21 July 2007

“I Felt I Had To Do Something”

“We’re building the next generation of entrepreneurs in India,” Anirban and Nidhi told me, just minutes after arriving at their offices in New Delhi. Quite a mission statement, and quite a vision to back it up.

Anirban and Nidhi are two thirds of Dhriiti’s leadership team, part of Ashoka and Pravah’s Change Looms program. Dhriiti is an organization aimed at combating entrepreneurship from “both sides,” as they explained. On the one hand, they do the education piece, helping to open the minds of young people to the idea of entrepreneurship at a younger age with education programs and training sessions that bring the students into a simulated world where they are guided through the process of both developing and operating their own enterprises.

At the same time, they are working to build real-time enterprises in agricultural areas of India by developing new, eco-friendly products and service that require little start-up yet offer fairly decent profit margins. So far they have supported 17 enterprises, bringing them together under a federation (similar to Fair Trade coffee co-ops) to sell in larger quantities, obtaining significant economies of scale.

With degrees in subjects from Rural Development to Business Administration, the founders of Dhriiti weren’t satisfied with the “traditional” job track in India. “I got a job with GE, which my family loved,” Nidhi told me. “The only problem was, I didn’t love it. The social sector isn’t the most family-friendly career in India,” she told me. “Mom and Dad want you to make money. Still, this has grown on them, and I think it will continue to change the more people do it. Lots of people our age are leaning this way now.”

Indeed, Anand Mishra of “Steps For Change” (also a Change Looms team) had the same inclination. Five years ago he came face-to-face with the education crisis of impoverished youth and street children (there are more than one million young people living on the streets in India). He started with theater and music projects but realized that the real need was in basic subjects like reading, writing and math. Now he oversees an army of teachers who reach out to the poorest shantytowns in New Delhi, attempting to give the children at least a bare minimum entry into the basics. So far it is working. Dozens of kids show up to these lessons each and every day, and his program is growing. They’re planning to be in a dozen communities by the end of the year.

The situation in India is unlike any other place I have ever been. There is a spirit, energy and life in the people that is inspiring and yet, at the same time, there is poverty and heartache like nothing I have ever seen. Thankfully, as seems to be true of the youth in every country I have visited, a sense of duty is brewing inside India’s youth. As the world’s largest democracy, there is no telling where this passion may lead. I, for one, am excited to find out.

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