust because there will be times when you are working harder than others, and then there are times when others will be working more than you. Rajat and I have found a way to work together despite our different working styles. I like to work independently and Rajat likes having a partner to discuss things with, and we understand that about each other. And, whenever there is a difference of opinion, we choose what is best for the company. It’s literally like raising a child as parents. Your company is your baby, and you have to keep the company’s interests front and center.
On Leading as a Woman
As for being a female entrepreneur, it is true that the world of entrepreneurship is male dominated. When we first started pitching Madrat Games, and going to meetings with my co-founder Rajat, people would not even notice me until I would ask a so-called intelligent question. They would notice me late into the meeting or in the second meeting or the second e-mail or the third e-mail. It always took some time. We shouldn’t lose heart when that happens because I think a lot of people are prejudiced, especially in India, as not many women entrepreneurs come forward. If you just continue doing your work and believe in what you do, people will see the merit of what you are doing. I was invisible for some time but I think once they started seeing that this person is making sense irrespective of the fact that she’s a woman, things started to change.
On Work-Life Balance
Rajat and I have become very good at maintaining our work-life balance. My day usually begins with some yoga or exercise. Once we’re at work, we are completely involved with work. When we come back home, unless there is something very important that is pending, we have made a choice not to discuss work. We have dinner, watch some TV or sit in the garden. Things have naturally evolved that way. It helps that we work together. If we were working separately, at the end of day, I’m sure I would have a ton of things to share with him. But, since we are in the same sphere of work, and we know what’s going on, we can put it aside when we need to.
Whenever you take a flight, the flight attendant always tells you to put on your own oxygen mask first in the case of an emergency, before helping others. As women, we sometimes forget that, because we are naturally so giving. I’ve seen that with the women in my own family who have made so many sacrifices for their family, which is very good, but you also have to take some time out for yourself. My mother had four kids and she never got the time to think about herself. Now that all of us are older, she’s suddenly like what am I supposed to do with my life. Once you start making sacrifices for others without knowing what to do with your own life, you are without your oxygen mask. You become irritated, you become ill or worse, you drag down others with you.
But, what if you can be happy, you can be that source of happiness. When you work on finding and expressing your passion, that becomes your oxygen mask. Once you’re happy from the inside it will be that much easier for you to make everybody else happy too. It’s not selfish. It just makes sense.
My Vision For Life
I’ve thought about this question a lot, especially when I was in Rishi Valley, and also here at MadRat Games. As a person, I don’t like things undone, unfinished. If I take up painting or cooking, I spend time on the final touches, even though the final touches become the hardest because things become very minute in the end. With MadRat Games, I plan to do whatever it takes to make sure that this baby actually grows into an adult and takes care of itself, becomes something and it starts contributing back to the society in the way in which we have envisioned it to.
Apart from that, I’m very keen on continuing my inward journey. I feel everything that we see around us – books, television, movies, all take your senses and direct them outwards. I want to bring all that inside. I want to take my inward journey deeper and find the meaning of my life.