For the average Indian, getting admission at an IIT is a direct path to a glamorous corporate job or higher academic pursuits. But for Pooja Rai (29), it was the path to launching a non-profit organisation which builds playgrounds for underprivileged children.
In a chat with MAKERS India, Pooja revealed why she named her NGO Anthill Creations. “On a day-to-day a design perspective, an anthill’s structure is small. The ants are making a structure which is much bigger and stronger than themselves. On similar lines, we wanted to build an organization and create an empire which is much bigger than ourselves.”
Brought up in Lucknow, Pooja studied Architecture at IIT-Kharagpur (2010-2015). Initially, Pooja had hoped to end up with a respectable job or pursuing research after graduation. But the five years at IIT let her explore the world better, and gave her the confidence to chase different opportunities.
In her third year of college, she got an opportunity to write a book on women entrepreneurs – The Road Not Taken – published by IIM Bangalore. “That experience inspired me to get into this (entrepreneurship) space,” she tells MAKERS India, recollecting how her career path changed.
An effort worth the risk
After graduating, Pooja worked at Stayzilla as a Product Manager; but she left to launch Anthill Creations in less than two years.
She had decided to make her organisation a non-profit one. “The underprivileged communities don't even have money to buy food or pay for their education. So expecting them to pay (for playgrounds) was not realistic. Hence we have to be a non-profit organization. We raise money from other sources and still cater to the children who really need this the most,” she says.
When she started up, Pooja had barely enough savings to survive for six months. She recounts that her parents were shocked at her decision to enter the non-profit sector, and urged her to get back to a regular job if things don't work out with the NGO in one year.
As fate would have it, Pooja’s efforts were fruitful; her organisation has built more than 250 playgrounds for children across 16 states in the country.
Pooja also went on to win GP Birla Fellowship for Women Leaders, and Fellowship at the Startup Leadership Program in Bangalore. She was also selected as an Ashoka Changemaker, and was part of the Empretec Programme for India by the UNCTAD (UN Conference on Trade And Development).
Yet, Pooja recollects how her young age was a disadvantage initially, since many potential donors didn’t take her seriously, assuming that it was a hobby.
But nothing speaks louder than actions, and Pooja’s hard work paid off. Today, Anthill Creations counts Bharat Petroleum Corporation, TATA Steel, PNB Housing, Mahindra & Mahindra, Axis Bank, ITC, Wells Fargo, Salesforce, and Cisco, among its donors.
Anthill Creations was part of IIM-Bangalore’s first incubator programme for non-profit organisations. “In the three-months long program, 25 organizations were selected and we used to have sessions with senior entrepreneurs. It helped me understand the ecosystem and I also learnt customer engagement, marketing, etc. which helped us grow,” she recollects.
Although Pooja and her then co-founder Nancy Charaya ran the organisation with just some interns for the first year, Anthill Creations has grown into a team of 18 now.
Pooja says that being based in Bangalore (since 2016) has been beneficial, as the entire ecosystem in the city is “very supportive.” Her mentors include Nagaraja Prakasam, Partner at Acumen Fund, and K R Lakshminarayana, Chief Endowment Officer at Azim Premji Foundation.
How Anthill Creations Creates
Since Anthill Creations’ projects for building playgrounds are funded mostly through CSR (corporate social responsibility) projects, the NGO has built wide reach. In the first year, they worked with Tata Steel in Jamshedpur, and later with Mahindra for the same in a village in Telangana.
Pooja explains, “Sometimes donor companies tell us the geography they want to work in, and we travel and build playgrounds there. Or the funds come through companies but the requirements come from communities, and we map that and work. We do a lot of employee engagement activities also, mostly in and around metro cities.”
But Pooja adds that since the organisation’s mission is one that is unheard of, they often have to convince even the beneficiaries about the work. “There is a lot of research on the importance of playing for children’s development. But you cannot convince the communities, the parents, teachers with these research papers; they need to see the impact in front of their eyes,” she says.
Often, NGOs working for children tend to focus on classroom education and health initiatives. But Pooja believes that playing is equally important for a child’s holistic development. She elaborates,
“Our long term vision is to ensure that all children have equal opportunities to play and to learn. To create scalable impact on the society, we need innovative solutions which solve multiple problems simultaneously. So we work closely with organizations like Teach For India and Mantra4Change (in the education space).”
Pooja’s work has inspired others too: one of her juniors at IIT (who is now working for a non-profit organisation) thanks Pooja for proving that non-profit sector also has great career opportunities.
“What I'm doing is not just creating an impact for the children, but also inspiring a lot more people to come in the sector and create an impact,” Pooja signs off.