The New Great Eastern Textile Mills
A good education. Check.
Great job. Check.
One would imagine the story ends here. For Karla Kevin though, this was only a pit-stop before embarking on a journey down the road less-taken. Upon successfully finishing her Chartered Accountancy studies and exams, Karla decided to take up a 2 month volunteering opportunity with a local NGO (read: Atma) in Mumbai instead of indulging in a vacation of the sun, sea and sand variety. That this decision would change, influence and shape the course of her career was something even she had not imagined.
During her volunteership with Atma, Karla was placed with Atma Partner Masoom — an NGO that works to provide high quality night school education to the disadvantaged communities of Mumbai. The project required her to work on Masoom’s budgeting, investment planning and other finance related issues. She admits that this experience of being able to apply her skills in the social sector helped break a major stereotype - “I realised that volunteering is not always about teaching children.” Through her work she was able to strengthen Masoom’s financial systems. Strong organisational systems in turn allow NGOs such as Masoom to reach out to more beneficiaries.
This marriage between individual skill-sets and making a difference led to one of the many light bulb moments that Karla took back with her into the corporate world. “Even after I went back to working with Deloitte (having previously interned with them), my volunteering experience did not leave me. Here I was, working with a big brand in a reasonably well-paying job. And yet ironically, the numbers were just not adding up. On paper it all looked great but I often found myself wondering whether 30 years later I would have made a difference to anyone’s life? The thought that I was just another part of some giant machinery left me disillusioned.”
As fate would have had it, while Karla was struggling with the realization that the corporate sector was not her calling, Masoom was in need of a Finance Director. Taking up this job however was no walk in the park- “Although well meaning, the advice flying around at this point was far from encouraging. People thought that I was being far too impulsive in moving to the development sector. “ But as most dreamers do, Karla decided to go with her gut.
At 24, Karla heads Finance and Operations at Masoom. “I am lucky to be where I am, so early on in my career. It is extremely challenging and exciting not only to be so involved in the growth of an organisation but also to be one of the key decision makers. Here I have the opportunity not only to be a leader but a very happy one at that. At Masoom, Nikita (Founder & CEO) ensures that there is always room for everyone’s thoughts and opinions. This makes for a very open and learning environment . When a leader has the faith and confidence in you, you can’t help but believe in yourself too. This has been my biggest learning from her. I hope I too can encourage others to lead, the way she has done for Masoom’s second line leaders.”( Masoom Annual Day 2013)
Fearless and bright, second line leaders bring the kind of energy infusion that organisations need to take their vision forward. “Karla is an extremely hard-working and proactive individual. Having been a volunteer with Masoom earlier, she was able to dive into her job role with minimum hand-holding. Her openness and ability to learn quickly have allowed her to go above and beyond what is expected of her. In a very short time, I have been able to handover a substantial amount of responsibility thereby allowing me to focus better on my job as a CEO. She is a great asset to Masoom and I am very thankful to Atma for bringing her in. I feel very secure today knowing that Karla and Pallavi will help to take this organisation forward in the right direction.” - Nikta Ketkar, Founder & CEO Masoom
So was the move from a fancy high rise office to the quiet by-lane where Masoom sits, worth it?
“Absolutely.” says Karla. “When you know where you want to be, why put it off? Working in this sector has meant meeting people who are fun, smart and passionate all at once. No one is dragging their feet here. There is so much that inspires you here. So much to aspire to. “
Echoing Abbas she says of her future, ” I am here to stay until I am needed. I just hope I can encourage a few more people along the way to join this movement of hard-work, passion and fulfillment.”
Dear Friends of Atma:
In January 2012 I wrote to many of you and told you of our new and ambitious goal to reach 20 partners by the end of the 2012-13 fiscal year. It is now April 1st, and we did it! (No kidding). 20 inspiring education NGOs in Mumbai.
Statistics about education in India tell a damning story:
Luckily, statistics like these have motivated the amazing founders of our NGO partners to work whole-heartedly to find solutions to the challenges of quality education and actually provide quality education in Mumbai.
Big problems need big solutions, but we shouldn’t have to go it alone. That’s why Atma is working in these NGOs, because we know many solutions together will create the changes India needs in education.
Just like our partners Atma could not do it alone. It is individuals like you who make our work possible, whether through donations,connections, or moral support. The Atma International Chapters – in Netherlands, Australia, Canada, and Hong Kong are our ever present support and inspiration. It would be literally impossible for us to do our work without them.
A big round of applause to the whole Atma team- staff and volunteers, who whether, manning the phones and filing paper work, running workshops, writing manuals or traipsing through the furthest forgotten corners of our (not always) fair city have really made achieving this goal possible. Each and everyone of them should be incredibly proud of their accomplishments and the personal milestones they have achieved on the way.
Finally, we would like to acknowledge Atma’s 20 partners for their perseverance and willingness to grow their organisations to reach more children lacking the quality education they dream of. Their commitment and passion motivates us to push ourselves a little more each day.
Atma is named Atma (soul in Hindi) because it is these many people in their different capacities that will really create the change we need – united in our efforts. Thank you to every one who has continued to support Atma, and congratulations to all of our NGO partners!
Mary Ellen Matsui
This year Atma was a part of the Dasra Social Impact program. Dasra Social-Impact is an executive education program, which provides successful non profits and social businesses with transformational skills necessary to build sustainable and scalable organizations to accelerate their impact. Atma Director Mary Ellen Matsui writes about her experience of participating in this program.
“There are so many things that I can say about DSI, what we did and learnt and who we met, but I want to focus on how the whole experience made me feel.
Through this process I realised several factors contributed to this change. The most important one is that the Dasra team is extremely supportive. The fact that they want us to be successful comes through all of their interactions with the participants. It is easier to believe in yourself when they believe in you.
As part of the program I had the opportunity to meet and connect with NGO leaders from across the sector. Irrespective of whether they were older &wiser or younger & more energetic there was something to learn from each of them. It was comforting to know that so many of us are going through similar trials and struggles; that I am not alone in making mistakes. I feel more confident today because not only were there a lot of learnings from DSI but that I was also able to action the big ones and see real positive results.
Real results and the struggle to obtain them is humbling to say the least. Yes, working on our Pitches and the PowerPoints was difficult- definitely a stretch for those of us who are accustomed to focusing on operations and excelling in our respective domains of work. Achieving real results on the ground however is the real challenge. I was inspired to learn about the fantastic work my classmates do and the social change they achieve.
Dasra’s belief in the work that we all do was the game-changer. Quoting my classmate Jo Chopra (Latika Roy Foundation), ‘Nothing can be more motivating than knowing that we really can do it, that we really can change the world’.
DSI wasn’t all warm and fuzzy. It was hard work. We all got a lot of tough feedback on how too be better at achieving more, creating more impact, changing the world faster. The fact that it is all up to us now (hopefully with a little help from Dasra) to really do it, is the most humbling part of it all.”
(Photo Credits-Jo McGowan Chopra)
“The first follower transforms a lone nut into a leader”-Derek Sivers, Founder MuckWork and TED speaker
A leader is only a leader if he has a follower. Derek Sivers was right on the money when he said that we can’t all be leaders- “If you want to start a movement, have the courage to follow and show others how to follow”. Born out of the idea to celebrate first followers, was this blog series on second line leadership from our growing cohort of Atma Partner organisations.
Quiet and unassuming Abbas Dadla- Program Manager at Avanti Fellows sits across the table waiting for the ‘interview’ to begin. Avanti is a social enterprise that provides low-income high-school students a world-class science and mathematics education, thus preparing them for college admission. All of 22, Abbas leads the Avanti Chapter in Mumbai.
Abbas had his first tryst with Avanti as a Volunteer while still in engineering college. During this time he grew from being a mentor for a group of fellows to building & leading the entire student mentor team in IIT Bombay. “This experience of working with Avanti previously made taking up a full time position upon graduation seem only natural.I already had an in-depth understanding of the organisation and where it was headed.”
But what makes an engineer from one of the best colleges in the country pick a social enterprise over a career in the corporate sector?
“To someone who hasn’t experienced this line of work, it may seem like I have given up on brighter prospects. But I perceive it as an opportunity- an opportunity to learn, to face challenges and overcome them.I have learnt tremendously from every role that I have played at Avanti. Whether it was recruiting 20 student mentors with the end of the semester around the corner; or interviewing & selecting 25 fellows from 400 applicants; or managing operations in Mumbai- each role has presented me with unique challenges that I learnt to overcome on the job. “
It is exactly this kind of hunger and adaptability that leaders of young organisations look for in their second line leaders. Co-founder of Avanti, Krishna Ramkumar says, “Passionate and capable second line leaders are crucial for successful implementation of a business plan. Most importantly, an organisation cannot scale impact without a large base of extremely committed second line leaders.
The most remarkable thing about Abbas is his drive & ability to get things done and lead people at such a young age. Right from the beginning, he has pushed us to demonstrate impact and be increasingly accountable for our work.”
What does strong support from the second line leader really mean to the first line leaders? To quote from an article on NASSCOM’s blog, ‘While second line leaders are like the magic glue that plays a critical role during the tough late early stage of a company, they become your tigers who expand your territories during the company’s scale up phase. They understand the company, its vision, its people, its constraints above all what is it that as a company we are trying to do.’
Of Abbas in particular, Krishna says, “He has a great understanding of the ‘big picture’. This coupled with his thorough understanding of Avanti Fellows, allowed me to give him a free rein in managing our daily operations. As a result I had more time to focus primarily on organisational strategy, financing, recruiting and expansion.”
This solid relationship between the leadership and the first follower is evident from their mutual admiration. “Krishna and Akshay have founded an incredible organisation. Not just in terms of the work we do but also the organisational culture. It is a place where I have the liberty to express my opinions and have constructive arguments with my leaders. This kind of an environment allows us to take ownership of our work. So while we may be responsible for our failures, the triumphs are also ours to own and cherish.”
When asked about his plans for the future Abbas says, “I will only be with Avanti so long as it needs me and the skills that I have to offer. The ability to understand this subtle difference between attachment and detachment is something I have learnt from Krishna and Akshay. You do not stay around because you need the organisation but because the organisation needs you. “
So what comes after Avanti? ” Who knows? Once we are done here, maybe we can go on to try and solve the next problem?”, he adds with a hopeful smile.Till date, Avanti Fellows has supported 400 students across 7 cities to prepare for college entrance exams in India. Avanti is a winner of the Stanford Social Enterprise Challenge 2010, and a recipient of the Echoing Green and Draper Richards Kaplan Fellowships 2012. Avanti Fellows became an Atma Partner in January 2012.
“Last week I facilitated a workshop for one of our Partner Organisations where we were discussing organisational values. While one person talked about the value of ‘Failure’, another person brought up ‘Excellence’.I asked the group how it is possible to list both “failure” and “excellence” as organisational values; we all laughed.
Sure the irony is funny, but it is funnier because it is true. You cannot have excellence without failure. Failure has become a big buzz word over the last few years in non-profits and social enterprise. (In our blog a few weeks ago we talked about the Failure Report issued by Engineers Without Borders.) But why is talking about failure important? How is Failure related to excellence? How is failure related to our work at Atma?
In my work at Atma I work with many different NGO founders. I have the opportunity to talk to them about what’s going well in their organisations and what isn’t. What’s working and what isn’t. In fact, that is part of how we choose the NGOs we work with. The NGOs that are best able to articulate what they’re bad at, or where they need help, are the ones we’re really inclined to partner. It means not only will we be useful to them BUT that they know they need help, that they are not perfect but striving for excellence.
Atma cannot help bring about strong organisational development unless NGOs and the people behind them are willing to change.
So where does failure find a place in this discussion?
Talking about failure is really important. We all fail at some point. In the non-profit sector where we don’t have the traditional market indicators (sales, revenue etc.) to tell us if we’re doing a good job, talking about failure and knowing how and when you fail is especially important. Many non-profits and foundations don’t have strong tools for knowing if they are failing or succeeding. Years of work is based on anecdotal evidence that may or may not prove the effectiveness of an intervention. We all need to talk about how we fail and how we identify our failures. Failure is ok, just do it quickly, learn from it and try again.
How is Failure related to Excellence?
We’ve all heard the phrase “practice makes perfect”. It is common knowledge that any Olympian or a distinguished pianist has had hours and hours of practice ahead of a big game or performance. We know they had to stick to it for hours, days and years, to get it right; to become excellent. What is practice if not failing time and again until you get it right and become excellent?
The NGOs we work with expect their students to study hard and get problems wrong before they are able to master a concept. But as people running organisations do we give ourselves the same space to practice, to fail and eventually excel?
I’ve been there with our NGO leaders on failure days, when nothing seems to be going right. They call up panicked, sometimes close to tears, these are tough days. But knowing that we all face the same challenges, that many before have had the same problems helps them and me to overcome the hardest of times.
Persevering in the face of failure, persisting despite the odds, reworking, re-doing, editing (sometimes just trashing) our work is what will bring us to the place of excellence.”
Everyone has the right to dream. The right to aspire for a better life and the right to work towards it. Every child has the right to high quality education. Founded on this belief, Atma, partners with organisations that enable students fight against the odds. These organisations are working to give them an opportunity to not just dream, but dream big.
“In August 2012 I graduated with a dual specialization in organizational and personnel psychology. Not entirely sure about committing to a life in the corporate sector I decided to travel to India for a little while.
On my trip to India however I did not want to see the sun, sea and beach alone; I also wanted to do something more meaningful. I wanted to taste the local life and I wanted to contribute to that life. After extensive research I applied to Atma’s Volunteer Program. Working in a non-profit organization as a volunteer gave me a certain sense of satisfaction. A feeling that I had not experienced yet in other jobs, internships or extracurricular activities. I realised that NGOs give you the opportunity to nurture your professional ambitions whilst also doing meaningful work. Deadlines take on a whole new meaning when the work you do has the power to change someone’s life.
As an Atma Volunteer I was placed with one of their Partner Organisations- Avanti Fellows. Avanti is an NGO that selects, trains and mentors some of India’s brightest students from disadvantaged communities to pursue higher education. I was very inspired by the people at Avanti Fellows because they are extremely motivated and passionate. They work 24/7, straight from the heart. Their work is a mission. During my Volunteership I put together HR policies, an employee handbook and a movie for Avanti Fellows.
One of my favourite memories is when due to some unforeseen circumstances I had to make a spontaneous trip to the Avanti Fellows Chapter in Pondicherry to shoot a short film. The suddenness of the trip meant that I was completely unprepared. It was only when I reached Pondicherry did I realise that I had nothing to worry about. My colleague and her family were extremely warm hosts during my entire stay.
Our visits to the schools in Pondicherry where Avanti Fellows worked were overwhelming to say the least. My short four day trip turned out to be a very intense experience. One that I shared with my wonderful colleague. I remember being extremely emotional when she dropped me off to the bus that was to bring me back to Mumbai. Here was a woman I had never met before, but she had opened up her life to me- a complete stranger. This was just one of the many moments when I felt privileged to be part of this world.
My experience at Atma helped me gain new perspectives into my own life. I discovered what is important to me and what I truly enjoy. The Atma team is a diverse group of people, many of whom have switched over from the corporate sector. It helped me realise that it would be possible to have a highly satisfying career in the development sector in my home country too. I am so thankful to Atma for this experience. If an opportunity like this were to ever present itself I would take it up in a heartbeat!”
(Since her Volunteership with Atma , Bo has joined a non-profit organisation in the Netherlands that works for press freedom all over the world.)
Photo Credit: TEDx Masala
Are obtaining degrees the only point of education? What does it mean to live your life in a 10x10sq. ft room in Asia’s largest slum? What does it feel like to explore your sexuality in a country where sex is a taboo? What if NGOs were to admit their failures and publish failure reports?
With an interesting line up of speakers, last week’s TedxMasala conference offered a lot of food for thought to hungry minds. Caught in the rut of routine, people need a little something different to think about every so often. Something to question everything we think we know. Something to inspire us to aspire for more.
Atma staff and volunteers had a great time attending this event organised by Bombay Connect. Atma’s top picks from the evening:
Degrees do not make a man, life does :Founded in 2010, Swaraj University is a first of its kind education programme that focuses on self-designed learning. An engaging orator, Rahul Hasija an ex-student from Swaraj talked about pursuing education outside the walls of a school or college. “Let’s step outside our circles of comfort. Learning can happen simply through living.” His earnest pleas left the audience with plenty to ponder about.
Of unheard dreams: Dharavi is one of the largest slums in Asia. Enough and more has been said about the abysmal living conditions, its so called “immigrant” communities, etc. A lot has been said about its flourishing leather and recycling industries among many others. Little however has been said about their dreams, hopes and desires in the face of their realities. Through a short dramatic piece, a group of 10 year old girls from Reality Gives shared the realities of everyday living for young women in the slums and also their vision of a better world. Heart warming to say the least, the play was a rare opportunity to see the world through the eyes of these young girls.
Camp stoves for a better life: There are problems and then there are problems. Some of us pray for phones with more power in their batteries. Over 400 million of our fellow countrymen meanwhile have no access to power of any kind. Living in a parody called India, we understand disparity like no other. Gaurav Gupta (Regional Director, Dalberg) talked about using disparity to our advantage. “Technology that we want is the technology that the poor need.” Biolite produces a stove is that is used by campers to meet their cooking needs. If this eco-friendly stove were to be used by poor communities across the globe it would significantly reduce the burden of acquiring expensive, non-renewable fuel. By better using existing technology we can try to solve the problems of poverty.
Gay but not Proud : Talking about sex and sexuality makes India uncomfortable. People prefer to press the mute button on these discussions. Harish Iyer belongs to a growing number of voices that want to be heard above the din of this silence. A victim of sexual abuse, he became a familiar face after he shared his story on Aamir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate. Through honesty and humour he talks about sensitive issues such as sexual abuse and sexual identity, with much ease. A gay man himself, he said something very simple but remarkable- “I am gay, but not Proud. Just like heterosexuals don’t feel the need to be proud of being straight.”
Failure for Good: Sometimes development organisations need to acknowledge failures to make real change. David Damberger of Engineers without Borders talked about their failures when trying to provide solutions to problems faced in developing countries. Through their annually published “Failure Report” Engineers without Borders is able to make an honest assessment of their work and learn from their mistakes.
With just the right amount of “masala”, conferences like TEDXMasala give our minds the much needed kick from time to time.