Meera Shenoy

Meera Shenoy Integrating Business with Compassion

WOMEN INTERVIEWS

Meera Shenoy Integrating Business with Compassion

“Why are you wandering in the villages of India when you should be enjoying the gondolas of Venice?”, was the question asked to Meera repeatedly by her friends, when she chose to remain in India to do the work she loves, instead of moving to Italy where her husband was working with Unesco. Twenty years ago, she shifted from the corporate and media world to work with underprivileged youth, with rural, tribal and now disabled and link them to sustained livelihoods. She began this journey by setting up Indias’ first Skilling Mission for the Andhra Pradesh government for the rural development department called the EGMM (Employment Generation & Marketing Mission). This work influenced policy by demonstrating for the first time that if rural youth are skilled to the needs of the market, they can get quality organised sector jobs.  She then moved to the World Bank supporting the youth component in their poverty alleviation projects across South east Asia. This was followed by support from UNDP to assist the office of Advisor to the Prime Minister for Skilling & Entrepreneurship. With this rich background, she decided to become a social entrepreneur, again as a pioneer, focusing on the most vulnerable segment of society, youth with disabilities, and set up Youth4Jobs.“This work gives me a sense of purpose, keeps me joyful- so leaving India is never a choice,” she says simply.

Meera-Shenoy-on-mann-ki-baat-(PM-Modi)

Today, she has grown Youth4Jobs to be the largest in the space of disability in South Asia. The work has touched 12 million households with the message of “ability and disability” ; impacted 750,000 youth with disabilities working with government, over 3000 companies, and civil society. The work has the highest national award from the President of India and global accolades like the MIT Inclusion Innovation Challenge, their prestigious Future of Work award. It is a Harvard business publication case study. Recently Hon’ble Prime Minister mentioned her work in his popular “Mann ke baath”.  And soon, Not Just Art, her organisation which promotes Art of the disabled will announce the Global Ability Photography Challenge.

The Beginnings

“Whether you are a for-profit or not-for-profit, challenges are the same- you need angel investment and tailor your model to field realities,” she says.  She had chosen to work in the disability space as the statistics stunned her – 1in 10 globally have disability and the numbers are growing. 80% of persons with disability (PwD0 are in developing countries like India. There were no players working at scale and no player skilling rural PwD and linking them to markets. “For me, the needs of Bharath are paramount-If I left high flying jobs to move to this sector. This made me choose to begin our work with PwDs from villages and set up centres even in the Bimaru and conflict-ridden states,” she states. The early days were difficult. Disability is one word; but there are 21 disabilities recognised by the RPwD Act (Rights of Person with disability). Good special educators or sign language instructors were hard to get. Youth with disabilities were dispersed in villages and when Y4J grassroot team reached them, the community shook their heads in disbelief – A job for their disabled child! Impossible! Even their non-disabled children did not have jobs. Then companies came to the training centre to see this new kind of work, but hesitated to hire. They had doubts varying from can these youth work to are they healthy.

She and her team systematically closed gaps in the demand (markets) and supply(youth). Village Advocacy was a household level advocacy program to change mindsets of villagers that disability is not a curse and if trained well they could earn and be independent. Today this program has reached 12.1 million households. This also resulted in a seamless flow of youth with disabilities into the training class. The training modules included giving 21st century skills like spoken English, soft skills, life skills, financial management and orientation to markets. Simultaneously, services were designed for companies to help them onboard and retain this talent. This included sensitisation workshops for different disabilities, mapping job positions, job carving, sign language, recruitment services etc. “Our mantra is hire youth with disabilities not out of sympathy. But because it makes business sense”, she says and this has been the game changer for the sector. “We also innovate continuously to create more jobs for our youth” says Meera. A good example is the “silent cashier” where they piloted speech and hearing-impaired becoming cashiers as they work in a focussed manner. This opened up 50,000 new jobs, hitherto not available for the disabled. Multinationals are taking their services global having experienced India work at scale.

Over the years, the work has evolved keeping one eye on the community and one eye firmly on markets. As company networks increased, they demanded educated youth. This led to the setting up of the College Connect program which runs the IT Academy, Banking Academy and Finishing school for graduates, engineers etc. In higher education too, for the work to scale, educators and colleges have to be supported to be inclusive for which a series of workshops have been designed. The visually impaired have different aspirations and prefer the safety of a government jobs where they have a reservation. Coaching classes charge a large fee and are not accessible. So free coaching for government exams is run online in prestigious eye institutes like LV Prasad to help the blind achieve their dreams.

“We won several awards for our work during Covid. When many skilling companies closed operations, we were the first grassroot organisation to go online, despite a myriad challenges”, she points out. Going online meant developing in house sign language videos, modifying content to make them understand platforms. But the desire to be digitally savvy in remote villages was so high. And mothers became brand ambassadors when they realised in times of need, Youth4Jobs was training disabled for jobs. “On the market side, while retail, hospitality etc stopped hiring, we supported logistics, e-commerce companies to hire from this pool,” Today about 3000 plus speech and hearing-impaired youth from Y4J are placed in Amazon alone, pan India.  

Meera Shenoy

Two dream projects are SwarajAbility, the first AI-triggered, accessible job platform for Youth with disabilities. “Swaraj” is the Gandhian word for independence”; “Ability” as we believe in the abilities of disabled. This Atmanirbhar cutting edge tech platform makes registering seamless for the youth with disabilities. And job matching happens through an algorithm. The other dream project is Grassroot Academy which is “of the disabled, by the disabled”, 45 Divyang mitr are given digital skills and taught how to lead the program in the districts, creating a grassroot movement of change.

Meera is also bringing one of the world’s most prestigious global conference, zero con, to India this year. Held every year in the UN headquarters at Vienna, it has 6000 experts in 180  countries. “The idea of Zero India is for innovations in India to get a global platform and for international players to experience the creativity of India,” she remarks.

In her book “You Can”, a Bloomsbury publication, which was on top of charts at the Jaipur Lit Fest, she asks CEOs why they hire youth with disability. The answer was it is a social mandate; makes the company a great place to work; stimulates creativity and is a social good which helps business. “A livelihood to a young person with disability takes the entire family out of poverty in a sustained manner,” she says. She sees it every day, keeping her firmly and joyfully on this path.

 In our culture we are trained to look critically at differences.  So, you say “fatter, darker” Or if it is a child with disability in rural areas, do not call them by name but by their disability. Andha, langda etc. In cities -, deaf are called deaf and dumb (is not at all dumb). On other hand you go into the forest and see different trees. Bent, no leaves, red flowers, driedflowers. You just allow it and appreciate it. But the minute you think of persons, we highlight differences and become judgemental. Meeras advice to others is learn from Nature that there is a beauty in differences!

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