Surviving & Thriving

The story starts in India and it begins a long time ago in the year 2000. I could barely reach till my Dad’s waist. It was a usual evening in Kolkata. We were gathered around the dinner table as my parents listened with rapt attention to the accounts of my day at school. Every activity had to be recounted in greatest of details as my schooling was the single biggest luxury my family had afforded- the first girl in my blue-collared Indian family to have access to such elite private school education. As I freeze that moment in my head, it looks so perfect and so disjoint from what followed. That evening my father suffered a fatal cerebral stroke. By the time the ambulance arrived we had lost him. My 10-year-old brain was still trying to grapple with the concept of not being able to see dad again and hiding under the bed to avoid having to go for his last rites when reality came knocking at the door. There were bills to be paid and the only bread winner for the family was no more. I saw my mother take charge like the captain of a ship with broken radar. Expenses were slashed, the little savings were liquidated and soon even the wedding ring sold to buy ration for survival. And I had grown up by a decade over the course of a few months.

I looked up at the warrior lady that my mum was and knew I had to fight with her to survive- two Amazonian warriors against the world. And over the next 12 years of living without any stable income while my friends navigated their first crushes, I worked hard to win the full ride scholarship given to the topper of the class for 11 consecutive years. We wore handed down clothes from kind relatives, when the toothpaste tube would not yield to squeezes, we would cut the toothpaste tube open to ensure we had used the last ounce before buying the next one, the TV was 16 years old and needed a strong whack on its head to start and I would learn, by heart, how to animate text of Microsoft PowerPoint as I did not have a computer to try the steps on. Post a suitably grand finale to this heroic rags to riches tale, I won the university gold medal as I graduated as a freshly-minted engineer to join the largest IT consulting firm in the world. Education delivered on Philosopher Horace’s promise – it helped us move to a new socio-economic stratum. Let say, now we could afford a new tube of toothpaste before the old one ran out, my mom could afford medicines for her asthma and, lo and behold, we bought a new TV too. It may not be a stretch to say – we had survived. 

Fast forward to 7 years. As it turns out hard work is a habit, and I was doing remarkably well for myself – promoted now to a Chief of Staff role leading the launch of Starbucks tea café chain in India. On quiet nights, as I sat alone on the table, I would give a gentle pat on my back for having made an almost impossible journey from a first-generation low-income ecosystem navigating a hundred raised eyebrows in a society unfamiliar with women pursuing STEM education and a professional career. I felt proud of my near infinite Return on Investment in education having managed almost the entirety of my tuition through scholarships and scoffed at those who used lack of finances as an excuse to drop out. And guess the time was just right to question my assumptions about privilege and the lack of it. My employer was deeply committed to ESG and my next assignment was in kickstarting a tribal scholarship to arrest the massive dropout rates of meritorious girl children in some of the most impoverished villages in India post middle school. I was pumped and more confident than Goliath in his legendary fight with David. Afterall who shall know the plight of an adolescent girl wondering how to pay her school fees than the girl who had wondered so herself! I relocated to my new base: a remote resource-deprived tribal village in India – Khunti. I had a plan ready even before I had reached – a presentation proposing full scholarship program for the most meritorious students in the district. That should take care of it all. After all it did for me! I needed some stakeholder interviews to validate my recommendation and then we could focus on project execution. So off I went searching for the younger me’s – to interview them and understand how to help them best. As I travelled across 23 villages, connecting with students, their families, teachers, and local governmental authorities, I realized how little I understood about privilege. I learned that Lakshmi, the district topper in middle school has not been able to attend classes after the first 9 months of the academic calendar as the granted school uniform is her single piece of garment and it has torn in places with usage. She is waiting for the next academic year and a new uniform to be able to step out of her house without wearing gunny bags. Manu, the winner of state level Math challenge hopes to grow up and become a plumber in the closest city– the most sophisticated and high paying job he has ever known about. And as I lived with them through daily 4-hour power cuts, mosquito stings, rationed amenities, and even more rationed dreams, I realized how privileged a life I have led when there was shortage of finance but no shortage of role models and dreams. In the scholarship program I attempted to create a complete ecosystem of support for the scholar spanning boarding, lodging in the nearest city, health & nutrition, internet as a gateway to the world, monetary support for the family to compensate for the opportunity cost of the scholar’s labor in the field, and most importantly, career counselling, introducing them to possible use cases of education. We could start the project within a remarkably short time and could successfully reduce the drop-out rate remarkably in the pilot district impacting the lives of half a million children in that area. 

But, I feel the most profound impact was on me in the realization that as difficult as my life may have been, there are still so many millions who have it worse and that, in order to elevate from surviving the battle of life to thriving in it, I need to pay forward all that I have been lucky to receive – especially the inspiration of a strong role model that I found in my mother – by being one myself. Here I end with a shoutout to each one of you in my Wharton family for being superheroes in your own rights and hope that you shall choose to hold up the lamp at the end of the tunnel for someone in dire need of a role model and inspire her / him to survive and thrive.

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