ETASHA Coverage in the January Edition of Entrepreneur

Some great coverage of ETASHA in January’s edition of Entrepreneur.  Meenakshi talks about ETASHA’s roots,  the trials of running a grass roots organisation and plans for the future.

Entrepreneur Jan 2010

The full text of the article is here:

GOODWILL HUNTING

She gave up a high-flying Career to set up an organization that has trained and placed hundreds of underprivileged youngsters in the corporate world.

Growing up in a traditional Rajasthani family,  Meenakshi  Nayar was painfully aware that the women in her community had only two things to look for word to – marriage and motherhood. She become the first girl in her family to break out of that stereotype and luckily for her, had the full backing of her parents. By then, having witnessed how different lives were for girls in Rajasthan, she had made up her mind to help empower them.

Nayar entered the corporate world in 1980 after graduating from IIM-A, and went on to work for over 20 years in HR, management and training. She grew to head the HR department of the DCM Group but was soon struck by the realization that if the same kind of training and effort was put into training youngstesr at an impressionable age, the result would be much more fruitful. There was also the old dream of doing something for underprivileged girls.

She quit her career and started Eduserve Consultants, which provided sex education, addressed issues of growing up and provided career guidance for middle – class school going adolescents. But life had different plans for her. Purely by chance, she got a call from Arpana Trust, a non profit organization working for the welfare of rural and urban slum-dwellers, inviting her to conduct a program on sex education for their kids. “I figured since the queries adolescents had regarding sexuality are the same whether you’re talking to children belonging to the middle-class or underprivileged children, it would be good platform to offer career guidance,” relates Nayar. Arpana Trust welcomed the idea. “But we fell flat on our faces!” recalls Nayar.

As it turned out, when it came to careers and their approach to it, the difference between middle-class and underprivileged youngsters couldn’t have been more glaring. “For the middle-class children, we could do career guidance workshop and a set of options to take to go forward. But for the underprivileged children, the options were too few. The vocational training scene in the country is pathetic. What were the opportunities for them to gather skills?” she asks.

That was the point when it all came together. Coupled with the fact that Nayar was well aware there were enough jobs in the industry at the entry level and not enough people to fill those positions, she set up ETASHA (Enabling and training Adolescents for a successful and Healthy Adulthood), an institution that provides vocational training and employability skills to underprivileged youngsters, in 2006.

Funded by her and armed with a fierce determination and will to see it through, Nayar began slowly implementing and evolving the concept. But almost at the onset, there were road blocks. In addition to convincing girls to join the program, ETASHA also faced difficulties when it came to placing the students. “At that time, four year ago, it was quite an uphill task to go to industry and convince them our children who had cleared only their school finals were more equipped then  typical BA graduates with no specific skill sets,” explains Nayar. By this time, she had reached a point where she couldn’t continue supporting the whole process herself.

Formal proposals were drawn and luckily enough, she got a positive response from the first company she approached – Tech Mahindra. Seeing the validity of ETASHA’s concept, they decided to provide full funding that would be phased out over a period of two years for the setting up of centers and career development institutes. “This way, we were working towards self-generation of funds and self-sustenance,” says Nayar.

But that was easier said than done. Caught up in the challenge of rolling out ETASHA and going from training 20 to 400 children in a year, Nayar unwittingly put the self-sustenance model on the back burner. In the second year, she was given a jarring wake-up call when Tech Mahindra said they would be providing only 70 percent of the funding. “That’s when I started to create more projects and approach other companies. We managed to create a substantial pool,” she says. So, by the third year when Tech Mahindra completely pulled out, instead of crashing down, ETASHA managed to stand on its own feet. “But the funding from them was what helped us get the ball rolling.” she adds.

With the Tech Mahindra funding coming to an end, the business model had to undergo a change. Where earlier the plan was to set up more centers with the funding, today a model has been evolved wherein ETASHA partners with other NGO’s working with children and adolescents, and vocational training providers. This way, the organization has ready access to students who are 10th grade graduates and has to do incremental work on them. Equally importantly, they are able to stay off fixed costs and grow at the same time.

One of the major projects undertaken by ETASHA was with the Maruti-sponsored ITI. “We identified the skill sets required by the industry and what ITI was training them for,” explain Nayar. With ITI providing the necessary technical skills, ETASHA took care of the soft skills and providing placement support, Almost 85 percent of the students were placed at around one and a half times the salary committed to by ETASHA.

In the last six months, ETASHA has actually managed to place over 80 percent of its students in companies like Westside, NetAmbit, Gianis, Nirula’s and Adecco. It’s no wonder then that big names like Accenture and Barclays are funding programs and asking the organization to run their CSR centers for them.

Still, the battle is far from won for the entrepreneur. Right now, Nayar has the big task of raising funds. “Surviving from project means that you are almost lurching around like an alcohol.” she says.

If her track record is anything to go by though, it would seem that this obstacle too shall be overcome by her sheer dedication and hard work.