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In India, people with disability are usually pitied, or made fun of. Meera Shenoy however, sees that ability exists in every single person – it is up to us to tap it.
What do you do when you see a person with any disability? Well, even the finest of us will let pity overpower all emotions at the sight of a person with disabilities. But one woman decided to do something that will start changing this attitude of ours….by making the hidden strength of those with disabilities manifest.
Meet Meera Shenoy, Founder of Youth4Jobs, a mission that has successfully trained and placed youngsters with disabilities in sectors like automobile, gems & jewellery, manufacturing, gaming, retail, front desk jobs, and many more. Youth4Jobs has skilled over 11,500 disabled people in its 21 training centres in twelve states of India. What more? Well, out of this whopping number, 65 percent have been placed in good positions in over 200 companies countrywide! The youth who do not choose to work in private sector jobs apply for government jobs where there is a reservation. So, if they have failed government exams before, now with Youth4Jobs training, they pass them easily.
Historically, government programs for people with disability have had fairly poor placement rates in India. In contrast, Youth4Jobs has successfully placed 65% of the most vulnerable youth it has come into contact with – youth with disabilities from remote and unreached villages. And all this without any government aid!
So how did the journey begin? I let Meera Shenoy pour her heart out, and she begins, “I worked in business media – print and later TV. Many of the stories took me to the villages. At a point in my life I wasn’t satisfied capturing these stories on paper or camera. I wanted to do something beyond. Unexpectedly I got this offer to set up the country’s first Skilling Mission for the rural development department of the Andhra Pradesh government, called the Employment Generation & Marketing Mission (EGMM). After six years of setting up and leading EGMM, there was no looking back.”
She adds, “After EGMM, I decided to move into the next phase of my life – to set up Youth4Jobs in 2012. Disability was chosen for several reasons –a) 80% of the world’s disabled population is in developing countries like India. So any positive impact has an effect not just on India but the world b) Studies show there is a close connection between disability and poverty c) In India barely 0.1% are linked to organised sector jobs. Thus, we decided to bring our own mantra to work, ‘Hire disabled youth as their talent will help your business, don’t hire them out of sympathy.'”
No government funds, so how does Youth4Jobs manage such a critical mission?
Meera explains,”We find senior government officers understand but the junior staff who assess and monitor the program have no sensitivity to or understanding of disability. So, we share our work to influence them. I sit on some of the governing bodies to ensure that the right message goes across. For transparent and professional organisations like us, the company CSR Act helps us with CSR funds. Now we have some other funder-partners as well.”
So today whether it is Lulu from Hyderabad with mobility impairment or Kiran from Surat who is visually impaired, each one trained by Youth4Jobs holds her or his head high with the pride of being self-reliant.
Meera fondly recalls the case of Lulu from Hyderabad, “Lulu was adopted when she was one year old. Years of ridicule and mistreatment resulted in Lulu dropping out of her 10th grade. But she began learning computers at home and started taking tuitions. She joined a computer institute where she learnt MS Office with her friend’s aunt. Lulu’s friends placed her in two jobs. Due to inaccessible toilets she left her first job. She was underpaid in the second job. When she raised the question, her supervisor remarked, “Who will hire you? Just be quiet”. Youth4Jobs trained her to work and to hold on to hope. Today Lulu works with JP Morgan facilities’ Voice Processing at a handsome annual salary of Rs.3 lakhs! They have even given her a motorised wheel chair.”
My eyes turned moist for a while. How many of us look beyond our own comfort zone to changes others’ lives for better?
The Chennai born, married to London educated Subodh Shenoy, Meera was at one time managing life between three houses in three different continents! “Subodh gave me complete freedom and encouraged me to chase my passion. Subodh had moved to ICTP, Trieste, Italy which is the only institute of science funded by UNESCO. I was clear not to relocate, as my heart was at my social service in India. So we had 3 homes in 3 continents for several years. Me in Hyderabad in India, while Subodh was in Italy and daughter Suchitra was in England and then the US,” recalls Meera.
Till now I had only seen actors live out of the suitcase. So my next query naturally had to be, ‘What drove you to philanthropy, leaving the best comforts of life?’
“We four siblings learnt simplicity and humility from our parents and grandparents. We were a joint family with simple comforts at our disposal. Most of us are fortunate to be born healthy. An accident of birth place has made a large part of India different. We, the ones born with all means and comfort, are fortunate enough to try make the ‘different part’ of India a better India. The work I do fills my life with joy. Just as much as it transforms the life of every disabled youth we train and opens a window for them to fly into the world of opportunities,” says the beaming Psychology graduate and Philosophy post-graduate who loves to live a life for others.
Thus, to spread the message of ‘ability in disability’ Meera decided to look beyond skill-training. She came out with her book, ‘You Can’ which has been a best-seller and is soon coming out in Hindi as well. Meera is a TedX Speaker who has been awarded the Shell-Helen Keller award and the World HRD Forum’s Woman Super Achiever award to name just a few. She is also the only one from India to be nominated to the Happiness Hall of Fame, Stanford. It is here that the organisers called her the ‘Mother Teresa of Jobs.’ The name has stuck and many parents in India whose child has at long last got a job refer to her in a similar manner.
So much achieved at Youth4jobs in just 5 years; so how does she strike a work-life balance? “Of course all is not hunky-dory. There are times when I wish I could be a part of family and social gatherings. But I do try and not travel on birthdays and anniversaries and nowadays over the weekends,” confesses Meera.
I look back at my own life and then at hers, so much to do…and all in 24 hours. So how do her 24 hours look like?
Meera details with a chuckle, “A bit of yoga…an excellent cup of south Indian Kapi…newspapers…breakfast of idli-dosas. Then office which is 10 minutes away. Meeting team, visitors, calls; emails; visit to companies. Return home at around 6:30pm and switch off my phone by 8pm to read; watch some TV. I travel at least 15 days a month and then this schedule goes for a complete toss!” At this, both of us have a hearty laugh.
Meera adds, “I listen to Hindustani classical music; love watching good films. And yes, I enjoy reading murder mysteries – maybe I have a sneaking desire to write one!” We have a hearty laugh again.
And as she prepares for her next meeting, Meera Shenoy leaves me with her inspiring words,”I believe the key purpose of life is to find yourself, to understand who you are and become a better human being.”
All images received from Meera Shenoy