From working at Google to being a co-founder of Make A Difference (MAD) and then founding Guardians of Dreams, how and where did it all start from?
Looking back in hindsight, you try to connect the dots and make a story, but I think it’s largely serendipity. Going through experiences that leave a mark on you which finally influences your decisions, that is how it happened to me. Most of my high school and middle school was in Saudi Arabia. I was insulated from a lot of social issues until I was in India. The society that I grew up in was a largely “sanitised” environment and hence some of the issues of inequality didn’t strike me until I came back to India. In college, when a few of my friends visited a shelter home, and I hadn’t been to a children’s home until then, is when I realised this is a scenario that interests me. I wanted to find out more about why children landed up in children’s homes and what happens to them after that. That is when we started Make A Difference (MAD). A few of us came together and decided to formalise this. We realised that a lot of college students were waiting for an opportunity like this just like us. To be honest, none of this was formally planned, but then we ended up spending a lot of time with children in shelter homes.
Being in your late teens and twenties, you are in some way idealistic about how you like the world to be and this literally drove a lot of us to decide for ourselves. I realised that purposeful work is what brings a lot of joy to me. While I got out of college, I joined a corporate, but decided to quit that opportunity to join Make A Difference full time. And by then, MAD had already scaled to be in about nine cities and it really needed that kind of attention. Long story short, I decided to stay in the sector because I think there are some things that you see like the privilege circle that you are born into and what children at shelter homes didn’t have. I realised that the problem was very deep in India since a large part of our population are children and a significant percentage of that are children without families. Once I saw the problem, it was tough to not do something about it. And then when you realise that it is not an overnight job, that it might take a lifetime to try and make a change is when I decided to stay.
For our readers, can you specify the issues that Make A Difference and Guardians of Dreams are trying to solve?
When we started Make A Difference, the problem that we were trying to solve was inequality. We saw that children in shelter homes receive different kinds of inputs or had a different environment as opposed to when we were growing up. The foundational problem that we were trying to tackle was how to bridge the gap. When we looked around, the resources we had available were young ambitious students. We thought if they could spend time with children in these shelter homes, their aspirations would change and largely that’s what MAD has gotten done as well and it grew to be one of India’s largest volunteer networks with very ambitious and high performing college students taking on a social cause.
With Guardians of Dreams, what we are looking to do is, after having spent about a decade or more in the sector, we realised that there are a lot of things that are systemically structured in a manner that children’s homes will remain small, the care quality that they receive will be minimal unless some changes are brought. So Guardians of Dreams is trying to address the systemic challenges that the child care sector is facing in India. For example, we would be looking to bring more funds into the space, fundings that are focussed more on child outcomes and not just sponsoring a meal or sponsoring a school bag but something more that is visionary and child-centric. We are also looking to bring in more expertise. Children are taken care of in shelter homes but often by people who require training. Caregiving is not a profession like teaching is. So, we are trying to figure out a way to make that a profession in India. We also work with children’s homes to support the leadership and staff to help manage their day to day operations better. So, that’s how Guardians of Dreams is a little different but the area of work is very similar.
You’ve been in this non-profit sector for fifteen years now. Starting this organisation and sustaining in this space are two completely different things. What drove you towards this or how did you know that you have to stay to make a difference?
I think it is because I entered this space as a volunteer. While I was one of the co-founders of Make A Difference, all of us were contributing to the organisation of volunteer capacity and we often saw the limitation of that. You have a day job and then you have a maximum of four hours in the evening to try and plug in. When you’re looking at building teams, making partnerships and relationships, a lot of these conversations need to happen during the day time. We found that not having enough time in a day to work on this is building the opposition, which we thought is a limitation to a large degree. So, I thought it was necessary to quit my job and move fully into the non-profit sector in order to make sure that I was able to give time. And more than giving time, it was attention. I felt that the problem that we are dealing with is complex because I haven’t grown up in a shelter home. So there is a limitation about how much I can imagine the challenges a child goes through when they grow up in a shelter home. So it was important to take time, immerse ourselves in the environment, and understand the problem before we design solutions. So , I think it was largely the limitation of volunteering itself that we decided to jump into full-time. Now, having been in the space full-time, I also understand the challenges like how it feels working full time at the sector would be and the gap between how much we will earn. There is a limitation of people not understanding what it is that you do because the larger society understands a pay job in a corporate or a defined profession but not social entrepreneurship and it is really tough to define. There are many other challenges but understanding the complexity of the social issue that we are dealing with was what convinced me that spending time on weekends or spending a few hours in a day was not enough. I had to decide what I’m going to do purposefully in life and once that decision was made, it was pretty straightforward after that to see through whatever came our way.