I had the honor of keynoting Accenture’s Scrum Gathering this month in Bangalore, India. Scrum/Agile is a project management system derived from a software framework that has evolved into a business culture. This subject fell outside of my comfort zone, which is my favorite place to be; only then do I know that I am learning and growing. Using the concept of "agility," I discussed what it means to be an agile human being and how IT experts can use their skills to solve society's greatest injustices and bring us closer to world peace. It was a risk, but one that resulted in a standing ovation.
While the response to my morning keynote was gratifying, the conference highlight was the afternoon closing session. I invited two graduates of Shanti Bhavan Children's Project—a residential school for the poorest of the poor and the subject of Netflix's new documentary “Daughters of Destiny”—to join me for an on-stage discussion about emerging from abject poverty and gaining career opportunities typically granted to the upper-class. The school's founder and my friend, Dr. Abraham George, joined us for a few closing remarks.
Any child can succeed
Their stories prove that any child can succeed if given the right opportunity, and Shanti Bhavan yields hundreds of these stories. Each year, 12 girls and 12 boys are taken out of the villages before the age four and their education is paid for until they graduate college and begin work. Then, 20-50% of their salaries go toward rebuilding homes in their villages, providing healthcare for their families, and other contributions to their communities. Since the school began in 1997, 97% have graduated from high school, 98% from college, and 97% have gained employment at multi-national companies such as American Express, Goldman Sachs, and Deloitte. Unlike most disadvantaged children, these students are not taught to survive; they are taught to thrive.
I visited the school for several days after the conference, reuniting with students and teachers after seven years when I first became a partner. The young children have grown into impressive young adults, and there were over a hundred new smiling faces eager to interact with me. With several graduating classes having gone on to college and prosperous careers, Abraham asked me if I thought that a sense of entitlement may be setting in with the older students. I felt that it might be, so each evening I gathered all the high school students for a vibrant group dialogue.
Education is bigger than the individual
My overall message to them was simple: "Shanti Bhavan is bigger than all of us. It isn't about students, teachers, or a beautiful campus, and it hasn't provided you with a free education just so you can get a great job and buy a nice car and big screen TV. This is a movement, and you have a responsibility and opportunity to further its mission of eradicating poverty and improving the world." I asked them what they would do if the school shut its doors tomorrow, and explained that if any one of them were to revert back to village life, then Shanti Bhavan will have failed them and they will have failed Shanti Bhavan. They then debated how to further the "movement" and explored implementing the model into other existing schools, fundraising to start a new Shanti Bhavan, and more.
While their lifelong commitment need not focus entirely on sustaining the school, we discussed that they must always be working toward eliminating social injustices or solving environmental issues, which could even be as simple as buying solar panels for their homes rather than fancy cars. Collectively, they felt most passionate about eradicating corruption and the caste system, so we also talked about how as individuals we must "be the change you wish to see in the world" (Gandhi). This was an exercise that they will never forget, and they were genuinely appreciative (see video).
I believe that everyone is entitled to a good education, but in reality, whether one receives it as a beneficiary of philanthropists or of taxpayers, education is a gift. Every student, regardless of country or wealth, should be taught to value it as such, and that it carries responsibilities and opportunities that are bigger than him or herself. I never had discussions like these as a student, but any school that aims to produce the leaders of tomorrow ought to be regularly asking each student, independent of grades or assignments, "How are you going to change the world?" The answer doesn't matter, but the thought process develops intellectual agility, strong character, and good values, which should be the priority of education.