Achievements

‘What they teach us in management school helps us as social entrepreneurs’

How a non-profit founded by two MBA classmates is making the world a better place and helping conscientious individuals turn their societal concerns into action

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Saanchi M, an MBA from the Apeejay School of Management, co-founded Turn Your Concern Into Action, a not-for-profit organisation along with Mohit Raj, in 2011. In close to a decade, their non-profit, which began from a three-room unit with 100 out-of-school children has diversified to champion causes such as education, livelihood, Covid-relief and prisons reformation.  In an interview, Saanchi M, CEO and co-founder, TYCIA Foundation, recounts the momentous journey, the life lessons they learnt at ASM and how their management education came in handy in their evolution as social entrepreneurs of repute.  Edited excerpts:

First, tell us about the nomenclature of the TYCIA Foundation.  

Mohit and I were classmates at the Apeejay School of Management, Dwarka, in the batch of 2009-11. When we were still studying at Apeejay we kept on thinking: can we do something beyond just attending classes? How can we keep ourselves positively engaged? As it happened, we were pretty close to the community of people who resided near the college. We used to see these kids playing on the streets, who seemed very energetic and talented but were not enrolled in school. Although this concern remained with us, somehow we were not able to think of ways of  turning it into action. Then, while reading a book we turned a few pages and came across this line: ‘Turn your concern into action.’ We were at that juncture in life, where we wanted a guideline on what we wanted to do. That set us thinking: Why don’t we start to think positively about what we really want to do? That’s how we named our organisation Turn Your Concern Into Action (Tycia Foundation), because we believe people have concerns but sometimes they are constrained by multiple factors to turn it into action. So if this could motivate us, it could also motivate others: That’s the genesis of our nomenclature.

How did you reach out to the community around your management school?

Mohit and I had informally begun working for this organisation in 2010 while still in college. We also mobilised our college friends, but we formally registered the organisation in 2011. At first, we just wanted to work with children. That once we graduate, we should be able to support the education of at least one child. That’s what we were motivating our fellow classmates and friends to do. By 2011, we had a number of friends who promised to take care of an individual student’s education once they got placed.  We had no plans to formally register the organisation. But once we began, somebody informed us that we could legally not even gather them under one roof if we were not formally registered because it was against child protection laws.

What were the other challenges you faced while working with out-of-school children?
We faced resistance from certain to take these students because they were between the ages of 9 and 11 but they had never set foot inside a school. Certain schools said they were short on capacity to accommodate more students and certain others said these kids will not fit into their culture. So that’s when we thought of starting a special school for them. We began running this small school with three rooms and a courtyard in Palam Village with 50 children. We had a school bus and Mohit and I designed the uniform. We also got starter kits with water bottles and some stationery. For the initial few months, Mohit and I were also teaching in that school. From cleaning to teaching we did everything.

How did you diversify from education into areas such as livelihoods, prison reforms and gender justice?

Our journey began with education. For three years we were working with 100 out-of-school children in Delhi around Dwarka in Pochanpur, Bagdola and Palam villages.  Once these 100 children joined the mainstream, Mohit and I did a number of fellowships to gain new skills. During one of the fellowships, we got introduced to another area in Madhya Pradesh, a few hours away from Khandwa near the Satpura forest range. We got an opportunity to work with a tribe called Korku that was nearing extinction. When we visited this area we thought we needed to work on livelihood initiatives since people didn’t have food on their plate. There was abject poverty because they were out of work. To start addressing this, we began to work with them on a collective farming model. Some of these Korku farmers had land, others had other storage resources and some others had water. So we formed the collective and said, why don’t we share these resources and we will try and link whatever you do to grow. We also trained them on which seeds to use and helped them sell their produce. While getting involved in onion farming, we realised there was a need to focus on education as well, because we saw a lot of children who were enrolled, but never went to school. The startling part was that when we visited one of the classrooms, we noticed just two out of 25 students were girls. So, we started to work with 1000 out-of-school children in 2016.  Till now we have gone to 60 villages, and 4000 children in Madhya Pradesh in all. Now we are also running a campaign for girls’ education called ‘1000 and you’ to support 1000 Korku girls in Khandwa district, in which 1000 young leaders support the education of a girl. We want to back this cause because out of these 4000 students we worked with, these girls were the most vulnerable and on the verge of dropout, probably more so because of Covid-19. During the pandemic, they have so much burden of household chores and other responsibilities. We felt that if they were left unsupported, they might drop out.  
Then in 2016, DG Tihar Sudhir Yadav invited us to work in the all-male jail which housed 18-21 year inmates. We had no experience of working inside prison, but we had experience of working around educational issues. We did some need-assessment to figure what the most pressing needs inside the prison and accordingly designed the intervention programme within. We told him we would be more than happy to set up a school inside prison and also operationalise it. In the needs-assessment, we highlighted the need for mental health support and a routine to involve inmates in productive activities. So, we started the Better Life Prison School, which still exists in Tihar.

Did the management principles that you learnt at ASM help you in the line of your work?

Sure, the entire experience that we gained at Apeejay is still helping us. When Mohit and I first began, we worked on a small scale. We did not have large teams but all the things that we learned: from how to manage finance, how to plan your future, how to build organisation culture, how to recruit people, all of what we learnt from our MBA course, we are still applying. And the most important lessons we learnt were from our faculty. One key piece of advice which helped us sustain ourselves in all the challenging situations emerged from a discussion with Etinder Sir. When we were young, we were not sure whether we could draw a salary from the organisation we are working for. We thought since it was an NGO, would we feel supported? Or would we have to make it a side gig? Sir’s advice was that we must keep some salary for ourselves, since it would keep us motivated. Also, when one can sustain one’s expenses all your energies can fully go into the work one is doing. Also, we did our final research project in social entrepreneurship. We were studying business administration, but we wanted to do projects on social entrepreneurship. Being allowed to do that was very encouraging from our teachers at ASM.

Talking of social entrepreneurship, what advice would you have for somebody to launch a non-profit and make it successful in a decade?

My first advice will be believing in your passion and then taking big leaps without becoming risk-averse. Mohit is someone who really believes in risk taking, bracing failures and learning from them to scale up operations. At first, we did not really believe in scaling up, we were happy working with just a hundred students, but there came a point where we had to take a lot of risk and it paid off. The third tip could be on collaboration and networking. We are still in touch with our friends at Apeejay who supported us and continue to support us. The power of collaboration can never be undermined.

What is your model of fund-raising?

We’ve started with individual fundraising models. We believed that our work was very small in scale and people who were close to us, were the first ones to believe in our work. It was very personal and individuals had put in their personal trust in us. It started from that. Securing the first institutional funding was the toughest because we were a small organisation. But once we got it, institutional funding helped open new doors for us.  We gained confidence that we can do big projects like working with thousands of children in a challenging geography.   

Which are the challenges you encountered during the lockdown necessitated by Covid and how did you overcome them?

One of the biggest challenges was that we were racing against time. I mean, Mohit had contributed in the Nepal earthquake and for flood relief, but as such as an organisation we did not have extensive experience when it came to disaster management or how to go about a pandemic. So we had to think on our feet. All of us were going through a psychological struggle because everybody was out in the field when our families and friends were suffering. We were actually on the frontline and we did not get time to sit down and speak to someone and seek support.  Another big challenge was funding for our core programmes like prison reformation, education and livelihood. The funding dried up for our core programmes and everything was diverted to Covid-relief for about a year or so because the focus of our funders changed.

How did you overcome these challenges?

As soon as everything became manageable around July or so, the first thing we did was take a mandatory break. Everybody took a week’s break or more if they wanted to spend time with their family, and reflect on what happened during the pandemic.  Plus, we did provide a cushion in terms of emotional support to each other because we were all in it together. Also, we requested our mental health expert friends to help us connect with counsellors who could provide counselling to some of our team members who were feeling overwhelmed with what they saw in the field.

As far as our core programmes are concerned they continued during Covid and I can say with pride that we earned a lot of confidence from funders that we can deliver results. So, what we’ve started to do is to build a conversation with them that from core Covid-relief we need to shift focus towards education and livelihood in the communities in which we have served.

A lot of kids who were going to school would have stopped doing so in the pandemic.  How did you reach out to the demography that didn’t have the technology to access online education?

Yes, we were working in geographies such as the Satpura forest in which technology penetration is still a question. We had to come up with different learning modalities like play, conducting sessions in small groups, especially in the villages where Covid wasn’t such a big thing. Plus, in the prison too, where we could not hold virtual sessions, we had to think on our feet. So, we came up with podcasts and some other stuff, which retained our engagement with these communities.

Conventionally management graduates go on to join corporate houses after an MBA. What’s your advice to those who want to follow your unconventional trajectory? 

Now this segment is becoming pretty professional, it’s not how people envision it as.  A lot of international NGOs have come in that offer some kind of perks, not monetarily, but otherwise good offers. So there are ample opportunities. We started young but generally, in India, MBAs are not received well at first. I mean if you really want to compete, there would be some struggle, but you can definitely start with some internships, and you can build on some experience and then go in for a full time role in the development organisation.

Tell us about your Vaccine Express and Eeena Meena Teeka projects.

Yes we did a lot of work around oxygen in the second wave. We were out supplying oxygen to people who could not get beds in hospitals. We were supplying concentrators and Vaccine Express doctors were visiting rural areas. In the first wave, too, we transported a lot of people back to their homes. We hired a chartered plane, we sent a lot of buses, and hired taxis to send people back home. We also started “Eena Meena Teeka”, a nationwide vaccination awareness campaign in order to promote Covid-appropriate behaviour and clear out community-specific concerns about Covid vaccination. It has two mascots Eeena (a school-going adolescent girl studying science) and Meena, her grandmother, a Sarpanch. The community-specific vaccine-related concerns were addressed through wall arts in rural and tribal areas using simplified dialogue exchange between EENA and MEENA to resolve community concerns around TEEKA (vaccination) using Eena’s scientific temperament.

Aasheesh Sharma is a seasoned journalist with an experience of more than 25 years spread over newspapers, news agencies, magazines and television. He has worked in leadership positions in media groups such as Hindustan Times, India Today, Times of India, NDTV, UNI and IANS. He is a published author and his essay on the longest train journey in India was included in an anthology of writings on the railways, brought out by Rupa Publications. As the Editor of Apeejay Newsroom, he is responsible for coverage of the latest news and developments in the Apeejay institutions. He can be reached at [email protected]

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