The Woman who transformed kids’ education in India

Shaheen Mistri - Founder of Teach for India

Twenty19.com welcomes Shaheen Mistri, The founder of Teach For India and also the Akanksha Foundation. She had taken upon herself and Teach For India to bridge India’s education disparity. Having lived in here only after college, she has done more for the country than many countrymen. Armed with her strong convictions and love for kids, she challenged herself to change the state of kids’ education and has emerged victorious. We salute her for her undying efforts and bring to you a first hand and truly inspiring conversation delving deep into the life of this modern day angel.

Read on to see why she commands the title of a The Woman who transformed kids’ education in India.

Your story is inspiring, stories you’ve shared, even more. We welcome you with a bow on Twenty19.com and Thank you so much for this opportunity. Customary, we would want our readers to know more about your childhood, schooling, family, alma mater and well anecdotes from those days?

Shaheen: All throughout my childhood I have been abroad. I went to ten different schools growing up as my father, who was with Citibank, kept getting transferred to those. One of the essential points was to be adaptable. I would make new friends, learn about a place, but I didn’t really have childhood friends growing up as we kept moving. One of the defining parts about me was working with animals, so we always had many pets at home and I took up work with stray animals which still continues to be close to my heart.

One of the essential points was to be adaptable.

About me as a kid, I think I was very shy and a decent student who had to work really hard to do well. There’s nothing much beyond that except my love for kids and animals, my two main things. I spent many summer vacations working with kids, starting off at the age of 12.

For my graduation, I started off at the Tufts University in the US and then after a year I moved back to India, joining Xavier’s and graduating from there. Post that, I did my Masters in Education from the Manchester University in the UK.

A very fundamental and earthly revelation we seek. How deep was the impact in the Mumbai slums that made you start a nationwide movement? What went through an 18 year old’s mind? Did family, career, education and life’s other hassles not cross your mind… what did you tell yourself?

Shaheen: I want to start off by saying that my childhood was very privileged, in fact my high school in the US was a very elite, private, small, girls’ school where the girls just had absolutely everything, cars at 16 years of age, huge houses, everything basically. And I would come to India for the holidays and see kids on the streets and slums, and that contrast for me was very hard to understand, bothering me from a very young age. This was a key driver, leading me to say, “What am I doing in America?” I haven’t understood India, never stayed here, but there was so much to be done.

Different people take decisions in different ways. I have always been driven by my gut and less by thinking rationally, this is true for major decisions I have taken. A large part of moving back to India was exactly that. The feeling that I got when I was here on one trip was “this is what I should do.” It wasn’t very rational, like-let me evaluate all the options, what’s going to happen to my career? I never had those thoughts. It just felt like the very right, next thing to do and I acted on that instinct. What was behind that feeling? Since I had seen much privilege, I felt I could give back.

I have always been driven by my gut and less by thinking rationally

The other aspect was that I knew I loved working with kids. You use the word selfless, but I’m not sure how selfless it was since the greatest joy that I got was, when I was working with children and I knew that would give me a lot of happiness. So there was a mixed bag of feelings – I could do this, I am really curious about India and my role there because I don’t know the place and also I was a little rebellious so when people would say that it was a stupid idea or I should finish college in America, the more I would feel like “I want to do this.”

Had my background been different, or had I been from India, I only hope that I could have still done this, because I had a strong conviction. It was easier given the background and exposure I had, so the contrast was more for me. Staying in India makes you, I feel, a bit apathetic since you’ve always seen the problem around you, it bothers you a bit less. And after 20 years of stay here, I have to admit, it takes a conscious effort to let it bother me the way it used to.

Lastly, my parents never really thought it was a good idea, but they never said no directly to me. They weren’t angry, but they felt there was more sense to finish college first, but when they saw my conviction, they were supportive of it.

You took up Sociology at Bombay University, Why that? … And did you ever feel like changing fields or discontinuing? What kept you going, on that passion to widen the movement, to involve more fellows?

Shaheen: I wanted to graduate in education, but there was no major in education but Sociology had it as a subject. I wanted to learn about Society, problems in development and education, so it was the closest thing.

the conviction, the gut feeling and motivation to do something kept me going on

Academically it was a terrible decision. I mean the simulation based learning that you get in colleges in US compared with a lecture based, rote based education here, and it was a big compromise, even at Xavier’s. I remember my Political Science professor used to repeat every line of the text book three times and that was our course.

But you know for me there was much more than just text book learning, it was the idea of India and its communities and what I wanted to do for it. But again the conviction, the gut feeling and motivation to do something kept me going on.

As you’ve said, you can never contribute as much as you will gain back by giving. I would agree, yet the sense of livelihood eludes many to enter this field… Consider an average middle class student with responsibilities, could he have pulled off what you did. What would you say to this?

Shaheen: My answer would be definitely YES! I think it’s harder for sure but you have to believe that you have the conviction to do something in life and can do it irrespective of your background. This I think is a premise of my life and Teach for India is a testament to that.

they are making choices for everyone in their lives, standing up against family, society and dealing with financial pressures to do something they believe in…

Ninety-odd percent of Teach For India fellows are from middle class backgrounds and they are making choices for everyone in their lives, standing up against family, society and dealing with financial pressures to do something they believe in. I was one of few who had a safety net, whereas, if you look at most people who have done something significant in their lives, it has been incredibly hard for them.

How do organizations like Teach for India or Akanksha function internally; from staff requirements to funding, to legal hassles to resources? Is there always an influx of donations and store of savings to keep them afloat? How difficult is it to maintain those numbers on a day to day basis?

Shaheen: We think NGOs are different from other big companies, but they’re really not! What makes an NGO successful like any company is really thinking through the internal processes and systems, the people that you hire and learning how to build this great organization and its mission. And that’s something I realized in the last 20 years.

If you look at so many well meaning organizations that started over time, but why do few survive over time, I really think it comes down to the internal functioning and how much effort you put on it. If I choose the one thing that has been my greatest learning, it’s really all about people; you just cannot compromise on the people you bring in to your organization.

They need to be highly skilled too and believe in excellence apart from having passion and dedication.

These drove some of our actions at Akanksha, most definitely this learning was taken for Teach for India. I know we make our lives a lot more difficult by having this view, but we believe every single person we bring in to the organization at whichever level, needs to believe in our mission and passion, which makes it harder to find the right people. But, I really don’t think you can do this work without that passion. Even if you join at an associate position at Teach for India, you are doing so much more than you would do at a parallel position outside, so passion is essential.

About funds, we have a whole fundraising and finance team, and it is very significant funding we need to raise. For this year our budget is in excess of 30 Crores INR and that’s just growing substantially as our numbers grow.

When we talk about Teach for India, I am sure many of our readers are potential aspirants, yet the selection process is known to be rigorous. What exactly are you looking for… any specific backgrounds, what do you see in the answers of the application essay questions?

Shaheen: The best advice I would give is to take the application process very seriously. We look at everything very vitally. For your essay questions, we attach a lot of weightage on what do you believe in when writing that essay question, similarly with the interviews. I cannot share the details of the selection as it is classified, but we are looking for people who would not just be successful in the classroom, but also people who will believe that in 15-20 years from now, they will be significant leaders in our country.

We are looking at a bunch of criteria, but in terms of the application, approaching the essays with honesty, seriousness and putting in whatever you think, would be helpful. We look at leadership very broadly, not just academics, were you the captain of a sports team, did you go for a leadership fair, those kind of extracurricular activities help a lot.

Having had a global educational exposure, how important do you feel are Internships for students? Till today, big companies accept only back door/ referred entries for their Internships… What are your views on this?

Shaheen: I think interning is a great idea. We have a lot of interns at Teach For India. We also send our fellows out between year one and year two for summer internships with different NGOs and organizations, so it’s a big part of our fellowship experience. It’s a great idea for people to actually go out and get their hands dirty and do something they think they might want to do in the long term.

As our readers take back cues from your interview, what word of advice do you have for the current generation of college students for their decisions in career choices in future?

Shaheen: I think all of us have those moments where our inner voice tells us something at certain times. Most of those times we just ignore it and go back to our normal lives, but my advice would be look in to what you believe, not what society or your parents are telling you.

Ask yourself:

What is your strength? Who are YOU? & What do you really want to do with your life? you have ONE life to live!

This is what saddens me the most when I see young people. When they don’t maximize their potential because they don’t really ask themselves how they can be their best and lead the best possible lives they can and ONLY you know that for yourself. If you do what you love and you’re really good at it, all of the other stuff falls into place. This is just a fact. The question is do you have the guts to do it at the beginning? That’s what people need to realize.

Making your life’s purpose bigger than just survival is really important

When you look at any person who’s lived a great life, they never made money or family responsibility their END-GOAL, it just happened along the way. End goal was much more significant than that. We need to start doing this, ask “God, I have just one life to live, what I can do to really make this life special”. You have to believe that if you do it well, you will figure out the finances and family issues. Making your life’s purpose bigger than just survival is really important.

The Mentors series features successful individuals who have made an outstanding impact in their respective professions. Powered by Twenty19.com, this series aims to bring out their influences and insights which can be shared with the students to guide them towards making the right career choice. You can nominate an expert/mentor who you want to be featured here.

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