November 2020. Almost a year since the world had been in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic. By now, not one person had been left untouched by the pandemic – whether or not they had actually contracted the disease. For the pandemic brought with itself, unimaginable consequences. The world had never before been divided as starkly between the haves and the have nots. The pandemic that started with those who flew across the world had now come to haunt those who had never set foot on a plane and probably never would. Like in every other crisis, the underprivileged seemed to be paying the bigger price.
At that time, I was dealing with my own problems. My 3-year-old had just been advised an extensive hip surgery and I was still grappling with that and questioning fate. It was early morning, I was in my car, taking my son for a second opinion when I received a message from my friend that a 19-year-old student of my alma mater, one of the best colleges in the country, had taken her own life because she was unable to study, given the pandemic. Nothing at that moment could have so completely reminded me of the many privileges I enjoyed in my daily life.
The news went through alumni circles like an electric shock and immediately galvanized hundreds of women and girls, unable to fathom the tragedy and wanting to do something, to do their little bit to somehow correct this grave injustice. Aided by technology, alumni across the globe, of varying ages and professions and interests and personalities came together, wanting to make things better for those who were struggling every day. Could we save the future of the girls who were digitally excluded, and did not have a level playing field? Could we make life better for at least some of those struggling at the bottom of this digital divide?
And then something beautiful and almost unimaginable happened in this grim background. This angst started to take shape as more and more alumni joined organically and natural leaders emerged from this heterogenous group. Soon enough this motley group of women realized that the task before them was not easy and time was running out. They had to act fast. And in a coordinated manner. And they did just that.
A number of alumni initiatives, all focused on the same goal, sprung up. Today I bring to you the story of how one group of alumni, through sheer grit and determination, helped bridge the digital divide for some of the most vulnerable students of their alma mater. Read on and get inspired.
“How can we help and who?”
This incident got several alumni thinking and they instinctively got in touch with each other to get to the bottom of the situation. They were sure that with the strength of the alumni community, support could be provided to the college and its students. Vinita Sethi got in touch with fellow alumnus Suki Iyer, a brief acquaintance who worked in the social impact space, to discuss if they could put together a response. The two women immediately got to work, bringing concerned alumni together on a whatsapp group to brainstorm. Sanjari Gupta, another alumnus played a tremendous role in rallying many of the alumni together. She called out to girls to come together and support the young students at college. I became a part too and was a spectator to the magic that unfolded over the following weeks.
The first question was how could we help. As discussions progressed, it became clear that there would be many other students who didn’t have access to digital devices or an internet connection and the best support that we could provide was to enable that access. But how? We had no idea how many girls needed support, nor who they were or where they lived – because at this point, there were no physical classes and the girls were dispersed across the length and breadth of the country.
Neither did we have an idea of what exactly was needed. Vinita remembers how difficult it was to even figure out where to begin. “We didn’t even know what we wanted.” A laptop or a tablet? What specification? Should we give as a loan? Or maybe lease? Or as a gift? There were many views – contrary ones too, but the final agreement was that each identified girl will receive a laptop – as a gift which they did not need to return. Even though perhaps this was the most expensive option, the group decided to give the girls a headstart in life.
And thus the “Digital Inclusion Initiative” was born. Different people took on different roles – women who barely knew each other, came together and bonded for a common cause, driven by the desire to help, to give back to their alma mater. I feel proud to have been a miniscule part of this.
“Where do we begin?”
A flurry of action took place as current students and alumni came together. Everyone offered whatever they could – time, money, skills. It was as if this large group of women, moved together as one, seamlessly.
The first and the foremost need was to understand the dimensions of the issue. No one really seemed to know what was going on at the level of the students. We needed to know the exact numbers of girls and their details and decide on the specifications of the machines. Only the college could provide that information. Suki Iyer took lead and brought the college and students together to gather information.
College was fully supportive. Class reps were appointed to develop the list of girls in need of laptops. There were girls from Economically Weaker Sections (EWS), but there were others too coming from vulnerable circumstances who were hard hit by the pandemic and needed support. College also helped in finalizing the required specifications and also suggested focusing on 3rd year students first as their exams were around the corner, in December. So, to start with, about 90+ laptops needed to be delivered and in all more than 160.
The team had their task cut out – 160 plus laptops, to be delivered across the length and breadth of the country, often the remotest parts, fund raised to the tune of INR 60-65 lakhs – In a matter of 4-6 weeks – all to be done in parallel.
The clock was ticking.
“Where we do get the money from and how do we manage it?”
“We were at our wits end”, says S, “we didn’t know how to go about it – how to raise such a large amount in so short a time, with exams coming up in December”. The first call for help went to the alumni spread across the globe but soon enough it was clear that individual contributions would not be enough to raise the required funds. Vinita, Suki and Smita, aided by many other alumni pressed all their contacts and spread the word as far and wide as possible. They rallied together alumni who were corporate honchos and urged them to support the cause. They contacted FICCI FLO, ‘the greater 50 project’ that aims to empower women to enhance outreach and expedite CSR contribution from corporates for the cause. Vinita, through her global contacts got in touch with Women in Tech and they allowed use of their social media platforms to extend their reach. Senior chapter leaders of Women in Tech led by Ayumi Moore helped raise critically needed funds. Alumni Vinita Bali and Madhu Khatri mobilized not only individual donors, but also corporate donors without which they could not achieve their targets.
The efforts paid off and contributions started coming in. Over 50 alumni from India and abroad sent contributions. Several US chapters of alumni came together from the east coast to the west coast and donated generously to try and cover one laptop per girl student. Corporate CSRs had started to respond – the group got commitments from corporates and foundations such as Hexaware Technologies, Mobiquity, FICCI and FICCI FLOs Empowering Greater 50, Sriram Foundation etc. The team heaved a sigh of relief.
Raising funds however was not the end of the problem – the Digital Inclusion group was just that – a group of women who came together for a common cause – we had no identity – no bank account – so where do we receive the money? Very early on in the initiative it became clear that college bank account as well as the official alumni association accounts could not be used as they did not have the required permissions to receive domestic and international donations.
Devika Kamboh, one of the first few alumni to come together, offered to use her NGO Soham Global Foundation inc, based in the US to collect donations from abroad, but an Indian organization with the right permissions was also needed to receive the funds and deploy them with all statutory obligations fulfilled because corporate donations need experienced and credible organizations with a track record that they can trust.
Thus Smita Premchander, founder of Sampark, took on the job of not only receiving the funds but also ensuring that the funds were used transparently and that each girl on the list received her laptop. Sampark was fully equipped to handle the entire process in a transparent manner – right from the criteria used to identify the girls to ensuring that each girl had received a laptop and had been able to set it up. Krupa, the head of fundraising and communications at Sampark, worked with Suki and S to ensure that the whole project was delivered with due diligence and statutory reporting to all donors.
While the group was figuring out how to manage donations, a key task was also to find out the right vendor. After all, one couldn’t just log on to Amazon and order away more than 150 laptops and expect them to be delivered with prime free delivery in 2 days time.
We needed to find a vendor who had enough inventory and the ability to deliver across the country in a short time. (We had locations where even in normal circumstances, couriers wouldn’t go to.) A proper selection process was conducted by Sampark and Suki who negotiated hard with the selected vendor, ensuring proper after sales service and returns in case of damages to the machine during transit.
“How do we reach them?”
After the group figured out the funding and vendor, the baton was passed to Sampark for the final deliveries. One would think that with the full list of girls in hand, with the funds in place and vendor identified, this last part would be easy. Didn’t our country have a widespread network of couriers in place?
But this last lap was in fact one of the toughest of the entire chain. Laptops had to be delivered from Kashmir to Kanyakumari to the remote North east – many of the places entirely inaccessible. And while doing that, always ensuring that the laptops reached in a good condition as well as maintaining the privacy of each girl who received it. And remember – all this while the pandemic was still raging and communications and logistics were still not back on their feet.
16 days to exams – over a hundred locations to cover!
The first step was to ensure that the list received from college had the correct addresses. The second to dispatch the laptops and receive confirmation of delivery from each girl. The third to make sure that they were able to set up and run the laptops – because don’t forget, these girls likely didn’t come from a background where they could be comfortable with technology.
S offered to cross check the credentials of each girl and started by sending out emails, calling each girl. A google survey was done to get a sense of the students’ level of comfort with technology to estimate the level of support required to set up that laptop. It turned out that many girls were not available at the address that the college had. It was a grueling task – S was literally on the phone for days at stretch, trying multiple times to reach girls who had almost dropped off the radar at this time. So many had gone back to their villages, where signals were weak or non-existent, but in the end, she did manage to reach each of them. And then once again she called each girl, when her laptop was dispatched, to share the tracking number and then followed up with them till they received the laptop and were able to set it up. “Those 3 weeks were an absolute blur”, reminisces S.
“But why did it just have to be one person?”, I asked, “when all the other jobs were divided across multiple women?” “Because the anonymity and privacy of each girl had to be preserved. Hence only one person had access to all the contact details”. “We also wanted to make sure that each girl got the exact same message – that this was a gift from their fellow alumni – from those who had already benefited from this great college and that they were doing it in sisterhood. We wanted to tell them that there is a family out there that they could reach out to.”
The next big hurdle were the actual deliveries, but the enthusiasm of the women, had infected the vendor as well, who seemed to have abandoned all other work to get the laptops to the students on time! Machines were being delivered to students at a breakneck speed, like clockwork – to the backwaters of Kerala and Andhra Pradesh – through paddy fields, to some of the remotest parts of the country. S remembers receiving a picture of a delivery person on his bike, with the laptop strapped to the back of the motor cycle! It was not easy and we weren’t able to home deliver to all the girls. The girls in North East had to come to their capital cities to receive the laptops, because the deliveries couldn’t be made any further, similarly those in Jharkhand had to come to Ranchi, the capital city.
The biggest and most unexpected obstacle came in Kashmir. The team found out that no electronics were allowed to be delivered there! Panicking, the team frantically looked for local vendors and couriers who could deliver within Kashmir but drew a blank. We were racing against time, exams were around the corner and the team was losing hope. It was just 3 against the hundreds of other successful deliveries – but as Suki said, for those three girls, these laptops were everything. Finally, another alumnus came to the rescue! Smita reached out her friend and fellow alumnus Gita Mittal, at that time Chief Justice of J&K and asked if she could help. And yes, she could! She found an alternate vendor and the machines were delivered the same day, even though it meant the vendor had to return from Jammu to Srinagar, and send the laptop personally delivered, in a very traditional culture where it was important to ensure the safety and confidentiality of the family! The vendor was so respectful of the initiative that he provided the laptops at a very competitive rate and did not even take any delivery charges!
Once the laptops were received, each girl took a picture of the laptop along with her college ID and sent a picture back to the team. Another team of college students was put together, who helped each of the girls set up their laptops and get them running. For many of them, this was the first time they were using a laptop.
“Is that the end? Is even Digital Inclusion the end?”
Though the main drive ended earlier this year, even as we speak (or read), laptops are being delivered to those who need them. But is a laptop the end? – perhaps, it is just a small start. As Vinita said, “We don’t even really understand what inclusion is.” S couldn’t agree more, “There is a bunch of girls who come to LSR with a heap of inspirations and expect their lives to take a different turn after college education. But they don’t have enough support. For many of them, even the initial payments are difficult. Living expenses are very high. Societal integration is not easy for girls who come to Delhi from very small towns. Most of them are neither tech savvy nor as comfortable in English. But there is no one to help them bridge that gap. There are no mentors.” “Providing a device is not enough unless the effort becomes far more broad based, we are not doing enough.”
Smita, who has worked on inclusion issues for years, understands this very well. At Sampark, they didn’t want this initiative to end with laptops. They asked the girls for their other needs and the students poured in their requirements – mentoring, English speaking, interview skills, jobs and so on. Krupa and the staff at Sampark are still in touch with each of the girls and are providing them with mentoring. It is heartening to see that work on this continues.
At the same time, this initiative was transformed into a much larger countrywide DI vertical under the aegis of FICCI as part of their Empower 50 program and hopefully this work will be extended to other women’s colleges across the country in alignment with the goal of empowering women with digital tools.
That said, the road is long and much needs to be done. I hope to explore more on this issue in my upcoming posts. But the one single message that I came away with from this experience was that, such is the power of bonding, of human connection – that no obstacle is insurmountable!
P.S. Ending note: I am aware that after the unfortunate incident many initiatives came up. For instance, I am aware that the teachers association collected funds for donation. The formal Alumni Association also had their own collection drive and similarly donated laptops to other girls. In this post however, I am chronicling the experience of the group that I was a part of. I also want to thank each person who took their time out to share their experiences and guide me and also to apologise to those who I have not been able to name.
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