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Nov 15, 2019 2019-11 Student

Student-led startup tackling social issues for underrepresented girls in India

When Ananya Tiwari visited her home in India in 2016, she witnessed her childhood friends living a completely different life. She saw clear inequality in education and in society as a whole.

SwaTaleem Foundation“Growing up, we were never taught about the social structures,” said Tiwari, a second-year PhD student in educational psychology at the University of Illinois, who was born and raised in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh in India. “When I saw my friends dropping out of school to earn wages, it really unsettled me. That’s when I decided to work in education.”

Following her passion, Tiwari co-founded SwaTaleem Foundation, a non-profit that works with teachers and vulnerable adolescent girls in India to improve educational outcomes and impact socio-emotional skills. They hope to achieve this by breaking down traditional hierarchical platforms and giving students more of a voice in the kind of education they want. SwaTaleem aims to tackle challenges that current schools are facing such as lack of professional development and resources for teachers, and girls being uneducated and ending up going home and getting married.

SwaTaleem Foundation provides professional development opportunities, on-site support, and feedback for teachers. The organization also coordinates with government officials to provide proper resources for districts to run sustainable educational models, ensuring officials, teachers, and young girls work together for a common goal. Since its incorporation in December 2018, SwaTaleem Foundation has worked with 900 girls, 30 teachers, 6 schools, and 2 districts.

“We are trying to solve real issues regarding giving voices to the minority and underrepresented girls in India,” said Tiwari. “The government signed a memorandum of understanding with us to scale the model to the entire state. Our goal through SwaTaleem Foundation is to work with 2,000 girls by July 2020. I want to shed light on the real issues and remind everyone how privileged of a life we live. We here never have to struggle with the idea of getting married at 13 years of age or being kidnapped on the way to school.”

SwaTaleem Foundation is part of iVenture Accelerator, the educational program for top student startups at the University of Illinois. The iVenture Accelerator, which is powered by Gies College of Business, supports student-led startups with knowledge, funding, and access to world-class University of Illinois resources and alumni. In the last few years, iVenture entrepreneurs have raised millions of dollars, created dozens of full-time jobs, and gone onto prestigious programs such as Y-Combinator.

“A neat part of iVenture is that it’s open to ventures from all backgrounds, not strictly venture-backable high growth software companies,” said Manu Edakara, director of the iVenture Accelerator. “In fact, nearly a third of ventures each year are social or cultural in nature, and iVenture itself has its roots in the school of social work.”

“iVenture has provided both pace and clarity in determining how an early-stage nonprofit should look and run, where we should focus, and where should invest our resources,” said Tiwari. “At a personal level too, I have benefited a lot. The leadership stands with us and encourages us to navigate difficult situations as well as forge helpful connections in terms of both professional and personal support.”