February 2018

Talent resides everywhere, opportunity doesn’t

The Karta Initiative helps talented children from lower-income groups get exposure to world-class education

Karta scholars abroad sharing ideas and experiences with juniors over a Skype session

Talent resides everywhere, opportunity doesn’t. The Karta Initiative is seeking to positively and permanently disrupt this. This is a social mobility mission: to transform the futures of bright low-income students from developing and emerging economies. Karta focuses on dismantling barriers of information, exposure, aspirations and skills to improve admissibility, employability and ultimately life outcomes for students as well as their communities. Speaking about the initiative, TJ Ravishankar, Director, The Karta Initiative India Foundation and Director, JN Tata Endowment for the Higher Education of Indians, Individual Grants Programme-Education of Tata Trusts, says, “The Karta initiative aims to make a generational impact by enabling talented students from economically disadvantaged background acquire quality higher education, here or overseas. It is a unique combination of merit and equity in access." Karta’s work is underpinned by a commitment to social justice, inclusivity, thirst for continuous learning and rigour.

The movement started with a group of young students from schools in the hinterland of Maharashtra. Coming from impoverished backgrounds and largely first-generation learners, the students from the Government-run Navodaya schools in Aurangabad and Palghar displayed academic potential, perseverance and a commitment to serving India. What they lacked was awareness, exposure, knowledge and skillsets to understand how to make decisions for their future and set them on the path to success. Tata Trusts’ Karta Initiative filled just that gap, identifying the talented teens through an intensive programme and accelerating their growth and development. Today, not only are these founding students experiencing world-class university education, they have also ignited the minds of thousands of their counterparts in schools and communities back home.

The Karta Initiative seeds motivation for impoverished and under resourced student communities, equipping young people with skills, knowledge and exposure to transform their life outcomes. Going far beyond being a scholarship programme, Karta is an access programme that gives students an opportunity to make better decisions. “Tata Trusts’ education portfolio focuses on addressing quality and equity for children from marginalised backgrounds. The Karta Initiative, through its focus on providing high-quality undergraduate education opportunities to bright students from rural, low income backgrounds, complements the mission of the Trusts by investing in India’s future leaders,” says Amrita Patwardhan, Education Portfolio, Tata Trusts.

Karta focuses on tackling inequality and widening access to high-quality education and professional opportunities that would otherwise be inaccessible. The prospect of studying in a world-class institution in India or internationally gives the young students a chance to work with a thought that is otherwise unimaginable. Not only does this succeed in breaking down the barrier of admissibility into a world-class institution, but also breaking down all other barriers that similarly stand in the way of changing their life outcome. Karta straddles the education and livelihood programme, creating a new talent pipeline that is both meritorious and deserving.

While the first objective of Karta is to emerge as a selective access programme to create path-breakers, the subsequent focus is on creating an e-access platform where Karta can aggregate, curate, and bring together resources and content to make it available through an open source to thousands of young people. Karta aims to roll out a hybrid of social technology and human interaction, creating a platform that has an impact of scale. Eventually, the long-term goal is to build Karta into a movement, a magnet and a sustainable programme, creating scholarship funding for world-class university opportunities where such funding is not available. Barely into its second year, the selective access stage has been implemented, building of the scholarship fund is underway and the e-platform is already in design stages. The Initiative has galvanised international support in an unprecedented manner: from renowned universities such as Bristol, Edinburgh and UCL to philanthropic individuals, foundations and organisations, including International Student House, Nielsen, BBDO and the Sloane Robinson Foundation. In short the vision has galvanised support from global firms and young start-ups alike, eminent academics and expert individuals, all keen to put their shoulder to the Karta wheel.  

Substantial time and energy is invested in identifying the most appropriate students. Low-income catchment, good academic foundation, scalable schooling partners to impact large number of students and a pan-India approach form the tenets of the programme’s approach. The rigorous screening process identifies students who not only display academic excellence but are also aligned with the Initiative’s core values of service, integrity, flexibility of thought and action, and perseverance. Service and integrity are critical: the long-term goal for Karta is that it will be sustained, expanded and led by the very people for whom it was started.

The first batch of Karta scholars has already started guiding, leading and assisting the next batch. During a recent interactive session for select students of the third batch, the members of the first cohort led from the word go. With zero involvement of the Karta core members, the first batch put the new batch through the paces and articulated their own experiences that will go a long way in helping the new batch. The interaction captured the spirit of the Karta initiative, and reaffirmed that a movement has been born. “The vision of The Karta Initiative goes beyond the students we directly engage with. We see communities transforming through a ripple effect and older scholars supporting their juniors, thereby making this a sustainable movement,” says Dr Trisha Sen, The Karta Initiative.