Quest Alliance encourages its staff to learn from failures
Mumbai: The sight of a garden area redesigned as a co-working space, where pimply adolescents in tees and bearded men in kurtas talk about life, family and a bit of work over lunch, welcomes one at the office of Quest Alliance in Bengaluru, which is one of the non-governmental organizations Great Place to Work Institute has shortlisted to work for in India.
As one enters this space, a board reads ‘Chili Pili Loka’, translated roughly from Kannada, it means “a place where birds of all kinds gather”. This more or less reflects the Quest ethos. Employees say the space makes them feel more open and increases familiarity. It also reflects what they stand for as an organization.
These are no banner-waving, dhoti-clad activists, but a bunch of tech-savvy young people working at the grassroots level on an evidence-based approach to bringing about change. They work in five states, reaching over 200,000 children and 2,000 teachers in 4,000 classrooms, apart from government officials and others involved in the education sector.
Since 2008, expanding from a team of four people to roughly one hundred, Quest claims to have trained 100,000 youths in the country on aspects ranging from communication skills to gender sensitivity, resulting in 70% of the lot finding better jobs.
“My father was a full-time activist,” says chief executive officer and founder Aakash Sethi. “He was running his own NGO (Jan Vikas) and was into advocating land rights for Dalits, building the capacity of other small NGOs and so on. He would spend 20 days in a month travelling in countryside, and return home with little money. He was a big influence on me, but I was clear I did not want to work in the same manner,” he said.
Quest is also drawn out of Sethi’s own experiences of disenchantment with an education system that just won’t accept failure as a result, blaming the student for it. “I failed in my ninth standard because I used to bunk classes. I just didn’t enjoy school. That was a tough phase in my life... because when you fail, in the Indian context you are looked down upon in some sense. I had to work hard even to get my classmates to accept me as a basketball player,” he says.
“But that’s when I really started to get involved in other things, getting into sports, technology, basically doing more than just academic study. I had a lot of time to do this because I knew the curriculum back to front. By the time I was in 10th, I got the usual 75% to become a decent student and a national basketball player. I feel the biggest lessons one can draw are from one’s failures, not from the successes,” he says.
That philosophy seems to have percolated into shaping the non-profit’s culture, too. As Priyanthi Sylvia, lead of operations, puts it: “It’s okay to fail at Quest.” “I worked in an international NGO previously. Usually, Indian NGOs would talk only about the requirements and the role of a person while hiring. We are not that rigid. We dig deeper into a person and see where he would fit better right when we hiring. Our people explore their personal interests and spend time on it, with financial support, while working on their main goals.”
This has meant spending about Rs40,000 per employee every year to let them learn a skill they are interested in. For instance, a person in administration learned film-making this way, and is, in turn, shooting videos for the digital training modules. A collective atmosphere of learning and togetherness helps sustain the workforce for a longer period than the usual, says Sylvia. Almost half the workforce has been with the NGO for about four years, she says, despite the fact that some of them joined after taking a pay cut.
Gauri Sanghi, who calls herself a “knowledge manager” at Quest, reels off a string of anecdotes when asked why she would choose to work there, after successfully graduating from a premier design college where she paid a huge sum to study. “It’s more than the money,” she says, recalling the thrill of inspiring young girls at schools or Industrial Training Institutes.
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