Tell us about you, your career, how you joined Anudip.
Monisha Banerjee: With over 25 years’ experience in executive and education management, I joined Anudip Foundation in 2018 as a Chief Executive Officer with a mission to generate digitized career opportunities for the unemployed and marginalized youth through training in information technology. My previous stints were with organizations like Labournet, a leading social enterprise in the space of livelihood generation. Before stepping into the development space, I spent over a decade in school and higher education, including capacity building of trainers for Educational Testing Services. I hold a postgraduate degree in Physics from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and is an alumna of the Haas Business School, UC Berkeley. In my spare time, I love mentoring young girls from difficult backgrounds to help them ignite dreams, making them financially stable and sustainable.
How does Anudip innovate?
Monisha Banerjee: Anudip transforms lives by creating sustainable livelihoods through inclusion in digital livelihoods in emerging economies. A nonprofit company with operations in India and the USA, Anudip has been empowering close to more than 100,000 underserved youth, touching over 425,000 crisis-stricken people from difficult backgrounds since 2007 through technology, skilling, and livelihood opportunities.
Youth and women from low-income family groups, tribal communities, reformed insurgents, people with disabilities, political refugees, victims of trafficking, ethnic and religious minorities historically perform poorly in the human development index, depending mostly on traditional occupations with limited career options, poor education quality, and economic instability. This traps them in a vicious lifetime circle of poverty.
Moreover, these marginalized youth are unable to tap into the livelihood opportunities offered by a growing digital economy, which cuts across sectors and job roles. Along with the changing business and dynamic job markets in the twenty-first century, these crisis-stricken youth find it difficult to compete with the market demand and are forced to take up low-paid jobs. At this pace, Anudip emerges a leader in identifying this gap and focuses on livelihood creation for marginalized communities, which empowers them with a sustainable income, financial stability, and the opportunity to become future leaders.
With changing times and companies transitioning to digital, AI, and robotics, traditional jobs will see a shift. In order to remain relevant, students have to possess deeper skills that are beyond the ‘soft skills’ that are typically taught. Students have to be agile learners, curious individuals, critical thinkers, and collaborators. Anudip is currently working on building a tech-based product to home these behaviors. Another innovation- which as a company, we adopted is the complete transition from physical classrooms to virtual classrooms for impoverished and opportunity-limited youth aspirants from underdeveloped locations of the country.
Your thoughts on the technology-driven programs of Anudip.
Monisha Banerjee: Anudip targets different learner-beneficiaries with niche digital skilling programs customized according to their varying capabilities and specific socio-economic conditions. DIYA (Digital Inclusion of Young Aspirants) targets unemployed/underemployed youth from poor rural and semi-urban households, SAVE (Specially Abled Vocational Education) aims to empower orthopedically challenged poverty-stricken youth, and BEST (Building Entrepreneurs to Stop Trafficking) reintegrates trafficking victims and survivors socially and economically after they have been rescued. The focus is to empower youth from low-income family groups, minorities, backward sections like scheduled castes/tribes, rural women with a sustainable income, financial stability, and the opportunity to become future leaders. The steady rise in demand for our programs made by disadvantaged youth, employers, and donors are testimonials to the need for our digital learning products and livelihood services in the domestic and international markets.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Monisha Banerjee: “Skilling should never be discontinued” – this has been our mantra since the outbreak of the COVID-19, which has changed the way we live, learn and leverage our potentials. Almost all Universities, schools, and colleges have been grappling to transition to an online education model. Since we are a livelihood provider, our students come from disadvantaged backgrounds, for whom learning itself is a challenge, and therefore adapting to an unconventional mode of learning was even harder. However, necessity is the mother of all invention, as they say, and the closing down of educational institutions catapulted us into action. Consequently, Anudip was amongst the early organizations that did not allow for class disruption.
There are several learnings associated with this experiment, which are continuously evolving.
Paradigm Shift from Physical to Digital: Since the inception of our DIYA (Digital Inclusion of Young Aspirants) program, we have been following the blended-learning for delivering training to our beneficiaries, which constitutes two major attributes:
- Online Learning-Management which ensures that the student is engaged and drives self-learning experience by themselves. The content is digitized and uses multimedia, activities, and games, creating an immersive professional development program. While the student is expected to navigate the content by himself, the student comes to the center and is helped by the instructor if there are comprehension issues. Most of the content is visual and hence largely language agnostic. There are interim short, interactive elements that test if the student is actually reading and has understood the material before he is allowed to proceed further. The self- learning component is built to drive inquiry-driven learning and make students active learners.
- Physical Instructor-Led Training: The trainer builds on the content from the LMS and ensures a conceptual understanding of the content through application-based examples. Practical classes are further done through assignments. This methodology powers majority of our courses ranging from regular courses like Certificate in Digital Education, IT fundamentals to high-end courses like Digital Marketing, Web Designing, Tally ERP, Dot NET, Full stack-based programming, and others. Post the suspension of classes in educational institutions (even before the complete lockdown was announced). The in-person classroom sessions had been replaced with online classes. Our Product team experimented with several models and have come up with models that are seeing successful outcomes.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Monisha Banerjee: Improving equality of opportunity for students from difficult backgrounds is central to our work. With the switch to only digital teaching and learning, which is increasingly embedded in the COVID era, we cannot risk students being left behind in a rush for online innovation. There are a few measures and choices we took to engage both faculty and students participate in the new economy.
- Faculty Upskilling: Most of our faculty were used to the classroom style of training and were reluctant or apprehensive about moving to a purely virtual model. Extensive training was provided about the portals such as Google Hangouts, Skype, and WebEx, leveraging all features on these portals, recording sessions, and making the sessions interactive.
- Engagement of Students: Teachers felt initially that virtual classes would be an impediment to interactivity and students’ participation. Our Academic team then included tools such as menti.com to take responses from students to questions asked or to discuss responses to certain key learning points. Attendance was captured online as well.
- Getting students to attend online: After initial reluctance, students have started attending regularly and have begun to enjoy the classes. The feedback is positive, and many say they prefer this mode of learning to commuting. Intensive counseling sessions were organized by the faculty and local teams to explain the importance of continuity and the importance of being able to adapt to dynamic situations.
- Availability of devices: One of the biggest challenges has been the availability of a smart device (computer, laptop, tab, or smart phone). In our experience, about 50% of our students had these devices though the numbers were slightly higher in urban India. For the rest, we are initiating the Old for You, New for Some Campaign, with a vision to provide equal access to technology education to all through collaborative efforts. We are appealing to all to donate old workable smart-phones, laptops, and tabs—to make it possible for someone from a less privileged background to learn through the devices.
- Access to the Internet: In Covid times, it would not be fair to have students use their phones and data. With the help of several donors, we were able to upgrade internet packs for both students and trainers who were working from home. So far, more than 200+ batches are being conducted across 16 Indian States virtually. 66% of the classes are being conducted through Google Hangout, 12% through Skype, 13% in Zoom App, and 4% through WebEx. Thanks to smart-phone penetration, students now connect through WhatsApp groups, which has emerged as a coalescing strategy, to stay connected. Besides, we are conducting Facebook Live Sessions by Leaders from the industry, who are willingly volunteering to speak on current trends and future work to an enthusiastic audience live on social media. For Anudip, which has always focused on creating livelihoods based on digital skills, going online, and using digital tools as a methodology was the next step. While COVID is steering thought to deal with everything online and virtual, the pandemic has also helped us identify the most important skills needed today: adaptability, problem-solving, and, most importantly, life-long learning skills.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, how do you project yourself and Anudip in the pandemic?
Monisha Banerjee: The pandemic stress is so big, so complex, and so dynamic that it requires everybody to be engaged. My role is to provide context, perspective, and clarity on what matters—while getting support in place and then getting out of the way. Through doing that, I can empower people when they need to make decisions at any given moment. Thankfully, we’ve got highly capable people and a warm culture. As a team, we make good decisions that have allowed us to steer a steady ship through what have been some changing waters.
While dealing with anxiety, a few important things have stood out. First is the importance of prioritizing people. Against the 2020 pandemic backdrop, we believe in demonstrating empathy and engaging with people to understand what their concerns are. From a leadership perspective, giving some sense of hope is important to navigate this crisis. We have been continuing to be responsive to the dynamics of an evolving crisis, which has impacted every part of the company differently, considering the remote, underdeveloped regions we cater to. These uncertain times have also given us a perspective to step back and see the bigger picture. This allowed me to sense what’s coming and what’s changing and be ready with my entire team to adapt to what’s around the corner.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Monisha Banerjee: Large-scale social development missions call for ‘collaborators’ instead of ‘competitors.’ However, being a not-for-profit in the domain of high-end technology careers, Anudip remains a niche player in the large growth of ‘skill development’ training institutes that focus on other sectors such as manufacturing, construction, hospitality, retail, etc.
In 2007, Anudip was set up after a Reuters Foundation-Action Aid study found that an increase of local employment can impact desperately poor people’s economies. Starting as learning prototypes in IT skilling at 3 locations in the heart of Sunderbans – rural West Bengal to 90+ locations across 16 states in India, Anudip is on its way to transforming into a self-sustaining social enterprise.
With an organizational objective of training 100,000+ students a year in the next 3-4 years, we seek partnerships to scale up our program outreach, upgrade our future learning products, and expand our revenue sources.