Vivake Prasad: Develop Social Enterprises
Mid-Year Public Progress Report
Born and raised in New Jersey, Vivake Prasad recently graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a double major in Policy & Management and Political Science. As an Indicorps fellow, Vivake is fulfilling a long-held dream(s) to spend time in India doing service through working for two initiatives of the Grassroots Development Laboratory, the Bagar Employment Institute (BEI) and a mobile-based employment start-up.
Grassroots Development Laboratory (GDL) was founded in 2006 in Bagar, Rajasthan. Bagar is located in Jhunjhunu District, about 200 km west of Delhi, between the larger rural towns of Jhunjhunu and Chirawa. It is difficult to classify Bagar as a village or a small town, as it serves as a major market for nearby villages but has a population of less than 15,000 people. With a multitude of educational institutions, it also serves as a hub for students from villages throughout Jhunjhunu District. While people of all socio-economic make their homes in the area, the people of Bagar face many common challenges.
GDL, which was founded as a partnership between Indicorps and the Piramal Foundation, began its operations under the leadership of three Indicorps Fellows. GDL’s mission is to empower young people to create tangible change in rural India by providing an opportunity to engage with some of the country’s most pressing development challenges. GDL seeks to be a center of social innovation, incubating nationally scalable social enterprises focused on solutions to broad development challenges.
Despite the focus on scalability, all GDL projects are tailored to local cultural context, and follow the principle of participatory development. Through its history, GDL has engaged with the local community through projects focused on a diverse array of issues, including drinking water, women’s empowerment, leadership development, entrepreneurship, and employment. Currently three social enterprises are being incubated at GDL: Sarvajal, which sells clean drinking water for only 25 paise per liter; Source for Change, an all women’s rural BPO; and the Bagar Employment Institute, an employability training center.
The title of my Indicorps project is “Develop Entrepreneurial Solutions to Rural Poverty.” When I arrived in Bagar in September 2009, I was given the option of choosing which GDL enterprise I would like to work on in order to advance my project mandate. After spending the better part of a month getting to know community members, getting a taste of the different projects, and doing an assessment of the challenges faced by people in Bagar, I eventually chose to work with the Bagar Employment Institute (BEI).
BEI is an employability training center which provides local youth with training in computers, English, soft skills, and job hunting skills. I was drawn to work at BEI due to the high prevalence of unemployment and underemployment amongst local youth. Many of the local youth I had met early on seemed to have a sense of hopelessness about them. Bagar, with over 30 educational institutions, produces many students who are well educated (it is not uncommon to find post-graduates in the community). Despite youth being well educated on paper, however, the lack of critical skills in areas such as computers and English, as well as a lack of information on employment opportunities, keeps them from reaching their potentials.
Initially, Sahil Chaudry (my Indicorps project partner) and myself set out to make BEI a sustainable and scalable enterprise, filling gaps in its repertoire by adding an English class and making career counseling accessible daily to local youth. Realizing that a lack of job hunting skills and inadequate information of job opportunities was a key barrier to employment for local youth, I took a keen interest in job placement services, and eventually began working on placements full time.
Our attempts in placing BEI students in employment eventually led to the creation of a social enterprise dedicated to helping rural job seekers overcome a recruitment paradigm that emphasizes inaccessible internet portals and expensive HR consultancies. Our vision is to create a job placement system that operates within local constraints and builds on pre-existing behavior patterns to empower rural job-seekers. The project is called “Mobile Naukri”, as it utilizes SMS messaging to register job-seekers and keep them informed of job opportunities. I am now engaged full time with Sahil in developing and launching Mobile Naukri as a full-fledged venture in Jhunjhunu District.
Project Implementation Progress and Future Plans
For the first five months of my stay in Bagar, I focused on making BEI more sustainable and increasing its course offerings. In October, Sahil and I began to do nightly marketing events in local villages, mohallas, and dhaanis to inform people about the services offered at BEI and to get recruits for our classes. The marketing missions were extremely successful in facilitating relationships between us and different communities, as well as in bringing recruits to BEI. In November we started an English class which I taught for about two months until we found a local teacher. Through the English class we developed strong bonds with a new group of students, from whom I have learned a great deal. During the time of the English class, we also conducted several hours of one-on-one career counseling and interview training every day, with new students dropping in regularly to avail these services.
In the past BEI English classes have been dependent on Indicorps Fellows or temporary trainers recruited from cities, resulting in inconsistent course quality. One of the major successes of the English class was securing a good locally-based English trainer who will continue to teach at BEI for the long term. I have also partnered with a business professor from my alma mater to develop a course in business communications which I hope to pilot in the coming months.
In December I began to shift my focus to creating a sustainable model for placing BEI students. While continuing our daily career counseling, we selected our brightest and most job-ready students and began attempts to place them. This eventually resulted in a series of “mini-pilot” initiatives, in which we varied different factors to test our understanding of the job market and job seekers. We met with several companies to gauge their interest in such a system and succeeded in obtaining orders from them. We also attempted to place individuals with companies in the roles of computer operator, accounts assistant, retail salesman, waiter, and carpenter. We also experimented with the use of SMS messages as a means of communicating job openings with job seekers. While not all of our initiatives achieved success, these experiences have been instrumental in exposing us to challenges in the job placement field and helping us develop solutions to these challenges.
In this phase of my project, I became the student and BEI students became my teachers. Getting to know their struggles, dreams, and seeing their perseverance in the face of extremely difficult circumstances was eye-opening and insightful. Through the “mini-pilot” initiatives in job placement Sahil and I have gained invaluable understanding about the entry level job market, needs of employers, and needs of rural job seekers. The result of this learning was Mobile Naukri, a new social enterprise aimed at counseling and placing rural job seekers, using SMS messaging to disseminate information about job opportunities.
In the remaining five months of my fellowship, I hope to work with Sahil to build Mobile Naukri into a fully operational enterprise within Jhunjhunu District. This will include building the necessary technical systems, recruiting regional businesses as clients, and registering a large database of local job seekers. We will also need to find local employees to staff our office, train local employees to conduct career counseling, and continue to work hand in hand with community members to tailor Mobile Naukri to their needs and cultural context. While we do this, we must keep our eye on sustainability and recruit social entrepreneurs to replace us upon our departure.
I came to India for many reasons, but chief among them was a desire to create positive change in the lives of others. Only time will tell if and how much I have succeeded in that endeavor, but what is already apparent to me is that I have experienced extensive change within myself.
Examining problems and injustices in society through the lens of the Indicorps fellowship has had a mirroring effect, compelling me to look deeply inward. I am experiencing a much greater degree of self-awareness than I ever have before. This constant introspection, brought on by the challenges of the fellowship, has been a catalyst in helping me tackle my own weaknesses. Never before in my life have I had as much courage to sincerely and consistently work on improving myself .
I used to be an ideologue, arrogantly believing that there were right ways and wrong ways to approach social challenges. Today I am relieved and happy to say that I have become more open-minded and pragmatic. I now believe that we must welcome different ways to address our most pressing social challenges.
One of my biggest weaknesses has always been listening. Throughout my life, I have often been referred to as ziddi – bullheaded and stubborn. I always prioritized the dizzying array of thoughts crashing around my mind more than what others around me were saying. While I still struggle with this from time to time, the fellowship has forced me to become a better listener. My community has become my guide, and if I have achieved anything this year, it has happened only through listening to those around me.
Lately my friends and family have begun to ask where I see myself going next in life, and how my future plans have been changed by the fellowship. I’ve always been a planner, constantly calculating my next move. One of the most liberating changes I have experienced this year is becoming comfortable with uncertainty and learning to cherish the winding paths and detours on my path. Rather than constantly planning my next steps and living in the future, I’m slowly learning to savor the journey and live in the present. These days, when family and friends ask what I’m going to do next, I usually smile and respond that I don’t really know. It feels good. I feel free.
Vivake Prasad, August 2009 Indicorps Fellow