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Avanti Fellows – A Social Enterprise by IIT Bombay Alumni to help low-income Students


avantiIn an age where all the corporations are waking up to the responsibility of giving back to the society through their CSR activities, it is often forgotten that we as individuals are also obligated to do the same for the world around us. That however, is not true for six individuals who have come together to educate people from low-income families after having become successful educated individuals. Meet the team of the then two IIT Bombay alumni and four IIT Bombay students who founded Avanti Fellows to create new humane standards. Avanti Fellows (Avanti) is social enterprise founded in March 2010 with the objective of broadening access to top quality tertiary education to meritorious students from low-income families. YourStory.in had a conversation with the team to know more about them

Hi, Avanti team! Please introduce yourself to our readers.

Hello, I am AkshaySaxena. These are my teammates and co-founders of Avanti Fellows, namely - Krishna Ramkumar, Vaibhav Devanathan, Rohit Singh, Aishwarya Ramakrishnan and Rahul Srinivasan.

Krishna: As CEO, I currently run all of Avanti's operations. Before Avanti, I worked as a management consultant for over two years with the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). I graduated from IIT Bombay in 2008.

Akshay: I am currently on sabbatical from the MBA program at Harvard Business School and I am Avanti's President. I also lead marketing at HeartFlow Inc., a venture backed medical device company with over $30M in funding. I graduated from IIT Bombay in 2006.

avanti_aishyaryaVaibhav: Aishwarya and I graduated from IIT Bombay in 2010 and are currently working as management consultants at BCG and McKinsey respectively.

Rohit: Rahul and I graduated from IIT Bombay in 2011. I am currently pursuing a PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA while Rahul is working with BCG in Mumbai.

So what is the Avanti Fellows program all about?

Avanti aims at addressing the systemic bias which exists against low-income students seeking admission to India’s premier universities. India's premier universities such as the IITs have extremely low acceptance rates of less than 2%. This has spawned a multi-billion dollar coaching industry which has in turn created a financial barrier to entry to students from low-income families.

Moreover, low-income students who do manage to clear the entrance exams often struggle to cope in college due to a lack of fluency in English and limited personal and professional networks.Given the vast number of low-income students in urban and rural India, an effective and scalable solution to this problem is crucial.

avanti_akshayWe are largely a student-run enterprise. Avanti's operations are spread over 7 locations and managed by student teams at 5 IITs - Bombay, Delhi, Madras, Kanpur and Roorkee. More than 150 students across these 5 IITs volunteer their time at Avanti to execute operations.Avanti's Corporate team comprises of 4 full time employees. The corporate office is located at the IIT Delhi campus.

What is your methodology of working?

Avanti selects talented high school students from low income communities and helps them gain entry to and succeed at undergraduate colleges such as engineering and medicine. We do this by providing them access to training, mentoring and financial aid through high school and college.

Every year, a class of ‘Avanti Fellows’ is selected through a rigorous two-stage procedure involving an aptitude test and personal interview to evaluate academic merit, motivation and financial background. Each Avanti Fellow is paired with her/his Avanti Mentor, a current student from a premier university, who provides guidance and support. Each Fellow is also enrolled for free at a partner training institute for competitive entrance exam preparation and English language training.

How are you funding your operations and the students’ fees?

avanti_krishnaAvanti establishes partnerships with banks to provide assistance in securing loans to pay for college, and ties up with corporates to help fellows secure internships and jobs.

As for our operations, a large part of Avanti’s operations is managed by student-run teams on college campuses, keeping overhead costs extremely low. A small corporate team focuses on deploying standardized processes, monitoring metrics and managing expansion.

How has the journey been so far?

In our first year, we have set up operations and established student teams at five IITs, namely IIT Bombay, IIT Delhi, IIT Madras, IIT Kanpur and IIT Roorkee that comprise of over 150 student volunteers.

Currently, 100 Fellows are enrolled in the program across these five locations.

We have also established a partnership with the central government-run school system, the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas to help 20 rural students prepare for engineering entrance exams in Puducherry.

We wanted to leverage the massive human capital at the IITs (both current students and alumni) who have both the networks and knowledge to help address this problem. We are also replicating the same model in the medical and law streams.

The response to our fellowship program has been wonderful. In the first year, over 5,000 students from across 500 schools applied to our fellowship program and wrote our selection tests. 120 were selected. These numbers will only grow as we spread word about our program in future years.

Moreover, more than 300 current students and alumni have applied to our program to sign up as mentors.

So who do you aim to cover with your initiative?

avanti_rahulOur beneficiaries are bright students coming from low income households with a total annual house hold income of less than Rs 2.5 lakhs. Presently the areas of operation are the cities of Mumbai, Delhi NCR, Chennai, Roorkee, Dehradun, Kanpur and Puducherry

We envision expanding our engineering program and establishing our first medical college chapter, thus doubling the fellow intake in 2012. By 2013, with the inclusion of a law college chapter, we expect to increase annual enrollment to 500. By 2017, we aim to set up student teams at 100 colleges in cities across India with an annual enrollment of 2,500 students to the fellowship program.

What are the academic streams that you help people achieve their dreams in?

Currently all the fellows are being trained for engineering competitive examinations which will be held in the years 2012 and 2013.

We are in the process of setting up a medical college chapter at Maulana Azad Medical College in Delhi. From 2012, we will also help fellows prepare for the pre-medical entrance examinations.

In the future, we also expand to law and other streams.

Do you have any association or partnership with other organizations?

We have several strategic partners to execute our program.

avanti_rohitSchool systems such as the Rajkiya Pratibha Vikas Vidyalayas (Delhi Directorate of Education), Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas, Kendriya VidyalayasChennai and Mumbai Corporation Schools, Dayanand Anglo-Vedic Schools, Indian Education Society Schools, Anjuman-I-Islam Schools, Don Bosco Schools, etc. have helped us identify students for our program.

Coaching institutes across the country have provided us free seats for between 20-50 low-income students per year.

Our current engineering prep partners are IITians PACE and Brilliance Classes in Mumbai, Brilliant Tutorials and TRS Classes in Chennai, Brilliant Tutorials and FIITJEE in Delhi, Sanjay Chauhan, Abhishek Gupta and VivekPandey in Kanpur, Conceptum Education in Roorkee and JRS Tutorials in Dehradun. Our medical prep partner is Mission PMT in Delhi. Our online prep partners are Top Chalks and e-Career Point.

English training partners have provided our fellows English training at subsidized rates. The current list includes Inlingua in Delhi, Speak Well and Prime Well in Mumbai and Veta in Chennai.

Amazing! How can people help you?

People can help us primarily through connections of three kinds:

1.     A strong selection process is critical to help us reach truly deserving candidates for our fellowship program. Moreover, it helps keep coaching and corporate partners interested and our student mentors motivated. You can help us expand our urban and rural outreach by connecting us with:

1.a.     Low-income school systems

1.b.     Large community-based organizations

1.c.     Media organizations (print, radio, TV)

1.d.     Teacher forums and secondary school tutors

avanti_vaibhav2.     We are currently establishing a career services cell to help our fellows get internship and employment opportunities. This is crucial both for our long term financial sustainability and for the professional success of our fellows. You can help us by:

2.a.     Connecting us with business heads and HR departments of national and multi-national corporates across engineering and other sectors

2.b.     Creating internship opportunities to provide our fellows exposure to various careers

3.     We will soon expand our geographical presence in the engineering fellowship program as well as expand to other disciplines such as medicine and law. You can help us connect with potential:

3.a.     Entrance exam coaching partners

3.b.     English training partners

What are your plans for the years to follow?

Yes, this academic year (2011-12) we will enroll 300 students to our program, a few being for the medical stream. In 2013, we will pilot the law stream with the total enrollments reaching 500. By 2015, the annual enrollments will reach 1,400 and by 2017, we will have over 100 students chapters with 2,500 annual enrollments to the fellowship program.

Moreover, we will also set up partnerships with banks for education loans and with corporates for internship and employment opportunities for our fellows.

How has been the recognition so far for all your efforts?

In May 2010, Avanti won the Stanford BASES Social E-Challenge, one of the world's premier social business plan competitions.

In July 2010, Avanti was selected as a Pan IIT Alumni India initiative.

In November 2010, Avanti was selected as an UnLtd India Level 1 investee.

Any final word to our readers?

We have gone through several ups and downs over the past year, but the ride has been immensely satisfying. With everyone’s cooperation, we have to and we will make a difference!

Well..inspiring is the word for what Avanti Fellows has come to achieve so far. YourStory.in waits with eager hearts as they go out and continue to ignite the lives of thousands of hopefuls..All our best wishes for their endeavors.

To know more about Avanti Fellows and to do your bit for the cause, log on to www.avantifellows.org

- Rohit Rohan

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