When a Facebook post asking for warm clothes for the slum children of a street school resulted in over 3000 people calling to offer all kinds of help, Anubha Sharma realized that a bridge between these socially conscious citizens and the children who needed their support to make something of themselves was the need of an hour.
With a preschool owner, Beenaa Advani, who expressed her desire to work with her, Anubha embarked on a social experiment to empower underprivileged communities through education and interactions, by collaborating with educated, socially conscious and affluent communities. What started with 18 children in 2012 has grown to a social movement involving 550 volunteers and 2200 children today with 20 AXF centres across Mumbai.
Gradually Beenaa Advani too quit her commercial work, and joined as co-founder of Angel Xpress. Deeply inspired by many people who have gone beyond themselves to care for society as a whole including Mrs. Sudha Murthy, Anubha firmly believes that money serves a need, but life is lived meaningfully when we give back.
The AXF journey has been replete with challenges of myriad types and proportions, but a strong conviction in the impact of the work keeps Anubha going. In her own words, “The pause button is missing in me. I live life with the urgency of someone with a mission and very little time to complete it in. If I can create a self-sustaining prototype of this cause, it will be a life lived meaningfully.”
Read on more about Anubha Sharma’s inspiring journey so far and her opinion on the issues related to education for women!
Tell us something about your life before Angel Xpress Foundation and your role in the foundations.
I grew up in Kolkata. It is still my home as parents still stay there. I started my corporate career in financial services, which lasted for 20 years. I quit at what I believe was the peak of my career to start Angel Xpress Foundation, an NGO that promotes and supports adoption of volunteerism as a lifestyle choice by the socially conscious educated people. I am the founder and CEO of this 12A and 80G certified NGO, which has been in operation since 2012.
What barriers have you faced, as a woman, in becoming successful in your field? How did you overcome them?
The biggest barrier is that you are not taken seriously at times. One has to work extra hard to gain the same amount of respect, support and consideration.
Education today is considered as a business. What your opinion on same?
It is a capitalist society now, and with the ever-increasing need for more material growth, education too has become much about making money and not about becoming a wholesome, well-informed, and rational individual who is able to cope with all situations in life. I am hopeful that with time this will change, and as the awareness about this unsustainable way of education system is becoming even more evident, the industry will itself evolve to help creating more wholesome people.
What is the biggest struggle of a woman entrepreneur today in India?
I feel that the pressure from society to conform, the struggle to not be taken seriously, not having a robust support network, both internal i.e. at home and external support, makes it tougher for women to take risks.
A female entrepreneur or young woman who wants to be an entrepreneur does not always start off from a level playing field compared to a young man from the same community. She may not have access to the start-up capital (land, house, money) she needs to start her business and she may also have other time commitments like childcare. Do you think the existing programmes introduced by the government needs enhancement? Any suggestions to the government?
The government has financial schemes for women entrepreneurs, but an awareness of these opportunities amongst the women is needed. Also, an easier access to them must availed, along with the knowhow of technology.
I would suggest the government to promote women focused conferences and leadership movements, encourage success stories, provide facilities such as childcare, access to education, grooming and training, and also policies that encourage support from the family.
These days, every other person wants to start an NGO. What is that one quality, if a person has, then only he/she should think of starting an NGO?
Clarity of vision, supported by an ability to execute, and to inspire a group of motivated, like-minded people to work towards the same goal are required. But above all, the most important is being disciplined and committed to your passion.
Based on your own experience, what advice would you give to women considering about starting an NGO?
It is an unequal world that needs lot of corrections. NGOs help address many critical issues that are absolutely essential. A person who wants to start a social enterprise needs to identify the issue that they feel passionately about, something that calls out to them. Anyone who plans to start an NGO must find a practical solution, have an exceptionable plan, and be reasonably certain of their ability to find the necessary resources. It is also important to keep an eye on the future that the solution empowers the beneficiaries and also has a long-term impact.
Is (gender) equality an important issue for you? Why?
Yes, it is a very important issue for me. The false narrative of male superiority has created rather difficult circumstances for too many women in the world. Women need to be supported to find their feet and live life with dignity.
Education is still a gender issue in India. How is your NGO working towards eradicating this thought process?
Angel Xpress works both - towards the academic improvement as well as inculcating the right mindset through life-skill education that promotes social emotional learning. Gender equality is among the topics taught as a part of our inhouse life-skills curriculum. In addition, most of our volunteers are accomplished women who form good role models for our beneficiaries to look up to. Our prime beneficiaries are children from extremely conservative homes and mostly belong to the first generation that is going to be educated.
In addition, we work with parents to create a wholesome and supportive atmosphere at home, a lot of messaging on gender equality is included in our interaction with parents.
What main change would you like to see for young girls in the next generation?
I would like to see education for girls to be treated as equal important - both by every parent in this world as well as the governments and external agencies. I wish to see that the girls from the next generation feel supported and empowered; they feel confident to take on anything that they wish to attempt as they are supported - both at home and by community they belong to. I would like to see girls feel free, with a sense of liberation, and a sense of dignity to choose their own destiny and free of societal conformities.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would that be?
I would tell myself to be more resilient and not take life's hard knocks to heart.
What woman inspires you and why?
Sudha Murthy and Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw for both, their achievements and their focus on building up society.
What qualities make a great leader?
An ability to build people up and inspire them to be their best makes a great leader.
International Women’s Day celebrates the scientific, political, economic and social achievements of women. In your experience as a successful woman, what is its significance?
International Women’s Day is an opportunity to showcase women achievers, their stories which are a ray of hope for those who are still struggling and need direction as well as strength.
Anubha’s plans for Angel Xpress Foundation is to enable 2000 committed volunteers and through them ensure that 10,000 children a year benefit from the AXF Free Learning Center Program. This year the program has been expanded to include a youth mentoring segment that provides academic, vocational and career guidance and training to its graduating students, this has added the crucial missing piece in the creation of sustainable employment opportunities for underprivileged children and their families to help them rise from poverty into a life of dignity. After all, dignity of life is a fundamental human right.
Apeksha News Network congratulates Anubha Sharma for her contribution and commitment towards the society with her work and wishes her all the best for her future endeavors!