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Photographs by RA Chandroo

Feature

Skilling for Life
The Nudge Foundation through its focused skill development programme is helping the underprivileged find the right jobs

Shilpa Elizabeth Abraham

Rising stars: Atul Satija, founder, The Nudge Foundation

Gayathri hails from Kolar, a district in Karnataka over 60 km away from Bengaluru. She lost her father when she was a child and was raised by her mother. In her early twenties now, she joined Gurukul — a skill-development programme run by a Bengaluru-based non-profit startup, The Nudge Foundation. A few days into the programme, her mother fell sick and Gayathri had to return home. The trainers at Gurukul were sure she wouldn’t come back. Although her mother passed away, she was not ready to give up. A few days later, Cyril Joseph, a trainer at Gurukul, got a call from the girl stating she wished to rejoin Gurukul. 

Gayathri hasn’t received adequate schooling, but today, she is a sales management student and dreams of becoming an accountant someday. Gayathri is one of the many dreamers, for whom Nudge was a blessing in disguise. “Every student here, has a heart-warming story,” Joseph says. His team helps them put their hardships behind, and move on in life by giving them a gentle push — a nudge. 

The poverty alleviation non-profit was Atul Satija’s brainchild who spent the first 18 years of his career working for companies like Infosys, Samsung, Adobe, Google and InMobi. With an aim to put a million people out of poverty sustainably, Nudge has been a home, a school and a platform for around 1,100 students since 2015. It includes two major programmes — Gurukul and N/Core. Gurukul is a 100-day long fully residential programme, which offers students training in sales management, data entry, beauty services, plumbing and driving. On the other hand, N/Core looks at incubating non-profit startups.

All the right skills
Gurukul was born out of the team’s understanding that many of the skilling programmes in India were shallow. “India is adding nearly a million people to the labour market every single month, that means 12 million people a year. In the next 15 years we would be adding 180 million people — that is half the population of the US and almost twice that of Japan. Fifty percent of them are school dropouts, 23-25% of them come from extremely poor backgrounds and a vast majority is unemployable,” Satija explains the scale of the problem.

Gurukul aims at empowering 18 to 25-year-olds by providing livelihood skills such as data entry, sales management and driving that lay the foundation for their economic independence. It also teaches its students the more important life skills such as literacy, financial and digital literacy, health awareness and career thinking which aids their all-round development, improving their confidence levels. “India is sitting on a huge social time bomb — we have a large young aspiring population, lacking skills to make money and fulfil those aspirations,” Satija explains. 

To ensure students make the most of their time at Gurukul, they have a fully residential setup, to keep them away from all distractions and support their growth in a positive environment. Presently, the foundation has eight Gurukuls — each supported by partners such as, HT Parekh foundation, Infosys, KPMG, Book a smile and Mphasis. Each Gurukul can train about 2,400 students a year. Some of their programmes are supported by partners like Maruti, which sponsors its driving course and Godrej, which supports its beauty programme. 

Gurukul diaries
Students have been placed at companies such as YLG Salon, Kotak Mahindra, Lakme, VLCC, HGS and so on with salaries ranging from 9,000 to 14,000. That is quite a feat for the students since 70% of them did not have a job earlier and those who had a job were working for years without any significant increments. For the latter, the jobs they secured after Gurukul fetched them an average salary increase of 40%, which was more than the overall raise they got in the past seven to eight years. 

Even after the students have been placed, Gurukul continues to help them post-placement through a programme called Lifeguard (to support them during financial crisis, be it career or health related) — through partnerships with companies such as Biocon (subsidised healthcare) and Facebook (extra income-making opportunities). “The work they do is truly transformational,” says Murugan Vasudevan, head (Social Innovation Group, South Asia), Cisco. “They are not a very traditional NGO. They look at the non-profit space with a very fresh perspective — an objective view and a problem-solving oriented approach. A lot more than mere skilling is imparted during the 100-day programme,” Vasudevan points out. Cisco started supporting the foundation in late 2015 by partnering with one Gurukul and today, supports two Gurukuls, as well as the Lifeguard programme through yearly grants. 

Presently, 75-80 team members across eight Gurukuls, comprising teachers, wardens and the central team, take care of the curriculum, content, quality and teacher development framework. While the principals of all the Gurukuls are fellows from Teach for India, teachers are usually fresh graduates who have to undergo a 15-day training session. 

Gurukul has now secured 100 acres of land in SriCity (a planned integrated business city near Chennai) to build one of the world’s largest skill campuses and is looking forward to enrol 1 lakh students in five years. An estimated capital of 200 crore would be required to set up the facility for which the team is exploring options to raise funds through debt or large grants. This campus will be training about 30,000-50,000 students, annually. It will provide infrastructure to facilitate research, centres of excellence and teacher-training academies. Additionally, they plan to set up hubs in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, which will accommodate 2,000-3,000 students each. “We will also set up similar hubs in industrial areas like Manesar, Hosur and Vizag where students can go for on-field training,” says Satija. “We will train about 60,000 students through these distributed hubs and 40,000 through the central hub,” he explains the breakup. The plan sounds ambitious, particularly for a non-profit, but Satija believes it is not impossible.

Finding a way forward
In January 2017, Nudge launched N/Core, an incubator for non-profit startups. The aim is to identify founders of early stage non-profits which are addressing problems related to poverty and help them with a seed grant of 10 lakh, mentoring and networking opportunities. 

From over 1,000 applications it received, N/Core picked up 10 non-profit startups, which will be mentored and guided by Maneesh Dhir, Sanjay Purohit, former Infosys consulting chairman, K R Lakshminarayan, chief endowment officer at Azim Premji Foundation and Ujwal Thakar, ex-CEO of Pratham and GiveIndia. The startups that have been selected are part of various sectors such as education, health, water quality, skilling and livelihood. They will also have access to a collective of around 50 people who are entrepreneurs and experts. The community comprises Alok Goel, partner, SAIF Partners, Amit Gupta, co-founder, InMobi and Ajay Kela, president and CEO, Wadhwani Foundation.

“The kind of ecosystem which helped for-profit startups evolve, does not exist in the non-profit space. Our aim is to plug that gap,” says Khushboo Maheshwari, director and head, N/Core. Hundred for-profit startups are envisioned in the next five years, by incubating 20 startups each year in two cycles of six months each. 

“N/Core strives to make a very fundamental change at the grass-roots level with a sound model and deeper engagement and that resonates with me,” notes Maneesh Dhir, former MD at Apple India and presently an N/Core partner. “The challenge is very different — we are going to apply the principles we learnt from the for-profit sector, but with a little bit of pragmatism, a lot of forethought and care. The aim is to make sure that the pace, at which we develop the idea, is no less than that of a for-profit company. We would rather get there sooner than later,” he adds.

Nudge also enjoys support from foundations such as Tata Trust, and Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation and Mulago Foundation in the US. While Satija believes Nudge can grow in the short term with CSR support and global foundations, he feels the real scale is going to come from retail fundraising, where individuals donate money to support the programme or a student. He sees a huge opportunity with young people increasingly wanting to make an impact. 

The non-profit which started with around 2 crore from Nandan Nilekani and 1.3 crore from other individuals — today spends around 1.2 crore yearly for each Gurukul and around 12,000 on each student per month. Around 15-20 crore is the annual budget spread across eight Gurukuls, N/Core, the central team and incubatee funds. This figure is expected to touch 50 crore by next year. 

According to Satija, this is in line or lesser than many similar government schemes. “We are giving significantly better quality of education with better placements, in a cost structure that is very similar to other government schemes. That way we are probably one of the least expensive programmes in the country,” Satija notes. “At some point, each CSR proposal should allow us a 5-10% overhead, the idea is to take our model to a point where if a CSR organisation gives us $100, $90 should go towards the programme cost and we should be able to sustain on the remaining $10. We are slightly top-heavy since we built leadership team very early, but that was required for us to scale fast,” he says. Nudge, which started its programmes in Bengaluru and later reached out to smaller towns such as Raichur and Gulbarga, are also now experimenting with programmes for people from Jharkhand and Orissa.

It’s not always that an NGO that showcases the discipline or pace of a corporate organisation. But Nudge is an aberration and is paranoid about sustainability. The employees have quarterly targets and performance metrics; with a sharp focus on scale and goals in its DNA, the staff at the foundation works six days a week. 

A team for engagements and partnerships ensure that the donors receive reports and updates on the work and impact of the foundation. Satija spends around 30-40% of his time interacting with donors and with fund-raising. 

But why a non-profit, when it could have been shaped up as a for-profit social business? “If Nudge was only into skilling then we could have been a for-profit enterprise since the government reimburses money even if you are a for-profit in skilling. But what we do is more than just skilling; we give life and learning foundation that becomes unaffordable as a for-profit,” explains Satija. “More importantly, since there is no pressure to generate returns there is no dilution in the quality of the foundation’s initiatives.” Looking at the magnitude of the task ahead, Nudge seems to have laid the right foundation for youngsters, who dared to dream of a better future.

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