Exclusive: Raj Gilda Talks to India Ink
In this exclusive with India Ink, Raj Gilda explains the factors that motivated him to leave the corporate world in order to focus entirely on social entrepreneurship, as well as the greatest obstacles he faced through Lend-A-Hand India’s major growth and expansion phases. Raj also shares his insights into the process of partnering with state governments and the ways in which he wishes to transform the Indian education system.
India Ink: You worked for Citibank and Deloitte for quite some time--what inspired you to leave the corporate sector and focus full time on social impact efforts with Lend-A-Hand India?
Raj Gilda: It was a gradual move, and I think the credit goes to my better half, Sunanda, who is from the social development sector. Lend A Hand India was her dream. We got started in 2005-6, and until 2011, Lend-A-Hand India was pretty much my second job, as I was still working with Citibank and Deloitte full time . There are many factors that motivated the decision, but a large part of the thought comes from the fact that both of us come from a lower middle-class family, and along the way, many people helped us, and we worked hard to become who we are today. In my case, I was the first person in my family across multiple generations to go to high school, so my life has come a long way since then! So now it is our turn to do whatever we can to help others.
India Ink: As you worked towards the growth and expansion of Lend-A-Hand India, which now has reached over 250,000 youth from over 2500+ schools across India, what were the biggest obstacles you faced, and how did you overcome those challenges?
Raj Gilda: I think the first obstacles we faced can be explained by the chicken and egg dilemma: you can’t get a first job because you don’t have any experience, and you can’t get any experience because you haven’t gotten a first job. When I moved back to India in 2011 to focus on fundraising for Lend A Hand India and its growth phase, potential donors would ask us who else has funded us, and nobody had—we had done some events in New York, but we had never been funded by a “big-name” brand, so we struggled a lot and actually didn’t get any funding for two years. Tata Trust was the first to take a bet on us, which helped us immensely. Aside from fundraising, our growth challenges are similar to any typical organization growing at fast pace: finding the right talent to form the second line of command and making sure that our internal operations are capable of handling the incredible growth that we are seeing.
India Ink: Lend-A-Hand India has established partnerships with 19 state governments, including those of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Sikkim, Nagaland, J&K, etc--do you foresee changes in a greater number of state government policies with regards to implementing a “work-centric school education?”
Raj Gilda: Any work like this is an evolution, rather than a revolution, because it is a very complex situation in multiple ways, and it is certainly not linear. If you look at it from the bureaucrat’s or the politician’s point of view, you will see that they have a lot of different factors that must be taken into account. Through these partnerships with state governments, we are making inroads into the policy-making process, and by deploying our people at the ground level to work shoulder to shoulder with the government, we are part of the policy execution process as well. Since 2012, when I started working with the government extensively, I have come to appreciate the time it takes for the government to make a decision. For example, when you and I make our decisions, what is the sphere of influence of our impact? Maybe our parents, family and community—a 5-mile radius at best. Compare this to the situation of our Secretary of Education, Mr. Nandakumar, in my home state of Maharashtra: the state has 22,000 high schools, and 120,000 primary schools, so whatever decisions he makes, he had better have thought about everything. Once we put ourselves into their shoes, we realize how hard that really is. One has to develop that kind of understanding about how the government works and where they are coming from, which helps you face the challenges of working with the government, because it is hard, it is frustrating, and it takes time. It is like game of golf, in that the 3Ps matter the most: Patience, Persistence, and Perseverance!
India Ink: In your opinion, what should the central government be focusing on at this point in time, in terms of increasing enrollment, strengthening academic performance, and reducing the dropout rate at both the primary and secondary school levels?
Raj Gilda: In terms of enrollment and the gross-enrollment ratio, I think we’re pretty much there, and accessibility is also where it should be. Now, yes, you have got the kid to school, but what next? There are a lot of efforts being made towards activity-based learning, learning by doing, and work-centric education, rather than the rote method of learning. However, there are prior beliefs entrenched in the academic world, so it will take time for this new method to spread.
India Ink: Lend-A-Hand India worked closely with Georgetown’s South Asian Society and its Rangila Charity Showcase earlier this year; in your opinion, what role do you see student activism and international partnerships playing in Lend-A-Hand’s future efforts to make an impact?
Raj Gilda: I’m glad you asked this question, because we would definitely like to develop this partnership much further, whether it is through more dialogue at forums such as the India Ideas Conference, or Georgetown students coming to Pune for six months for internships, doing research projects based in DC, and working with faculty members interested in the development sector or India as a whole.
At the end of the day, Lend-A-Hand is a unique organization within the Indian not-profit/NGO space, as we have managed to bring the policymaking and execution processes together in one organization. We started as only a grassroots organization, but in 2011-12, we started focusing on not only working with the government on the policy-making front, but also deploying our people in the government as well, at no cost to the Government. We tell them, all we need is a table and a chair, and the fan is optional—we will make it work! Of course, we still maintain our on-the-ground presence, because that is what gives us our sense of the reality on the ground, with which we should not lose touch. Normally, on the one hand, you have organizations focused on only influencing the policy but not focusing on ground work, and on the other you have organizations that are toiling away on the ground, without access to the policymaking process. In our case, 40% of our staff are working with the government, which allows us to bring policy-making and our grassroots efforts together.
Being that Georgetown is located here in D.C., the hub of policymaking, I think there is a huge opportunity through further partnerships between Lend-A-Hand India and the University to apply D.C.’s policy-making insights to our work in India.
A banker turned social entrepreneur, Raj Gilda is the co-founder of Lend A Hand India, which is a unique non-governmental organization that focuses on vocational training and aims to transform the Indian education system. Prior to founding Lend-A-Hand, Raj spent ten years with Citibank and Deloitte, and recently, Raj was appointed by Government of India as a member of National Skill Development Agency (NSDA). Raj holds degrees from the University of Pune, as well as the University of Texas at Austin.