Fellowship and Beyond: The Importance of Women-Led Change

Earlier this year, I got the opportunity to participate in an Alumni panel during the AIF Clinton Fellowship Orientation week for the class of 2018-19. I was excited about this for several reasons; learning about current Fellows and their diverse and impactful professional backgrounds was one. Slightly more tempting was the opportunity to revisit – mentally, physically, and in memories – my own experience as a Fellow in 2016-17, placed at Gene Campaign in Uttarakhand.

It’s hard to believe that it has been more than two years now since my own Orientation week amidst the heady greens of the infamous Zorba the Buddha in Delhi. This sentiment is echoed by others in my cohort, especially since the flow of time feels seamless to us, given how active our WhatsApp chat group still is. It was exciting to meet the current cohort and share some of our experiences while also hearing about their soon-to-be projects. Part of that day also included an exhibition fair where host organisations presented their work and some Fellowship Alumni, too had the opportunity to present their own work from their fellowship year. This was especially illuminating for me as I learnt that a few current Fellows would be working on sustainable agriculture and food security projects like I did during my service year.

It was also interesting to learn about the myriad and interesting post-Fellowship paths of other Alums. My own professional journey since the end of the Fellowship has routed me back to policy research. The skills I acquired during my Fellowship year – skills that can only be learned by doing, such as field research, participant observation, community mobilising – are some of the most pertinent skills that have added value to my current work as Research Consultant at the Tata Centre for Development, where I’m working on an interdisciplinary, pan-India study on the quality of life in slums.

An important aspect of the AIF Clinton Fellowship, which I think adds to its value immensely, is the wave of opportunities fostered by its impeccable network. It is true that Fellows in each cohort tend to form close bonds that are sustained over time, but the camaraderie that develops across cohorts is something I’ve come to enjoy and appreciate over the years. I’m currently based in Bangalore city, which is also home to several other AIF Alums who work in very interesting social development organisations like BEMPU, a social enterprise leveraging easy-to-use technology devices to save the lives of newborns, and the Amani Institute, a leadership development and incubator program for entrepreneurs based in Nairobi, Sao Paulo, and Bangalore.

The other perk of being an AIF Alum is that you get incredible opportunities to connect with inspiring people who support – in every sense of the word – large-scale social development initiatives like the AIF Clinton Fellowship. The Bangalore based Alums recently had the incredible opportunity to meet with Ms. Lata Krishnan, one of AIF’s Co-Founders and Chair of the AIF Board of Directors, at her Bangalore home when she came on a visit to India. Former Fellows across three years – Natasha Ramanujam (2015-16), Annika Gage (2016-17), Abby TerHaar (2016-17), Sumedha Goswami (2016-17), myself, and current Fellow Kembo Matungulu (2018-19), whose Masters in Public Health from Boston University led her to her current Fellowship project at Bempu – headed off to meet Ms. Krishnan. This would have been an incredible opportunity for anybody, but the AIF connection imbued something very special to the meeting.

Ms. Krishnan is inspiring, to say the least. Not only is she a prominent Indian American executive in Silicon Valley, but she also started up a successful tech company and investment firm, and has become an influential philanthropist in the U.S. She’s passionate about women’s empowerment and giving back to her country of birth. She grew up in India but lived in Africa and Europe before coming to the States. Setting up your own business in another country and seeing it to fruition is not an easy task. Doing that as a woman of colour in a time when there weren’t a lot of opportunities for women of colour – even less so at the executive level – is an incredible task that Ms. Krishnan has managed with great aplomb. Adding to this, extending advisory and monetary support that birthed AIF and the Clinton Fellowship program itself, is just another feather in her cap. What was extremely helpful for me was demystifying this journey by talking to her about the many challenges along the way. It was humbling, yet very encouraging.

    

We were greeted at her home with great warmth by her family, and some delicious home-made food. Some of us coming straight from work in Bangalore traffic, were grateful for both. We each got to share our professional and personal journey that brought us to the Fellowship. Ms. Krishnan was engaging and gracious, asking us interesting questions about our career choices, many of which we hadn’t stopped thinking about. This brought forth an important discussion about the relevance of the development sector as a viable career option for our generation. To summarize our evening in the words of my Co-Alums:

“Not only did we feel supported in our work but the kind of questions she asked brought out the importance of the work we are doing”, Natasha reflected about our meeting with Ms. Krishnan. “Hearing this from a fresh perspective by someone with such eminent background was heartening”, she found. Natasha completed her year of service a year before me and is currently working as the Head of Growth and Strategy at Bempu. As a Fellow, she served in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum using technology and innovation to improve the health of women and children. After a stint in the corporate sector in Chicago that sharpened her skill set in terms of strategy and investment, she returned to India to join Bempu. The impact of the Fellowship is truly reflected in the consequent network we build. Especially so in this case, where Natasha is joined by Co-Alum, Annika, Public Health Lead at Bempu, on their travels across the globe (Colombia, Papua New Guinea, Kenya, Nepal, and much more) as they spread the word on brilliant new ways to use technology in neonatal care and what that can do for underserved populations not just in India but across the world. It was Annika’s Fellowship project of conducting a baseline study on nutrition and health in Rajasthan, that set he foundation for her ensuing work in global health.

“I like how genuinely interested she was about hearing our thoughts and experiences about the Fellowship; it showed how engaged she is in making the Fellowship better each year”, said Sumedha, who by happy chance had flown down from Hyderabad for the weekend. Sumedha’s post-Fellowship journey has landed her in a Project Manager role at Access Livelihoods Consulting India, an organisation based in Hyderabad that works on building livelihood programs for marginalised communities.

 

Abby, who served with a skilling and job readiness program as a Fellow, was determined to return to India to work full-time after her Fellowship. Through creative networking, she learned about the Amani Institute, got in touch with its founder, and was offered a position as Program Coordinator to help set up Amani’s flagship fellowship program in India, building its operations from the ground up. Reflecting on our conversation with Ms. Krishnan, Abby found that: “It was inspiring to hear about Lata’s journey and her commitment to AIF after the Gujarat earthquake. She is truly a resilient person who has overcome many challenges to be an amazing changemaker”.

Looking back at all the opportunities I’ve had since completing this Fellowship, I am thankful (as I’m sure we all were!) for the people who create opportunities for others, and their stories that teach the rest of us how to do it, too.

Post talk photo op: (L-R, front) Annika, Sumedha, Lakshmee, Lata, Abby (L-R, back) Natasha, Kembo.

Lakshmee is excited to explore different dimensions of India that she still has not experienced. Through this fellowship, Lakshmee wants to observe and participate in development practice while overcoming geographical challenges and cultural differences. She is interested in approaching development with a qualitative anthropological orientation. She wants to be part of a change that exceeds her expectations and that of the fellowship. Prior to AIF, she did her Masters in Social Anthropology and worked with the Indian Institute for Human Settlements.

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