Three Oglethorpe alumni and seven other recent graduates embarked almost one year ago on an international adventure with a mission. This small group of postgraduates spent nine months in Hyderabad, India, pioneering the IDEX Fellowship in Social Enterprise, a program that is managed by Oglethorpe University and sponsored by Gray Matters Capital. The fellows were each assigned to work in one of the country’s “affordable private schools,” which serve children whose families earn just a dollar a day.
The IDEX fellows were tasked with developing unique economic and educational programs that would benefit the schools and would be sustainable, lasting long after the fellows departed. They wasted no time in fulfilling their mission. In just nine months, the fellows progressed from young academics to seasoned professionals, creating social business models and concepts that improve academic quality, bookkeeping, marketing, and extracurricular programs.
The fellows created programs such as the Beyond the Classroom Fund, which provides financial subsidies for non-academic extracurricular activities, and Forward Thinking, which aims to combat the rising drop out rate in secondary class students. Through a partnership with Junior Achievement India, IDEX fellows ran personal development sessions with high school students to encourage and inspire them to plan for their futures. At one school, a fellow designed a “word of the day” program and an inter-school spelling bee.
One fellow even created an intramural cricket league, pushing cultural boundaries and introducing a Muslim community to a new idea of recreational sport by teaming the young athletes—male and female—side-by-side in competitions. The league was at first met with criticism, but soon gained the personal and financial support of both the community and some professional women’s cricket players, who lent their expertise and advice to the young athletes.
“In less than a year, these fellows have bridged the international divide and not only crossed geographic barriers, but also cultural, age and personal ones,” explained Sreeratna Kancherla, director of the IDEX program. “The fellows worked in predominately Muslim communities, [and] a few of [them] learned Hindi… [they] all wore Indian clothing daily to the schools…so that they could assimilate better into their environment.”
OU alumni Corin Deans ’09 and Shanelle Ebanks ’10 are now back in the United States, set to attend graduate school in the fall. But, seven of the fellows in the inaugural IDEX cohort were moved by their time in India and have chosen to remain there longer, including Oglethorpe alumna Ember Melcher ’09, who is working as a consultant for Medium Healthcare Consulting.
Finding Their VOICE
After only a year, the IDEX Fellowship has commanded the attention of several international nonprofit and for-profit organizations. The Nike Foundation was impressed by the work of this year’s participants and commissioned IDEX to pilot a summer camp exclusively for Indian girls. IDEX fellows Averil Spencer, a Dartmouth College graduate, and Emory University graduates Allie Gross and Ilana Shushansky were selected to head the summer camp and given the responsibility to create an overall concept and curriculum, including the goal of English immersion. The program, conceptualized by the three fellows, is called VOICE (Vital Opportunities in Creative Expression) and is an English language program that will reach more than 400 young girls in grades 7-10. The program’s goal is to help campers (who are more likely to be sent home in the summer or to work as laborers) to understand gender issues and develop spoken English skills through immersion in the English language. In addition to the academic components, VOICE also will offer field trips to multinational companies and a free dental and eye care clinic for all campers.
The Nike Foundation’s overall effort is called the Girl Effect, which is “essentially investing in girls and women in order to bring families, communities, and nations out of poverty” according to Ilana. “All of the projects they invest in are somehow connected to or working towards this same mission.”
These fellows hope to use the VOICE concept to develop a nonprofit social enterprise. They plan to offer training to others so that the program can be used as a year-long course in schools around the world. “We modeled our camp program to be like a ‘camp in the box’ idea so the curriculum can be used throughout India and later adapted for Africa and developing countries,” said Allison. “We would love for this program to eventually expand to include boys in the conversation about gender equality, as educating boys about this will have a long-term impact on the decisions they make as brothers, husbands, and fathers. There is so much potential with a program like this and we are eager to take it forward and build partnerships to have greater impact towards girls’ empowerment.”
IDEX director Sree Kancherla views VOICE as evidence that the fellowship is working. “The VOICE project and others that fellows conceptualized is exactly the objective of this fellowship—to create entrepreneurs who are innovating to solve world problems.”