INTERVIEW: lead kindly-light, the torch of empowerment

Amruta Bahulekar, program head of the Lighthouse project, a collaborative initiative of Pune City Connect and Pune Municipal Corporation for Skills Development and sustainable livelihood, has just been named as one of the forty winners of the 2nd edition of Under 40 Awards by Business World (BW). The award recognizes her relentless work in the field of sustainable livelihoods for youngsters between 18 and 30 years

Happiness shared is happiness multiplied. Skills imparted are skills multiplied. The aforementioned line is not only a widely accepted truth, but for some, the physical expression of a personal philosophy. After all, who ever said that wisdom is the sole custody of the old and the experienced ? Though her days begin early and end well past dinner, this young woman does not mind a bit. In fact, 33-year-old Amruta Bahulekar describes herself primarily as a “People’s person, someone who likes to reach out to others” in every way she can. Little wonder then that this young and dynamic who is a post-graduate from TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences) found her calling easily as program head of the much-lauded Lighthouse project, a joint effort by Pune City Connect and Pune Municipal Corporation for promotion of skills development and sustainable livelihood in urban youngsters between 18 and 30 years. Typically, these youngsters come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In short, Pune City Connect is a section eight non-profit company that provides a platform for collaboration between Pune Municipal Corporation, corporate, NGOs and citizens. Its objective is to institutionalize a forum for various stakeholders to work in synergy towards the development of the city. Pune City Connect works in the area of sustainable Livelihood, education and digital literacy.

The Lighthouse at a glance

“What essentially makes the Lighthouse project stand out is its unique multi-stakeholder approach to economic and social transformation. By empowering urban youth to take charge of their lives and the narrative that follows by channelizing their inherent strengths, individuals and families benefit for sure. But this light of dignity, joy and economic independence also benefits the community, local government and businesses,” she explains

Adverse circumstances typically mean that youngsters are stuck in a rut-for want of education, adequate skill, or even basic information. Eventually, skipping from one job to another becomes the norm. Here’s where Lighthouse makes a difference. “What we do actually is to shift the focus from “attempting to survive” to “attempting to thrive,” she shares.

Currently 4200 youth are enrolled in the Lighthouse program. A total of 1699 students have completed the skills development programs and 967 students are placed in various industries over the last two years. “We have succeeded because we respect their individual interests and develop their skill sets accordingly, be it computers, language and literature or even leveraging a passion for cooking to maximum advantage into a little business,” she says. “Our counselors guide them, mentor them and even impart the due emotional support.” Other important training includes the confidence to face interviews, speak in public and communicate with clarity-important skills for any budding professional or entrepreneur.

What makes this achievement even more staggering is that 60% of the enrolments at the Lighthouses are women and about 80% of the placed students have never previously earned money independently. Plus, the idea seems to have caught on. The doubling of the Lighthouses in the city from two to four in a span of two years, has led to increased enrolments and greater faith in its potential. So much so that officials from different smart cities in the country have expressed a keen interest in establishing the Lighthouse model in their cities. The lighthouse project is a joint winner of the award under social aspects category, Smart City Mission

“I am inspired by the tenacity, hard work and integrity demonstrated by youth from tough circumstances. Their hunger for successes, their desire to transform the situations of scarcity into abundance has taught me so much”

The Long Term impact and The Cascade effect

Typically, the Lighthouse project works on establishing a relationship with assorted communities. “This is carried out by a hugely motivated team that provides constant mentoring support by respecting the individual context of each youth enrolled in the Lighthouse,” she says. This leads to improved quality of life, better gender equity, increased social harmony and a sense of equal citizenship. “We have an overt strategy of enrolling over 20 per cent households in each slum community into The Lighthouse program, thereby creating a ripple effect that runs through society as a whole,” she says.

So far, Four Lighthouses are functional in different wards of Pune. (Aundh, Yerawada, Hadapsar and Waraje). “The objective is to open a total of 15 Lighthouses in 15 administrative wards of Pune,” says Amruta.

In a nutshell: positivity leads to positivity and hope.

On her mentors and inspiration

“I have been fortunate enough to be guided by some truly inspiring people,” she says. These include, Sonali Ojha (Founder of Dream Catchers Foundation, Consultant of the Lighthouse project, Ganesh Natarajan, Chairman Pune City Connect, Ruchi Mathur, CEO Pune City Connect, and Pervin Verma, Core Member, Lighthouse program design.

Each one brings something specific to the table. “Sonali’s program design, Ganesh’s vision of revolutionizing skills development across the country, Ruchi’s selfless commitment of bringing all the stakeholders on board for large scale change, her pursuit of excellence and Pervin’s mentoring in terms of value- based change designs have all inspired me in their own way,” she says.

On the importance of the BW 40 under 4O recognition

“It’s an honor receiving the award,” she says. “It gives me an opportunity to connect with the leaders from the business world who are working towards social and economic transformation. This is an opportunity for me to have a dialogue with business leaders about issue of employment, employability, trends and patterns in the context of the future of the work for youth from disadvantaged communities. By 2022, more than 20,000 youth from disadvantaged communities will be enrolled in the Lighthouse program which will transform the overall social, economical landscape of Pune. We intend to take this model to different parts of the country.”

‘No dichotomy between personal and professional life’

“There isn’t a personal and professional dichotomy for me in this work,” she smiles. “In fact, there’s little scope for such a thing. This work demands from me to be in the space of possibilities in spite of multiple challenges. This work also facilitates the process of dialogue between different people. In a changing socio-economic context, having faith that if Plan A doesn’t work, then B will, and if even B doesn’t work, then we can explore C, this mindset helps me and the youngsters enrolled with us to co-create newer possibilities to walk the path of sustainable livelihood. This flexibility, sense of awe with new learnings makes the journey value-creative.

But the credit, she says, belongs to everyone. “I am inspired by the tenacity, hard work and integrity demonstrated by youth from tough circumstances. Their hunger for successes, their desire to transform the situations of scarcity into abundance has taught me so much. I wholeheartedly believe that a deep sense of belonging, possibilities of authentic dialogue and authentic connection between individuals and groups from different strata of the society ensures our collective well-being.”

By Kalyani Sardesai