AIF Highlights Fellowship Program at Elegant 2013 Gala

 

Indiawest

In 2010, America India Foundation Fellow Tejpal Dhillon – who was working in Jaipur to set up vocational schools in slum areas – made a startling discovery that led him to create a solution that currently helps 800 low-income students find entry-level employment.

Dhillon was working with AIF partner Vatsalya, which works with high-school dropouts from ages 18-40 to equip them with job skills suitable for several industries, including computer training, agriculture, tailoring and hospitality.

As he worked with the students, Dhillon noticed there was a marked drop in retention rates.
“The schools were struggling with retention because their students felt they didn’t have a say in the jobs they were getting,” he told India-West shortly before AIF’s Annual Gala, held April 13 at the Concourse here.

The business luminary-filled gala — “Serve. Learn. Lead. Building the Next Generation of Global Leaders” — honored venture capitalist Ram Shriram, one of Google’s first investors, and raised more than $1.5 million for AIF’s programs and projects in 22 states in India, which have impacted more than 1.7 million lives, according to the organization.

The evening event also highlighted the work of seven former AIF Fellows, who had worked with AIF-supported NGOs in India on initiatives ranging from women’s rights issues to creating model schools. Each year, after a rigorous screening process, AIF selects 35 Fellows for its William Clinton Fellowship For Service in India. The program is named for former president Bill Clinton, who co-founded AIF in 2001, in response to devastating earthquakes in Gujarat.

“We are building leadership,” said AIF chair Lata Krishnan, noting to India-West that the Fellows are chosen each year from a pool of more than 400 applicants. Asked about scaling up the program, Krishnan, one of AIF’s co-founders, said expansion of the program would require additional infrastructure in India and the U.S.

Inspired by his observations of Vatsalya students, Dhillon — a mechanical engineer who currently is working on his MBA at Kellogg Business School – created the Web portal kaamgar, which matches employees with prospective employers.

In a manner similar to the search engine monster.com, employers post jobs online and prospective employees trained at Vatsalya schools add their names to job listings matching their skills. A manager at the top level finalizes the match.

In a pre-gala interview, Dhillon told India-West he would like to see kaamgar used in all of AIF-supported schools across India, adding that the simplicity of the portal allows for rapid scalability. The entry-level jobs posted on the site include employment in information technology/data entry work, tailoring, and hospitality, which has emerged as one of the leading industries propelling growth of the Indian economy.

One of his most-cherished memories of his AIF Fellowship was connecting to a young orphan boy, who immediately took to the kaamgar project, Dhillon recalled.

“The AIF Fellowship forced me to question a lot of my values,” said the Indian American. “Exterior motives, such as acquiring wealth, are not as important as doing something impactful in international development,” he added.

The evening also highlighted the work of 2003/04 AIF Fellow Marc Alongi, who worked with renowned educationists Anand Dwivedi and Mohan Singh Panwar to create an innovative school – the Ashram Paryarvaran Vidyalaya – in Uttarakhand, which currently serves about 300 children.
“We were very excited about what we could do with education,” Alongi told India-West, noting that the APV is unique in incorporating mindfulness – breathing practices, awareness of emotions, non-judgmental attitudes – into the everyday curriculum. Lessons are taught via skits and drama and the school has released a CD it created in a makeshift studio. Plant biology is taught by a walk through the forests near the school.

Families of APV students were initially concerned about the lack of traditional education methods, said Alongi, but bought into the program when they saw results in their children.
Alongi recalled a treasured memory of his first year at the school when an object went missing. Teachers asked students about the missing piece, until a young orphan – one of Alongi’s favorite students – said with some temerity, “I took it.”

That was the end of the matter, said Alongi, now the director of professional growth at the Seqouyah School in Pasadena, Calif. “There was no need to punish her. Everyone understood,” he said.
Nine AIF Fellows have spent their year in India at the APV, including Charlie Iannuzzi, now an assistant dean of admission at the prestigious Hotchkiss School in Connecticut. “My vision of what education should be was solidified at the APV,” Iannuzzi told India-West, adding that he was inspired by Dwivedi’s notion of using education to build a mindful society.

The gala also featured Ann Varghese, who worked in Pune with Sahara Alhaad, a non-profit organization caring for people with HIV/AIDS who had been thrown out of their homes. Ramya Sekaran spoke about her work with People’s Watch in Madurai assessing Indian state and national commissions for women.

The primary issues for women in India continue to be domestic violence, child marriages and lack of urban space, Sekaran told India-West, criticizing the commissions for being largely ineffectual at tackling such concerns.

Kristen Anderson, an AIF Fellow who worked on improving reading instruction, and Alison Chatfield, who worked on an inclusive growth project in Jharkand, were also featured.
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee addressed a crowd of attendees during the cocktail hour, and spoke about a future visit to Bangalore – a sister city – beginning Nov. 29.

“I’ve been labeled the technology mayor,” Lee later quipped in an interview with India-West. “There are so many entrepreneurs coming out of India who want to use technology to resolve social problems,” he said, adding that he hoped the November trip would create business investments and cultural exchanges between the two cities.

After receiving an award onstage from Krishnan and AIF co-chair Pradeep Kashyap, Shriram spoke broadly about philanthropy and the need to create a legacy that outlasts one’s self. A live auction for two tickets to next year’s Grammy Awards was sold for $19,000. Several AIF projects were also auctioned at the fundraiser, adding an estimated $400,000 to the $1.1 million raised in ticket sales and sponsorships, according to Krishnan.

Amrapali Ambegaokar rounded out the entertainment program with her dramatic kathak performance.

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