From the Ground Up


Like every child, graduate student Ananya grew up playing and going to school with her neighbors and other children her age. When she was old enough to go to college, she left her hometown in Uttar Pradesh, India, for Delhi, where she was able to attend a good university. 

“And then I came back,” Ananya says, “And I slowly started observing that the children I played with when I was young were all working. And our lives looked very different.”

Ananya had not grown up in a particularly wealthy family, but she had experienced a middle-class upbringing that had allowed her access to a range of different opportunities and resources, including her college education. Not all of her friends and neighbors had been able to do the same.

“I kind of started sensing the disparities and inequalities [around me] through this particular experience,” Ananya says. 

Some of the starkest inequalities she observed in her community were gender-based. All around her, Ananya saw women and girls struggling with obstacles their male peers didn’t have to face.

“Uttar Pradesh is highly patriarchal,” Ananya says. “There’s a lot of gender-based violence.” 

Having grown up there, Ananya was no stranger to the concept.

“A lot of these experiences are also my own, although certainly lesser than the girls I work with,” Ananya says. “And so I think gender became important to me, because it was personal.”

Ananya talking to several young girls in a classroom.
SwaTaleem helps underprivileged girls in India access education and opportunities at a local level. “It takes time to truly understand what people or communities are going through. It’s one thing to read it, of course; I know the facts and the data. But it’s another thing to develop your own understanding of marginalization and under-representation.”

Ananya decided that she wanted to make a difference for the girls and women in her community. She was determined to do what she could to give them access to an education and other valuable resources. 

“You keep thinking about what you want to do in life, and how you can give meaning to it,” she says. “And [I thought] perhaps this is one way in which I can do that.”

Ananya got to work. In August of 2018, she and a classmate, Vaibhav, created the nonprofit organization SwaTaleem. The name itself is a combination of ‘Swa’ from Sanskrit, meaning ‘to own,’ and ‘Taleem,’ or ‘education’ in Arabic. Put together, it translates into owning your education. It’s a fitting name for an organization devoted to enhancing the educational and life opportunities of historically marginalized adolescent girls in India. 

“They are girls who come from religious minorities, caste minorities … and economic minorities in India,” Ananya says. “They come from very low socio-economic backgrounds. And so as a result, the school dropout rates and marriage rates are very high in these communities.” 

The Indian government has established a national schooling system for these girls, called Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV) schools. SwaTaleem works with these schools at a systems level and partners with the government to make sure they are meeting their goals and helping the girls who need it most. 

“We work with different stakeholders, including the parents and families of the girls, in order to build a discourse around education,” says Ananya. “We also engage different stakeholders in promoting [the girls] and helping them succeed in their education.”

Today, Swataleem is an international nonprofit organization that is incorporated in both the U.S. and India, but getting a nonprofit off the ground can be tough. That’s where iVenture at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign came in.

“iVenture was the first group that showed trust in us,” Ananya says. “[iVenture] really catalyzed our growth, as well as our accelerators in India.”

As a graduate student, Ananya was able to participate in UIUC’s iVenture Accelerator. iVenture is a university-wide program run through the Gies College of Business that supports student-led startups, from mobile apps to clothing companies and international nonprofits. 

“iVenture [is what helped SwaTaleem U.S.] evolve to its current form,” Ananya says. “Just by the exposure that we got, just by the speakers who we got to meet, just by the visits that we had in the Chicago area [where we were able to see] different organizations and pitch in front of different investors.” 

iVenture is set up to offer a wide range of resources to its student startups, depending on their needs. Some of the most valuable resources it offers are not physical materials at all. 

“[iVenture gave us] this general idea as to what it takes to set up an organization,” Ananya says. “We were, in general, very, very young. And I was super new to the U.S. … We’ve really grown since then, but the first person or the first group that shows trust in you—you’re always grateful to them. And iVenture has been that for us.”

Since its formation, SwaTaleem has seen incredible growth. 

“We were recently one of the 34 organizations selected by Google to solve challenges related to women. It came with $700,000 funding,” Ananya says. “So yeah, from here to there—I think it’s been a good journey for us.”

Ananya receiving an award for her work with SwaTaleem.
Ananya receiving the Illinois International Graduate Achievement Award for her work with SwaTaleem.

SwaTaleem now works with around 1,000 girls in India, and Ananya has seen dozens of different success stories unfold.

“We recruit local women from the villages to help facilitate workshops in the schools,” Ananya says. “And we do that because they are much stronger role models for the girls than we are. When the girls see that—‘Oh, this woman comes from my village and she’s riding a two-wheeler and she’s working, she’s earning’—it just presents a very, very different kind of future to them.”

Changing the way girls perceive the women around them and the potential they see in themselves is one of SwaTaleem’s primary goals, and the organization’s influence has already been enough to change some women’s plans for their futures. 

“This woman told me, ‘I have told my husband that I need a laptop, I need to buy a laptop to work with,’” Ananya recalls. “And just to ask and demand something that you think is important for you in that kind of household where women are put on the back foot always, It really shows a lot of growth.” 

“I always ask them, ‘What are the dreams you have for your daughters?’ And I see that those dreams have shifted. Now it’s become ‘I want her to grow up in a world where there are no limitations on what she wants to become.’ It’s just beautiful to listen to them.”

SwaTaleem is still relatively young, but Ananya has plans for the organization that extend far into the future.

“I don’t want to say [we’re going to help] every girl in India, because that’s a very tall order. We are working with 1,000 girls right now. If, five years from now, they are in college, that would mean something to us,” Ananya says. “That is the goal I have right now. If they are able to voice what they want, and if they are able to make decisions, no matter how big or small they are in their lives … that is what we would want as an organization.”