Baby John is in his forties. Above-average height, slightly dark-complexioned, regular features, he has a determined look. He founded the Kerala NEET Academy in Tamilnadu in 2016 with his friend, Sree Murugan Pillai, to prepare students for medical entrance eligibility. By 2019, the centre increased its trainee strength to 1200. During the COVID period, instead of shrinking operations, it expanded to seven centres in Tamilnadu with a total student intake of more than 2000.
In writing on Learning as an economic resource, Jeff Cobb defines the edupreneur as someone who creates a positive value shift with the specific economic resource of “learning.” Byju’s and many other names have blazed a tale of glory and achievement in this sphere. NEET Academy, though smaller in size, certainly illustrates the spirit of start-ups quite well.
Baby John comes from a middle-class Christian family in Kottarakara. Both his parents were government employees. Baby John’s connection with Tamilnadu goes back to when he went there for his college studies in 1999. After getting a Bachelor’s in engineering, he started his career as a lab instructor in an engineering college under the Younus group of Institutions. He took his Masters in engineering and continued in the college to become the Head of the Department. He joined the GISAT engineering college in Kottayam as a Head of the Department in 2015. Subsequently, he did his MBA and LLB. After his studies, he joined a college in Kollam as a teacher. His colleague was Sree Murugan Pillai, and they became close friends.
Even as a child, he dreamed of achieving success. He was inspired by reading Kalam’s Wings of Fire. In his Vision 2020, Kalam spoke of India becoming a developed country by 2020, which impacted Baby John, and he also decided that he would achieve something by that period. Another influence was Kochouseph Chittilapally, a self-made businessman from Trichur. His autobiography “Ormakkilivathil” was inspirational to Baby John.
I met Baby John in 2014 when his wife, Princy, sought a job as the Skyline Hillview Apartments manager, where I was the Secretary of the Owner’s Association, which managed the day-to-day affairs. Princy was brought up in Nagpur and spoke Malayalam with difficulty, and we were not sure whether she could handle the maintenance staff of the apartment. Baby John came with an offer that he, although employed in a nearby engineering college as a lecturer, would spend the mornings, evenings, and holidays at our apartment office, helping his wife manage the system. It was clear that he was a skilled and resourceful person. As a compromise, this arrangement worked perfectly.
In 2016 when the Government of India imposed NEET as mandatory for medical admission, it became apparent that the students would need teaching programmes to prepare them for the NEET examination. Baby John found the opportunity he was waiting for. He discussed this with Sree Murugan Pillai, and they agreed to become partners in the venture. They decided to start the Kerala NEET academy in a 2000 square Ft building near the New Bus Stand in Tirunelveli, TN. They had a capital of Rs. 5 lakhs raised between them. The rest of the investment was their resources and intellect. They brought a group of experienced teachers from Kerala. Tamilnadu had always admired the teaching skills of Kerala teachers.
Baby John believes that his friendship with Sree Murugan Pillai, hard-working, trustworthy and sharing enabled them to work as a close team. Another alliance that helped him in his efforts is that of his wife, Princy. With a management degree, Princy took over the administrative responsibilities of the Academy with ease. Princy joined the Thirunelveli activities in the second year of the starting of the centre when they moved into a 30,000 sq. ft place.
Tirunelveli, alias Nellai in Tamilnadu, is a 2000-year-old city located on the West bank of Thamirabarani. This is the sixth-largest city in Tamilnadu, which became prominent during the Pandya Regime and served as their capital for some time. Tirunelveli, along with its twin town Palayamkottai is also one of the oldest Christian centres in Tamilnadu. It is now an industrial city specialising in the manufacture of textiles, cigars and jewellery. The city is also known as the Oxford of South India.
NEET Academy started in May 2016 in the NGO Colony near the New Bus Stand in Tirunelveli in a 2000 square feet area building with seven students. By the end of the course, they had 32 students: two classrooms, an office and restrooms. Baby John remained in Kottayam and would travel to Tirunelveli weekly to monitor the activities. He and Sree Murugan Pillai would chauffeur the cars to carry the teachers from Kerala to Tirunelveli. They would campaign in 6 southern districts of TN for students.
Tamilnadu had always opposed NEET, relying on the final 12th Standard marks to measure medical college eligibility. To start the Academy in a state radically opposed to NEET caused unique problems. There are also irritants in the relationship between Tamilnadu and Kerala, such as the issue of the Mullaperiar dam. Local flare-ups due to Jellikattu and the passing of the Chief Minister Miss Jayalalitha, affected the work at the centre.
They faced many problems but approached each situation as an opportunity. Take the case of the expansion of the Academy. This causes so many issues related to the requirement for more space and facilities. Getting the right staff for the right job has remained a persistent problem. Competition from 35 new centres which sprang up in Tirunelveli alone was another problem, although the Kerala NEET Academy had always surpassed them in terms of performance. But fortunately for Baby John, very few survived. The good first-year results of the Kerala academy turned people in their favour.
After setting up the NEET centre at Tirunelveli and moving there, Baby John would frequently meet me. I became a member of the advisory committee for the Kerala NEET Academy and used to attend the annual review meetings held in exotic locations in Kerala. When he visited me recently in Kottayam, we spoke about how he fared during the COVID times, and I thought his story was inspiring enough to be written up.
The NEET Academy uniquely faced the COVID-imposed crisis. Instead of closing down the activities, the Academy responded with renewed vigour. Two online platforms were adapted for continuing the classes. It was also decided to start new centres outside Thirunelveli. Nagercoil and Madurai centres began in the first wave of covid. Theni, Sivakasi, Thenkasi and Thoothukudi started in June 2022. A good outcome of covid was the availability of qualified staff because of layoff from other centres. The decision to expand was also based on the thought that it should become a source of strength for others by providing employment. A major problem they faced was the stopping of interstate transport as bringing faculty from Kerala was severely affected by this. Nevertheless, by the end of the COVID period, the strength had risen to 2000.
I was curious to know what drives him. He says: “Even as a child, with elder sisters, I had to be a leader. In whatever I do, I have always strived to find simplified ways of getting things done. I have applied this principle to work as well as to life. I have tried to learn lessons from everyone and everything I have been involved with. I also realised that many fail because of a lack decision-making capacity.”
What next? Baby John’s busy brain is planning the future. But one thing is sure. He is seeking ways to improve the prospects of people who are working with them. A businessman has the freedom and resources to do things for
others. He intends to exploit this fully.