In 2008, Shashank Mani, chairman of a nonprofit charitable organisation, Jagriti Sewa Sansthan, was fast asleep on a train berth when his phone rang. It was 9pm and the eminent water expert on the other end of the line was irate: he had not been picked up from a station near Ernakulam, Kerala. Mani assured him that he would be picked up at the next station but again, the train hurtled past. Finally, when the expert boarded the train at the third station, his anger vanished.
This was no ordinary train; it was the Jagriti Yatra carrying 450 young people on an 8,000km journey across India over 15 days. Its mission was clear: to build enterprise by taking the youth on a tour of the country and helping them interact with established entrepreneurs working for the advancement of the nation. Thus thrown together, the youth would learn about each other’s diverse cultures and work together. After the journey, while some might go back with fond memories, others might join the entrepreneurs working to build India or decide to start enterprises themselves.
The story of Jagriti Yatra goes back to 1997 when Mani, along with 200 others, embarked on another yatra―the Azad Bharat Rail Yatra―to mark 50 years of Indian independence. “Then, nobody really respected India,” says Mani. “It was still a third world country. But we managed to encourage youngsters to learn about the country through a train journey. Instead of talking about what happened in 1947, we wanted to talk about the next 50 years.”
In 2007, Mani wrote a book about his journey which marked the genesis of the Jagriti Yatra in its current avatar. The idea was to use the yatra not just as a platform to explore India but also to inspire entrepreneurship by mentoring the youth outside of conference rooms. “What we realised was that entrepreneurship can really take a country forward,” says Mani.
Thus, Jagriti Yatra was set up under Jagriti Sewa Sansthan. Among its team members were IIT alumnus Ashutosh Kumar (executive director of Jagriti Yatra) and microbiologist Vibha Joshi (director selections). The first yatra, funded by a variety of sponsors, took place in 2008.
After seven yatras, it is clear that the journey is making an impact. According to a survey by the organisers of Jagriti Yatra and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, of 3,200 alumni of the yatra, 19 to 20 per cent have started an enterprise, 49 per cent have done something for the country. Three hundred enterprises have been started as a result of the yatra.
The journey has inspired different yatris in different ways. Masha Nazeen, 21, believes the yatra transformed her from an innovator to an entrepreneur. One of her products, a flameless seal-maker, had been utilised by the government. “There were group discussions that helped me a lot,” says the engineering graduate. “I had chosen the education sector and we had discussions on what can be done to benefit students.” That is when Nazeen got a business idea: an innovation lab where students could develop their ideas. “I realised students have innovative ideas but often do not know how to implement them,” she says. Her innovation lab bridges the gap between thought and action. “I have a fabricator, mentor, electricians and a workshop at the centre,” she says. “So when a student comes to us, we discuss the idea with him and help him build a prototype.”
One such student was Gautham Praveen, 17, who won an award for his innovation―an easy bulb-fixer that helps fix bulbs without the help of tables. The idea occurred to him when his father asked him to fix a bulb but he was scared of standing on the table to fix it.
However, he couldn’t have turned the idea into a product without the help of Nazeen. “I told Masha about the idea and then we sat and discussed the product,” he says. “We drew it on rough paper.” The Masha Innovation Centre helped him build the model that he sent to the National Innovation Foundation. It agreed to support him.
Entrepreneur Smriti Nagpal, 23, got an opportunity to meet new people and build contacts during the yatra. “When I went on Jagriti Yatra, I knew what I wanted to do but the journey introduced me to a network of more than 400 people,” she says. Her startup Atulyakala gives deaf and dumb artists a platform to showcase their talent. Nagpal’s own siblings are deaf and she uses sign language to communicate with them.
She started her enterprise after she became an interpreter of sign language for a television channel and became aware of the various problems faced by the deaf and dumb community. The yatra was Nagpal’s introduction to a world that cared about the marginalised and was concerned about more than just making money. “I even met my biggest motivator during the yatra,” she says. “He helped me create a business model and come up with product ideas.”
Ayush Bansal, 26, founder of iDreamCareer, hit a low point when he had to pull out of an investment deal in June 2014. But someone he had met during the yatra four years ago, when he was a 21-year-old MBA student, put him in touch with an investor and the deal came through in 15 days. Bansal got the idea to start iDreamCareer, which offers career counselling to students, during the yatra.
He realised that many of the yatris, even the IITians, didn’t know how to choose the right career or the right way to go about it. The problem was more acute at the bottom of the pyramid. “Most students drop out because they don’t know about the opportunities available to them or what to aspire to,” he says. It took Bansal and his partner two and a half years to work on a scientific tool, along with psychologists and experts, to help high school students map their career path.
Today, they offer counselling to students in 350 schools in India, East Africa and the Middle East. It is difficult to assess how much of his success he owes to a train journey that inspires India to act and impact.