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  • Writer's pictureNidhi Mehta

Meet SelfAchiever Sujata Sahu, Founder of 17000ft and Nari Shatki Puraskar awardee

I met Sujata at the GlodmanSachs10k women programme. We were a part fo the same cohort. Sujata has this passionate energy and focus about the work she was doing and not to our surprise, she won the capital funding for her project in Ladakh. Her foundation has been improving the education and life of the children in the Ladakh area.

Sujata is a mother of five children - Hansa, Siddhant, Nikhil, Anoushka and Neeraj. Her sun sign is Virgo (September 18th)

Industry: Non-profit

Tell us a bit about yourself and about your current profession. What were you doing before you started out on your own?

After completing my Post graduation in Computer Application, I worked for over 13 years in Corporate IT in India and the U.S. before I decided to move back to India in 2002 to focus on my passion, namely working with children, hoping to do something more meaningful with my skills and time. Over the next few years, I held multiple roles working with children, first as a facilitator, creating and conducting outbound learning programs, and then as a teacher in The Shri Ram School, one of India’s leading private schools, teaching Math and Computer Science to Middle and High school children.

When did you start your company? Where? And what motivated you to start it? What was your initial investment?

My first trip to Ladakh was a solo trek in 2010, at a time when India had just heard about Ladakh. I was then a teacher with The Shri Ram School, teaching Math and Computer Science to middle and high school children. I went on the trek without acclimatising very well, and ascended from an altitude of 11,300 to 16,100 on just my third day. With the limited amount of oxygen at those altitudes, I suffered from Pulmonary Edema, and had extreme difficulty breathing and walking. To rest, I stayed overnight at a remote village, a village which has no road access, is reachable only after a day’s walk, and one which boasted of just one home with three occupants. I had neither medicines, nor the ability to call my family, nor access to medical care. I managed my stay due to the kindness of my hosts and two passing trekkers who tried to help me. The turning point of my trip were the two tiny schools that I saw during my trek. The first, Primary School, Sku-Kaya, was a school with just 5 children and two teachers. The school had two rooms which were being rebuilt, one teacher who stayed in the village, and another who had gone to Leh to get uniforms and mid-day meal supplies for the school. The second had 8 children and three teachers, two of whom I met walking back to Leh for textbooks and uniforms. The Head Teacher that I met was himself from another very remote village and hadn’t seen his family or been home for 8 months. Though it was the month of July, the temperature at those altitudes was very cold, but it didn’t deter the children from going to school. One of the children even brought his little brother along, who was barely 2 years old and the love and care with which all the children and the teacher took care of the child was a lesson for me. The books the children were studying from were in English, and most of what was taught was alien to them, as none of these kids had ever been out of the village and with neither electricity, connectivity or T.V. in these villages, their exposure level was very low. Their determination to come to school and learn, the eagerness of the teacher to learn something new to teach his students, and the aspiration of the parents to educate their children was my inspiration to drop everything and help these amazing people.

I established 17000 ft Foundation, finally in early 2012, along with my husband, Sandeep Sahu, a senior advertising profession and entrepreneur and our friend Dawa Jora, a business man from Ladakh. The first year and a half saw a lot of our own investment and small contributions from friends and family. Our biggest support, however, was from other larger non profits who shared their knowledge and time with us. Pratham Education Foundation, and Akshara Foundation, being our biggest supporters who donated thousands of books and their digital platform with us.

What have been your achievements, accolades and upturns in your career?

For a Social Entrepreneur, the achievements are the behavior changes and the impact that we are able to bring at the ground level. We have had so many defining moments in our seven years and each one gives us the confidence and assurance of the impact that we are trying to make. Whether it is the child of grade 4 to whom I read a story in 2012 who not only remembered me 5 years later, but also the story and the activities, or the teacher who was so inspired by the storybooks that we donated that he started weekend reading classes not just for his village but also the villages surrounding his. The teacher who re-opened the school in extreme -35 winter temperatures in 2018 just so that the students can learn from their newly setup Digital Classrooms, or the 10,000 villagers who came out in full support in 2017 to help us dig and setup colourful playgrounds for their children are but a few examples.

Externally too, our work has been noticed and recognized. I was nominated for Amazing Indians very early on in our journey and with numerous mentions in the media. I was also awarded the prestigious Nari Shakti Puraskar on International Women’s Day in Mar 2016, with the then President of India, Shri Pranab Mukherjee, a very humbling moment for me and the entire organization.

From the early days when we had just setup the Foundation, getting support for Ladakh was very difficult. There was very little awareness about the region and not just corporates, but even large nonprofits were reluctant to work in the region. Seven years of continuous hard work and advocacy later, it is an altogether different situation today. We have been able to garner CSR support as well as carry the work of other nonprofits into the region through our collaborations. We also today have a steady stream of volunteers who regularly come to Ladakh, stay in very remote villages and contribute.

Today, we have transformed over 220 Govt. Schools across 65,000 sq. km. of harsh mountain terrain in Leh and Kargil districts of the UT of Ladakh where we have setup Libraries, Playgrounds, Solar Powered Digital Learning Labs, trained over 1500 teachers and headmasters and conducted multiple community workshops in these villages. It is a matter of pride and joy for us to watch more and more children enroll into Government Schools

Any downturns, Unusual circumstances, hardships, you have had to face in your profession/business?

When we started, one of our biggest challenges was encouraging donors, volunteers, and even corporates to focus on remote regions of Ladakh. While Corporates are sympathetic to the cause, the remoteness and the inability to visit the project sites deter them from supporting the cause. Moreover, Corporates also look to support causes near their manufacturing sites or head offices which puts Ladakh at a disadvantage.

However, with the recent formation of Ladakh into a Union Territory of its own, support has started coming in, which is a great blessing for this region.

Living and working in such high altitudes comes with its own set of challenges. Our is on the road sometimes for 2 to 3 weeks of the month without connectivity. Dependent on the local villages and the limited availability there, we often have to carry our stoves, tents, sleeping bags and even food. Travelling in winter is not easy. With temperatures dipping to negative 25 degrees, packing snow chains, clearing snow paths and carrying stoves to warm up the fuel tanks is no mean feat. Roadblocks, landslides, blasting, broken bridges, snowed in villages are just some of the problems they face. Long multi hour travel on treacherous mountain roads are nothing compared to the high altitude treks that we have to undertake to reach our schools. Being stuck in a village due to unexpected problems is something that is taken as a part of the job. However, working in this region over so many years has taught me to be accepting and respectful of its many challenges, therefore planning for safety and efficiency is paramount in our operations

How do you balance your personal and professional life? How many kids do you have? What are your usual activities with them?

Being the chief officer of a nonprofit based in such a remote area, necessarily means that I have to be away from home for long periods. I am based in Gurgaon where our Head Office is and our program offices are in Leh and Kargil. I travel between the three offices frequently, with each visit to Ladakh being at a minimum of 3 weeks, to sometimes up to 2 months at a time. I travel through the year and alternate my time in Ladakh with my husband who is my co-founder. Between the two of us, we ensure that at least one of us is at home at any time. We have five kids, three of whom are working and the younger two in college and the final year of school. Though they are now older, when we started the Foundation, our youngest was just in the 5th grade. The children have learnt to adjust to the continually changing and travelling schedules of both their parents. I try to be home for all a few months of winter for their final examinations to give them the support that they need during these tough months. Unfortunately, we have had to miss a few PTMs and functions, but try our best to be there for them in important times.

How do you spend your “Alone” time. Any hobbies, activities, groups you are associated with.

My life is definitely very hectic and filled with high energy activities, not just with my travel, but also around my five children and two dogs. My alone times are a little rare, but I try to grab as much as I can. My alone time happens when I put on my headphones and listen to music or when I cook. I enjoy cooking and experimenting with new recipes every chance I get. My Facebook posts are always either about my work in Ladakh or the new recipes that I have tried! I also sometimes travel alone for a few days to recharge myself.

Were you working before having children? Have things changed in the way you work today after having children?

I have always been a working woman though I would have loved to give up working after I had my first born. But it was not to be, and in hindsight, I think that was meant to be. Having kids does not necessarily mean that you have to sacrifice your work or career or your time with them. It is just a choice you make to adjust your new life with all your goals you have set for yourself. I am as much an independent and free thinking person today as I was before I had kids. My life is just that much richer with their presence and learning to live this life with all my little people around me is just that much more meaningful.

What I am truly humbled by is the unconditional acceptance that my children give me and of the time that they have to share with thousands of children so far away from their own home.

Do you receive understanding from your family as a business woman? If not, how did tackle such situations.

Coming from a typical South Indian Brahmin family, with just a service background, I realized that this was not something I could pull off on my own. From the very beginning, I was determined to get my husband on to my way of thinking. It helped that he was equally, if not more, attached to the mountains, and Ladakh, than I was and after almost a year and a half of discussions and conversations, I was able to convince him to join in the venture. My parents, on the other hand, were initially very nervous about my decision and had more than their share of reservations of me starting out on my own. Finally, however, it was my conviction and determination that made them step aside and let me choose my path.

What would you recommend to other mothers who want to venture out on their own?

I believe that women are tremendously resourceful, possess enormous amounts of energy have the capacity to take on and hold multiple tasks, and best of all, have the empathy to build and sustain teams of people. What they need to build on, however, is the faith and confidence in themselves, and the ability to look at themselves not through the eyes of others, but through their own aspirations and dreams. There are millions of beautiful mothers who manage their homes, husbands, children and the aspirations of their extended families, while neglecting the one child they have lived with longer than anyone else. Themselves.

I would like to tell them to go out and nurture that neglected child, to give wings to her dreams, to allow that child to fall, fail then get up again and succeed

What do you have in the pipeline for your company's future development?

We have started work in the one of the harshest and toughest inhabited geographies in the world and have hopes to replicate our work into other similar terrains. We have our sights set for the north-east and hope to expand there in the near future.

Is there any person who has mentored you? Supported you?

Various nonprofit leaders have mentored me over time, patiently listened in and answered my various questions, offered time, advice and even resources to help me get started. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them.

What/Who has been your inspiration?

My parents have been my inspiration. There are so many things that I admire about them and learnt from them over the years, things that I never knew I had already imbibed. My independence, strength, energy, love for children, my love for nature and my sense of empathy has all come from my parents.

Did you always know that you would be doing what you are doing today?

In hind-sight, I think I have always known that this is where I would end up. Since my early days into young adulthood, the things that have interested me the most have been children, the outdoors, travel and animals. I have also always been an activist at heart and rebelled, questioned and tried to right every wrong. Today, I have five kids and two dogs, am working amongst the most beautiful mountains, and surrounded by an extended family of over 20,000 children. Life has come full circle with everything I love all around me.

What’s the secret to your being a SuperMomPreneur? And what’s the best compliment you have received about your career or being a self-professional.

I love who I am and am very happy with the choices I have made in my life. The good, the bad and even the really ugly choices. I am quick to judge myself and happier to even forgive myself. I learn quickly and I feel I still have a long way to go. If I have reached this far, I believe it is only due to that.

The best compliments I receive and that I cherish the most are from my own children. When they talk of my dedication and commitment, or when they proudly show off my news articles and awards to their friends, or when they say that they haven’t seen anyone as strong as their mother, and mostly when they say that they are proud of me. These are the things that keep me going strong and committed and content that I am on the right path.

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