How do we bring our gifts to bear to best serve this world? Through conversations with global business leaders, the Becoming the Best Version of Yourself webinar series has been seeking to explore this uplifting belief. In this edition, SOIL Institute of Management Founder & Chairman Anil Sachdev converses with Shaheen Mistri, the founder and CEO of Teach for India, on how
Mistri's story is one of a never-ending quest to slightly even the scales in a deeply unequal world. Growing up outside India, in an environment of privilege and opportunity, she was struck by the inequity she saw every time she visited her homeland. By the age of 12 she was deeply involved in volunteer work, and at the age of 18 she began to ask herself: why not return to India and do this on a full-time basis? So she dropped out of the US college where she was studying, moved to a low-income community in Mumbai, and began teaching. That was also when she started the Akanksha Foundation, her project to provide children from low-income backgrounds with additional education.
Later, she founded Teach For India with the idea of building a movement of leaders across the country that would be dedicated to the singular goal of solving the problem of inequity in education for India's children. "Education profoundly changes lives," she says. "We all know that, we all read that, but when you see that in children that you work with—I felt very compelled to do that at scale."
But how did she build Teach for India to today's scale, where it has become one of the country's largest fellowship programs—with a new cohort of 500 fellows each year, and up to 1,000 fellows teaching 32,000 children across 7 cities and 350 schools at any one time, impacting up to a total of 20 million children? A few things have helped, as she shared.
Have a balanced team to complement your best points
"I am a foolish dreamer," Mistri describes herself: it's easy for her to dream and to work towards something big, bold, and ambitious, even if she does not get all the way there. This, and the ability to remain comfortable with change and doing things differently, are the most important qualities that have gotten her this far. "I'm very comfortable with throwing away something I have done and saying: I can do better."
But at the same time, she says, dreams must have a firm foundation: "It's very important to be equally grounded in the truth." And dreamers must have a team of people to complement them, people who are not just fellow dreamers but who have a balance of qualities. They need people who are pragmatic and realistic, people who are operational, people who can dissent but also engage in dialogue.
"For many years you try to surround yourself with people who are like you, because it's easier—and it's a disaster. You don't need people like you around, you need people who are different."
Don't be afraid to ask for what you want
"This work is like being a professional beggar," Mistri says. "You're constantly asking people shamelessly for what you want, and in the beginning you feel bad. But then you remember that you're not asking for yourself, but for really important reasons, and so you have to ask."
One thing that helps is concentrating on the importance of the Akanksha Foundation and Teach For India, so that when she asks people to volunteer—whether time, money, or some other resource—it feels as though she is extending them an opportunity to change lives and not just begging for their assistance. "That's been my journey: from a lot of nervousness and hesitation about things, to saying 'Let me jump in and ask, because the maximum someone can say is no, and if I ask enough times, someone will say yes."
In tandem with this belief is the idea that because the work they are doing is so important, they absolutely need to find the best: the most committed, loving, and thoughtful people. This means very few people are accepted: Mistri estimates that one out of every 10 people she asks will be at all interested in Teach For India, and only one out of every 10 who is interested will actually qualify. But she refuses to compromise. Even if Teach For India cannot make its recruitment numbers, it does not lower its bar.
This entire approach has convinced some of India's top companies to send their talent on sabbaticals to work with Teach For India, and it is truly a win-win situation, Mistri says.
"Why would you not do that? Imagine the people you're getting back two years later. They're coming back with such diverse experiences, fuelled by so much contribution. They're bringing that spirit back to your company," she says. "And when you approach conversations that way, people respond very differently."
Take joy in lifting others up
Mistri's happiest moments have been working directly with children, she said—"When you take a class, and everybody is learning, laughing, and loving learning, there is something magical about those moments."
She believes that with the emphasis on getting tangible individual rewards back from education—learning in order to get a better job, better pay, personal advancement—many schools in India have lost the understanding of education's importance in creating a better world. "Education is about learning to love and respect others, to uplift others, to make the world better," Mistri insists.
An excellent education, she says, is about the small practices rather than the big personal ambitions: the building of community, the importance of relationships and setting the highest bar possible for children. And In the same way, she believes that running an organization is not just about serving one's stakeholders: it is about shouldering the responsibility for the surrounding world and its betterment.