While it is now rare to see people house a sense of community with their family's hometowns, what’s even more uncommon is seeing people who harbour gratitude towards them. But for New York-based social entrepreneur Megha Desai, when the time came to give thanks to the elements, communities, and institutions that made them, the path was strikingly lucid.
The road not taken
Growing up in suburban Massachusetts, 37-year-old Megha was training in Indian Classical Hindustani singing one day, and taking ski lessons the next. She then went to university in NYC. One of her first-ever jobs was in politics, which also sparked her interest in communications, leading to a switch in fields — from politics to advertising. Her father, who was an entrepreneur and one of the founding charter members of TiE ( TIE-Atlantic at the time) dragged her along to act as the secretary at some of their first few meetings, planting the entrepreneurial streak in her.
However, about 12 years into her career, she realised she was meant to do more with her life, and that her volunteer work with her family at the Desai Foundation, which they had crafted together, was the missing piece.
It was actually on a family vacation in Peru that the idea for the Desai Foundation really started to come to life. The whole family had climbed Machu Picchu and ended up in a discussion on family, legacy, evolution, and how all of those things collide. “So we started a foundation composed of all of those things: community, culture, health, and education. That was 19 years ago. We started by just writing a few cheques to causes we cared about, and three years ago, we decided to become a public foundation. That's what we're continuing to build,” she says.
Teaching a man how to fish
From a community perspective, they knew they wanted to operate within the communities that have moulded their journeys — Gujarat, where her parents are from; Boston, where they grew up, and New York, the place Megha ultimately chose to call home. “We chose to focus on women and children because women are the backbone of society. When you empower women, you're empowering an entire community. And children are the future,” she explains.
They believe strongly that development comes from within communities, so they simply provide the tools and training for people to improve their own lives and the community at large. “If you go to our operating villages in Gujarat, you'll find that most people we're serving have no idea who we are, nor do they recognise the Desai Foundation name. We're proud of that. We tap the resources closest to the people we're serving, and that's really the only way to have a lasting impact,” she states.
A deeper dive into a couple of their programmes:
Since 66 percent of girls in India skip school when they're on their periods, they instated a sanitary napkin programme that not only employs women but also provides their communities access to sanitary pads. The Desai Foundation will be able to provide jobs for 30–35 women across three regions in Gujarat, which will ultimately be reaching 2,50,000 women and girls. The project provides women and girls with valuable health resources while empowering women with entrepreneurial skills.
Columbia University and IIT Gandhinagar’s Community Impac Programt: At Columbia in NYC, there is a student-run programme which uses the students as volunteers to serve the community in which the university resides, namely, the underprivileged sections of Morningside Heights, Harlem, and Washington Heights. There are 900 students a year that serve up to 9,000 people. Inspired by this model at Columbia, they helped forge a similar model, NYASA, with the team of students at IIT Gandhinagar in Gujarat, creating a social initiative benefiting local communities through health camps, workshops, and computer classes that teach technical skills to the youth. “As it is a newer programme, our numbers are modest, but growing rapidly, and the possibilities are endless. We are working not only to continue serving the population around IITGN but also to bring these students beyond local communities to inspire our other regions like Balsar, Valsad, Navsari, Talangpur, and beyond,” says Megha.
Their sewing programmes are also hugely impactful. A three-month vocational sewing class for 40 women that costs around Rs. 60,000, can secure them employment at local textile companies, where they stitch garments such as salwar suits, churidars, blouses, and dresses. These jobs pay them nearly Rs. 3000 a month in salaries collectively. Over the course of a year, that results in a million rupees in salaries for the women who take the jobs, of which 90 percent is reinvested in communities. “So, we can literally turn Rs. 60,000 into a million” says Megha, adding, “But what’s amazing is the camaraderie and dignity it gives these women, many of whom didn’t finish school. Beyond the money, we think this is the true value of the programme.”
Their Bal Mela health camps serve up to 2,000 young children at each of their four current project sites in Untdi, Talangpur, Kharel, and Palaj. These life-saving camps provide basic services such as checkups for general, eye, and dental health as well as for diabetes; distribute medicine, spectacles, and other resources; promote awareness through health education; and particularly address the health concerns of women and children. These camps have created 40,000 beneficiaries so far.
They have also opened ’science schools’ named ‘Lok Vidhyalay School of Math and Science’, serving 13 villages in rural Gujarat. Besides that, the organisation also works in the area of prenatal care to protect young mothers and children
A new dharma
MSD was a bit of an accident. Megha had quit a traditional advertising job and was plotting her next move but the 2008 recession made it a terrible time to be job-hunting in the United States. “While I was looking for a job, a few of my entrepreneurial and creative friends asked me to help them with projects they were launching. These small projects turned into a bit of a revenue stream. I eventually went back to a full-time advertising job but left in 2010, knowing that I needed to revisit this ‘side project’ from two years prior,” she recalls.
That is what led to MSD, which is, ‘Marketing. Strategy. Dharma.,’ her marketing company established in 2011 to help startups and impact brands connect better with their brand, their audience, and with other companies through strategic partnerships. “We are an affordable company that knows what it is like to start your own venture and to work in the social good sector,” she says of their ideology. Over the years, they have associated with NPR, HP, the TV show Project Runway, Universal Pictures, General Assembly, ONE.org, Starwood Capital, and more.
And when her work with MSD and the Desai Foundation collides, she feels most alive.
As of three years ago, they have shifted from a family foundation to a public one, meaning their funding now needs to come from external sources. “Fundraising is always a challenge, and an art that we will continue to learn,” she says. Their achievements of the last three years, however, are validation that they’re doing something right. They claim to have impacted over 3,00,000 lives in the US and India.