Not your typical 26 year old
Life of a girl belonging to a typical Indian middle class family means finishing school at 17, graduation at 20, post-graduation at 22, getting married at 23 and having kids by 25.
Maybe today’s generation is different or maybe not, I’m not completely sure. But I’m sure of someone I know who broke these societal shackles to follow her heart. Sonal Kapoor, a microbiologist MBA by qualification was working with a media house when a visit to a slum for a film shoot for her organization made her change her path in life. It might not sound very significant to those reading this but to Sonal her encounter with a heavily pregnant woman with her seventh child, the earlier five being girls, for whom food was luxury and toys meant scraps picked up from garbage, changed her life completely. When Sonal asked this woman on how she was planning on supporting a seventh child, the woman replied that if it was a son he would grow up to be her support but if it was a girl she would strangle her. She was also sending one of her 8 year old daughters to a brothel so that she could feed the rest of her family.
For all those reading this and so far were believing that India is shining and we are progressing, think again. Sonal did and in a span of few minutes she also decided on shifting the thought process of others, especially women belonging to this particular community. After a feasibility study and involving a few locals she started Protsahan – a one room school for educating the girl child, which today is called Protsahan India Foundation. Even though it started in one room, Protsahan is not a run-of-the-mill school, it can’t be. Here children use scrabble to learn English along with cartoons and photographs. The idea was to give children living in the slums the gift of art as Sonal believes colors can help heal children’s fears.
Like many others, Sonal too went through the regular phase that almost every start-up or initiative does, when people around you think you’ve gone insane to give up on a comfortable life and become a “social worker”. She too heard the lecture on you-do-these-things-when-you-retire-and-have-lots-of-money. After this, came the phase of funding. Money was a problem for Protsahan but that did not deter Sonal. She did freelance projects to keep it running and raised funds through comedy shows, beer meet-ups, etc. If all this wasn’t enough, there were legal hassles that she dealt with. Being from science background she had no clue, but a network of well-intentioned people came to her aid. There were still many hurdles to be tackled. For example, when she wanted some people to come and conduct a candle-making workshop, each asked for an exorbitant fee for which she obviously had no means. She took this on as a challenge to and learnt how to make candles from Youtube. And went ahead to teach the women linked with her NGO. Starting with just one friend on her side, her team grew to people from across India, ranging from students from IITs, IIMs to those from well-known companies in Johannesburg, Singapore and New York. Inspite of first few years being bootstrapped by the founder on her own, today because of the impact, the World Bank, United Nations, Confederation of Indian Industries, Australia India Youth Dialog and other organizations of national and international repute recognize Protsahan, making every person linked to it proud.
When you do what Sonal does, you really don’t know where to stop or draw your locus of control. She didn’t either. What started with an idea to educate the girl child also took on empowering their mothers. Sonal runs an Artisans’ Honour Project and Project Stree for the mothers of the girls to create candles and other fabric-based crafts such as hand bags as well as sanitary napkins. Not only the money generated from this project support certain families but its revenues are also used to sustain the Educate India Project.
She started Protsahan with 19 students and today after more than 3.5 years, it has touched thousands of lives, including children from the red-light districts, streets, slums, construction sites, rag-pickers and rickshaw pullers and works with about 200 children each day. Ask her about her vision and with a lot of conviction Sonal says, “We seek to make creative micro-entrepreneurs out of young children on streets and slums by using Protsahan's 5 pillar of creativity approach. As Protsahan, we have learnt that scale doesn't always translate to empathy. We want to stay focused and not expand just for the sake of expansions. We aim to bring massive change to these 200 precious lives we are working with each day. It starts with fighting abuse and vulnerability in the life of a 10-12 year old girl, training her with the ten month bridge course where she for the first time handles design and art, smart phones and cinema and acquaints herself with functional literacy, post which she is put into a government school. Girls who come to us, some do not have mothers, some can't speak or hear, some are HIV+, some have sold fruits and vegetables since the time they have been three and have never been to a school, some being ragpickers from streets. After her 10 month bridge course, she now starts learning traditional Indian Art, professional Photography and Filmmaking and Cinema and starts developing as a creative individual at a lot of subtle levels. Once she turns 14-15, she starts getting trained as a creative micro entrepreneur. Most times, she is the first girl in her entire family's past generations to become literate. Inclusive growth will not come about with if we do not work together to fight against the abuse and rape of our children. If you and I as young people do not do anything to change our country, we have no right to expect anything from the government."