Shaheen Mistri: Teaching India selflessness

The CEO of Teach For India on making education accessible to all, the strength of her parents, and her own unfinished degree at Tufts University


Shaheen Mistri was born in Mumbai but her father’s transferable job meant the family kept moving and she attended a total of 10 schools. Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Shaheen Mistri was born in Mumbai but her father’s transferable job meant the family kept moving and she attended a total of 10 schools. Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein is a classic children’s picture book about an enduring friendship between a tree and a young boy. In this tender tale, the tree keeps giving and giving to a boy who keeps asking for more as he grows up. There are various interpretations of this book—but most readers agree that ultimately, it’s a poignant story about giving and selflessness.

So I’m not surprised when Shaheen Mistri, 46, founder of Akanksha and the founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Teach For India (TFI)—both organizations focused on education—tells me it’s her favourite children’s book. Even before we meet for this interview, I have pretty much decided that a woman who set up a non-profit at the age of 20 to educate underprivileged children must be, well, selfless.

“I don’t think she ever thinks of herself that way,” says Mistri’s close friend and colleague of over 20 years, Nandita Dugar, who serves on the board of both Akanksha and TFI. “But she is one of the most selfless people I know.”

I meet Mistri for coffee at a café down the road from her home in Worli, Mumbai, where she is a regular. I have a feeling that many meetings are conducted here, over coffee and conversations—Mistri’s favourite things, one of her colleagues tells me.

Mistri seems embarrassed when I bring up her selfless nature. But since I find it hard to get inside the head of a woman who left a top-notch liberal arts education at Tufts University in the US to teach low-income children in India, I persist. This time, I probe her about what parents can do to raise selfless children. “I don’t know,” she replies. Then, a pause. “My own children are not in that space right now. Not yet.”

We go on to talk about other things but Mistri quickly brings the conversation back to my original question. She tells me what made a difference to her—her parents set an example.

“They always looked after other people,” she says, describing her father, a former banker, as a “rock” who helped people within their extended family, both emotionally and financially. Her mother was a speech therapist, so Mistri and her brother became familiar with children with special needs.

Mistri was born in Mumbai but her father’s transferable job meant the family kept moving and she attended a total of 10 schools. After stints in Lebanon, Greece and Indonesia, the family reached the US. There, Mistri attended a private high school in the wealthy suburb of Greenwich, Connecticut. The transfers were difficult for a “painfully shy child”, but they made Mistri value diversity and left her with an interesting accent that sounds like a blend of all the places she’s lived in.

Connecticut was a world far, far removed from India. To ensure the children didn’t forget their roots, the Mistri family would visit Mumbai every summer. And every summer, a young Mistri would volunteer at a school for the visually impaired, at an orphanage or any place that could do with an extra pair of hands.

“I didn’t like those trips to India at that time,” Mistri tells me, “but the seed was planted. I noticed the disparity. The inequality around me was glaring.” It is this polarity that would shape Mistri’s future choices.

Mistri came to Mumbai in the summer that followed her first year at Tufts University. One day, she was stuck at a traffic light near Nariman Point. A few children came running up to the car, begging. She recalls, “I remember looking at them and asking myself at that moment, why am I going back to the US? Won’t anything I do in India be more valuable than going back home?”

She called her parents, who were in the US, and told them she wasn’t going back. She’s still here, working on her dream to provide every child in India access to an education. Her parents have moved back to Mumbai too.

After leaving Tufts, Mistri enrolled for a course in sociology at St Xavier’s College, graduating in 1992. She convinced a group of college friends to volunteer as teachers and begged schools to let her use their empty classrooms after hours. Her tenacity paid off—the first Akanksha centre was born in 1991 at Holy Name School, Colaba. Fifteen children from neighbouring slums attended the first class that Mistri taught herself. She says she felt “every possible emotion ranging from helpless to exhilarated”. It was a start.

The centre soon evolved into the Akanksha Foundation. It now serves 6,500 children through three centres and 21 schools in Mumbai and Pune.

"Mistri shares a home with her two children, two cats and a dog. She is passionate about animals. Her happiest childhood memories involve building a shed with her brother for stray animals in the backyard. “I could have easily started Animals for India!” she laughs. “But I felt India’s children could do with a little more help right now.”"-

Mistri felt proud as she watched Akanksha grow but says it also brought on a feeling of restlessness. “After years of asking myself, what do I want to do, I began to ask myself, where do I need to be?” Mistri says, explaining that she felt a “crushing responsibility” to find a way to scale up what she was doing at Akanksha.

In India, there is an urgent need for it. Nearly one in four people here is below the age of 14. More than half the students in class V in government schools cannot read a class II text or do a simple math problem. There are 900,000 vacancies for teachers across primary and upper-primary schools all over the country. To address this, India needs intervention.

According to Mistri, that intervention is leadership. In 2008, she founded TFI, based on the proven model of Teach For America. It’s an extension of her work at Akanksha: The organization’s mission is to build a community of leaders who will work within the education sector to eliminate the inequality we see in it now.

It works on a two-part model. In the short term, TFI places outstanding college graduates and young professionals (referred to as fellows) in low-income schools to teach full-time for two years. During this period, they get exposed to the grass-root realities of India’s education system and, hopefully, are fired up enough to commit to a career in education. Many of TFI’s alumni do, and in the longer term, they work as teachers, principals, policymakers and curriculum designers who work towards the same goal—to educate all the children in India.

TFI, now funded by corporate donors, other foundations and high net worth individuals, is in its ninth year. It receives thousands of applications each year and has an acceptance rate of 8%. At present, it has 40,000 students, 1,200 fellows, 240 staff members and 1,500 alumni.

“She sets audacious goals. And then she just goes and does them,” says Dugar. “I remember thinking, why would anyone give two years of their life to Teach For India, but Shaheen’s done it, she’s pulled it off.” TFI has set one more lofty goal: It wants to reach one million children over the next
five years.

Given Mistri’s formidable reputation, chances are she will get there. “She’s a visionary. But also someone who has substance and can execute,” says Fatima Agarkar, co-founder of Ka Edu Associates, a Mumbai-based educational management services company. “There are enough people out there who want to save the world. We need more people like Shaheen who are actively doing something, who are hands on,” she says.

I drop in at a dimly lit TFI class at the Worli Sea Face municipal school. Here, I find a fellow, Neha Gujar, 22, teaching class VI students. Around 40 boys and girls—children of drivers, domestic helps and daily-wage labourers from the surrounding slums—cheerfully jump up to greet me.

Gujar, who has a mass media degree from Jai Hind College, became a TFI fellow for a simple reason: She knows education can change lives. Her father comes from a poor family in Rajasthan. She tells me his prospects were bleak. But he managed to go to school and eventually joined the Indian Navy. The opportunity brought with it money, respect and a chance to educate his own children.

As a TFI fellow, Gujar earns Rs17,500 a month. “Compared to my friends, I’m not earning that much. Then I think about Shaheen. Her life. Her story. And I look at all that she’s achieved,” Gujar says. “That inspires me.”

Mistri still teaches once every 10 days and calls the classroom experience a highlight. “I don’t know any other role in this world where, whether you have had a good or bad day, you come into a classroom and you are just showered with love and acceptance by these kids. Being around the children, it’s hard to walk away and not say, what can I do a little bit more, a little bit better, for more kids.”

I linger in the TFI classroom and watch Gujar at her job. She shows me what her students are studying. Last year, none of them were reading at a level appropriate to their grade. Within a year, a quarter of the class is where it should be. Gujar looks satisfied. “Being a TFI fellow, I feel I am part of a movement working for India. Every day, when I wake up, I feel I have a purpose.”

It sounds like a rehearsed answer, but standing in the middle of that crowded classroom packed with eager faces in blue and white uniforms, I believe Gujar.

Remember all that talk about selflessness? I don’t ask this young TFI fellow, who will become a TFI staff member when she completes her fellowship, what or who drives her. This time, I am pretty sure I know the answer.

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