When you study subjects not just to do well in exams but to intrinsically understand their significance in the real world, your career begins to take shape even before you graduate from high school.

Tanay Nagar, our next pathbreaker, Grade 12 student at Dhirubhai Ambani International School, started his own technology based Non-Profit Social Impact Organization, Project XLR8 to make the process of finding skill-based volunteers (especially for newer Social Impact Organizations) much easier and quicker.

Tanay talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about his fascination for technology due to its ability to make something super complex (like Machine Learning) out of sheer and pure logic and having real-world implications that can benefit the world.

For students, be bold, make mistakes and put yourself out there because that is the only way to explore your interests, strengths and to equip yourselves to face the challenges of the real world !

Tanay, tell us about your background?

I am Tanay Nagar, a grade 12 student studying in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program. I was born in a small town in Madhya Pradesh and brought up in Mumbai. Since as long as I can remember, I have always been interested in all things technology, whether that would be fixing a mobile phone or opening up a Remote Controlled Car to see what’s inside. Besides Technology (Computer Science), I’m also passionate about Entrepreneurship, Marketing and Psychology.

The culmination of my love for technology, marketing and entrepreneurship led me to start my own Non-Profit Social Impact Organization, Project XLR8, created to make the process of finding skill-based volunteers (especially for newer Social Impact Organizations) much easier and quicker.

What are you currently studying? 

As part of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program, I have chosen 6 subjects: 3 of which are Standard Level while the rest explore the higher levels in their respective fields.

On the Standard Level, I have taken English, Hindi and Psychology and on a Higher Level, I have selected Computer Science, Physics and Mathematics.

In all the subjects I study, I have always loved to not only intrinsically gain more knowledge about these subjects but also connect these subjects to real-world examples, solutions and to each other. 

Although I like all the courses in school, my favourites are Computer Science, Physics and Psychology, since I have had the ability to tailor them to my liking.

Computer Science is my favorite because designing a program or an algorithm makes complete sense and although it may look like just giving machines some work to do, the kinds of tasks which you can hand over to a computer have become much more complex and are growing exponentially in the last 10-20 years. A combination of making something super complex (maybe, like a machine learning model that can predict stock market movements) out of sheer and pure logic and having real-world implications, is something which will always attract me towards computers.

Physics is another favorite because all the phenomena we study can be experimented with in the real world. Having a defined system which can determine the motion of an object always sounds interesting. Also, almost all researchers have discovered Physics phenomena not by sitting in a laboratory but by observing them in the real world (like Mr. Feynman discovered Inertia when he saw a beach ball go back even when the trolley was going forward or Professor Roentgen finding X-rays by mistake when he was photographing his wife’s hand !). The mysteries in the real world never end. Having a principle or a set of principles which can explain anything happening in the whole universe will always be fun.

Psychology because it is very interesting to learn the quirks and qualities of a human brain (like 80% memories of accidents are actually faulted) and how it functions. Also, since I will be working on Artificial Intelligence in the future, having a basic understanding of how human thinking works will be very beneficial when I make real-world models.

Mathematics: I think Mathematics is something which ties all of it together. It’s a subject where there’s no exception but just harmony and symmetry of logic.

     What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual path? 

I believe that the path I am on right now is the culmination of all the experiences I have had in my life.

As cliché as this sounds, I was always interested in Electronics from a young age. Some of my most fond memories are opening up my old television, breaking open all my remote-controlled toys under the false pretense that I would just put them back together when I am done and playing with my voltmeter.

I still remember the Arduino (a programmable circuit board) which I was gifted on my 11th Birthday by my parents. Mesmerized by the neatly packaged sensors and jumper wires, I would get lost in that world knowing nothing about hunger, thirst, time or my mom calling me to dinner for the umpteenth time.

Further on, my interest in electronics transcended into my interest in subjects like Physics, Mathematics and Computer Science. This interest was further solidified by famous lectures from professors Richard Feynman and Walter Lewin.

In the 7th Grade, I was introduced to the TCS IT WIZ: The Nation’s Biggest IT Quiz and after 2 years of preparation, I finally became a regional finalist in the competition. This achievement paved the way to my focus on technology.

I believe a big turning point for me was the opportunity to attend numerous functions, competitions, hackathons and community groups which I was a part of. They introduced me to and got me inspired by various talented individuals. Some of these groups include the Google Android Developers (India Division), The IIT Bombay Techfest and Maker Faire.

As I grew up, I started exploring everything around me and putting myself out there. Whether it was networking with people in AI Summits or through Facebook groups or connecting with a founder on LinkedIn, the more I conversed with the people from different dimensions, the more I understood about the technological field.

In the past 3 years, I got myself acquainted with various programming languages (Python, Java, DART, LaTeX, etc.) and various software (TensorFlow, Android Studio, MATLAB, etc.) through public and open source documentation which were available for these. The amount of information on the internet baffled me and pushed me forward on this path.

     How did you begin with these initiatives? What were the challenges? How did you execute? Your approach on getting internships?

I did my first internship when I was 15. Finding internships in this age range can be a challenging task. I had sent out almost 100 cold emails to companies, but received no response. I would carry my resume at multiple events and always keep it in person in my bag whenever I was travelling so that I could introduce myself wherever I was attending an event. I remember registering for the Artificial Intelligence Summit at The Annual Techfest at IIT Bombay and hurriedly printing out 30 copies of my resume on the 1st day of the summit. There were almost 20 panelists invited to talk and so many company officials there as well. I approached each and every one of them (Yes, literally each and every one of them), handing out my resumes, asking for internship opportunities. There were so many people I ran after on the 1st day of the event with resumes in hand. I was too naïve to understand what they meant when they said, “Here’s my business card. Give me some time. I’ll look at your resume a little later”. At the end of day 1, I stepped into the cab home with 29 resumes still in hand. (Nobody took one resume. I just gave it to my partner at the event and he said that he would keep it since it had my contact details and he would have liked to be good friends with me down the line). That night, I sent out almost 20 emails from the different business cards I had gotten. On the 2nd day (and the last day), to every person I met, I told them “Here’s my resume, It’s ok if you can’t offer me an internship, I would still like you to have it”. On the same day, I met Mr. Mudit who was the founder of Market with Maddy, a digital marketing firm. He was the only one who actually called me after the event, and I still remember that I had my first interview sitting in the backseat of an auto talking to the co-founder of a company. What I learnt from this was that putting myself and my identity out there was the most beneficial thing I can ever do. I still have all the people who turned me down as my LinkedIn connections because I feel that they will always be the true judge of what my value is. My advice would be to put yourself out there.

As I gained a little more experience on how corporates function, I got more and more equipped with understanding how to organize a systematic workflow when building an organization. 

One of the first places where I applied this knowledge was when I was spearheading the VolunGearing Campaign by “Tribes for Good”, a platform where individuals learn and take action on the ‘Real Issues – social, economic and environmental’ that they care about locally as well as globally. My campaign focused on promoting skill-based volunteering in the Social Impact Space. While working on this Campaign, the learnings of my first internship as a Digital Marketing Trainee equipped me with handling the marketing and social media aspect of the campaign and maintaining a formal tone when contacting prospective organizations, inviting them to be a part of the Campaign. This showed me that the best way to set foot in a new sector is to just to explore it as much as you can. One never knows how past insights may help us in the future.

Where do you work now? Tell us about the NGO

As I finished the 5 month long VolunGearing Campaign (which I talked about before), I realized a much bigger problem at play in the Social Impact sector: There was no organization, movement or campaign which facilitated connections between NGOs (and Social Impact Organization) and pro-bono volunteers based on their skill. Based on some articles I had read, I knew this was a serious problem since almost 300 NGOs had closed down in the past 5 years due to either the lack of volunteers or the lack of funds. With the mindset of providing a boost to this sector, and a headstart to relatively newer organizations, I started Project XLR8.

Project XLR8 is a non-profit organization that aims to hold a meticulous database of all known NGOs and Volunteers in India. Through our organization, we strive to connect our partners with much-needed help (both in monetary and kind), through skill-based volunteering. We believe that through our organization, we can feature and shed light on NGOs integral to the community and the social impact sector, helping them grow and expand further.

Some of the things which we have achieved in the last 3 months are:

  1. Established partnerships with 5 NGOs
  2. Have a database of 100 passionate volunteers for the beta-testing of the mobile application
  3. Crowdfunded Rs. 72,000 to date

While we have achieved a lot since the inception of XLR8 2 months ago, I feel this could not have happened without the 70+ hours of groundwork, planning, documentation, strategization and goal-building which I have single handedly done before the organization was officially announced. This becomes the true test of your passion for the problem you are trying to solve which reflects in your motivation and persistence despite the absence of positive results.

Another major obstacle which I faced while growing the organization was finding individuals who shared the same level of commitment to my line of work. Sergey Brin’s quote that  “The first 10 employees one hires for their company decides the fate of the company” is an important rule to live by and this can be clearly seen by the large multinational corporations we see today, most of them having had very humble beginnings. As of today, XLR8 is a team of 6 passionate members.

Being a student, although I do not commit entire days to working on the campaign, I spend around 15 to 18 hours per week working on different aspects of the Organization.

How does your work benefit the society? 

The primary purpose of Project XLR8 is to connect Social Impact Organizations with volunteers based on their skills. This will help them grow in their early years. We aim to facilitate this connection through our app and website which takes a few lines of information from them while registering. This would include things like their location, their hobbies, how much time they can spend per week as a volunteer. This information is run through an algorithm which recommends to them, the two most suitable organizations they can contribute to. By factoring in the skillset of the volunteers, we are also ensuring a significant increase in the efficiency and workflow of these organizations.

In the long term, I want to grow our mobile app (which is now in development) to the equivalent of LinkedIn for Social Impact Organizations in India. Through us, nascent organizations could not only acquire volunteers to support them, they will also have access to a large repository of challenges which past organizations have faced, advice on funding and mentorship from other Organization leaders too.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

One of the most memorable work I have done is teaching Mathematics to the 8th Graders in Kherwadi Public School. The sheer act of teaching kids the subject brings instant and long—lasting joy. Moreover, all the students were very eager to learn, making it an all the more enjoyable experience. Their passion, perseverance and keenness towards learning something new baffles me to this date. I taught these students as a Volunteer for the Aseema Foundation for a period of 1 year.

Future Plans? What do you intend to study? why?

I intend to take up Computer Science as a Major in College. As I have talked about before too, technology has always been something which has mesmerized me and kept me hooked. I intend to specialize in the Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning sector and want to use this knowledge and the tools specifically in the Healthcare and Psychology Sector, to figure out different ways of emulating the human brain.