Despite the ups and downs, Shalini Srivastava believes she’s been lucky in life. But she is only too aware of how many women have not had the same chances, and decided to do something about it. Using her expertise and network from a long IT career in New Delhi, Srivastava is building tech and life skills in remote communities at the base of the Himalayas, one girl at a time.
“We focus on digital literacy. The aim is to give young women the competence to use these skills as best they can to improve their livelihoods. If they understand how to use a computer and the internet, they can figure out how to market and sell the fruit they harvest, for example, or they might even consider doing something completely different, a possibility never previously imagined.”
As a young woman, Srivastava had always felt she was something of a disappointment to her father, who had visions of his three daughters with big careers in medicine or engineering. “I wasn’t very professionally inclined. To be honest, I was just enjoying life and wanted to get married and have children.” But she managed to surprise even herself when, after two years of a management degree at Aligarh Muslim University, she realized how much she enjoyed the business degree. After graduation, she immediately took a Sales & Marketing position in the hospitality industry working for Vatika Group in New Delhi and loved it.
Starting a family was still in the cards, however, and Srivastava married a former classmate. After some convincing, she agreed reluctantly to leave her job and take care of her mother-in-law, as was customary in the local culture at the time. “I got pregnant and was happy, but after a year-and-a-half, the routine became difficult to handle and I missed working life.” She took a job with telecom giant Ericsson.
After about six years, her marriage ended and she found herself “financially very much alone”.
It was a difficult time for Srivastava, who had to take out a loan to buy an apartment where she and her son could live. So she jumped when an opportunity to move to Indonesia with Ericsson presented itself.
“Financially, it was a great decision, but I have many regrets about the impact it had on my son. He was 9 at the time and fell behind academically. When another opportunity came to move to Malaysia for a regional role in South East Asia, I decided to send him back to India to be schooled and live with his father. That time was so difficult for me because, although I was doing well professionally, I felt I had failed my son.”
Srivastava finally returned to New Delhi, still with Ericsson, and worked in a global role for a further five years until, quite unexpectedly in 2013, she lost her job.
“I had been with the company for 17 years. The company had just made some new acquisitions and, as a result of restructuring, my role was eliminated – or so I was told. Actually my position was just given to the training head of one of the firms Ericsson had just acquired. I was not offered any other position as was done to some other people in similar situation. It was a real blow to my self-respect and so I didn’t fight it.”
Forty-four years of age and unemployed for the first time, she tried to stay positive. “I indulged my self-pity for about a month, cried a lot, but then convinced myself maybe it was time to go. I was so tired of all the corporate politics. The moment I stopped getting paid, I knew I would have to start eating my savings so I started looking at my options.”
Of one thing, she was certain … she didn’t want to go back to the 9-5 grind. Srivastava felt it was time to do something more substantial with her life. When she had been doing well financially, she had bought a parcel of land in what’s known as the Fruit Bowl region of Uttarakhand State in India, west of Nepal at the base of the Himalayas. She had never built on the land but frequently visited.
“Every time I came here I saw women working hard in the fields and the men just sitting there and enjoying life. Women have so little opportunity here and there is a problem of domestic violence. I was fortunate enough to have good education and career, and I wanted to give back. So I decided to launch an NGO.”
She put all her savings into fixed deposits to get returns on a monthly basis and moved to the area, where her expenses dropped to one fourth of what they had been in New Delhi. She used her own savings and some funds from friends to open Shiksha Alok (Hindi for Enlightment through Education), a learning center that teaches mostly women, girls, and young boys IT skills. The goal is to empower women to earn livelihoods by promoting access to non-traditional work practices. Shiksha Alok also works on gender equality and improving literacy through its mobile library.
“There were a lot of raised eyebrows. The nearest rail station is 70 km away and I’m high in the mountains with no access to doctors or hospitals. But the national telecom service provider is right next door so I have a great internet connection,” she laughs.
But that’s about all she has. Classes are held in a donated space with no electricity so she charges all the laptops at her rented home. At first she taught the Microsoft curriculum herself but now she has eight volunteer teachers who were previously students. She’d love to pay them but there are no funds for that.
“There is so much more I should be doing, like setting up a crowdfunding campaign or grant writing, but sometimes it becomes too much to figure out on my own. It’s not an excuse, just the reality of the situation.”
When asked how she feels about the turn her life has taken, Srivastava pauses before responding. “I don’t really want to talk about me. We all should be giving something back to society. I feel I’m making a small difference but what’s important is what happens to these girls after they go through the course; will they use the knowledge to the best of their ability? I don’t have jobs or answers for them. I try to encourage them to think outside their current situation, to look beyond the Fruit Bowl!”
Far from being a disappointment, wouldn’t Srivastava’s father be proud of what his daughter has done?
Srivastava just got support from villagers to open three new centers. While she is very excited about this development, she is short of PCs and lacks an internet connection in the villages where they will be located. If you would like to donate to Shiksha Alok, you can reach Srivastava at email@example.com.