Integrating DEI and SEL Initiatives into Mainstream Childhood Education
May 09, 2023
How do we develop lifelong readers right from childhood? Amandeep Kochar, President and CEO of Baker & Taylor reflects on how his childhood experiences have shaped his outlook on incorporating DEI and SEL into early education. Listen in for great tips on how edtech is pivotal to bringing about this revolution and how it can benefit society as a whole.
Hi, my name is Eric Stano. I am the Vice President for consulting at Magic Edtech. I'm also the Director for content and curriculum here, and I have joining me today, Amandeep Kochar, who is the CEO of Baker & Taylor. Welcome, Amandeep. Today we're going to be talking about Aman's journey towards becoming CEO of a company but also his recent efforts to really move into the diversity, equity, and inclusivity space as well as the social and emotional learning space by virtue of some of the publishing efforts that that he's engaged in. But I think Aman's story is really evocative of the efforts that he's partaken in of late. So Aman can you tell us a little bit about your journey to becoming a CEO? And what that's meant to you and how you've accomplished that.
Of course, I think there are a few different slices of my journey which may be interesting and you know this podcast is also personally a tool, a mechanism for me to grow because I rarely get a chance to reflect on my professional journey as such there's a lot to do and I keep moving per se I have been CEO at Baker & Taylor.
I've been the CEO at Baker & Taylor since November of 2021 and I've been associated with the organization since 2014 when I joined them as their executive Vice President for schools and technology, and software and services business where I was very fortunate enough to take the team through a divestiture and ended up becoming a part of the Follet group of companies. Follet is a 146-year-old family business and then in 2021 had the good fortune of divesting the Baker & Taylor business and taking it private once again, and it was a tremendous opportunity from transitioning from being an operator of a business that I feel very passionately about and that I've been involved with for the last 9 years and transition from being an operator to an owner-operator role and go through that identity crisis if I may say into that change. So I think while I officially took the CEO title in 2021, I've been performing the duties for the last five years. What I'd say is that Baker & Taylor is a very unique opportunity. It operates at the intersection of utilizing my skills, giving me the ability to be the guardian. Truly, I consider myself more the guardian of this 194-year-old brand that has been serving people across the world. And like I was saying it operates at the intersection of making me feel good every day because we get to make a difference in the lives of families and children. It also gives me an opportunity to make a living for my family and to work beside some extraordinarily passionate people who care deeply about education, literacy, technology, and the intersection of it all.
And you became a guardian really during the height of the pandemic and when students and the people who you serve were really in peril in a variety of ways. How did that inform how you assumed command of what you were going forward and serving your community and your constituents so to speak?
You know, very interesting question Eric, because as a business that depends largely on people congregating in libraries, in schools, physically. It was extraordinarily hard for us to be faced with this reality that yes, we have products and services that serve their digital realm but we also work with children and adults that appreciate the tactile nature of reading, of feeling the physical product of a book, as a business that has a lot of people working in our service centers across Ashland, Ohio, Commerce Georgia, Moments Illinois and in Australia and at that time in the UK as well. We were faced with this stark reality that our physical business was to be in a state of suspended animation that could last for any amount of time. So we had to pivot and utilized what assistance knowledge-wise the government could provide us and work with our people who have shown extraordinary grit and resilience through that period so we pivoted and supported our core constituents whether they be librarians, educators, administrators, district administrators, and put our digital and software virtual offerings in high gear, in turbo boost if you will and we partnered with other publishers to provide virtual book clubs instead of physical book clubs, virtual children's activities instead of physical children's activities. We partnered with Follet School Solutions and gave away free subscriptions to children's magazines and literature and entertainment product, that they could still find education and entertainment, while they were stuck at home. So it was a hard pivot but I would say the resiliency of people in general and our team, in particular, was very inspiring for me to see.
And actually and as a former reading editor myself and for full disclosure for folks who are listening to this you and I have worked together on a battery of titles that you produced to really tap into the social and emotional learning concepts that are that much more evident now given that students have been at home and have been deprived of you know the social environments. But can you speak a little bit about the catalyst for that series of titles, you developed and conceived of and wrote um a number of titles that have actually taken off nicely and are reaching students um, and you know, and helping them frankly I'd love to hear a little bit about what catalyzed that for you. Obviously, there's a force in function in that, there was a global pandemic but I'd love to hear a little bit more about your thought process in saying I want to begin producing titles that are going to reach these students for this reason and I sensed always when we worked together on them that there was a little bit of your own personal history informing that so I'd love to hear you talk about that a little bit.
Well, thank you, Eric. Like I said it'll be good for me to reflect on that because we keep moving on and rarely have a chance to reflect on the professional journey. The professional aspects of that journey so in, like I said, after November 2021, I got together with my team in January and we sat down and I said look representation, EDI and accessibility, and sustainability is personally important to me and we owe it to the channels we serve, the libraries of the schools and other educational institutions. We owe it to them to utilize the knowledge, wisdom, data that we've gathered and fill in the gaps in the market. Whether it be affordable leveled readers or where children of certain minorities that are visually different whether it be based on race or ethnicity or religion are more prone to bullying and the point here was when I sat down with my team and I said look this is personally important to me to create authentic lived stories of diversity. And diversity to me isn’t defined by race or ethnicity, the diversity of life experience that we were looking to showcase and we tried to do it in a couple of different ways. We launched our own publishing imprint called Paw Prints Publishing. For your audiences, Baker & Taylor our mascots are 2 cats Baker & Taylor and so it was only, it was only prudent that we name our publishing imprint on that. We've been in publishing for many years, then we divested that business and we are now back into the publishing business per se but I was very focused that we're not doing this to you know have the next Wimpy Kid or Dork Diaries or Harry Potter, don't get me wrong, I'd love to and I love all of those books of what they do to get a child into reading but my focus on our niche was always going to be representing communities or children so that they could see themselves and I was very inspired by this decades-old concept of windows and mirrors and sliding glass doors as as literature for children, where children, when they pick up a book, are able to see themselves represented as the leader, as the protagonist, in that story to see themselves as a mirror and then for other kids to see their lifestyle, the differences in the culture whether they be ethnic or religious or race-based or linguistic differences if you will and that appears as a glass for other kids and you know you asked whether it was personal, you know for your audiences. I practice the Sikh faith or I present as a Sikh, which originates from the Punjab region in India. It's a global faith and I believe it's the fifth-largest religion. So I present as a Sikh person which means that I keep, you know, I decided to keep my facial hair and a turban on my head. So, it's very easy to distinguish me and you know in my childhood I got picked on and bullied quite a bit all the way through my teenage years as well as I experimented with why that was happening, the thought processes, why that was happening and it made sure that I identified with that outlook in life, that philosophy that faith per se as well. And when that happens, you know, there is children unknowingly and rarely sometimes knowingly as well will bully this this community of children that looks different, maybe talks a little differently, maybe has an immigrant background, or is socio-economically a little different. So, the personal story here was that I wanted to make sure a young boy who looked like me could be perceived in stories that are not about his faith or him looking different but just genuine stories about a boy growing up who just happens to look a little different and while there are plenty of stories out there that represent that, we were surprised when we started to collect these stories to wrap this thought process up. I think the motivation here, it started out as a passion project but then it very quickly got to a place where we were telling stories about children with absentee parents and children growing up with food stamps or food Insecurity.
Food insecurity. Yeah, right, right.
And children with speech impediments all the way from minor stuttering to speech apraxia that leads to the death of children and young adults as well in America. And so we quickly became this this thought process around our own publishing imprint, where we were telling children's stories based on lived authentic diverse stories not caring about their backgrounds and we made sure that we also represented different forms of artistic creativity or illustrations, different kinds of rhyming, different kinds of storytelling. We also made sure that all the books were leveled by both Lexile and Fountas and Pinnell and social-emotional learning standards as well.
So that whether they be used by parents to read to their children or they be read in a public library or a school library or back in a classroom or part of a summer reading list that these books were not just about a child seeing themselves and feeling confident in who they are inside their home but also giving a view to their friends outside so that they could understand this child's thought process and “see” them in air quotes I say again, that this child could be seen for just being a child and not if they looked a little different, spoke a little different or if their socio-economic background was a little different so that was the motivation.
Right! Yeah, mine being a shared experience and there's like 12 things that you've just said that I would love to speak to 1 of the most prosaic and stupid of them. I love the new Paw Prints brand even though I'm wildly allergic to cats I think that you've defined a really, a really persuasive brand in that. Also, you mentioned Harry Potter, you and I have never been in the same office together something for folks to know is that Magic is across the street from the Harry Potter Broadway show that's going on. But more importantly, I love that you've picked up on the shared experience and speaking to, you know bullying, and speaking to people just being their authentic selves. I wonder just because it's in the air. I wonder given your move toward titles and content and experiences that are tapping into social and emotional learning needs which are obviously evident given that you're tapping into just broadly experiences that are diverse. I wonder if you have any reflections that you're comfortable sharing relative to political headwinds. In various states, you're obviously a global brand, you're speaking to audiences that are in a variety of regions, and I just, I wonder if you have any reflections on that given your own personal experience being somebody who is evidently of a particular, demographic -If there's any thoughts you have on that as a CEO and a leader of a company that is again a global brand.
I would say Eric that I'm very passionate about getting more people to read more and I truly believe that reading can inspire oneself. But also there's a lot of scientific research that focuses on the fact that reading can really lead to calmness and empathy and reading in children can also lead to less anxiety and be more considerate of people. I was reading yesterday that there was some kind of association made that you know kids who read Harry Potter books displayed a more positive attitude towards people from disadvantaged backgrounds and you know it was listening to NPR actually this was an NPR.
NPR article from a few years back but, you know, I was also reading the day before yesterday, an article from the Book Trust in the UK that correlates a lot of information about book sales and talks about the different phenomenons in reading and you know they had this thought about our boys reading less because either of representation or social sensitivities or you know I was also reading about young transgender kids and the suicide rate about them because there's lack of representation in literature about that as well. You know there's a lot of research about you know, the leading protagonists in children's literature. Do they adequately represent the fabric of society that we truly live in? You know, given the state of this melting pot of of countries where we are and different communities can have different nuances and idiosyncrasies. Are there enough authentic lived experiences? So you know to to all of this I say, that let people and children who want to be transported, who may not have the means to get to a place where they want to be either financially or spiritually or professionally, let them find a place in a book where they can find growth professionally, personally. Let them find themselves. So, I was aghast when I saw the day before yesterday, the American Library Association had published a statistic that the attempts to ban a book have gone up exponentially in the last 24 months and you know things like these break my heart because I am who I am because of reading, because I found myself, I found friends, I found growth, and I found articulation, I found a way to communicate better.
And actually, that begs the question, and apologies for jumping in but for those who are listening I'm going a little bit off script but I would love to know Aman what your favorite book is currently.I'm certain a good reader always has a bunch of books going. So but I'd love to hear what your favorite book is and what you're currently engaged in.
You know I am an eclectic reader simply because of.
And you actually sound like you're moving toward your bookshelf right now to.
I am because I wanted to pick out a few books. And you know I'm fascinated by different aspects of life and different aspects of my personal growth. You know I identify as a Sikh so I love Sikh history. I love learning about the United States of America because I'm a first generation here. I am a fan of macroeconomic policy. So I love learning about our debt ceiling and you know China and the geopolitics of our macroeconomics.
I'm fascinated by learning about the debt ceiling. That's a sentence that's rarely uttered.
I mean it, you know It has become more common now than the previous generations but have never had to worry about it. But the more you learn the more engrossed, I become in it. I picked up baking a couple of years ago, so you know I'm learning about how to make a rosemary garlic bread right now. So I'll give you a few books that I am reading right now.
I predict you just picked a cookbook off of your shelf..
I actually did, it's called Bread Baking for Beginners. So it's kind of bread-baking-for-dummies version. You know I absolutely loved it. I am a big fan of David Christian so I just finished Origin Story by David Christian. I also have a habit of reading Dr. Seuss every few years because I'm surprised, at different perspectives and new things that I discover, so I've reread Oh, The Places You'll Go! as an homage to a mentor that passed away a couple of years ago, so I reread that.
I actually have that prominently on my own bookshelf. It was gifted to me when I graduated college. So, I too reread that every once in a while.
Beautiful. The next on my desk are 2 books. It's called The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia: Stories from the Court of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, the first Sikh emperor to build his legacy. The other one is China's Great Wall of Debt. These are the 2 on my desk right now and every morning when I meditate I tend to read a few passages from Marcus Aurelius his book called Meditations.
So, how does what you read and what you're passionate about, and how does that if you haven't spoken to it already? How how does that inform again your mission in your current role as as CEO of Baker & Taylor? Are there elements of the books that you're reading that animate you as you go forward in your day-to-day business life?
Every day I tend to reflect on my readings, I tend to bring them into my workplace and I'm very fortunate that I work in a business that allows me to impact lives of children and families through the venerable institution of libraries. You know we have tremendous relationships with a lot of libraries and the last estimate of my company that you know some 200 million Americans walk into libraries with who we do business and provide content and books too and every day, every decision that we take is based on how are we enhancing the life of this person that walks into a library looking for something. Can we give them that something that they want, that space that they want in that season of their life? Everything that we do is based on that.
And Aman I'd love to hear your reflections on where you hope things will go. What do you think the industry and I'm talking about sort of, the broadly speaking educational publishing ed-tech industry, where you think they need to go given our current climate, environment, and needs, we’re just emerging partially from a global pandemic. Students have been through a lot, kids have been through a lot. We all have been through a lot and given your thoughtfulness I'm imagining you think of all of that as collectively a forcing function on something that needs to happen to ensure that we're all okay, going forward. Where do you think things need to go next? what? What do you think others need to attend to that? You're thinking about a great deal.
So, Eric, given that my background is also a lot of ed tech and technology and I've operated at this intersection for a bit, given my background. I'll give you a few different viewpoints here. From, you know from an intersection of content and technology there needs to be a place where children and we talk about Edtech right now. So let's talk about K12, the kids who are in school.
They are able to come to a place where they can switch between reading for pleasure and reading to learn very easily, where they can feel that they can find content that does not distinguish between what they need to read to learn versus reading for pleasure. So If there's content and technology and an amalgamation of both that gives them the ability to pick out content that is making them grow in perspective thoughtfulness but also making them grow on a literary scale from a vocabulary acquisition standpoint, from an articulation standpoint, from comprehension standpoint, from being able to reflect and resonate with the author's mindset. I think it's time when 20 different kids in a classroom who may be coming from 20 different families and backgrounds are able to read different pieces of content but still be able to grow in their educational journey. Whether that is the cross-linkage between social sciences and the English language or English as a second language. But I think it's time that technology plays that pivotal role so that we are moving beyond just personalization or adaptive softwares, where children feel that they're able to find themselves in whatever season of life they may be in or whatever learner it is and that they're able to read content that appeals to them in that season of life, that gives them that space to explore themselves, different parts of their personalities, and gives them the ability to grow on a literary scale as well as I spoke to you and I think that is truly the future. We have really good software that can track your growth as an English language learner. We create content that is being produced. We now have a focus on EDI and accessibility as well. But the amalgamation of the 2 where a person can log in on a platform per se regardless of device, regardless you know, breaking through the shackles of availability of high-speed internet or devices or operating systems. Breaking through the shackles of different technology providers and bringing content together in an aggregated form that speaks to them. Content that is easily accessible. Content that they feel compelled to read because it makes them find themselves and content that grows with them as they grow and find themselves and become different people as their physical and mental age progresses as well. So I think we haven't reached that true state yet of content and technology operating in tandem and I believe that that's because a lot of the technology providers, their DNA is technology and a lot of content providers have been providing excellent content but have been lacking in providing technology that really speaks to readers all the way from parents reading to Pre-K children when they're reading, when they're learning to read, and then morphing into reading to learn and then all of this underlined by creating this passion, opening up this world where they can see themselves, find confidence, find their feet and become positive influences to the community that they will become a part of. And so I think that's the future, a lot of companies are being successful. But I think there are a lot of point-more-point solutions than wholesome solutions that are focusing on creating learners for life or readers for life. I think there are many bespoke solutions but very few organizations that are focused on creating this wholesome reading environment.
Well, that's wonderful and inspiring and I notice that we are at time and I want to be respectful to you as a busy CEO of a global company but the last question I will ask is, if you are going to be escorted off of this world, you know however, that would happen, aliens, I don't know shuffling off the mortal coil. What have you and you were going to leave advice to those who are going to follow you and what would be your advice to those who might fill the space that you had once occupied?
Um, I would say lead with empathy and always remember that this too shall pass. Nothing is as good as it seems and nothing is as bad as it seems. So it's in our lens to handle every situation with empathy. Do what you can today so you can sleep peacefully and I'm not saying I'm an optimist or a pessimist. All I'm seeing is in places of growth be grateful and in places of adversity be grateful. And that's what I'd like for them to to feel and lead whatever legacy I leave behind in terms of my professional or personal families. I would want them to lead with empathy and make sure that they are carrying on to never give up and to have a reality check that there's more to be done.
Well, that's very resonant, very soothing, and inspiring, both, and you mentioned optimism and pessimism. You know my mother always had a phrase that optimists are always happy and pessimists are always right and I love that you actually managed to create a throughline between those 2 and inspire others who are listening to this. So with that and I will let you go. I want to thank Amandeep Kochar, the CEO of Baker & Taylor for spending a significant portion of his day with us again. I'm Eric Stano, the Vice President at Magic Edtech, I hope you enjoyed today's conversation. Again, Aman, I very much appreciate the time you've spent and appreciate everyone who's listened. Thank you so much.