Equal career opportunities for youth
Medha helps young people start careers they enjoy
I am the Co-Founder of Medha and drive our strategic direction around program design, impact evaluation, people management, and resource generation. Since Co-Founding Medha in 2011, we have improved employment and employability for over 75,000 youth across more than 400 educational institutions in India. We are currently working towards greater adoption at scale with the public-sector education systems in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Haryana.
Before founding Medha, I worked in financial services, strategic consulting, and the development sector in India and the US, with SKS Microfinance, IDFC Private Equity, Sequoia Capital, and Nav Bharat Jagriti Kendra.
I have an MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and an MA from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). I am an Echoing Green (2012) and Rainer Arnhold Fellow (2020 cohort, public announcement pending).
Equal career opportunities for youth
Medha helps young people start careers they enjoy
Medha brings holistic career services to under-resourced educational institutions. Higher secondary, vocational/technical, and undergrad programs that are unable to adequately prepare and support students as they transition from school to work. Medha fills this gap with quality facilitators (both full-time employees as well as new and existing Government faculty members) who train, mentor, and connect young people to career opportunities they are passionate about.
This approach results in a 38% income growth, a 27% increase in female labor force participation, and a 25% RoI on the total cost of the program within the first year.
Reaching more than 25,000 students a year, Medha is now collaborating more deeply with the government to build capacity, systems, and a student-centric approach into the public sector education system, aiming to impact over 2,000,000 youth in the next five years.
India is facing an employment crisis. More than 50% of the population is under 25 years old, resulting in over 300 million people entering the workforce in the next 15 years – the ‘demographic dividend’ – but few have the skills, information, and networks to succeed in today’s workplace – the ‘demographic disaster.’ This leads to high unemployment, increasing inequality, and violence and unrest. Globally, 42% of the world’s population is under 25 (~3.2 billion people).
In the north and eastern part of India, where Medha’s work has focused, the problem is compounded. Students come from Hindi-medium, under-resourced schools, and have limited exposure to the workplace. Young people also face significant family and social pressure to pursue certain kinds of jobs, or in the case of many young women, not work at all. In Uttar Pradesh, where Medha is headquartered, the female labor force participation is an appalling 11%.
While job opportunities have developed slowly, growth in India’s smaller cities and towns has accelerated. There, employers face two significant challenges: 1) finding people with the right skills, and 2) retaining those people over the medium and long term.
Medha provides employability skills training, career counseling, and ongoing placement and alumni support to youth. We partner with government educational institutions to deliver our program on-campus. Through this approach and its impact, Medha influences policy from the inside-out, mainstreaming its model into the existing education system, impacting millions of youth in the long-run.
Our adoption at scale approach comprises of:
Medha’s students and alumni are young people (17 – 23) from disadvantaged backgrounds, defined in terms of family income, gender, and caste. Over 78% have a family income of less than $4 a day. Our students mostly come from rural, Hindi-medium schools, and face several hurdles when it comes to entering the job market:
No exposure to industry
Low confidence and skills
Working with young people keeps you on your toes! Their interests and aspirations change quickly. We have learned how to adapt by decentralizing decision-making, employing an extremely young team, and engaging a community of 20,000 alumni in the design and delivery. More important than anything else, subscribing to a core value of student-centrism keeps all of us focused on what matters most – preparing youth for their lives after school.
Elevating opportunities for all people, especially those who are traditionally left behind
Our alignment to the selected dimension is directly reflected in our vision – equal career opportunities for youth; irrespective of gender, class, or caste.
We chose to work:
The concept for Medha comes from me and my co-founder’s shared experiences working in the microfinance sector in the mid-2000s. While appreciative of the value of income-generating loans, over time, we saw the significant economic and social impact we were having through job creation and wage employment. This inspired us to explore the education to employment gap more closely and look for ways to improve the school to work transition for similar youth.
After conducting extensive field research while in graduate school, we 1) were convinced that India was suffering from an unemployability problem and that it would get worse given the demographic conditions, 2) felt the current skilling paradigm in India was flawed, as it focused on creating intermediary institutions to bridge the education to employment gap, instead of working to incorporate employability skills and career preparation into the existing education system, and 3) believed an industry-agnostic approach designed to address student needs and interests would be more successful in the long-run.
With these learnings, we developed a comprehensive organizational plan in 2010, and I moved to Lucknow in early 2011. Byomkesh left his job five months later, and we have been doing this ever since!
In 2007, the microfinance company in India I worked for hired over 300 high-school dropouts per month, trained them in computers and accounting, and provided them with well paying jobs and opportunities for professional development. Working with these young people in our rural branches, I saw firsthand how a chance in a ‘formal setup’ could transform them into mature, driven professionals. The ability to control one’s destiny through hard work and dedication has an incredible impact on self-esteem and economic independence, and I wanted to do something that could create a similar effect for millions of youth around the country.
After a study abroad program that took me to India in 1999, I wanted to come back primarily out of ‘foreigners romanticism’ for a place very different from my suburban Massachusetts upbringing. Little did I know, 20 years later, I would have spent more than 13 years living and working across the country, built a team of over 130 people who impact more than 25,000 students a year, adopted a ‘Desi dog,’ and recently gotten married to a woman from Mumbai!
See the answers above regarding my bio, motivation, background, etc. Below please find why we as a team are uniquely positioned to deliver this project and solve the problem:
The average age of Medha’s 130-member team is 28. More than 60% are Student Relationship Managers who work with students every day on campus. They come from similar backgrounds, and our alumni team is 100% comprised of Medha alumni. In other words, we are an ‘implementing’ organization at heart. We are motivated above all else by seeing our students and alumni succeed.
For the last nine years, we have balanced this DNA with the belief that to get closer to our vision, we need to not only work within but strive to improve a system that is failing the vast majority of India’s youth. This aim has led us to work more closely with state governments in the last few years, and through this process, we are learning how to ‘nudge’ the system while remaining committed to our student-centric approach. Maintaining this balance is not easy. Working at a state-level v. a student level is very different.
We have been building the capacities required – project management, relationship development, strategic communications, impeccable documentation, etc. We still have a long way to go, but it is precisely our connection to youth that makes us well-positioned to succeed. With a community of young people behind you, the system has no choice but to evolve.
In 2016, we faced a cash crunch at Medha. Like many early-stage non-profits, we were heavily dependent on one funder who pulled out at the last minute due to external factors. At the time, we had given placement offers to 15 people who were about to finish graduate school. We had no choice but to rescind these offers.
The year ahead was the most challenging we had up until that point. Looking back on that experience, two things stand out for me:
I know it’s not what you are looking for, but I couldn’t think of one experience or instance that I feel captures my leadership style or potential. I believe that my ability to lead, and to whatever extent I am a role model for the team and our sector in general, comes from my grit and determination. I know that things don’t happen overnight, especially things like changing India’s education system, and I’ve always been willing to put in the time, work, and energy required to move us closer to our vision, even if that is one small milestone at a time.
In an environment where everyone is seeking scale and impact tomorrow, Byomkesh and I have always realized the slow and steady approach would ‘win’ in the end. When we were starting Medha in 2011, one of our early mentors said to us, ‘changing the education system is impossible, it will take more than one lifetime.’ To which we replied, ‘that’s ok, as long as our lives get us a little bit closer, someone else will pick it up from there.’
Medha’s approach has the following distinguishing features:
Medha is at a key inflection point. It has demonstrated a high-impact model that works within the existing public-sector education system and reached over 25,000 students across 200 institutions last year.
Reaching this ‘critical mass’ has enabled us to form large-scale, strategic partnerships with different departments within the state and central government to build capacity, systems, and a student-centric approach deeper into the public sector education system.
These partnerships, combined with our organic growth, will enable us to reach over 50,000 students across 300 educational institutions in three states in the next year.
Our five-year goal is to reach 2,000,000 youth across ten states in the north and northeastern part of the country.
We also track the following indicators in our collaborations with the government:
Based on Medha’s past results, we aim to achieve the following with 50,000 students in the next year and 2,000,000 students by year five:
In the short-term (hopefully), Medha’s ambitious growth goals are challenged by the COVID pandemic and associated country-wide lockdown and economic crisis. While the team and programs have quickly shifted online, and engaged over 5,500 students/alumni in the last three months, campus closures and limited economic growth will, of course, impact our expansion plans in the next year.
Looking at a five-year horizon, we have been focused on how to ensure a high per-student impact while at the same time scaling within the system. There are several challenges related to this:
In terms of financial and legal barriers, the regulatory environment for non-profits in India is becoming more onerous. The government is requiring more frequent renewals of tax-exempt status and FCRA registration that allows charitable contributions from abroad. In addition, as we have grown our funding base (we now have more than 20 active funders), the administrative, relationship management, and reporting burden has increased exponentially.
We are addressing the challenges mentioned above by:
In parallel, we are strengthening our finance team and systems to ensure accurate, timely, and robust reporting and disclosures for donors and regulatory bodies.
Since its inception, Medha has been collaborating with the following
Medha improves employment outcomes for youth. We provide 21st-century skills training, career counseling and workplace exposure, and ongoing job placement and alumni support to students at their existing educational institution.
Our community of students/alumni want this program because they aspire to find a career they enjoy and one that can provide financial stability for themselves and their families. Their existing educational institution and/or personal and professional networks are not providing them a pathway to career satisfaction.
We decided early on that we would charge students a nominal fee for our programs so that they had a level of investment in achieving the intended outcomes. However, we have always kept the price low to ensure we are accessible to students who need it most.
As a result, we have primarily been grant-funded, from a combination of corporate, foundation, and individual donors. We have recently diversified our funding to include the government and multilaterals, working with the Government of Uttar Pradesh and The World Bank.
Medha’s long-term goal is adoption at scale – ‘working on the key levers of systems so that the system itself scales the transformative idea through its own self-sustaining momentum.’ If we can achieve this ambitious aim, other players in the ecosystem (government, industry, civil society, youth, etc.) will each contribute to the long-term financial sustainability.
Working towards this goal will require substantial resources – we estimate $71.4MM over the next five years.
We plan to raise this money through a combination of grants (corporates, foundations, and individuals – 60%), government funding (10%), student fees (10%), and innovative financing vehicles like a DIB/SIB (20%).
*All data is cumulative, from 2011 to date (Approx $8.2MM). The total amount raised from April 2019 – March 2020 was $2.9MM.
We are seeking grant funds in the amount of $71.4MM over the next five years. Existing funders (assuming growth) will cover 40% of the proposed budget, and we will need new funding for the remaining 60%.
Key cost drivers include personnel, technology, travel, and communications.
Our goal has always been ‘adoption at scale.’ With the government as the primary ‘doer’ and ‘payer’ in the long-run.
We believe we have made significant progress towards this goal in the last several years, but creating last-mile impact with a large and notoriously slow-moving system requires a sustained, collaborative approach with multiple stakeholders.
The Elevate Prize will bring additional support, recognition, and mentorship during this critical stage; as we test, measure, and refine different approaches with the education system, build the capacity and networks required to more effectively influence key stakeholders, and garner the financial and non-financial resources we will collectively need to create sustainable change.
Our hard work over the last several years has gotten us a ‘seat at the table.’ Now it is time for us to leverage that position to create high per-student impact for millions of young people across the country. We know being a Global Hero will ignite and support us through this process.
Our five-year growth plan will stretch Medha way outside its comfort zone. Working to dramatically increase female labor force participation and the number of quality income-earning opportunities for two million young people is a gigantic task.
Frankly, we are going to have to get better in all areas to achieve this goal, but believe The Elevate Prize could be the most helpful in terms of partners and mentorship in the following areas:
We would like to speak with a few of the Solvers focused on the work of the future, to see if their solutions could be adapted for our population and integrated into our programs with young people. This could include: