Profile: No Easy Mission
Shaheen Mistri, CEO, Teach for India, turned her anger against inequality into empowerment for children
I love kids. I’m at my happiest when I’m around kids,” says Shaheen Mistri, 44, the CEO of Teach for India and the founder of Akanksha, an NGO working towards educating under-privileged children. And that pretty much sums up why this remarkable woman has been working non-stop for the past 26 years to make a difference in the lives of thousands of children.
At 18, when she was still a student at St Xaviers College, Mumbai, Shaheen set up Akanksha with the intention of educating children of low-income families. “I was very upset with the inequity in education. I had a privileged upbringing and whenever I compared it to what I saw around me, it really angered me. Every child has the right to excellent education,” says Shaheen fiercely.
So at an age when most youngsters are partying and are clueless about what they want to do with their lives, Shaheen had a mission. Of course, it wasn’t easy. There were all sorts of challenges, her age being one of them. “I was teaching children between 3 and 15 years of age. I was so young that people in the community didn’t take me seriously. Moreover, I had no teaching background.” But what was worse was that no one could understand why she was doing it.
Then there were other practical challenges such as raising funds, finding a place to teach, etc. Shaheen had to go to over 20 schools before she could find an empty classroom where she could teach children from low-income families. “People just didn’t want these children on their premises. The biggest challenge was to change the mindset of the people regarding these children,” she says.
But she persisted and today there are 5,000 children in Akanksha schools in Mumbai and Pune.
“What I have realised is that as you grow older the challenges increase, the responsibilities increase. The big shift has been in the way I now think about challenges. I actually feel that they are a very big blessing because when I think about the greatest moments of my personal and professional growth, they happened only because I had to face a challenge. When you start welcoming challenges it changes your perspective,” says Shaheen about what she has learnt over the years.
Teach for India was set up in 2007, as an extension of Shaheen’s work at Akanksha. Her tireless efforts there for 17 years resulted in unbelievable stories of change. Akanksha kids were going for higher education to colleges such as St Xaviers, their mindset and their viewpoint of the world had changed. They wanted to be responsible citizens, wanting to bring about change in their families. But Akanksha’s efforts were a drop in the ocean. “That led me to ask the question, how do we do this on a larger scale?” Teach for India was an attempt to answer that question. Shaheen realised that the answer lay in the fact that there weren’t enough leaders across the country committed to solving the problem of providing an excellent education to every child in the country.
Teach for India was inspired by a model called Teach for America which was started 25 years ago. It was a two-year fellowship programme where exceptional young people teach for two years full time on the ground. “The reason for that is that if you put an exceptional person on the ground in a challenging situation for two years, the impact is going to be two-fold. One, they are going to have a very significant influence on the children and two, they are going to become lifelong leaders for education equity.” So a similar model was set up in India to create a movement of leaders who would dedicate their lives to working for children in different ways. “The idea is to create a generation of leaders across sectors that are passionate about solving the problem of education inequity.”
Today, Teach for India works in about 330 schools in seven cities and impacts the lives of 38,000 children. It has 1,100 fellows and another 700 will join this year.
Shaheen’s five-year plan is to try and jump from 38,000 kids to 1 million kids under Teach for India. She says they are drawing up some exciting plans for that including the role that kids can play in spreading education to other kids. Teach for India also plans to double the size of their fellowship over the next five years. They also hope to have 7,000 alumni, each impacting at least a 100 children. “Basically we hope to spread education to a million kids through this army of people that we are developing,” says Shaheen.
Shaheen says that if she looks back over the past decade and had to advice her 35-year-old self, her advice would be to be go easy on yourself. “Be gentle on yourself. Like who you are, what you are. Only then can you be do that with the people around you and the world,” she says. “If you don’t learn to see the inspiration, the small steps, the small celebrations in what you do, it’s very difficult to stay in this kind of work for the long term.”