When Ray Umashankar's daughter, Nita, returned from a year in India, she approached her parents with a plan: She wanted to return to India to work with children whose mothers are prostitutes and others who are part of the estimated 1 million children caught in India's growing child-sex-trade industry. Umashankar, an assistant dean of the UA's College of Engineering, says this led to the formation of the ASSET India Foundation. For more information about ASSET, e-mail Umashankar or visit the ASSET Web site.
What does ASSET stand for, and how did it start?
It stands for Achieving Sustainable Social Equality Through Technology. ... India has become a major information technology power house. ... Those (job) opportunities are not available to (those stuck in the sex trade). We work to give (high school-age) children the computer and technology skills and then find internships and employment opportunities for them in their communities. ASSET started because of my daughter's love for India and the fact that she saw the wealth from the technology industry staying at the top. The result is that life is getting tougher for people at the bottom, because life in India is getting more expensive.
What did you do first?
We looked at what non-government organizations (NGOs) are doing with this population of children. We found that they were teaching them how to make bags and how to sell vegetables, which is all fine, but the problem is at that end, you are competing with so many people. Why not get them into something where there is a huge demand, and nobody cares what your background is or who your father is? Then I began to reach out to the technology community. I got an e-mail from the chairman of Microsoft in India saying, "We don't care what their background is. You give them the skills that we need, and we'll hire them." So Microsoft is giving us free software. Intel in India is giving us free laptops. And Dell has given us a big grant to buy brand-new computers. So next, we began recruiting these children. We don't have the expertise in that particular field, so we've partnered with NGOs who have been working with this target group for many years in large cities. We tell them, "You provide the space and the basic staff; we'll bring in the technology and the software, and pay for an English teacher and an IT instructor."
Starting a nonprofit means fundraising. How are you raising funds now?
We incorporated in July 2006. Right off the bat, so many people told us, "You are too brand new. No way." I said, "That's exactly what I needed to hear." We participated in GlobalGiving's (a nonprofit started by former World Bank officials) first challenge (on the Internet) that allows organizations to raise money and receive additional funding. That challenge was based on the highest amount of money raised in a three-week period. We raised $45,000 in that three-week period, and we won $50,000 as part of the challenge. So with that, we started. And now, we were invited by the Case Foundation to participate in another GlobalGiving challenge co-sponsored by Parade magazine. This challenge is very different, because it is based on the number of donors, not on the amount of money. It can be as little as $10 (each donation). Right now, we are in second place. If we get to first by the Jan. 31 deadline, we will win another $50,000 in addition to what we raise.
How many programs does ASSET have now?
We are currently operating in six major cities. The very first center we started in India is in a city called Chennai. There, I formed a group of local CEOs and asked them to help me. These are people I didn't know. I just met with them and said, "This is what we are doing. I need your help. I don't need money from you, but I want you to meet regularly with these staff and teachers, and fine-tune the curriculum so it fits the local needs." In December, 60 of the students in Chennai went by bus to a high-tech company so they can see how what they are learning is going to be applied. In fact, this company has agreed to take the first 20 children and give them training for a year. We also have two centers in Delhi, one in Hyderabad, one in Kolkata, and one in Bangalore is just starting. Our goal is to get to 10 before 2008, which I'm sure we'll reach.
Is ASSET a good example that we can still learn from our children?
I have thanked Nita not only for starting this but for letting me get involved in this. This project has changed my life. This kind of project provides a challenge that really drives me. It has given me a completely different purpose.