As pairs of fresh-faced men and women sat hunched over computers in the training room of Computer Science Corp.’s Noida offices recently, the only thing that separated the software engineers—they formed half of each pair—were their identification badges.
But there’s so much more that separates these groups. Half are former slum dwellers or street kids, who get on buses every week to understand corporate India—and how they just might be able to join the other half.
After years of trying to lure mentors from the private sector into slums and orphanages, Kiran Modi, the managing trustee of Udayan Care, is seeing more success doing the reverse: bringing abandoned children into the workplace. Udayan Care is a Delhi-based NGO that operates shelters for these children. The idea is to prepare the young men and women from the homes to take part in India’s growing economy, said Modi. The corporate mentoring programme, which also sends children to the offices of Adidas and Xansa, supplements their enrolment in English medium schools, including at some of Delhi’s top public institutions. Adidas and Xansa could not be reached for comment.
“It’s important for them to spend time in an office and learn how people interact,” said Modi. “When many of them come to us, some don’t even know basic things like how to use a toothbrush. They’ve never had the opportunity to learn.”
So every Tuesday, about 20 teenagers and young adults leave the NGO-operated places they call home and head to the office. “We get to know the mentors, they solve our problems and help us with our school work,” said 17-year-old Rekha Udayan, who enjoys writing poetry and hopes to work in travel and tourism after she graduates from Delhi’s Sanskriti School in Chanakyapuri. (Besides a home, the NGO also gives some children their surname.) “We also get to use the Internet. You need time to check your mail.”
The young software engineers at CSC are symbols of India’s economic boom, but they become more than mentors, Modi said. They represent possibility. “We tell them we can be anything they want to be, but we come from a traditional school of thinking where that might mean a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher or an architect,” Modi said. “These days, there are all sorts of career options out there that we don’t even know about,” and spending time with a computer engineer or graphic designer gives the children a view into other careers, along with help in their studies and English skills.
Modi devised the programme after contending with mentor matches that fell apart after a few visits. “I always had people just like them coming to volunteer and they would come once, twice or three times and then something would come up and they would call and say they couldn’t make it,” she said.
The problem wasn’t the lack of volunteers, but the busy schedule of today’s young professionals.
Almost three years ago, she began approaching companies to let the children spend some time in their offices, in some cases allowing employees to use office time. That removed the need for individuals who wanted to volunteer but didn’t quite have motivation to go out and find their own project, as well as cutting out the time-consuming commute to and from the Udayan homes.
“Tuesdays, we all know the kids are coming and we keep our busy schedules away for a couple of hours,” said Tinky Tahiliani, a 26-year-old associate engineer who coordinates the volunteer programme at CSC, where 29 employees participate.
The corporations organize pick-up and drop-off for the children. They also pay the foundation, mainly supported through private donors, for advertisements in Udayan’s annual magazine. No estimate was available on costs or the revenue generated. By playing host in their office, the mentors’ roles also have evolved from helping with homework to overall life skills.
“It’s definitely more than just teaching them what a punch card is, what the vending machine does and how to do a search on Google,” said Subhrat Mahajan, a 25-year-old software engineer.
They also get to see some of the perks that come with working for a big corporation. Among the favourite activities of the children when they come to CSC is playing a round of table tennis in the canteen.
The young executives first find it difficult to relate to the kids and win their trust. But, with enough time and effort, they say they usually bridge the gap. “It is hard to get them to open up sometimes, but every kid has this mentality where they want to know things. They are curious,” said Pragati Soni, a 26-year-old software engineer. “Just like everybody else, they want the computer and they want the mobile and here, they get to experience that.”