Avanti Fellows : Inspiring Students Towards Higher Education
Krishna Ramkumar and Akshay Saxena’s career paths at first seemed similar to that of their IIT-Bombay contemporaries. The two friends started at the well-known Boston Consultancy Group, with forays into technological start-ups and MBA programmes. However, their experience working on an IIT mentorship programme had opened their eyes to the inequalities of India’s education system, in which only 13% of young people attend college and more than 85% of general graduates are unemployable due to poor undergraduate teaching. They also saw talented friends from low-income backgrounds struggle to find the right roles after university.
By 2010, the two friends were motivated enough to pitch for the prestigious Stanford Bases Social Entrepreneurship Challenge (Social-E). Their idea – to provide bright, motivated students from low-income homes with the intensive support and mentoring they need to attend India’s top-tier colleges – was successful. Avanti Fellows (www.avantifellows.org) was born.
Krishna, now CEO of Avanti Fellows, recalls this pivotal moment. “In May 2010, I received a phone call from Akshay. ‘We just won the Stanford Social-E! We have 25,000 dollars to build this and it’s time for one of us to go full-time. Do you want to do it?’ For a high-performing consultant to quit and start a non-profit was unusual and had little precedence in India. Starting Avanti was the boldest and rewarding decision of my life.”
Today, Avanti Fellows is the fastest-growing organisation in its space in India, with a presence across 7 cities in India. As well as chapters on IIT campuses in Bombay, Delhi, Madras, Roorkee and Kanpur, the programme has expanded to include other top institutes such as Maulana Azad Medical College in Delhi and Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute in Mumbai. Avanti’s success is due in large part to its ability to mobilise IIT students, who play a key role in identifying promising students and mentoring those who are accepted onto Avanti’s programme.
For the young people accepted onto the programme, Avanti offers a range of support: not just free or subsidised places at expensive coaching institutes but also one-to-one mentoring, with a focus on goal-setting and effective study; career guidance; and internships during their time at college. In order to qualify, students must come from a family with an annual income of less than Rs 2.5 lakh per year. They are often the first person from their family to think about higher education. Avanti’s support is designed to help them not just academically but emotionally, recognising the difficulties they face and ensuring they are able to leverage the opportunities that an IIT education offers.
Avanti’s unique approach was validated by the prestigious international Echoing Green Fellowship in June 2012. The highly competitive award - which selects less than 1% of over 4,000 applicants each year – recognises outstanding young social entrepreneurs from across the world. It brings $90,000 seed funding as well as business opportunities, which Avanti will invest into scaling up their educational intervention.
With plans to greatly expand Avanti’s scope and reach, Krishna and Akshay are optimistic about the future. “Over the next two decades, India will make the leap from a developing nation to a power with major influence over the history of the world. No one will have a more important role in this than our youth. At the end of our careers, we hope to be able to look at India’s leaders – her most positive role models – and know that we played a small part in making them who they are. We have 330 such students in our program today and we’ve taken the first step in helping to shape their destiny and ours.”
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