From Philadelphia to Mozambique: an Indian’s journey to create a socially-impactful programme

From Philadelphia to Mozambique: an Indian’s journey to create a socially-impactful programme

Monday July 20, 2015,

11 min Read

Twenty-five-year-old Dhairya Pujara quit his US job on the first day. The brave, some may call it callous move, did, however, result in far-reaching impactful work. On July 02, 2012, three years ago, Dhairya Pujara, like many of his peers, had just finished his MS and landed a job in the Healthcare IT sector. On the very first day, after wrapping up his work at 5.30 p.m., he returned to what he refers to as his ‘expensive, company-sponsored hotel room’. It may have been too early in the game, but he thought to himself ‘enough is enough’, and decided never to go back.

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Dhairya Pujara (in black shirt), Founder of YCenter

Dhairya, hailing from Mumbai, had started his entrepreneurial journey when he was but 19 years old and still in college. It was an e-commerce company for engineering students to buy and sell used books. He recalls the time, when in 2009, the company was even selected for Economics Times’ Power of Ideas, a programme to help promote entrepreneurship.

“It was the first time in my life I heard the two words –‘elevator pitch’ and ’business plan’. I still remember when we came in to attend the event, the guard thought we were college kids and not entrepreneurs," says Dhairya. Unfortunately, the company had to shut down as all the people who made the core team were headed out to the US.

Dhairya says that admitting to being part of a failed e-commerce setup helps him today in the US, when he attempts to reach out to potential investors. It instills in them the confidence that he already knows what not to do.

After being part of a startup journey, Dhairya knew that he just couldn't be a part of a regular 9-to-5 job. He believed that entrepreneurship was ingrained in him, early on. Citing an incident that took place when he was 15 years old, Dhairya recalls his father telling him about an IIT engineer hired by a large American company with a pay package of about 75l akhs per annum. While most of his contemporaries aspired for such a high pay packet, for Dhairya, a different ideal took shape. "I told my dad my aim was to own a company that could hire people with that kind of package," he says.

Drexel to Mozambique

Thus began the steps to make his international programme a reality. After quitting his job on the first day, Dhairya connected with the Dean of his university - Drexel University Philadelphia, when he had decided to establish the international programme there. He told her he didn't need any remuneration and that he would just focus on setting up the programme.

Dhairya Pujara as Kwamba in Mozambique
Dhairya Pujara as Kwamba in Mozambique

When she asked him how he was going to manage without money and an health insurance, Dhairya told his dean that entrepreneurship wouldn’t be his cup of tea if he had to worry about all that. "I explained to her that I know I would be broke and would continue to be so for some more time, if I had to achieve my dream; I really had nothing to lose," says Dhairya.

Setting up that international programme contributed to his achieving that dream. Whilst establishing the programme and luring investments, he met several potential investors and people from the United Nations. In one such meeting with an investor in New York, Dhairya had a “revelation."

The investor told him, "You're a 24 year old guy who is running an international programme for a large private university and you've never been to Africa? How do you expect me to trust you with my money and kids if you are running a programme promising a trip to a place you’venever been to?”

Dhairya realised that he had no apt answer to this, and the next thing you know, he was heading to the international site for the programme: Mozambique, Africa, a non-English speaking, war-torn nation. "I had to figure out where the place was in the map," confesses Dhairya. You see, he had never in his life so far planned to make a trip to Africa.

Becoming a part of Mozambique as Kwamba

The first pain issue Dhairya faced was the local language, as he was a stranger in an unknown region. It was then that he started learning Portuguese, to gain acceptance of the locals in the area. For five months, Dhairya put in his best efforts to make himself a part of the community in Mozambique and worked in a rural hospital as a bio-medical engineer.

One of the key issues he identified at the ground level was the inability in people to use the medical equipment – sometimes worth USD 50,000 to 80,000. So,Dhairya helped build capacity by training the locals on the usage of the equipment. Rolling up his sleeves,he began fixing the equipment first. Since it was a small village where everyone knew everyone, soon enough, the news spread that an Indian guy from the US was fixing things.

Dhairya Pujara in Mozambique Africa

"So I became an on-call repairman. People would call me to their homes to fix their electronics. It was a great experience; my qualifications meant nothing. For them I was just another guy living in their village," adds Dhairya. Soon,he became a part of the community and even got an African name –‘Kwamba’.

Conducting a TED talk in Mozambique

Dhairya, then,went ahead to conduct the first-ever TEDx conference in Mozambique. For him, it wasn't a branding experience, the point being to bring all the inventors and researchers - who, according to him, were largely unknown to the outside world - in Mozambique, to the forefront. "These were local people who were extraordinary and brilliant all on their own. They did not need anyone from the West to teach them anything. They just needed to share their stories," he adds.

The TEDx event happened from within a box. He spoke to the TED people in New York, who gave him USD 3000-worth equipment in a box. But it was lost at Customs. The event, however, went on to be held. "We used coconut and banana leaves to make the letters ‘TED’. We gave bottled water and Parle-G biscuits for those who attended the event. I went to a local studio and borrowed their camera for the pictures. Everything was outsourced from the local community," recalls Dhairya.

Back to Drexel and creating Ycenter

While Dhairya was understanding the grassroot problems at Mozambique, the Drexel University’s international programme started facing issues. When Dhairya returned , the programme had shut down. He believes that this was because of a lack of accountability.

The impact of the programme was clearly not measured. This gave birth to Dhairya’s entrepreneurial journey –Ycenter, which was formed to create and build accountability for such programmes.

Ycenter takes students to international locations for impactful work. "When you're part of the programme, maximum accountability is expected. You are accountable for everything you do and you need to share all the documentation of the work you have done. It may be for social cause, but accountability at Ycenter is extremely important," adds Dhairya.

Dhairya Pujara in Mozambique

After months of planning and forming a small team, Dhairya officially registered Ycenter at Philadelphia, USA, in early 2014. He now has an American company, but here, according to the entrepreneur, is the biggest problem: "My student visa was about to expire and I had a year to figure out my next course of action. There is no direct startup visa for Indians in the USA. So I started doing guest lectures. The first university to invite me for a talk was Dhairya Pujara for "Rebuilding America: Path of the Entrepreneur" // The Wharton School," says Dhairya.

There were other battles to wage, too. After setting up Ycenter for his programme. Dhairya to do was approach the universities in the country. "The first thing they asked me do was get out of their offices," laughs Dhairya. This was owing to the fact that he did not have a theoretical base in the subject and no PhD. Dhairya needed people who added credibility to the programme as well as Ycenter. Looking at his work, Tensai Asfaw, a member of the Secretariat for the Secretary General's high-level panel on humanitarian financing at United Nations OCHA, joined the team, as advisory board member.

Soon, the person who gave him the space to start the centre, Professor Michael Glaser,Dhairya's mentor,joined as ‘Founding Director and Advisor’ for Ycenter. Aditya Brahmabhatt joined as Programme Director, NYU Graduate hailing from Mumbai and working full-time on the programme.

One thing led to another, and, soon enough, the young entrepreneur got on board University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University , and the programme won the ‘Philly Dogooder’ award for social enterprise, which snagged him a 30,000 USD-marketing package for the company. "By this time, my stories of quitting my job on the first day and my immigration struggles were published in a Philadelphia magazine.This caught the attention of some big people in the city. Next thing I knew, I had an office space in a co-working office in Philadelphia downtown," says Dhairya.

Creating an SMS app for Malaria and pregnancy

 After setting up Ycenter, Dhairya knew he had to go back to Mozambique to help combat Malaria. This time around, he created an SMS app for patients who need treatment. He explains that due to the international aid, medical tests and treatments were free. Patients just needed to get to the hospital, he adds, but due to lack of education and the medical centres being far away, they wouldn't go to them.

"They used home remedies, and were unaware of malaria. Therefore, the mortality rate is quite high. I wanted to create a remedy using what they already had. Someone told me three things were always present in Mozambique –a cell phone, a can of Coca-Cola and faith in God. Ironically, you might not find water there but you'll find Coco-Cola everywhere," adds Dhairya.

Since the cell phone was ubiquitous, all Dhairya needed to do was create an app, which is pre-installed in the mobile. He explains it is similar to the old Nokia snake game. Through this app, patients could send in a message saying they were unwell to a number connected to the hospital via cloud services. This then is sent across the different community health workers who would reach out to the patient.

"I wanted to create accountability. There is a general a mistrust in Africa for people who come from the developed world. They think we just go there to tick an item off a bucket list. But with this SMS system that reaches us via cloud and contacts different doctors, keeping track of what is happening and whether help has reached the patients is possible," says Dhairya.

The app now also helps the UN initiative that works towards cutting transmission of HIV from the mother to the child. Dhairya adds that pregnant mothers in Mozambique who had HIV do not talk about it because of the taboo associated with it. “Most of them are teenage girls, who don't disclose they are pregnant. When it becomes public, it's too late to do anything,” Dhairya says.

The expectant mother, needs to go in for treatment at very early stages of pregnancy. To prevent HIV transmission, the app, Dhairya explains, gives women privacy to send an SMS detailing their condition only to the healthcare facilities. He calls it an 'Uber for Malaria and Pregancy testing’.

What’s ahead

Ycenter is now collaborating with the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Science and Technology in Mozambique, working with about four American universities to send their students to Africa through the programme, to learn and create impact. Dhairya is also part of the World Economic Forum chapter in Philadelphia and was invited to give a talk at the Social Enterprise World Forum in South Korea in 2014.

He has delivered 25 other talks and seminars in Philadelphia, New Jersey-based universities, attended collectively by 800 students, and has organised a city-wide hackathon with Microsoft. He has, additionally, created an advisory board with members from United Nations and other top organisations in the USA.

Dhairya has also been featured on the cover of Philadelphia Business Journal, raised money on crowd funding platforms, fought an immigration battle and, eventually in 2015, was awarded an O1A visa by American immigration. This visa is reserved for individuals of extraordinary abilities.