How one man is inspiring a 12-year-old from Madurai to be the next Kalpana Chawla

From girls fostering dreams of becoming astronauts to young women coming up with great apps for pertinent local issues, Senthil Kumar’s mentees in Madurai are empowered to become the role models they want to emulate.

How one man is inspiring a 12-year-old from Madurai to be the next Kalpana Chawla

Wednesday March 27, 2019,

6 min Read

From girls fostering dreams of becoming astronauts to young women coming up with great apps for pertinent local issues, Senthil Kumar’s mentees in Madurai are empowered to become the role models they want to emulate.

In the ancient temple town of Madurai, steeped in culture and famous for its cold beverage, jigarthanda, Siretha has stars in her eyes. Fascinated by the life of Kalpana Chawla, the 12-year-old dreams of someday becoming the top astronaut in India. This young girl from small-town India who wants to emulate a global role model shows that girls can have dream beyond their current means and situation. It is on this premise that Senthil Kumar M began mentoring girls in his hometown way back in 2014.

In the past five years, Senthil has mentored over a thousand girls and women of Madurai. While working in Bengaluru, he travelled every weekend to Madurai to mentor the girls for years. After a 12-hour car drive to Madurai from Bengaluru by myself, I truly understood the level of commitment and efforts Senthil put into his mentoring.

And his efforts have borne fruit. I see it as 36 schoolgirls get on stage during the Technovation Challenge, a global tech entrepreneurship programme, and present their apps with confidence.

A self-sustaining community

Every year, Senthil runs three sets of programmes such as the Technovation Challenge, an event that is aimed at school-going girls, which I had the privilege of  experiencing first hand. The other two programs he runs are the ‘Geek Girls’, aimed at college girls in open source, and ‘WeWomen’, which is mentoring women on digital marketing platforms.

“I have run four editions of the  Technovation Challenge for girls and mentoring these young girls for a global competition. Our girls win regional events every year and  some of the girls got good job opportunities, while some others have started their own ventures,” Senthil, 30, says.

So what really is the drive behind his passionate efforts?

“I wanted to build technology-enabled self-sustaining communities in my region. I believe that we can achieve this only by bridging the digital divide in society and by empowering the powerless and the vulnerable. To this end, I actively engaged in community empowerment and education initiatives, especially among girls and young women, through ‘MetooMentor’,  a non-profit organisation that mentors young women to innovate through technology. At present, this community development initiative has evolved into one of the largest physical meetup communities in Tamil Nadu,” Senthil says.

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Senthil started his own journey from Madurai studying Electronic Engineering at Anna University, and dreamt of working for the top companies of the world. He headed to Bengaluru and started working at Samsung in 2010. In 2014 he moved to Qualcomm where he first heard about mentorship programmes for women in Bengaluru.

When he came across these tech mentorship programmes for women he decided he wanted to do the same for the girls in his hometown. This was when he started travelling to Madurai every weekend to mentor the girls. However, a young working professional male trying to mentor young schoolgirls, was not going to be easily acceptable, especially in a small town.

Given the social taboos and restrictions he realised that approaching the girls directly may not work out. His sister, Manimala, played a crucial role in outreach and networking with the young girls while Senthil mentored them.

Once the girls were in, the school or college had to be convinced and, finally getting the families on board proved to be the toughest ask. But Senthil’s perseverance paid off, and seeds of change were sown in Madurai.  

Senthil says,

I saw that all these girls had talent but due to social restrictions they were not able to rise up. So my approach is to encourage these girls and convince their families, so we can mentor them and help them to leverage technology to solve local problems. For example, the Madurai police endorses an app to prevent burglaries in locked houses which the girls created - called Madurai Kavalan. Around 40,000 people are using it now.

One mentee at a time

At the Technovation Challenge, the girls on stage talk about how they can solve local problems using tech and building apps. From ways to keep the city clean to coming up with an inexpensive method to monitor one’s house to keep away burglars, to a platform where uneducated yet skilled workers could find work.

And the mentorship has helped instill confidence in these young girls, helping them hold their own on stage, especially while pitching ideas. “It is the key to mentorship,” points out Senthil, for this confidence has allowed many of these girls to have faith in their abilities and skills.

This confidence has also helped them aim for bigger things. “Some girls have pursued STEM and continued to work with technology and solve local problems by taking to entrepreneurship,” Senthil adds.

Creating a community of problem-solvers

In 2016, Senthil moved back to Madurai to solve local problems full time. He started two ventures: he is CEO and Co-founder of Jiovio Healthcare, a startup that provides quality healthcare for expectant mothers. While working on this idea, he realised the lack of connectivity in rural areas, and the idea for his next startup, Geomeo, emerged. It provides long-range wireless connectivity in remote villages. Senthil also heads the Google Developer chapter in Madurai and is the regional head of the Technovation chapter in Madurai.

For Senthil, it is a proud moment when mentees return to become mentors to teach others what they learnt, thus creating a community of women who can support and teach each other.

Armed with more knowledge about app making, problem solving using different technologies, understanding the scope of technology, and its fundamental uses in our daily lives, many of these girls have gone on to work in IT and tech companies within and outside Tamil Nadu.

“The aim is to arm the girls with knowledge, make them independent, and give them the ability to work with the city and thrive, and not let social restrictions come in their way,” he says.

Of app-making, and star-hopping

Siretha may want to eventually become an astronaut and travel through space, but she is finding ways to show her talent on earth as well: she has built an app to avoid jewellery theft, so women can wear their jewelry without fear. “We have seen so many episodes on chain snatching on news that we wanted women to wear their jewellery without fear of losing it,” she quips. Siretha’s app is a valuable one especially since chain snatching news on her TV screen is a common phenomena.

Even dreaming big is not possible at times for girls in small towns. But Senthil is showing them that they can not only dream big but can go on to achieving these dreams as well.

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