CHANGE leaders do great things, and often that is all we know about them. Here we want to get a different glimpse of the personalities that constitute the development space. Every month we get one leader to answer four questions, not necessarily about their work, but about themselves. This week we catch up with Dr Lalitha Iyer, managing trustee of Plustrust.
In 2008, 22-year-old student Gowri Sukanya Iyer succumbed to encephalitis. Three women who loved her fiercely decided to keep her alive through Plustrust, an NGO founded to honour her memory. The three women were: Dr Lalitha Iyer, Gowri’s mother, Smriti Kedia, Gowri’s classmate and roommate at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and Shanti Yeachuri, her French teacher at Alliance Française de Hyderabad.
Built on values that Gowri strongly believed in such as compassion, equality, free speech and open-mindedness, Plustrust aim to encourage and support people who want to bring about a difference, particularly rural women and youth, to become change-makers. Their Change Maker Fellowship started in 2014. Till date 32 fellows’ ideas of change have been incubated by Plustrust, ranging from innovative urban bird shelters and income generation for rural youth to working with the Adivasi community.
Small Change: Plustrust was started in memory of your daughter, Gowri Sukanya Iyer. What made you choose this cause?
Dr. Lalitha Iyer: She had just completed her Masters in Social Work and she was very keen on doing something for society. It felt like a good way to honour her memory and do something for social causes she was passionate about: empowering children and ensuring better care of animals. That’s how the theme for our work became inclusive education and animal welfare.
With this thought, Smriti, Shanti and I started Plustrust. None of us were in a position to take this up full-time yet we wanted to do something. So, we started the Change Maker Fellowships to support young people when they are shaping their ideas and testing it. This mentoring relationship is as important as funding.
As the interest piqued, we started conducting Plustrust workshops with the aim to help people discover what they want to do and how they want to go about it. To help the people grow their ideas from a woolly state of wanting to do good to a specific action plan.
In 2015, we realised that opportunities for fellowships had increased tremendously and people were now ‘fellowship hopping’ so we thought it’s better to reach out to those who don’t have access to these opportunities. Hence, we started Rural Women Entrepreneurs to help women in villages understand and explore entrepreneurial opportunities.
SC: Plustrust seems to put a lot of emphasis on listening to the inner voice and building ideas from there. Is it one of your core beliefs?
LI: We strongly believe that people should pursue what they believe in. You can see that in our model to assess the impact of fellowships. We can’t judge the fellowship on the basis of children doing well or even financial sustainability. So, we discussed with the women and came up with a three-piece strengths model: personal, project management and professional.
Using these three aspects, we measure the growth from where they started to where they are months later. The personal strength has the highest number of elements because our emphasis is hugely on strengthening the person’s inner motivation and building their confidence. Often the rural women who come to our workshops are stepping out of their homes for the first time. It’s a different kind of challenge for them so focusing on their inner voice and strength becomes crucial.
SC: If you could invite three famous people, living or dead, to dinner, who would they be and why?
LI: First one would be Michelle Obama. I find her very charismatic. Second would be the eco-warrior, Wangari Maathai. Her work really inspires me. Finally, Harish Sivaramakrishnan of Agam. He is a fusion musician and I love his music.
SC: You have been forced to eat only four things for the rest of your life. Which four items would you choose?
LI: I would definitely choose dosa. Curd rice has always been my comfort food so that too. I love Mediterranean soups and salads, Thai green curry, and fig and honey ice-cream. Sorry, that’s more than four!
-interview by Aisiri Amin