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.