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The Birth of ASSET India Foundation

In 2005 (I was 63 years old) our daughter Nita returned from India after spending a year working with abused women and children. Nita was already admitted to the PhD program in Marketing Strategy at the University of Texas in Austin. Before leaving for Austin, Nita announced that every June and December she planned to return to India to help children of sex workers and victims of trafficking. My wife and I were shocked and apprehensive when we realized how dangerous it would be for a U.S born single female to become involved in this type of volunteer work.

I questioned my Nita to determine how passionate she was about this cause and she convinced me of her passion. I did extensive research on programs for these children conducted by other NGOs in India. Computer literacy was seen as a cure all for all social ills. However, the children were not taught interview and survival skills or conversational English. I suggested to Nita that in light of India’s rising dominance in IT, we should focus on providing basic computer skills to the students and also help them get placed in jobs. Nita focuses on the curriculum and I focus on resources. I came up with the name Achieving Sustainable Social Equality through Technology (ASSET).

According to the annual “Victims of Trafficking and Violent Protection Act of 2000: Trafficking in Persons Report” submitted to Congress on June 12, 2207 by Secretary of State , Dr. Condoleezza Rice, India is a “source, destination, and transit country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation. India's trafficking in persons problem is estimated to be in the millions.

Women and girls are trafficked internally for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation and forced marriage.” The victimization continues to be widespread and unchecked. While the report estimates that 90% of the trafficking is internal, the borders between India and Nepal and India and Bangladesh are among the most active sites for selling not just the bodies of these young women and children, but their souls. Located near the Nepal border in the northern Bengal region just south of Darjeeling, the town of Shiliguri continues to be a major hub for human trafficking.

In March 2007, I visited the tea plantations and spoke with the laborers working on the near the town and heard countless stories of broken promises made by brokers/pimps offering their daughters a better life through marriage to wealthy men in large cities. Paying the parents Rupees 500 ($12), the girls were then sold to brothels in Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata. Enticed by the offer of employment in either the movie industry or TV soap operas, then sold into prostitution once they left the protection of their parent’s homes. That same promise of employment in the movie/television industry has also made the town of Vijayawada in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh another major trafficking hub, spreading the exploitation of these innocents across the entire length and breadth of India.

India’s expanding status as a world economic power through its IT capabilities and enormous new wealth is attracting a lot of attention worldwide. Unfortunately, none of that new wealth is being directed to eliminating the plight of the children of the sex workers or the victims of human trafficking. Their suffering is twofold. They share the poverty experienced by thousands, but even the poorest members of Indian society ostracize the mothers and children for a way of life that was forced upon them. These victims are hungry to learn and build a better life for themselves. Established computer institutes refuse to admit the children of sex workers because of the fear of HIV /AIDS and the loss of revenue from parents who threaten to withdraw their children. Well-meaning NGO’s fought with school administrators and forced them to accept these little victims into the tradition school system, but the results were disastrous. Teachers made the children’s lives unbearable. Ridiculed for not having birth certificates and humiliated when their poverty prevented them from purchasing textbooks or paying fees, the students quit, vowing to never step foot into a school again.

Armed with this knowledge, I researched many failed computer literacy programs started by NGO’s in India so that known pitfalls could be avoided. My research revealed a tendency to view computer literacy as a cure all for every economic ill. Although they acquired the technical skills , these young women could not move into paid positions because lacked the confidence to pursue employment in companies that were located in the larger cities, sometimes far from home and family. I receive many requests from NGO’s across India, including those working in the border towns previously mentioned, to help the children of sex workers and the young girls rescued from prostitution. When the NGO requests the establishment of an ASSET computer center it can be disheartening for us if we must deny the request because there are no viable businesses or industries in their town that can effectively utilize the training ASSET provides.

Business Problem: In order to place these young women and children in to profitable positions, two business problems must be overcome. First, as companies rush abroad to cut back office document processing costs, one fact gets forgotten in the fray. The costs of small increases in error rates are enormous and can easily wipe out cost reductions from cheaper labor. A data-entry error in a document such as a loan application may make it impossible to process the document automatically. Worse still, incorrect loan documents may be generated, destroying business relationships that could be the difference between financial success and fiscal disaster.

I visited rescue shelters in Shiliguri and other border towns and also studied livelihood programs that had failed. I discovered that many of the NGOs working with the target population trained the girls in bag making, vegetable vending and sewing, all reputable professions except that they provided no more than Rs. 500 ($12.00) per month, not sufficient to prevent the girls from entering the high paying sex trade.

I was convinced that in order to bring about a permanent change, I had to find respectable professions with incomes comparable to the sex trade. By focusing on computer literacy and data entry work, these girls can earn Rs. 4,000 ($100.00) per month immediately after training, with opportunities to earn more with experience.

Based on facts gathered, Nita and I have partnered with reputable NGOs in India to provide English language instruction and computer literacy to ASSET's target population. I have set up ASSET centers in the cities of Chennai, Hyderabad and Kolkata. In Delhi and Bangalore, I provided software licenses and teacher salaries to NGOs who already had computer centers. I did due diligence on the NGO's financial accountability as well as their ability to deliver the programs on time.

In smaller towns where data entry work did not exist, I wanted to bring the work to them. Hughes Satellite Network in India offered their services to ASSET; however, satellite networks have an uplink bottleneck. I came up with a solution using a wireless mesh network with a solar powered wireless router. ASSET Wireless Mesh Network (AWMN) with a solar powered wireless router will allow data entry jobs to be sent over the wireless networks from metro cities in India to interior and border towns where there is a large population of trafficking victims and children of women in prostitution. The social stigma attached to these children and women will not have the impact it currently has if they are able to transition out of the flesh trade and into gainful employment restoring their sense of pride and confidence in a brighter future. AWMN has immense possibilities, especially in reducing the migration from rural to urban areas, which would have the added advantage of helping to prevent adding to the unemployed population currently swelling the slums in the major cities.

In addition to the ASSET Wireless Mesh Network technology, I am introducing error reduction software that will help create a highly qualified workforce that any data entry or e-publishing company can depend on and rest their reputation on. Error reduction training can substantially reduce the Total Cost of Errors (TCE) in Business Process Outsourcing (BPO). To assure the highest caliber of training, ASSET students can take the operator evaluator test online and receive a score and evaluation of their job skills. This value added skill is in great demand among companies and BPO services.

The proposed use of wireless technology and solar energy can benefit a large number of people and the ripple effect of retaining these skilled workers in their home environment and also improve the prosperity of small towns and villages throughout India. Unlike a training center that can teach marketable skills but not provide jobs, I can do both. My proposal to the Rockefeller Foundation/Innocentive Challenge has been funded for $20,000 and a solver and team of advisors have begun to develop a prototype design for a Solar Powered Wireless Router. With the help of the Rockefeller Foundation funded wireless Project, I will be creating a robust wireless infrastructure network that would reliably connect small groups of skilled computer workers living in remote villages with their employers headquartered in large cities. As the number of outsourcing projects increases, the number of locations will increase as well. I am also working with the Grameen Foundation to help students set up their own micro enterprises.

Through a partnership with NGO Prajwala (www.prajwalaindia.org) and ASSET India Foundation, the following report on Computer classes for children who are survivors of trafficking indicates the following: Students are very happy to learn computer operation skills. Their fear of using the computer has vanished. They now feel they are on a par with the skill level of other schools; They can express their creative skills by applying the tools learned. Using spoken English for training is building confidence in them and they are making an effort to converse in English. Several students feel that they can now pursue computer training as their profession. Life skill sessions have helped the children to practice meditation in the morning and they have shared the technique with other children at the Shelter Home.

On April 22, 2008, the ASSET center in Chennai was officially inaugurated by a Dell senior management team. As a step to take this relationship forward, Dell will host the ASSET students at their Chennai manufacturing plant. . ASSET is a finalist in the prestigious Stockholm Challenge (www.stockholmchallenge.se) and will be making presentations at KTH in Kista (Stockholm) in May 2008. ASSET has been nominated for the Tech Museum Award in the Equality category (http://www.techawards.org/).

ASSET Chennai students are presently interviewing for jobs with Firstsource, one of the largest BPO companies in India. Nita and I are working with the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) to create an all-India training program so that we can scale ASSET to 20,000 students two years. We measure number of students placed in jobs.

The ASSET model can be replicated by any NGO with a successful track record in dealing with ASSET target population, and with dedicated staff and financial controls and reporting mechanisms in place. The NGO must have the government approvals. A centrally located facility is needed for easy access for the students. Several University of Arizona students from Central and South America have chosen the ASSET model for their senior thesis and to implement a similar program in their respective countries.

My family and I wept when the children touched our feet and thanked us for helping them work towards a better future. The children said they could not even dream of touching a computer but are using them every day because of ASSET. Children shared their dreams of life outside the slums, access to clean water, health care and being able to support their parents.

In the next 5 years we would like to accomplish the following: Focus on the sustainability of each ASSET center in India using student fees- livelihood programs should not be free. Students sign a contract so that they pay back the tuition over a 24 month period; Microfinance will be introduced. Ensure that each center has reached 100% retention and placement. Identify more industries whose data entry needs can be included in the ASSET curriculum. Increase awareness about the plight of the children of sex workers and victims of trafficking globally. Assist non-profits in other countries to establish the ASSET model. Train and place 50,000 students in internships and jobs.

Comments

Rebecca's picture

Wow!

What incredible work you and your family are doing, and such an inspiring post. Thank you for sharing this!

I'd love to read more about you and what brought you to the place you are now(either via comment or another post!). What kind of work were you doing before venturing into ASSET--technology work as well? social change work? something entirely different? Who inspires you to keep going, even as you run into challenges and barriers? What advice do you have to folks who aspire to follow in your footsteps?

rayu42's picture

Thank you/ ASSET India Foundation

Hi Rebecca,

Thank you for your kind and encouraging words.

I am still employed full time as a glorified paper pusher (aka Assistant Dean) in the College of Engineering at the University of Arizona.

LIFE CHANGING TURNING POINT IN CAREER

This turning point came in the year 2000 when I was 58. I was at a national education conference in Chicago to discuss strategies for bringing more minority and women students to enroll in engineering. Many industries had booths in the exhibition hall.

This was at the height of the dot com boom and I was shocked to see that the industries represented were steel, oil and chemicals. Microsoft was the only technology company. In the meetings I asked why HP, Intel, DELL, SUN and many others were not there. There were no answers but I was asked to run for office, which I declined. I was very angry on the flight back home about the fact that exciting technology companies were absent at such an important event. I decided that in order to get more women and minorities into engineering, I had to find a way to show opportunities in the exciting new technologies. There was a vast talent pool among the minorities and women who needed to know about opportunities in the new internet world. I was convinced that the vast talent pool among women and minorities will get interested if they saw opportunities to address social issues through technology and engineering.

Within a week after my return, I read an article about Dr. Anita Borg and the Institute of Women and Technology (IWT) located in Palo Alto. IWT had established Virtual Development Centers (VDC) at MIT, Purdue, Texas A & M and other schools through major grants from HP to get more women interested in technology and careers in engineering. A Virtual Development Center is one of a network of college and university based collaborative development centers in which the ideas generated in exploration and innovation events are realized in prototypes, products and solutions by faculty, students and community members.

My interest in Dr. Borg grew when the Women’s Studies Department at the UA was unable to get her to be the chief guest at their major event. I wanted to call Dr. Borg and I was told by campus experts that Dr. Borg was a Silicon Valley super star and I stood no chance. That’s exactly what I needed to hear. I called Dr. Borg and got an appointment.

During the meeting Dr. Borg and her colleagues grilled me for 3 hours on why they should help establish a VDC at UA when big name schools around the U.S were competing for the same and why I thought the program will succeed at the UA. I told them that other schools had bigger brand names but doubted if they had someone like me with a passion to recruit more minorities and women into engineering. Finally Dr. Borg and her colleagues allowed me to submit a proposal.

Upon my return, I wrote a proposal for a VDC at the UA and submitted it along with letters of support from several women faculty in engineering and medicine. They asked me where the center will be located if I got the grant. I said I will worry about it after I got the grant. IWT promptly rejected my proposal. When I called to find out why, I was told “I was trying to force man’s technology into a woman’s world”. I rewrote the proposal and submitted- rejected again. After I received the third rejection, I called IWT and said “If you turn me down a hundred times, I will resubmit a hundred times. I am determined to get the VDC for the University of Arizona”.
The next proposal got approved! With the approval came $257,000 worth of computer equipment from HP!

Now came the question of space. Where would I put the computers?
I asked my superiors for permission to submit a proposal to the University Space Committee for funds to remodel two old class rooms for the VDC.
I was told “Go ahead but you don’t stand a chance”. I took the $257,000 HP grant letter to the space committee with my funding request for $157,000 for the remodeling project. To my utter dismay, it was approved!

A few months later, I went to the VDC conference in Santa Clara. I met the directors of VDC at other schools and asked what kinds of problems they faced. Everyone said that students were not coming forth to join the programs at VDC. I asked them if they were offering stipends to engineering students to attract them. Everyone said they had no funds for stipends. I decided to raise funds from the industry for student stipends.

Silicon India, one of the Silicon Valley technology magazines ran a very small story about the UA-VDC and on the cover was Mr. Rajvir Singh, an entrepreneur/venture capitalist who had sold two of his companies to CISCO for $ 7 Billion in stock. I immediately wrote to Rajvir (whom I did not know) and told him about my dreams for the VDC. We exchanged several e-mails and one day I said I would like to visit him. Rajvir stopped answering my e-mails for the next 6 months. Finally, I called Rajvir’s assistant and asked when he was going on his business trip. She asked me why I wanted know. I told her that I wanted to buy a ticket and be on the same flight since Rajvir was not answering my e-mails. The assistant put me on hold and I was scared to death thinking “What if Rajvir flew first class? I can’t afford it”. The assistant came back on the line and said “If you are here on March 10th at 10 am, Rajvir will see you for 10 minutes”.

I dug up everything I could on Rajvir- Where he went to school, his life as an entrepreneur, venture capitalist etc. On March 10th, when I sat down facing Rajvir. I only talked about him and his success, not a word about what I wanted. Suddenly he stopped, stared at me and asked what I needed from him. I replied “Some of your money and all of your contacts” and explained the VDC and the need for student stipends. Rajvir asked how much money I needed and I replied
“$ 100,000”. He asked if I will take shares of Cisco stock and I told him I knew the UA Foundation did, but I didn’t know how it was done and he replied “Find out and call me”. I did and Rajvir transferred $100,000 in Cisco stock to the VDC the next day. I used these funds to successfully recruit and retain women engineering students also sent them to conferences.

Until this point, I had never done fundraising in my life.

What keeps me going? The belief that I can make a difference and the passion for my causes.

Advice: Be bold, don't take rejection personally. I tell people I have a serious learning disability: I don't understand the meaning of "NO" in any language! :)

Ray,

Your story inspires me for so many reasons. I think mostly, I see your years of experience and wisdom woven into the very fabric of ASSET. At a time in their lives when many men and women are thinking about such activities as golfing and lunching - and there is nothing wrong with that! - you have practically, or literally, started a whole new career. On top of the one you already have!

I sent a link to your post to my former boss at the Entrepreneurs Foundation. (www.efnw.org, www.efbayarea.org) EF consults high growth, emerging companies - an original focus on hi-tech, venture backed companies - in developing their corporate philanthropic and community involvement programs. Since 1998 over 700 companies worldwide have joined EFs and given over $15M back to their communities.

Given that many of EF member companies have been started by former executives at Intel, Dell (Tom Meredith, former CFO of Dell, was board chair for EF Austin), CISCO, etc., I think ASSET will be right up the alley of members companies with a focus on giving time, talent or money internationally. Hopefully something will come of the introduction!

You and your daughter are quite the dynamic team. Will you post a picture of the two of you? I love putting faces to stories.

This past year, I helped birth PulseWire and literally gave birth to my son, Jonah. Birthing is a magnificent process... even though frustrating and scary at times.

Thank you so much for sharing your talents with India.

All my best,
Jennifer

Jennifer Ruwart, Chief Operating Officer, World Pulse
(Although I am part of the World Pulse team, the opinions I express on PulseWire are my own.)

rayu42's picture

Thank you/ Birth of ASSET

Hi Jennifer,

Thank you for your kind worda and for passing along the ASSET info to your former boss in the Bay Area. I will follow up with the entrepreneurs Foundation.

Congratulations on the birth of your twins- Pulsewire and your son! :)

Sorry for the delay in replying. The employer who had agreed to hire 20 students from our first batch went back on the deal. I ended up spamming several CEOs in India and got new interviews lined up. Hence the delay.

I was brainwashed into the "Retirement at 65 syndrome" by the media and the constant inflow of AARP material. My daughter's starting ASSET has dramatically change my life. I am having the best time of my life and rearing to go at 4 am everyday.

I look forward to the next 25 years as the most productive part of my life. I have thanked Nita many times for starting ASSET and even more so for allowing me to get involved.

Thank you for allowing me to share ASSET with all of you.

Warm regards

Ray Umashankar

Ramya Ramanathan's picture

Hello!

Hi Ray,

Vanakkam! Wonderful to meet you virtually and hear about the inspiring work you are doing(we might even have a name & a mother tongue in common! :)) Please keep us updated about your work....I would love to chat with you and learn more -- perhaps talk about ways that PulseWire can help support the work you are doing. -- let me know when you have a chance to talk.

My best to you and Nita,
Ramya

P.S.: It would be wonderful to have Nita on the site as well.

rayu42's picture

Thank you

Hi Ramya,

I am delighted to meet you in cyberspace!
Same mother tongue and common name- both amazing.

Thanks for offering help with supporting ASSET.

I am in Washington DC and will return to Tucson on Sunday.
Please let me know the phone number and a good time to call.

Best wishes

Ray Umashankar

Auma's picture

Hello Ray!

Your work really inspires! You and Nita's work is great! It gives those who change careers with a calling,a heart for possibilities,a passion to have it done,HOPE.

Thank you Ray.I will follow up to see more of your great work.

Warm regards

Leah Auma Okeyo.

muralitk's picture

asset activities in india

We fellow indians are proud of you father-daughter duo and extend our wishes.

If we can be of any help to you please advise.

Regards
MURALIS
HYDEABAD

Corine Milano's picture

Welcome!

Hi there!

Welcome to PulseWire—it's very nice to meet you! I'd love to learn more about you! I encourage you to make a post about yourself so everyone in the community can give you a big welcome. I'd love to learn more about you@

I'm forward to collaborating!

In partnership,
Corine

oyst12rsas's picture

Very interesting!

I just sent an e-mail to ASSET, which I hope they will reply.

I'm a computer professional from Norway and my dream is apparently identical to what is no longer just a dream to you. However, one of my plans is to target the software development segment because I think stigmatized people for many reasons will work better with Western companies. This is one thing that I would like to discuss with your staff. If you have somebody in mind who could have some input on this, please let me know.

I'll be in Hyderabad from June 19th to July 3rd to meet with some organizations working with troubled people. And unless I hear from you I will show up at Prajwala when I'm there.

I've been working on this for some months now and it's been disillusioning to see that what seemed obvious to me was not so obvious to others. Therefore reading your blog was very encouraging. Thank you for sharing this and the best of luck in your great mission!

rayu42's picture

Birth of ASSET

Dear Friend of ASSET,

I am delighted to hear from you.

I would very much like to explore ways in which we can work together and help marginalized children.

Due to safety and security of the children, Prajwala is very particular about proper verification prior to
arranging a visit. Let us discuss the program you have in mind and I will make the introductions.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Regards

Ray Umashankar

oyst12rsas's picture

Very good

Ok, can we do this over e-mail instead? If you send me an e-mail I will give you the details. (I'm a novice here and not able to obtain your e-mail address)

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