Never underestimate the power of volunteering, something that can be done at any age, any time and for any reason. And that could shape your ideals, values and purpose !
Aanchal Gupta, Youth Venturer, aims to prioritize diversity and equity through her venture, Conscious Culture, with the idea of creating a work culture where women are empowered and resourceful, and this benefits the companies as well.
Aanchal, tell us about your background?
I come from a humble background. My parents are from Neemrana, Rajasthan. When my grandfather passed away, my mom and dad moved to Ghaziabad with one of the relatives who took responsibility for teaching my father how to work. Their life for the first nine years was not easy. My dad earned Rs 150 per month and mom took care of 6 young children (father’s siblings and cousins) at that time. Gradually, as their financial situation improved, they decided to have me.
As a child, I was always taught to dream big, build a reputation based on honesty and integrity, always clean one’s own toilet, generously share food with everyone, but stay frugal with the expenses. Luckily, they nurtured me with the mindset of abundance—there was always a reassurance that we have everything we need.
As I grew up, one of my schools, Uttam School for Girls, played a very important role in shaping my personality. Before Uttams I had studied in an extremely competitive environment, but here students worked collaboratively. I remember one of the class toppers shared her notebook with me a week before the exam because I was a struggling, new student. She casually said, “I will study from the book, you use my notes for 2-3 days.” That culture has stayed with me ever since.
Again, the habit of reading, asking questions, creating art, failing and forgetting the failure, all this got inculcated in school. I remember trailing in races and still participating because failing is better than not participating at all. I had a mortal fear of debate competitions but was determined to get over this fear and I even won occasionally. Learning was an adventure during school and college. I used to make a lists of things I wanted to explore every year and made sure I’d participate until the fear was gone and my curiosity was satiated.
What did you study after school?
In terms of my subjects, I took PCM with Economics during senior school and then I graduated in Economics Hons from Delhi University. As much as formal education taught me, exploring different domains and volunteering with organizations during college really helped me grow. I also made sure that I became a part of groups who held a completely opposite perspective than my world-view at the time. It was simply out of curiosity, with no understanding of how it will shape me in the future. But now, I can say it laid solid foundations for who I am today.
Why did you choose to work on a social initiative?
I think volunteering worked for me. I started volunteering in Grade 9 in school as a part of a buddy program with students of low-income private schools. I don’t think I realized its significance then, but it did ignite a spark of curiosity in me. Later, when I used to look at children soliciting alms, I’d wonder what makes them do it, and whether I should contribute or not. This curiosity to understand the world developed an empathy towards different social groups whose motivations I did not always understand.
In college, I did a couple of paid and unpaid internships, wrote a research paper on the Begging Act 1959, and volunteered with an NGO. My approach was to listen attentively in the class and spend the rest of the time challenging myself, exploring domains from my yearly list.
As I volunteered more, education and waste management seemed like two domains which needed attention and could create a long-term change. So, post-college I set out to explore these two domains. The key turning point was a program called the Gandhi Fellowship. I stepped into the program with dreams but no action plan and stepped out as a completely different person with a plan (which didn’t work later), friends who believed in me, and life skills which are invaluable.
Something incredible happened during this time as I started working on the cause of inclusivity with schools. I needed guidance at the time, so I applied to various programs. And to my surprise, many individuals and organizations extended support. That’s how the Ashoka Changemakers program happened, GAP also connected me to a mentor, Young India Fellowship added the systemic understanding, Shenomics connected me to women leaders. These programs laid the foundation of principle-driven leadership rooted in empathy and action.
How did you feel when you just started off working on your initiative? Did you face any resistance from society/ parents/ friends/ family/ teachers?
When Conscious Culture started, the number of people who supported were always more than the people who didn’t. In fact, we built our first product in collaboration with a company whose founder I met in a conference and after hearing the idea, his team offered to do it pro-bono. So, we have been lucky to receive ample support so far from kind individuals.
Conscious Culture started with a vision to prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion in workplaces. We felt there was a need to create a work culture where women are empowered and resourceful, and this benefits the companies as well.
We first built technology-driven tools for hiring and training, such that people who hold unconscious bias against women and other groups could be filtered out or trained to ensure a conscious company culture. Gradually, we diversified our services to building other processes such as employee engagement, performance evaluation, customer engagement & branding from an inclusive lens.
Six years back when I had just started my journey, my parents did not appreciate the social impact space. They wanted me to earn sufficiently, not travel to villages, find a man to marry and lead a safe, comfortable life. My plans contradicted all of their hopes.
Over time, I shared small success stories of the impact that we were making on the field with them, I could see that it made them proud. At the same time, when organizations like Ashoka Innovators for the Public supported me, it helped them believe that I was not on a completely wrong track.
In the last six years, my friends and communities have been my constant support. I dream, ideate and inspire, and my friends help me bring those dreams to life by sharing their skills and expertise. Even now the founding team members at Conscious Culture are my Gandhi fellowship folks, a friend from the Young India Fellowship and a school friend who have helped us set up our internal processes.
What are the challenges? How do you address them?
Challenge 1: One of the challenges is to convince companies that their biases related to gender, caste, class are reducing their talent pool. We try to address it through different products and services. Earlier we were only focusing on companies who at least understood the concept of inclusion at some level. Now, we have designed programs which will break these biases through connection and interaction between women and industry leaders.
The problem of non-inclusive opportunities, spaces, and services for minority groups and women is huge. A lot of progress has been made over the decades but when we really look at it, we see that we are treating our own people as second-class citizens. The challenge is that the issue has become invisible under the garb of globalization.
This problem needs urgent and committed attention from educators, policymakers and corporates. There is so much work that needs to be done that the more we learn about the problem we feel driven to solve it. And at Conscious Culture we understand that the only way to do it is by being curious, creative and committed to the problem.
To accept that we do not even understand the challenges faced by people with disability, of LGBTQ+ community, or of people from conflict areas, bothers us. As with our limited experience we don’t want to propose narrow solutions to people who are looking to change their culture.
I am building a culture within my team which learns to say, ‘we don’t know but we can ask the people who do and get back to you.’ Our website design, services, and products keep a space for continuous learning and growth. So, if we propose solutions for systemic change to make a company more gender inclusive, then we are also mindful of the fact that the same framework should be adjustable enough to accommodate new learnings as and when we learn what works for other minority groups.
More about your work –
What problems do you solve?
The resources and power are unequally distributed in our society. We want to make a world where everyone is inspired to act, dream and be, irrespective of their identity.
What skills are needed for the job? How did you acquire the skills?
Some of the non-negotiable skills are curiosity, empathy, collaboration and problem-solving.
Other skills which can be acquired over time are business development, framework creation, facilitation skills.
Earlier I learnt them because I was curious about the domain and my experiences and exposure nurtured some skills in me. For example, while volunteering to upskill sex workers in Delhi taught me to be non-judgmental, Gandhi fellowship taught me to celebrate failures. The Ashoka Changemaker program imbibed in me to stay committed to solving the problem instead of getting attached to a solution, and that meant staying open to collaborations, changes and creative problem solving.
Now, I am more focused on goal-oriented learning. Resources on the internet and shadowing an expert have been helping me towards that end.
What’s a typical day like?
These days, during covid19, since everything has moved to a screen, on a typical day, I start work around 8 am. I complete one difficult task for the day, and one task where I might be the bottleneck so that my team can continue to do their work. Then, after a short break, I sit with my work for 3-4 hours straight, ending the day with a team check-in. There is usually a list of pre-decided work which I try to finish before wrapping up for the day.
I also ensure that I read something domain specific and skill-specific every day and discuss it with a learning buddy. Similarly, the team is encouraged to learn and address their own biases by continuously reading, attending capacity building sessions and pushing themselves out of the comfort zone.
What is it you love about this job?
I grow every day.
Any Awards, prizes, accomplishments?
Being a part of Ashoka Young Changemakers network has been a significant accomplishment for me. Prior to the launch of Changemaker’s program, I had met and read about so many Ashoka fellows that I always aspired to be one of them.
Apart from that, I feel most accomplished when I am able to create jobs and opportunities for people to thrive. It’s the most humbling experience to create something and see it grow.
How does your work benefit society?
Imagine a place where trans people are running big companies, and gay parents are coming to drop their child at school. Imagine them laughing and dreaming freely. I dream of such a world. Either we are all free, or none of us are.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
I started my journey with a focus on senior citizen inclusivity. That time, I collected people’s life stories and narratives for two years. I still remember my first few interviews where we recorded a partition story of a ‘nani’ who moved from Pakistan to India as a 6 year old; we also covered a story of an old couple who ran a roadside restaurant and faced several challenges while getting married because of their caste. This work was beautiful, inspired me to connect deeply, create a space for senior citizens, but it was also problematic because we were attached to our solution of storytelling rather than the problem of inclusion. And, that didn’t work long term for us.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Identify your strengths and start working from there. Gradually build all the other necessary skills you need to do your job. You may not always find one purpose that you are willing to dedicate your life to. So what? Become a problem solver. That is the most rewarding experience. And, never under-estimate the power of a community—a committed group of people can make anything possible!
To serve, create success stories and add value.