The India bug bit American born Christopher Turillo rather early. He was just 21 (in 1999) when he first found himself in India as part of a 10-month college study of a few countries in Asia (he was in a small liberal arts college in the West coast). While those months were exciting, it was “India that stayed with him”, a world so different from the one he grew up in.
But it was not until 2005 before Turillo could make his way back. He applied for an American India Foundation fellowship and found himself working for SKS Microfinance in Hyderabad. He worked at SKS for three years. That's where he met Byomkesh Mishra with whom he would co-found a business later.
The duo realised that above all, they enjoyed working with the youth they were hiring (they were hiring 200-300 loan officers every month). Watching the youngsters with little or no opportunity, eager and happy with earnings of Rs 6,000-7,000 a month gave them even more pleasure than disbursing loans.
That's when the idea of Medha came into being. In 2007, Turillo went back to get an MBA from the University of Chicago and a masters in international development from John Hopkins. In between his studies there, he came to India to intern — once IDFC in Mumbai and then with an NGO in Jharkhand that was working on an employability programme. That's when he also realised that he had more than just a “foreigner's romanticism” with the country.
Towards the end of his studies, he began to write a business plan focused around employability and India's demographic dividend, which later became the peg on which Medha rested.
Turillo and Mishra (who was then handling foundation work for ABN Amro in Mumbai) kept meeting and ideating. It was now clear to Turillo that India was where he needed to be.
India, they both felt, was at the epicenter of the global employability crisis. 300 million would enter the workforce over the next 20 years but less than 20 per cent had the knowledge, skills and attitude to succeed. And the two wanted to help bridge this gap.
In January 2011, Turillo moved to Lucknow, and Medha was registered. Mishra, now 38, quit his job in Mumbai and joined him. In some ways, Turillo says Mishra's decision was bigger than his.
Medha — like Antarang that operates in Maharashtra and areas around it — answers the question ‘What Next’ for those who are about to or have finished school but have little guidance from their teachers, parents or the wider community. They deliver 21st century skills, on the job work experience and placement and alumni support at their institutions.
The three main programmes on offer are LAB (Life Skills Advancement Bootcamp), TAB (Technical Skills Advancement Bootcamp) and CAB (Career Advancement Bootcamp). Students from campuses where Medha works, enroll and attend the camps. Medha works with the students to help them find internships — a good way to find what they want to do, their possible careers and basic things like how to write a resume or how to conduct themselves in an interview. Many students enroll in more than one camp. "You'd be surprised at how many don't know the very basics and need some guidance,” adds Turillo.
Often, institutions provide the basic minimum and a degree, and the rest is left to destiny. Medha wanted to "integrate what they created" with the state system. They work with 18-25 year olds who are doing their graduation or higher studies at government or government-aided institutions in tier II-III cities and towns.
Evidence that such services are needed is to be found in the growth Medha has seen: Over 300 per cent in the past five years to reach 12,000 students across 70-odd institutions.
The work has tended to focus more on young women than men. Skeptical of most things new, initially, it was the women-only institutions that allowed them in. Medha — with a team of 85 — has worked with ITIs, polytechnics, and general stream degree colleges (BA, BCom, BSc). They are operating in 16 districts across UP, Bihar, and Haryana. The plan is to expand to eight states in three years, with a focus on the north and the northeast. A pilot was started in Meghalaya recently.
Medha has raised Rs 32 crore — not even a drop of the current annual corporate social responsibility spend in India, estimated at Rs 7,500 crore (this does not include individual funding and/or foreign funds). As a result, the founders don't feel that the availability of grant funding will be a significant constraint to growth.
But they are trying to diversify funding to reduce exposure to any one funder or type of funding. An attempt to increase funding from the government is also on. It has recently been selected for a tender from the Uttar Pradesh Department of Technical Education.
More important than additional diversification or less reliance on grants (which this does provide to some extent), it demonstrates investment and ‘skin in the game’ from the government for the work they do. It also enables them to mainstream within the system more efficiency and acts as a model for them to bring their services to other states.
Medha is trying to raise its retail fund-raising as well. “We need to build the capability and engine to support and attract small but broad individual funders,” says Turillo.
The organisation has a rather idyllic vision of “an India with equal career opportunities for youth; irrespective of gender, class, and caste”. Their aim — which many would see as quite lofty — over the next 10 years is to become a significant force in the fight for income equality. It currently has an alumni network of over 10,000 and is aiming for one million by 2025.