Panel Discussion: Young Entrepreneurs Making a Difference

Panel discussion on Young Entrepreneurs Making a Difference conducted at the Shared Value Summit held recently in Gurgaon. The panel of young entrepreneurs looked at diverse social issues and types of interventions that can make an impact. 


Piyush Ghosh, Founder, The Optimist Citizen

Aditi Parekh, Director, Student Think Tank of India

Pritish Bhavnani, Founder, A Cry for Help

Shanti Murmu, Founder, Parivartan

Priya Radhakrishnan, Co-founder, Jazba 

Moderator:Raja Choudhury, Documentary Filmmaker  

“We aim at establishing self-help groups in schools because we believe that teenagers can help other teenagers the best.” Pritish Bhavnani  

“Finally what everyone is trying to do is change attitudes and mindsets. For that one needs to promote a skill rather than just relying on a spontaneous, change of heart.” Aditi Parekh  

Raja Choudhury: Let’s begin with a round of introductions to learn more about our distinguished panelists.

Piyush Ghosh: I represent an organization, which is in the business of selling happiness through positive stories and this is done through a newspaper called the Optimist Citizen. It is a purely positive newspaper spreading positive news from across the world with the mission to initiate and stimulate positive actions. 

Aditi Parekh: I am the program director of Student Think Tank for India. It was originally envisaged as a small think tank of college students who were engaging with issues that are significant to India.  Over time we realized that we would need a structured approach to promote civic engagement and so we started at the school level. We conduct programs in schools across India where a 30-member team of moderators who are educators in the making try to have dialogue based sessions with students. So, we have the baat-cheet sessions where issues like understanding corruption, media, gender etc. are discussed. We promote the habit of asking questions because that is the root of changing minds.

Pritish Bhavnani: I represent a campaign called A Cry for Help which aims at helping teenagers in dealing with problems like bullying, self-harm, peer pressure, etc. We aim at establishing self-help groups in schools because we believe that teenagers can help other teenagers the best, so we help them come together, share their problems, and their stories

Shanti Murmu: I am the founder of Parivartan. I belong to a very small village in Orissa and am presently studying at Kalinga Institute of Social Science (KISS). This institute has 25,000 Adivasi students. The main aim of Parivartan is to promote girl child education in the Adivasi community (tribal areas). The second thing that we emphasize is to stop early marriage. Thirdly we also want to educate people about the wrong belief sets that people have in our community regarding health issues.  For example people still consider a girl to be impure during her menstrual cycle. So, they are confined to a room and because of this the girl is not able to maintain hygienic conditions further leading to infections. Another problem faced by our community is the problem of liquor addiction. We have created awareness programs, plays, rallies, group discussion, posters, leaflets etc. to address this problem.

Priya Radhakrishnan: I am co-founder of a Bangalore based organization called Jazba. We foster the charitable quality of the performing arts in young people, teenagers and adults.  We organize art related events for people who come from schools like myself, who come from backgrounds like myself because they don’t have a platform to express themselves artistically. By giving them these opportunities to perform they can bring about a lot of social change. We also conduct workshops with people who come from underprivileged backgrounds because they have no access at all to arts education.

Raja Choudhury: What was the key moment in your life growing up that made you want to become a social entrepreneur?

Priya Radhakrishnan: I have always believed that our generation has probably seen the biggest dynamic shift because of globalization, social media, technology etc. Things like the economy, gender violence not just affect our parents, it’s something that plagues us. Our voice is not treated on the same footing as older people; it is treated as something subordinate.  I started this venture when I was 14 years old. I recognized that it is very hard for an artist to flourish but at the same time I realized it makes a difference when we sing to a group of elders, sing at an orphanage, and teach them how they can use arts to foster happiness in their own lives. We are a charitable choir and we sing for charity events. That’s how it struck me that just because I am taking up art seriously doesn’t mean I should be the only one having this feeling of community through art.  I want other people to get a feel of it and realize it. I also wanted parents to realize that their child has talent and he/she could become big.

Shanti Murmu: I received life skill education at KISS. That was the time I decided to make the people in my community aware of the superstitions that they have and how to get rid of them. I started the organization called Parivartan. I want the girls in my community to have leadership qualities so that they can come to the forefront. We have summer training where we train the girls and also discuss and try to find solutions to the problems faced by my tribal community.

Pritish Bhavnani: I lived for 11 years in Jaipur, around a year in Chandigarh and then I finally moved to Gurgaon and went to DPS Gurgaon. The schools that I went to – the earlier two places weren’t that big, they didn’t have the kind of opportunities that a metropolitan city had to offer or a big school like DPS Gurgaon had to offer and I couldn’t fit in. That’s when all the bullying started. I was bullied in 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th grade. In my 10th Grade I got a great opportunity from the global leadership and education foundation. In the end my personal experience made me start this initiative.

Aditi Parekh:  If we analyze economic, political, social problems it is very hard to turn the attention away from the fact that the education system is the root of a lot of problems. I went to Rishi Valley School and after that came back to a very traditional CBSE school. I just couldn’t understand the difference between the two environments. I realized that reading and understanding about education, different environments of education, different programs of education produce different citizens. Students are often frustrated by school but they cannot do anything about it.  The design of this organization is such that you can start making a very structured long-term change because finally what everyone is trying to do is change attitudes and mindsets.  For that one needs to promote a skill rather than just relying on a spontaneous, change of heart.

Piyush Ghosh: Every day when I woke up in a good mood, with the sun shining outside, birds chirping and suddenly this bliss faded away at the very sight of the newspaper where I saw the details of all murders, rapes, crimes that happened and what’s not working and what’s broken. I realized that this is resulting in a lot of negative actions. People are losing trust in the government and each other. I realized that people have to be made aware of the positive stories and the good things happening around. So I thought if negative news could stimulate negative actions why can’t positive news and motivational stories stimulate and initiate positive actions. So I started at 18 and that is how it triggered.

Raja Choudhury: What is your vision and how do you intend to tackle the challenges?

Piyush Ghosh:  It is not just about scaling the organization but I believe that on a larger scale we have started as a positive news platform. In the coming years people are going to consume news in various different forms and mediums and the impact that news is going to have on us is growing exponentially. As responsible human beings it is very important for us to let know people there is so much good happening. I want to influence other media houses, other organization to increase their proportion of positive stories.

Raja Choudhury: How would you do that while you continue your education? 

Piyush Ghosh:  We are all college students who are working in this and we go out to other media houses and build up this partnership with other media houses. We have cross syndication of stories that has started happening.  We believe that in this changing world it is very important to have collaborations to take everything forward.

Priya Radhakrishnan: We make sure that at Jazba, if one is coming up with an idea then it is made sure it is globally applicable but locally impactful. So at Jazba we together as a group of people, put on a show, collect some funds, raise some awareness and donate to a charity. So, anyone could do it. So. Keeping in mind 2 factors – replicable globally and impactful locally – we can carry out this initiative anywhere. In our team a couple of us are planning to go abroad to study and this is what we want to spread out. I think anyone can do it anywhere as long as one has the spirit. Though it is charity but it is also very enjoyable experience and gives a purpose to what you are doing more than anything else.

Raja Choudhury: Do you feel the need to leave something behind like a platform or an infrastructure that can be run b other people?

Pritish Bhavnani:  Currently we have a well-defined model, which we have clearly documented. We establish a group/ team in the school and that particular team is going to keep passing on to their juniors. By this the initiative would remain in that particular school.  The domino effect can only be there when we have well-structured models/ things that people over the world can take up and just work on it.

Aditi Parekh:  We should have a well-defined replicable process, which is going to be used for scaling up then the organization is going to live beyond you. And especially with education you want something that adapts, that has been thought about and that has enough structure but also has enough flexibility. We are doing this as our part-time thing.  So, moving forward it is still going to be the same. 

Raja Choudhury: If you were to remodel the education system what kind of 21st century education system would you like?

Aditi Parekh: We need to completely start over and need to be more gradualist about this. There is a reason this system has survived for so long and one is going to encounter a lot of resistance if you suddenly remodel it. So one thing is that we really have to think in terms of relevance and how the world is really going to change. Economically it is going to change, technology is going to radically change, and you are looking at the future and working backwards. Education system is too huge that one size cannot fit all.  Secondly, there needs to be more personalization. One of the reasons STTI is so close to my heart is because it gives students a space to exercise their own agency. If in one week there is one STTI session where they are thinking for themselves, they are speaking for themselves, it is joyful for them. So, activating student agency and student voice is essential. In the educational system, the children are the product and the parents are the consumer. So, they are trying to create the best optimal product they think they should create. I have redesigned syllabi from standard eighth to standard twelfth where I have replaced English I and English II and Hindi I and Hindi II by communication skills, selling skills etc. My basic aim was that when they leave the school by twelfth they are at least ready for the job market.

Priya Radhakrishnan: We all want so many changes and we still need to be a bit practical about it.  So in my opinion the biggest leap any education system in the world can take is leave a bit of space open for change. The content in the textbooks remains unchanged for many years. We have no gateway for that change so we can talk about making changes in our education system until they give us that gap to tap into.

What is the role that governments, corporations, non-profit large groups like Ashoka can play in helping young entrepreneurs to create sustainable models that can grow? 

Pritish Bhavnani: In the old education system we were producing people who could work in factories but now we need leaders.  That is what the corporates should ask all these people to do.  When we look at college placements the corporates give you a total three-month training even after you have done college to be able to work in that environment.  So, there is no point in college education. I think the corporates should come forward and interact with all these institutions and all the governmental organizations, which create these curricula to tell them that this is what we need.  We need future leaders; we do not need workers now.

Shanti Murmu: Ashoka Foundation has encouraged me to pursue my venture. They have supported me at every step and have pointed out my pain points. They have been my mentor and guide and have multiplied my work potential. If the government and the corporate sector also help us then we would be able to scale it up very quickly and reach every corner of India.

Piyush Ghosh: It is high time for people to realize and take young people more seriously because wherever we go we get knocked off. After getting the Ashoka fellowship we have got the opportunity to go, talk, and interact with people on the name of Ashoka so that has been helpful to us.  The distribution of resources in terms of finance, training resources has been disproportionate. For example, in a city like Bhopal we don’t have this ecosystem of start-ups, don’t have people to talk to, and don’t have people who will guide us.  The distribution of resources should be more in a proportionate manner and it should go and reach to grass root levels and not just metro cities. This would help more young people like us to do more good work and change this beautiful world.

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