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The Rediff Interview/Professor Ray Umashankar

'Success doesn't require any special skill, except passion'

January 02, 2009


Professor Ray Umashankar
At 60, Professor Ray Umashankar, who has an artificial hip, climbed the 19,340-foot Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, to honour his son Naren, who killed himself following a bout of depression.

Six years later, Professor Umashankar, who continues to be an assistant dean at the College of Engineering at the University of Arizona, runs an organisation called Achieving Sustainable Social Equality through Technology to help children of sex workers in India find high-tech jobs.

He is helped by his 26-year-old daughter Nita, who is studying for her PhD at the University of Texas in Austin. His wife, Sushila, a business professor, is another big factor in running ASSET, which started two years ago.

Ray Umashankar is a recent recipient of one of the nine Purpose $10,000 Prizes, and was chosen from more than 1,000 nominees. He talks to Arthur J Pais about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and finding a meaning in life.

Tell us about your artificial hip and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

I shattered my left hip in a bicycle accident in February 1993. The prognosis was that I would walk only with the help of a cane. That was not acceptable to me. I trained with my wife and the two of us hiked down the Grand Canyon 14 months later. In October 1994, I went on a United Nations project to Nepal and trekked up to 20,000 feet.

Climbing Kilimanjaro was an amazing experience. I rode a bus from Nairobi to Moshi in Tanzania. A group of German hikers who were on the same bus a day earlier were hijacked and robbed of all their possessions.

Did you feel like quitting at any time?

The thought of quitting crossed my mind several times but the thought of Nita finishing her arangetram in spite of a severe knee injury kept me going. Nearly $20,000 was raised for a scholarship in Naren's name. One deserving student receives a scholarship every year. Naren's friends reviewed the applications.

You came to America more than four decades ago, partly to seek medical help for your baby. The baby died. Your son Naren committed suicide at 17. How have been coping with these tragedies?

I find that helping others is very therapeutic. When I focus on the problems that ASSET students face, my problems seem insignificant and fade away. Even as a youngster in India, I wondered about the purpose of my existence on this planet. Thanks to our daughter Nita, I have found that purpose. My present project invigorates and motivates me. I am so excited about the challenges and I am ready to charge ahead and stay busy for the next 20 years.

How did Nita get involved in this project?

She spent a year in India four years ago after getting a double degree. She surprised us by working with a NGO in India, helping sex workers and their children. She surprised us even more when she came back to America and said she wanted to work to help the sex workers' children.

What did she want to do specifically?

She had discovered that NGOs meant well and they were able to get jobs for many women and some of their children. But the jobs yielded very little. They were making just about Rs 600 a month. And many young girls were going into the sex trade as a result.

We thought we should try something very different. We thought if we teach them (the children of sex workers) computer skills and place them in jobs and get the help of major corporations in hiring them, we could help them seriously in starting a new life.

How did the idea for ASSET come about?

When I discussed the project with Nita, I thought, if we can outsource work from the United States to India, why can't we do the same thing from a big city or a small town in India?

How many people has ASSET helped so far?

We have 369 students. The next batch of 60 students will start studying at the Chennai centre this month. To date we have helped about 160 students. However, only 90 of them are placed in jobs.

Since placing the students in jobs is the priority, what went wrong?

I made two mistakes in the process. I was not forceful enough with the recruitment staff and insist that only those who were ready to accept jobs after the training should be admitted. In Chennai for example, 70 students decided to pursue higher education. I applaud them but that is not our mission. We plan to open two or three more centres in 2009 and expect to have 600 students enrolled.

The only metric I am worried about is how many students we actually place in jobs and not the number of centres or the number of enrolled students. I want to achieve 90 per cent placement rate by 2012.

How many Indian companies are you getting involved?

A handful, including Tata Consultancy [Get Quote], Microsoft and Intel. They are helping us in finding jobs for the young men and women.

Children of sex workers do go to regular schools in India. Is it not?

Yes, but often there is a big stigma attached to them. Many schools won't accept them, and in those schools that they are allowed, the students are often ridiculed. Life becomes tough for them and many drop out of the school. When they go out into the big world with the training we give them, they will be judged solely by what they have learned and what they offer to a company.

Give us an example of how a centre works?

Each centre has one paid English teacher, one paid computer teacher and one paid programme coordinator. Each centre has one or two volunteers. Many students from the US wish to volunteer in the summer. In the summer of 2008, two students of Indian origin volunteered in ASSET Chennai. ASSET is not directly engaged in counseling and rehabilitation. We do however have GE Foundation's Life Skills modules. We teach life skills using this programme.

Some people admire your courage and passion.

I have said this several times in interviews. When you are younger, you have a fear of failure and fear of being criticised. At my age, I can say and do things that younger people cannot. Long ago, I discovered that success doesn't require any special skill, except passion.

Photograph, above: Nita Umashankar, centre, in a yellow salwar, with ASSET alumni at the New Delhi [Images] centre.


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