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New Delhi: Asweetha Shetty was born in a low-income family in a small village in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district. She was the first to graduate in her family and runs her own social enterprise. Shetty’s achievements may not have been possible without the institutional and financial support received in the form of the Mother Teresa Fellowship (MTF), which was started in 2013 with the aim of helping youngsters committed to working with social issues such as access to healthcare, quality of education and sustainable water use.

The fellowship is an extension of New Delhi-based Ashoka University’s Young India Fellowship (YIF) which was launched in 2011 and provides more than 200 students a one-year multidisciplinary postgraduate diploma programme in liberal studies.

Funded by Ashoka University co-founder Amit Chandra and his wife as part of their personal philanthropy, the aim of the Mother Teresa fellowship is to create “socially committed agents of change".

Chandra provides a total amount of Rs10 lakh a year to assist 10 individuals for 12 to 18 months. The fourth batch of fellows started in September 2016. Chandra said around 30-50 students from YIF apply for the Mother Teresa fellowship every year, and of these, up to 10 are given the seed capital required to sustain their efforts. The selection is done by a committee comprising MTF alumni and external sector experts. The grant is based on a detailed project proposal that the students have to submit while applying for the fellowship. 

In addition to financial and network support, the MTF fellowship also works as a motivator for youngsters such as Saransh Vaswani, who has a BSc (honours) degree from Delhi University’s Hansraj College. In July 2013, after completing the YIF, he co-founded social enterprise Saajha with the help of MTF which is focused on improving quality, accountability and standards of government school education. Vaswani worked as a consultant in the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai between 2010 and 2012, where the idea germinated.

Vaswani and his partner Abhishek Choudhary, also a YIF fellow, work to build leadership capacities in communities and on increasing parent participation in state-run schools. Saajha started with 30 schools and currently operates in 1,100 municipal schools in Delhi. It has recently expanded to Karnataka.

“While working as a teacher in a village, I taught a student from a marginalized caste. That child never really learned to read or write and his family was uninvolved in his progress. He dropped out of school eventually. This incident convinced me about the importance of involving parents and community in children's education," Vaswani said.

He believes it is a misconception that social sector work is not a priority for young adults like himself. “More and more young people are looking at the social sector but it is hard to explain our choice to our family and peers. However, with the kind of financial and mentorship support that MTF and similar programmes offer, it is easier to take this path," he said. 

One of the biggest challenges in social sector projects and businesses is the lack of finances and other resources such as mentoring, which can help improve the efficiency, quality and reach of social enterprises—both for the profit and not-for-profit sectors. That is why Harshal Kale , after working in a not-for-profit for two years, decided to join YIF and was later selected for MTF.

Kale who suffers from haemophilia, a disorder where a lack of clotting agents in blood results in excessive bleeding in case of an injury, started an organization in his home city of Pune to create awareness and support for the ailment. However, the enterprise did not take off as expected which led Kale to seek help and applied for the MTF.

“There is need for such fellowships to be replicated, given the scale of our social problems," said Rohin Kapoor, a director specializing in education at consulting firm Deloitte.

Kapoor said easy access to financial support can help organizations working in the social sector reach much-needed scale. “It is only the people working at the grass roots level who can have a real impact. They can do so if they reach a substantial scale and they can only attain such a scale if they receive support in terms of expertise, networks and finances."

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