Often, we come across stories of people who’ve left their cushy jobs to seek greener pastures. All of these anecdotes are inspiring in their own right, of course; but there’s another set of people who seem to do something similar, with a twist. These individuals also give up their life of comfort but their motivations are unlike these others. They aren’t out there seeking their own pastures, but instead help others create theirs.
Shalini Datta’s life revolves around that very concept. Today, she runs ‘AfterTaste‘, a social enterprise that employs and empowers women to be so much more. These women go through an intensive training in arts and crafts and learn to create employment opportunities for themselves. Along the way, she has also made a significant impact on the children of our country as well.
While Shalini always had an inkling that she would pursue such a path, her life was starkly similar to so many of ours before she decided to take the plunge and acknowledge who she truly was.
Shalini was born in the small town of Agartala, in the north-eastern state of Tripura. Her father was an orthopaedic surgeon in a government hospital and her mother was a homemaker. At a very young age, she was taught the twin messages of ‘giving’ and ‘service’. “I think I was instilled with those values very early on through my parents. Now when I look back, it’s all the more clearer.” As she was moving her way through school and college, Shalini noticed that these values were slowly guiding her through. “I felt like the need to provide and be of service was getting stronger and stronger in me.” She started to play an active role in various social causes, but wasn’t yet sure if this was what she wanted to do. “I was simply going with the flow and hadn’t really questioned myself on the path I was taking.”
After graduation, she joined the ever-growing population of Infosys as a software professional. Her move to Cognizant Technology Services (CTS) was a turning point in her life, where the dredges of her after-hours community work gave birth to a social calling that she had been missing for a long time. “I suddenly found that the values embedded in me were resurfacing. I started to question myself and understand what I really wanted to do. Like anybody else, I was still not sure about quitting yet as it meant letting go of some comfort.”
At CTS, Shalini formed a group who would go out and do a lot of field work over the weekends. They not only started funding projects, but also actively collaborated with several organizations as volunteers.
Altering The Course
Her reasons to leave her cushy job had long been simmering in the back-burner, but the final catalyst was building a weekend centre with her group to help the children from the nearby slums. Responsibilities at work ensured that all of them could not spend as much time as they’d have liked on the centre. They also faced resistance from the local community on the project, forcing them to bring a stop to their initiative after only a short while. This affected Shalini’s morale dreadfully, but she also learnt what not to do when she would start over.
It finally dawned upon her that what she wanted to create wasn’t going to be possible part-time. “It was so easy to start something, but difficult to keep it afloat.” Making up her mind, in December 2009, she left her job without any safety net. It was then that she began looking for an organisation which shared her views and beliefs and came across Teach For India.
In the time she had spent volunteering with children living in low-income communities, Shalini understood the strong need for children’s education. It was a natural transition for her to move from passive volunteering to active teaching. “I never chose teaching. What I wanted to do actually was make a difference – any difference – in the life of someone who is less privileged than I am,” she says. “Teaching was one of the ways I could achieve that.”
She applied after two months of having quit her company, and got selected the very next month and thus began her foray into teaching.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing after she found her passion for teaching. Her family and friends were shocked with her decision of leaving her job. They couldn’t understand why she had taken such a drastic step. “In our country, we are used to the conventional. It is difficult to accept something which is not the norm. Thankfully, my parents respected my decision even if they didn’t completely follow my reasoning behind it.” Along the way, Shalini did come across her fair share of critics who often wondered if she was as serious as she claimed to be. ” I learnt to accept that there would always be challenges and I couldn’t always explain myself to everyone. As long as you focus on the thousands of reasons that make your path worthwhile, no one can really stop you.”
Journey With Teach For India
Shalini started her journey with Teach For India in 2010, after training in Pune and then moving to Mumbai to teach. The two-year fellowship was both challenging and fulfilling. Though she was an IT professional, used to deadlines and weekly management issues, nothing had prepared her for being on the field for six hours every day and going into a classroom with about 80 kids, who came to school every day because they were eager to learn.
Teaching was a rewarding experience for Shalini. She had kids in her class who seemed reluctant to come in every day, but came regularly after she started teaching. She found a lot of joy in the little changes she noticed in her students. The two years there reinforced her sense of possibility. It also taught her to be resourceful, as the school in which she taught in would be flooded during the monsoons. “We did not have proper toilets or drinking water and the school building was in a depraved state. But when you are passionate about something, challenges actually become easy to overcome. It’s an amazing feeling when you realise that you were instrumental in change. I always thought I was a naïve optimist, but I became a hopeful realist.”
After two years, Shalini had developed a strong connection with the children and women of the community she taught. Moved by their stories and aspirations for a better life for their children despite their financial difficulties, Shalini began to wonder if there was anything she could do to help. Thus, with the seed sown in her stint at Teach For India, she kickstarted ‘After Taste’. Her venture started with making newspaper bags along with two women. They were soon able to earn a small living from manufacturing these products.
Step by step, she would work with her people to help them understand what they were capable of. “So used to being in the shadows, these women believed that what they were doing was not important enough. That propelled me to try harder.” Today, she runs a social enterprise with about 14 women who undergo intensive training in arts and crafts and have learnt to create employment opportunities for themselves. She plans on getting at least 25 women trained by the end of 2015 and is going for a hundred in two years.
“There are so many people who want to go after their dreams, but they can’t, because of the support system that they have around them. In our society, success is defined by certain rules, we don’t even know if we can even regard that as being successful. We let things like earning a certain salary or having material items define our success. The biggest issue is that we never question that and we’ve defined these in our own heads.”
For Shalini, the measure of success is clear. she knows exactly what she wants to see through her enterprise. “When you’re sure about doing something, the physical challenges are just something to just overcome. When ten things don’t work, you simply try something else to find a solution. Giving up is not an option.”