5 Questions with Ray Umashankar - Executive Director of ASSET India

Posted by abingham on Sep 5, 2008 5:51:58 PM

Liz Moise:
I'm joined by Ray Umashankar, Executive Director of the ASSET India Foundation. ASSET India is a non-profit organization that provides computer literacy programs to marginalized children in India so they will have the skills and knowledge needed to escape the sex trade industry in India. ASSET India recently posted a Challenge on InnoCentive seeking the solution of a solar-powered wireless router so they could bring their services to rural parts of India. The Challenge was recently solved by Solver, Zacary Brown. We'll be putting out the announcement in the next few weeks. Ray, Can you describe the challenges that marginalized Indian children face and how your organization is working to alleviate them?

Ray Umashankar:
Liz, all the new found wealth generated by India’s prominence as a global IT power has not trickled down to the people at the bottom of the pyramid. Life at the bottom of the pyramid has become even more difficult with rising food and fuel costs.

Working with nonprofits to help abused women and children get back on their feet, our daughter Nita was stunned to discover the hopelessness of the children of sex workers. She knew she would see dire poverty in India, but these children seemed to be the most disenfranchised of all: even the poorest of the poor ostracized them. The fear of HIV/AIDS made it worse.

We found that the majority of NGOs [non-government organizations] working with these children taught them skills such as bag-making or vegetable-vending or sewing, which provide no more than 500 rupees or $12 a month, not sufficient to prevent girls from entering the higher paying sex trade. And there was a lot of competition for these low-paying jobs. I knew they needed something unique, and we came upon the idea of teaching computer skills.

That's how the nonprofit ASSET India Foundation (Achieving Sustainable Social Equality through Technology) was born. We began to build partnerships and raise funds, while Nita and her mother Dr. Sue Umashankar worked to develop the training program.

The U.S. State Department estimates that forced labor touches 20 to 65 million Indians, many of them women and children. Unknowing parents may be tricked into selling their children into the sex trade by the promise of a better life as the wife of a wealthy man, a movie role or a job in another country. But the children enter a life of indentured servitude little better than slavery.

Vasanthy, the daughter of a former sex worker, was one of them. At 16 she was told she should be in the movies, and with her mother's encouragement, agreed to go to Dubai for the shooting. In Dubai, she was drugged and physically abused. She finally made her way home to Chennai and is now turning her life around by taking computer classes at ASSET.

"I believe that with the right opportunities and training," her teacher says, "Vasanthy can join the workforce like any other woman, regardless of her past." ASSET offers teens like Vasanthy a way out: six- to nine-month sessions that teach marketable skills like English transcription, data entry and use of office-suite software applications to students in groups of 20. ASSET then helps them find entry-level positions in Indian businesses that have a growing need for well-trained employees.

LM:
How will this solution help?

RU:
We have been receiving ten to twelve requests per month from rural towns in India to establish computer centers. Our concern was that there were no businesses and industry in these small towns to provide employment. InnoCentive came to our rescue when we proposed outsourcing work from large cities to small towns in India. We see on a daily basis the positive effects that our training centers have on children who live in the big cities. We are thrilled that we will now be able to extend our services to other parts of the country, educating children so they will be able to escape the sex trade industry in India

LM:
What impressed you about this solution over the many others you received?

RU:
We looked at a number of solutions and selected this one because it was the most comprehensive. It called for hardware parts that were affordable and even suggested places where the parts could be purchased

LM:
How did you find out about InnoCentive?

RU:

ASSET India won the GlobalGiving Foundation fundraising Olympics in November 2006. GlobalGiving, a non-profit organization that connects donors with community based projects around the world, made the Rockefeller Foundation aware of ASSET India and worked with them to get the Challenge posted on InnoCentive.

LM:
What would you say are the benefits of posting on InnoCentive as a non-profit organization?

RU:
By posting the challenge on InnoCentive, we gained access to thousands of highly qualified experts from all over the world. We did not know how to go about finding someone to help us solve our challenge and address a critical need.

LM:
Is ASSET looking to apply this solution in other countries?

RU:
Yes, once our operations stabilize in India, we want to offer the solution to non-profits working in Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, Laos and other countries.

LM:
Are there other Challenges you hope to post in the future?

RU:
Yes, certainly. With a 300-million mobile subscriber base and 100 million additions a year, India is set to see a mobile marketing explosion, experts say. We are looking for ways to use wireless technologies for content delivery and will have Challenges to post I'm sure.

Topics: Seekers

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