In Conversation With Aakash, Executive Director of QUEST

by | Mar 4, 2018

Everyone has their own struggles in life. We tend to keep searching something, for whatever reasons. I was in a similar phase when India fellow happened to me, and as a part of the journey, I got into a boat called Quest Alliance in Bihar, the last state I expected or wanted to go to, but that’s a story for some other time.

Quest Alliance designs solutions that enable educators to address critical gaps in quality education and skills training. They do it through technology as a tool and the main person who runs it, is Aakash Sethi, our Executive director.

Here, in conversation with him:

Tell me something about your school days. Were you clear on what you want to do in future?

Frankly, I did not really enjoy attending school. In my 9th grade, I would bunk regularly and go off to playgrounds. I would volunteer at inter-school cricket matches, to keep score or be the ball boy. I remember when I returned to school from summer vacation in 9th grade, I was extremely nervous because I knew I had done badly in my final exams. The dreaded report card read: ‘You are detained in Class 9’.

There was a lot of chaos within me as well as concern from friends and extended family. That was tough, because as we all know, in India, a failure is always looked down upon in some sense or the other. However, my parents kept calm and gave me an option to continue studying in the same school in 9th grade or go to another school and join the next class. Surprisingly, I decided to stay because I loved my school too much to go elsewhere. The focus on stories, songs and sports from my headmaster in building a vibrant culture played an instrumental role in shaping my affinity towards these activities. Of course, my friends had moved to the next class which gave me an opportunity to make new friends. I knew a bit of the curriculum, and had a lot of time to explore new opportunities such as graphic design and basketball. Basically, I was doing more than just academics. By the time I was in 10th grade, I had become a national basketball player and also managed 75% in academics, enough to fall under the category of a decent student.

I used to travel a lot with my uncle who is a Billiards player. With him, I got a chance to visit and stay at big hotels that fascinated me towards culinary and hospitality experiences. It fueled an interest to work in the hotel industry, specially as a chef. Food was already a big part of my life but I didn’t go ahead because my mother wasn’t happy with me pursuing that profession. Seeing my interest in basketball, she got me enrolled in St. Xavier’s College and that opened up an avenue for considering sports as a probable career choice. At that time, I wanted to work in sports management such as organizing events, managing endorsements for celebrities and other back stage activities.

Do you have a role model?

I grew up with many role models, especially from within the family. A lot of them have been working in the non-profit sector. My father was a full-time activist. He was running his own NGO (Jan Vikas) where he used to actively advocate land rights for Dalits and build capacities of other small organizations. My maternal uncle was a deputy municipal commissioner of Ahmedabad and worked on government reforms. My aunt ran a school which had a huge positive influence on me. As mentioned above, my uncle, the billiards player, helped me see the world outside. Some were involved in promoting art and culture while others provided shelter through low-cost housing projects. I was surrounded by people breathing and talking the language of creating social impact. Since a young age, I was exposed to community events such as Women’s Day and Environment Day. Spending time in different organizations, understanding their mission, activities and the process of operational execution was a big part of my life, growing up.

Apart from family, as any other basketball lover, I was an admirer of Michael Jordan.

What triggered you to start an NGO (Quest Alliance) and not a school or college? Is there a special incident or event behind it?

It was never about an NGO versus a business because I believe that a for-profit organization can create an equal amount of sustainable impact as a non-profit. The main idea was to contribute towards betterment of the society. In college, I got an opportunity to attend a conference as a part of a youth organization where I met around 300 people from 12 different locations. It was a first of its kind experience of being able to connect with people of the same age group as mine. Whether it was pushing each other out of their comfort zones or playing games together or going on exchange programs to a different country or city, being a part of AIESEC was a turning point in my life. I could draw inspiration from like-minded people who wanted to do things for the greater good. That’s where the loads of inspiration came from.

How the journey has been so far?

Quest Alliance was founded in the year 2005 as a program of the International Youth Foundation (IYF), financially supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to help educators and educational institutions drive the use of technology in teaching and learning. Since the IYF mandate ended in 2009, Quest Alliance has been established as a not-for-profit trust that focuses on research-led innovation and advocacy in the field of teaching and learning. Though based in Bangalore, we’ve demonstrated and enabled scalable as well as replicable solutions in educational and vocational training in 25 states across the country. With all ups and downs, the journey has been quite eventful, successful and hopeful.

What kind of challenges did you face during the Initial stage of Quest Alliance? How did you overcome?

At a personal level, one of the biggest challenges was to stay focused on solving the problem and looking at the big picture. At the same time, there were organizational challenges of setting it up. This project came with a time frame of three years. IYF not only wanted to invest their money into projects that made a difference but also wanted to create an entity that would live beyond the life of those investments. So, we had to present them with meaningful detail such as number of people trained, number of people who got substantial learning outcomes, etc. In addition, creating intellectual properties like software and content to establish a relationship with new funders was another important aspect. This meant that we had to fulfill two objectives – meeting the expectations of IYF and those of USAID, the funders for IYF. Finding an individual or organization to fund in someone else’s vision was the biggest challenge.

Can you talk a bit about the challenges faced in leadership and management at Quest Alliance?

The moment IYF mandate ended in 2009 and we were establishing Quest with just a small team of people, it was a struggle, specially with the 50% pay cut that came by, as a result of transition. But, more challenging part of our journey was to instill a sense of commitment in core team and to convince them that what we are aiming to do is much more meaningful than our pay-checks. Soon, we saw ourselves growing from 6-7 of us in the initial years to 35, and then to 100, making us believe that this number will only increase. Here, the challenge was to share all the previous experiences in a way that every new member looks at it as their own journey. To engage each member to inculcate the values of the organization, to visualize and act towards the organization’s mission as their own, hence creating a connect and striving towards a common goal. Apart from this, it was becoming difficult to managing the expectations of multiple stakeholders. Let me explain. 

We are a registered public charitable trust managed by a board and we work closely with the educators. The board is responsible for strategy, policy, budgets and results. It ensures long-term plans, correct financial statements and rules and regulations in compliance. We raise and receive funds from multiple sources, through CSR contributions, corporate initiatives and foundations, some of which are Accenture, Microsoft, UNDP, Cisco and LinkedIn. We also reach out to individual donors who provide support through direct transfers. In addition to that, we conduct yearly and half-yearly fundraising events. Dealing with so many parties results in a variety of conflicts.

Which organization(s), working in the same space or otherwise, do you consider as a benchmark?

For all their efforts, aspirations, and attitude, I definitely look up to AIESEC. It’s a global movement run by young people, for young people. With their leadership changing almost every two years, from local to international level, it’s a fairly democratic organization that supports the system of electing leaders. I consider AIESEC as the benchmark for the way it has turned around my perspective and understanding of youth organizations.

What are the key indicators by which you measure your impact?

Our impact is made relevant with the capacity building of over 1500 educators every year, who drive the Quest approach in more than 1200 classrooms. Since 2005, our network of 7000 educators has impacted over 300,000 young people, in eight regions across India including Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Gujarat, Delhi, Bihar and states of North-east India. Our impact can be summarized in terms of teacher training, classroom enrichment programs with students, youth empowerment, curriculum development and content delivered.

We use technology extensively across the programs to support change leaders with tools like instructional videos, interactive voice response-system-based engagement and school-level data collection through tablets and internet.

What do you have to say about Quest alliance being listed as one of the India’s top 10 NGOs to Work for, in 2017?

We are honored to receive this recognition. We take great pride in fostering a work environment that encourages different backgrounds, talents and perspectives to thrive as we solve important problems in education and skilling.

When not at work, what do you like doing?

These days I spend quite some time gardening. Apart from that, I try to regularly play tennis and basketball. Travel and food are still of major importance. So, yes, a combination of these, keeps me engaged outside work.

In one word, describe yourself?

With many of my associates and dear ones, I too have accepted and embraced the word ‘Chaos’ to describe myself.

When it’s all over, how do you want to be remembered?

Being able to stimulate the leadership qualities and motivate youth to become leaders is something that is central to me. I would probably want to be remembered as someone who empowered the youth to become leaders in their respective area of interests.

What message/advise would you like to give to the young Indians?

The skills in future will be different from the skills today. Technology led by internet and smart devices provides the opportunity for today’s youth to learn anywhere, anytime. This will help you to make informed career choices and effectively navigate your personal and professional spaces.

Here’s a video where Mr. Aakash Sethi talks about the need for access to more opportunities:

I thank him for accepting my request as soon as I asked him for the interview and to give his valuable time. Also, a huge thanks to Mr Manish Sharma, Communications Manager at QUEST Alliance for all his support in writing this piece.

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1 Comment

  1. Anupama Pain

    Glad you experimented with a new format! This is very informative. Good to know more about Akash Sethi as well.

    Reply

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