KETAN DESHPANDE

India,

Ketan Deshpande is unleashing the potential in India’s youth by changing India’s policies related to career guidance and employment through a career counseling system that not only bridges the information gap but also creates platforms for graduates to acquire the professional skills necessary for a successful career.

This profile below was prepared when Ketan Deshpande was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2013.

INTRODUCTION

Ketan Deshpande is unleashing the potential in India’s youth by changing India’s policies related to career guidance and employment through a career counseling system that not only bridges the information gap but also creates platforms for graduates to acquire the professional skills necessary for a successful career.




THE NEW IDEA

Ketan’s vision is to increase opportunities for students to achieve their career goals. He does this through increased information about continuing education and job applications, and by developing the capacity of other stakeholders in the education system to support students in identifying, articulating, and realizing their professional aspirations. To equip low-income rural students, most of whom are first generation learners, to pursue higher education, Ketan believes it is essential to support them in both defining and realizing their career aspirations. To achieve this, he is building a comprehensive career counseling program which provides students with customized information on educational and career opportunities, creates platforms for students to gain exposure to and acquire professional skills, and links students to scholarships.

Ketan is changing the way the education systems prioritize and invest in career guidance. Over the last four years, he has introduced career counseling sessions in more than 500 rural schools in India. These sessions help young people identify and articulate their interests during their formative years, and support them with customized coaching, mentoring, and text alerts until they meet their goals.

In addition to bridging the information gap, Ketan also bridges the skill gap by holding workshops for students with successful professionals and recruiters to teach them professional soft skills through exposure to different industries, corporate work places, and mentoring. He has reached more than 500,000 students in India, leading to a 31 percent rise in rural student’s aspirations and a 70 percent success rate among students. Ketan has leveraged his impact to influence the Ministry of Human Resources Development to approve budgets for career guidance in all public schools. 




THE PROBLEM

Lack of information and guidance on higher education and career opportunities is a major barrier for rural Indian students, preventing them from reaching the right opportunity at the right time. Only 7 percent of students who finish high school in India’s rural areas pursue higher education, primarily because they are not aware of the opportunities that exist, cannot afford them, or do not have the exposure and soft skills necessary to launch successful careers. 

On the other hand, India has the third largest higher education market in terms of student numbers, after China and the US. India has created world-class institutions, including but not limited to the Indian Institutes of Technology, the Indian Institutes of Management, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. However, these institutions are limited in capacity, and combined enroll under 1 percent of the student population. At the same time, 20 percent of college seats in India remain vacant due to a lack of suitable student applicants. It is estimated that the percentage of readily employable Indian college graduates is only 15 to 25 percent of the total talent pool. Thus, opportunities exist within the current system for youth to attain professional success.

However, there is no system connecting high school students to the higher education and job markets. While schools focus on teaching curriculum, they invest little, financially or otherwise, in guiding students to higher education, career, or scholarship opportunities. Most Indian parents traditionally prefer their children to study medicine, engineering or law, despite the existence of several other growing sectors of work with less competition and a better chance of attaining a job. In addition, colleges have different kinds of exams, each with different content and testing strategies requiring focused preparation. This means students and their parents need to make significant career choices two years before the student graduates from grade 12. Often the first generation of learners in their families, many low-income students do not receive appropriate guidance in making such life-changing choices.

Further, potential employers fail to reach students when most career decisions are made. This information gap leads to students not knowing about various career fields or how to enter them; including limited awareness of which colleges they can apply to, how to apply, what courses to choose, and how to receive financial assistance.




THE STRATEGY

Ketan founded Friends Union for Energizing Lives (FUEL) in 2007 to create a pathway to lead rural high school students to successful professional careers.

FUEL’s central research team is involved in a continuous process to build a credible database of information on higher education and career opportunities. A team of field workers also visit students in rural public schools to conduct career counseling sessions. To instill aspirations during their formative years, FUEL targets 13 and 14-year-old students from grades 7 and 8. Once students identify an opportunity or career goal, FUEL supports them through targeted alerts and his/her parents about admission processes, forms, entrance examinations, as well as a 24-hour helpline which offers one-on-one mentoring. FUEL provides a support system to the students over the next four years, until they access their educational and/or career goals.

FUEL also conducts the Ahead of Times program, in which the most ambitious students from across several regions come together to learn the skills necessary to launch a successful professional career. Ketan strategically chose to conduct Ahead of Times at India’s first “ideal village,” Ralegan Siddhi (Anna Hazare Ashram). As a model for sustainable infrastructure and administration, the venue not only serves as an inspiration to students, but attracts them to apply to participate. The student participants received scholarships to cover their attendance and living expenses. Over the course of two weeks, students’ attend workshops conducted by prospective employers, on topics such as personality development, interview skills, entrepreneurship, and life skills, such stress management and teamwork. Companies with high recruitment rates, like Infosys and Wipro, partner with FUEL—keen to build talent for their future workforce. Recruiters from these companies actively participate and mentor students. FUEL also takes the students to industry and corporate offices to get a sense of different work environments.

FUEL currently operates in the states of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, and has touched more than half a million students since its founding. To scale the effort nationally, so that every rural student can access these opportunities, Ketan employed the creative strategy of funding his program through the election campaigning budget of Members of Parliament. Since high school students are nearing voting age, sponsoring programs that help students is an effective campaign strategy for prospective MPs, regardless of political affiliation. Once the 28 MPs Ketan worked with saw the impact of his work they became important stakeholders, invested in providing career guidance to students. Ketan convinced them to lobby in Parliament to have a Human Resources Development budget passed for all public schools to use for career guidance. Supported by this policy change, Ketan plans to bring his programs to students across the country. In the coming academic year Ketan is launching a talent search Olympiad that will identify exceptional students from grades 4 through 10 and award scholarships to particularly high-achieving students from rural public schools. 




THE PERSON

Ketan’s parents divorced when he was young. His mother, a judge, raised him. As they moved cities every three years, Ketan grew up learning to adapt well to new friends, schools, and neighborhoods.

Ketan always enjoyed bringing people together. He started the practice of communal celebration of festivals among the communities of judges he lived with by collecting donations from every family in the community. When some judges refused to pay, Ketan showed creativity by announcing their names at the celebrations and saying that they would be paying on the auspicious occasion of the festival itself! Ketan was also a school prefect due to his demonstrated leadership skills; managing class discipline while maintaining a friendly rapport with all the students. 

Moving every three years meant searching for schools and deciding which classes to take; a continuous challenge due to the lack of information about the education system in the small, rural towns where his mother was posted. This problem was exacerbated when he finished high school, moved to Pune, and had to decide what to study in college and where. Since Pune is a well-developed and designed city, Ketan expected to easily learn about different educational institutions and the courses they offered. However, he soon realized that poor information and access to higher education was not limited to rural or small-town India, but an issue in major cities as well. 

Ketan graduated with a degree in sociology from a college in Pune. During his studies he realized that he wanted to be an entrepreneur, but had not studied the appropriate subjects to position him to do so. Frustrated with his personal experience, Ketan knew that every student in India suffered from similar issues, and started FUEL. He mobilized students from his class, using their collective experiences to compile information, first about colleges and popular courses in Pune, then expanding to cities in the state. Although Ketan managed to successfully graduate as a meritorious student, he hardly remembers attending classes, and says his real education happened while establishing FUEL. In doing so, he learned to fundraise, mobilize and lead team members, market his organization, and reach more students. 

Ketan shares that his granduncle, an ophthalmologist who carried out over 100,000 eye surgeries, has inspired him since childhood. His dream was always to change the lives of ten times that many or more. Even at his young age, Ketan’s attaining his goal.