Fostering Entrepreneurship from Class One

Akanksha founder Shaheen Mistri in Washington, D.C.

The word “entrepreneur” may conjure up visions of computer start-ups and public offerings; yet social entrepreneurs are similar. They create a new product or service which provides social profits for society as a whole
 - By Sebastian John

In 1989, Shaheen Mistri was an 18-year-old Indian American visiting Mumbai during the summer of her freshman year at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts. While many visitors shake their heads and put some money into a donation box after witnessing children living in poverty, Mistri decided to take things into her own hands. She left Tufts, enrolled at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, and endeavored to establish her own nonprofit organization for after-school education—all without knowing a bit of Hindi or Marathi.

“I first tried with government schools and totally failed,” Mistri tells SPAN. “They absolutely said no. I went to about 20 schools and got rejected on grounds that were sometimes frivolous. I think they were not comfortable with children from a different background at their place.” After finding a school that would give her space, Mistri developed her own curriculum in order to get children excited about learning. This curriculum emphasizes play, personal expression and social skills while slowly introducing math and English training.

This kind of innovative approach used by Mistri’s Akanksha organization is the essence of social entrepreneurship, a calling highlighted during the recent Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship in Washington, D.C. The word “entrepreneur” may conjure up visions of computer start-ups and public offerings; yet social entrepreneurs are similar. They create a new product or service which provides social profits for society as a whole.

As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointed out at the summit, “The realm of the entrepreneur exists beyond business. Entrepreneurs are tackling problems of poverty and inequity, like Shaheen Mistri, whose nonprofit provides after-school tutoring to children in slums in India.” Clinton learned about Mistri’s work during her visit to India in July 2009, when she spoke with volunteers from another organization Mistri founded in 2008, Teach For India. Clinton expressed then that she had the “highest respect and regard” for Teach For India and others working on education, and would like to see the sector become a “top priority” in the world.

Akanksha expanded from serving 15 children in one center to 4,000 children in more than 50 centers and six schools in Mumbai and Pune. Even with this success, Mistri was driven to do more. She wanted to see more people like herself starting small, effective organizations that could make a difference in children’s lives. “That was really the inspiration for Teach For India,” she says. “In some way it was sort of stepping back from grassroots, and helping create the leaders that will do the work, because that is where we are getting stuck.” Teach For India, which is modeled after the Teach For America program in the United States, recruits graduates and young professionals from India and abroad to teach underprivileged children. (See September/October 2008 SPAN article)

Mistri’s attendance at the Washington summit on April 26 and 27, on the recommendation of the U.S. Consulate in Mumbai, led to new connections and ideas. “I had interesting conversations with the delegates there about how entrepreneurship relates to scaling our efforts to reach many more children. After hearing Chris Hughes from Facebook, it also sparked thoughts of how to better leverage technology.”

Like any good entrepreneur, Mistri has plans to expand to other Indian cities. Meanwhile, she is busy expanding the opportunities for her kids in Mumbai, such as being able to meet one of their heroes, Sachin Tendulkar. Working with the Indian Premier League, Akanksha students were able to attend matches and even hand out awards. These opportunities, though exciting, are not just patches of glamor, but learning experiences. “For our kids, the exposure is so limited. So can you give them opportunities to interact with different kinds of people, get them to meet people from different backgrounds, get them to explore arts and music,” she says.

The spark of independence needed for entrepreneurship is found at the earliest level, Mistri points out. “When you are in primary school, are you being allowed to ask basic questions? Is your curiosity encouraged? These are things that in our Indian school system, especially for our low-income kids, are just not happening. You are just taught to rote-memorize, to learn without thinking, to be a little fearful in class. We are trying really hard to redefine education.... Making kids understand that making a mistake is a good thing—that you learn from making mistakes.” The proof of her approach is in the companies her graduates have worked for: Wipro, Westside and an NGO, Magic Bus.

For Mistri, Akanksha alumnus Seema Kamble counts among her biggest successes—it is not just an inspiring story of educational empowerment, it also brings together Mistri’s two projects. Kamble lives with her mother and two brothers in a less than one square meter room in Mariamma Nagar in Mumbai. Kamble was one of the 116 applicants chosen out of 4,000 as a Teach For India fellow. “She actually now has an opportunity to break out of poverty. She is going to leave Bombay and teach in Pune. She will be living on her own there,” Mistri says.

Kamble has written her own story of success on the Akanksha Web site. “I have learned so many things in Akanksha that it is difficult to list. I have learned to be courageous, confident, to believe in yourself and never give up. I remember a time when I used to be irregular at my Akanksha center and didi used to pull me out from my house. But now I tell other people to be regular at Akanksha, whether it’s students or volunteers.”

President Obama On Entrepreneurship

Now, I know some have asked—given all the security and political and social challenges we face, why a summit on entrepreneurship? The answer is simple.

Entrepreneurship—because you told us that this was an area where we can learn from each other; where America can share our experience as a society that empowers the inventor and the innovator; where men and women can take a chance on a dream—taking an idea that starts around a kitchen table or in a garage, and turning it into a new business and even new industries that can change the world.
Entrepreneurship—because throughout history, the market has been the most powerful force the world has ever known for creating opportunity and lifting people out of poverty....

And social entrepreneurship—because, as I learned as a community organizer in Chicago, real change comes from the bottom up, from the grassroots, starting with the dreams and passions of single individuals serving their communities.”

President Barack Obama at the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship in Washington, D.C.

—Courtesy SPAN

November 2010

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