Once upon a time, long long ago, in a small school, in the big city of London, a little boy called Oliver raised his hand. He asked his teacher, “What is it like to go to school in India?” His teacher promised him that if she ever got a chance to find out, she would think of him and tell him.

His teacher decided to find the answer to little Oliver’s question. She came to big beautiful India. She travelled all around the country – up the hills, down the valleys, across the plains, crossing rivers and jungles and big cities and little towns, visiting every school that came her way and speaking with every child she met.

And then, she wrote a little book. The book told Oliver a lot about going to school in India. However, this teacher felt that there was a lot more to find out about going to school in India and a lot more that she could do for the children going to school in India. She met a little group of people who could write beautiful stories and paint pretty pictures, just like her, and they embarked on a journey to find out more and give more to these schools and their students.

The teacher saw that a lot of girls had trouble going to school. They also faced a lot of hurdles to start businesses on their own. So she and her team decided to write stories about those girls who fought all odds to go to school and those who thought of brilliant business ideas to solve local problems. They called them “Girl Stars” and wrote 15 books about them!

The teacher realised that if all the little boys and girls in other schools were told about her Girl Stars, maybe they would also want to start businesses one day that would solve problems around them. That way, if all children started small businesses solving problems, then all problems would soon start going away. She began Be! An Entrepreneur to encourage all children to become entrepreneurs when they grow up.

The teacher and her team of painters and story writers and managers and photographers wrote 31 colourful story books about little boys and girls all over India. These stories taught their readers very important skills that all entrepreneurs and problem solvers needed.

Most of these books were made into movies and these movies were shown on National Television. The movies were also taken to villages where there no TVs and shown to the children and teachers there.

All these books were taken to Government run schools in Bihar. The teachers in these schools were taught how to read these books with the children and play the activities at the end of each book with them, for they were not like other text books. Very soon, nearly 84,101 children in 841 schools in Bihar were reading these books. There were some who were coming to school only to read these books!

Soon enough, we were receiving fabulous projects from the children all over Bihar. Each project activity showed what they learnt from that book: important skills needed to solve problems, identifying these skills within their families, identifying local problems and finding solutions to them, building a social network, identifying entrepreneurs and interviewing them and many many more.

While the children in Bihar were reading and learning from these books, the teacher and her team were encouraging the youth in Karnataka and Maharashta to start problem-solving enterprises in their villages and towns. They identified 25 entrepreneurs first and 20 later who had brilliant solutions to local problems and invested in them to go forth and solve these problems. There was Archana who decided to make Areca leaf plates and bowls, Radhakrishna who got a truck to take farmers to the market, Mageshwari who started a solar light manufacturing company and many others like them.

It has been 10 years since the teacher started on her journey to answer Oliver’s question. She is still on that journey with her team around her, and will one day answer questions to how children go to school all over the world!

Why we’re talking to boys about our hopes for girls

Daroga Prasad High School boys

We hope that every girl attending school in Grade 9 in 1,000 schools in Bihar will not drop out.
That’s a big hope.
We’ve been told 86% of girls drop out by Grade 10.

On the other side, we hope more young women choose to become entrepreneurs that solve problems where they live by building businesses.
We know that’s a big hope too, because insights from our real woman entrepreneurs tell us that if her husband does not support her, she won’t become an entrepreneur.
If her family does not take on some of the household chores, she won’t have time to work – no matter how early she gets up in the morning.
In the end, she’d rather call us once she’s married, has children, is settled, but realizes that a single income is not enough.

We hope and dream that she’ll call us earlier, when she’s 18, 19 or 20.
We hope that when she’s 14 she’ll stay in school.

We’re taking steps to make sure we’re not disappointed.

We believe if girls stay in school to learn skills they can become young entrepreneurs who start businesses that solve problems in their community – and in turn, change the way women are valued by their communities, ensuring equal rights, accessibility, and all the good things that happen to communities when women and girls equally participate.

In 2013 we’re talking to boys about our hope for girls.
Why? Because several years ago we created a program called Girl Stars, role model stories for girls to encourage them to stay in school. It was a hugely popular series of movies, books and radio – and while we reached millions of people – we also learned if you want to change the world for girls, you need to talk to boys.

Be! an Entrepreneur stories each teach a skill or introduce a business model and if you look closer you’ll notice a trend: young men entrepreneurs who want to build a bamboo library get advice from women engineers [Bamboo Boys]; young wen’s waste management businesses can’t collect waste house to house unless it’s women that make the house visits and encourage other young women separate waste at home [Pintu & his 99 friends], Bijali’s number one friend who helps her bring the carnival to the village is the elderly gentleman who leads the village committee [a man!]; and Seher, with her Bolt of Lightning business, is helped out by the friendly electrician [a man] and her sidekick best friend Neeraj is a young boy whose constant presence allows Seher to navigate the streets. Boys are everywhere in Be! an Entrepreneur, as heroes, business partners, skill builders and enablers, friends of girls and young women.

When we tested Seher’s graphic novel with young boys and girls we asked a simple question: is this a boy’s story or a girl’s story? It’s a beautifully designed illustrated graphic novel.

The boys said, “Of course it’s a girl leading the business in the story, but it’s actually a business model for boys”

The girls disagreed: “No, look she’s running the business, it’s a girl’s story!”

Our boy’s stories about including girls have opened up some quietly moving stories in our school’s program in Bihar.

The other day on a school visit, we asked a group of boys, “Whose sister does not go to school?”
Mohammed raised his hand. His friends looked at him as if to say ‘that’s the wrong answer’.
But Mohammed persisted: “My parents don’t let my sister go to school because we live in a place that is not safe for girls and women. They are teased when they leave the house. My whole family desperately wants my sister to go to school, but we have to do something about girls’ safety in my community first. It’s not school, it’s the way there that’s dangerous.”

Then some of the other boys in his class started talking about how they feel about their sisters:

“My sister is very intelligent and does very well in school. I respect her because she has so many more limitations than me – she is expected to do the housework and is not really allowed to leave the house, but she manages her studies despite everything.”

And one boy talked about a Be! Story

“See! Seema [in My Family Tree] could do what she did even though she’s a girl with all the obstacles in her way that we boys don’t have. I would like my sister to read this story too, but she is not in this school.”

We’re hoping his sister is in one of our other schools where she can read the story.

Ram Mohun Roy Seminary boys

Going to School wins ICICI and CNBC-TV18 Inclusive India Award

Going to School is the 2012 winner of ICICI Foundation and CNBC-TV18′s Inclusive India Award for Emerging NGO (Elementary Education). The Inclusive India Awards recognize individuals and organizations committed to creating meaningful, sustainable and scalable changes in the development sector. Continue reading

Is Radhakrishna in the house?

Be! Fund was in the house at the Global Shapers forum in Bangalore last week, and so was Radhakrishna, a Be! entrepreneur.

The Global Shapers, established by the World Economic Forum, is an exclusive community of exceptional youth with extraordinary achievements, working together to find fresh solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges. Among thought leaders like Kris Gopalakrishnan (Co-Chairman Infosys), Kiran Bedi (India’s first woman IPS Officer) and Harisha Hande (Magsaysay awardee), Be! Fund was also asked to speak about how we are finding and investing in young entrepreneurs from low-income communities to start businesses that solve problems. Continue reading

Entrepreneurs in the Be! Fund pipeline

Imagine living in a village where you have to travel 20km just to get basic news.

Pramod, age 28, used to live in a village like that. A village of 3,600 people in Maharashtra where people had to go 25km to the nearest town to read a newspaper. A year and a half ago, Promod, a farmer, started a library in his village, in a room next to his house. The library now has 125 paying members, including young people who read job ads in the newspaper (two have even found jobs as a result). And this Republic Day, students from Class 5-10 used the library to research Nehru, Gandhi and Ambedkar, and then gave short speeches in front of their classmates. Now, Promod wants to add a computer and more books and transform his library into an information hub for his village.

“Not just business, I could run the country if I wanted to.”

Preeti lives in a village in Madhya Pradesh, and is a homemaker and mother. Her husband earns Rs. 3,000 a month and she uses part of this salary for her son’s education and has been saving another part for her dream business. She wants to start a business of producing briquettes from agricultural waste that can replace firewood. Her business will save trees and provide an efficient alternative fuel. Preeti will hire 5 women to help her in her briquette unit. She says, “Education or no education, women are smart and can shine in any field they want.” She says she wants to be role model for other women in her community.

Manoj lives in a village in the hills of Uttarakhand. He went to school till 10th standard and then did his graduation through correspondence. He got a diploma in merchandising and worked in Delhi for four years. But Manoj wasn’t happy with life in the city; he wanted to go back to his village and start a business. So last year, he started a small scale camping and trekking business. He hasn’t been able to get a loan from state banks because of lack of collateral. He wants to establish a camping resort, buy tents and make a website marketing his business. He hopes his business will promote tourism and bring wealth to his village, and inspire young people who have migrated to come back to the village.

These are just some of the entrepreneurs who have called us in response to our media campaign on STAR. We will continue to tell you their stories as they go through the selection process.

Be! Fund is hard at work…

Since the launch of Be! Movies on STAR, calls, SMSes and letters have poured into the Be! Fund.

We’ve gotten

60,000 calls in the past 6 weeks

1,500 SMSes

150 letters and postcards

and growing every day…

We’re hard at work answering these calls, messages and letters, and finding young entrepreneurs throughout India! if you’re a young entrepreneur who has applied to the Be! Fund, you can expect a call from us soon.

Poonam’s tiffin business delivers healthy food to low-income workers

Poonam is 20 years old and lives in east Delhi.  She  heard about the Be! Fund women’s mela on TV and signed up to attend right away.  Soon after, she approached us with her plan to start a business doing something she both enjoys and is good at—cooking.

Watch this video to go on a journey into Poonam’s world and business:

Poonam lives in an area of east Delhi where many low-income workers are employed in places such as the local hospital, car maintenance garages and factories. Many do not live at home or cannot rely on families to provide fresh, home-cooked food. Instead, they buy food from street vendors, which is expensive and unhealthy.

Poonam believes that having good, home-cooked food will make a big difference to these low-income workers’ quality of life. And once her business gets going, she plans to hire women in her neighborhood to cook for her business, and give them meaningful work opportunities in their own homes using a skill set that they already have.

She says, “I think it is very important for women to earn money themselves. When a family doesn’t have enough money, there are often arguments about what the family should spend money on. I think women are in a stronger position when they are economically independent.”

Be! Fund Women’s Mela

In January, we launched the Be! Fund in Delhi by airing a radio series on All India Radio and a muppet show on local cable in 50 slums, inviting young people to send us their business ideas.

We got an overwhelming response. Young people called us and sent SMSes and postcards with lots of ideas. But most of our respondents were men. We know that women in slums and villages face many barriers in starting businesses—they have limited education opportunities, they have to take care of children, their families don’t support them working outside the home—but we also know that women have just as many ideas.

“All women should do something themselves, make something themselves, use their intelligence. Even a scrap of paper can be folded to make a lotus flower.” -Kiran

So we held a mela for young women who want to start businesses, to help them make business plans and meet successful women entrepreneurs who come from communities just like where they live. Kiran, a serial entrepreneur from Patna, Bihar, who started out a junkyard dealer, advised women on how to start businesses and the importance of self-dependence.

Shazneen wants to provide clean water for her community

Women traveled from all over Delhi, UP, Haryana, and even Rajasthan, to attend the mela. They all came with ideas of what they wanted to do. Shazneen wants to start a water filtration business to provide clean water to her community. Sunita wants to build and run a public toilet in her slum. Meena wants to make products from recycled materials to combat global warming.

Sunita wants to build a public toilet

Listen to their stories on our Be! Fund website.

And to support entrepreneurs like Shazneen, Sunita and Meena, also check out our competition entry on Changemakers. Click “like” and join the discussion to help us win!