Disturbed by the conditions in her ancestral village, this accomplished woman gave up on a corporate career to start a school for children.
Pooja Mishra belongs to a remote village called Purasi in the Rae Bareilly district of Uttar Pradesh. Her parents decided to migrate to Lucknow when she was very young. Their decision changed Pooja’s life, as she was now able to get the best education, exposure and opportunities in the city. Later, she went to the US and worked there for six years. She returned to India to do her MBA at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Calcutta.
On visits back home to her ancestral village, she saw that the villagers and even her own cousins had not got the kind of opportunities that she had in life. The girls were married off early, good education was not accessible or even a priority, and poverty was an accepted part of life.
“I wondered why…There might be many reasons but if it is just because they live in the village, then it is totally unfair! This disturbed me to the core and I wanted to do something about it,” says Pooja. After two years of her education at IIM, Pooja opted out of campus placements. She was the only one in her batch who said no to the high paying jobs that normally come the way of an IIM graduate.
After getting this coveted degree, she headed straight to Purasi village and started the Gurukul School in 2012.
Gurukul was conceived as a school that would give the children of Purasi a much deserved chance to lead better lives. Pooja started the school with 23 children from underprivileged backgrounds. The school fee was set at Rs. 100 per month. “These hundred rupees from each student were not going to help with the expenses of running the school, but my team and I thought it shouldn’t be a free affair. Then, we realised there were families who were so poor they couldn’t afford even this small amount. That’s when we decided that Gurukul would teach the children free of cost and also provide them with stationery, books and uniforms,” says Pooja.
But Gurukul’s challenge was not just meeting the expenses of running the school. “We were dealing with not just education but a whole lot of social issues. Our children came from very poor backgrounds. They had siblings to take care of when the parents went out into the fields. The parents could not comprehend that their children should go to school every day; once or twice a week was good enough for them. Many children were not used to being clean or taking baths daily. We had to start from such very basic things,” says Pooja.
In the last four years, Gurukul has been able to bring about commendable changes, especially in bringing confidence to the faces of the children. The school had started with just 23 children, but the number of kids studying at Gurukul has risen to 1000 today. The medium of education is English and the school has qualified teachers who come in from Rae Bareilly. There is a computer lab in the school, equipped with used computers gifted by a software company. There is a library, of a kind that is unimaginable in a low-income village like Purasi.
The children, mostly girls, take part in Taekwondo classes held at the school. Remember, this is in a village where girls were not allowed to even walk alone.
But reaching this stage was not easy. There was a time when Pooja found herself on the verge of closing down Gurukul. “I found myself unable to run the school with the little funds that I had and the expenses that the school incurred. We were struggling to make ends meet and shutting down seemed like the only option. But when the children came running to me asking when the school would reopen after the summer vacation, I couldn’t tell them that it might not. That’s when I thought of reaching out to my batch mates from IIM Calcutta. And to my greatest relief, they supported Gurukul with an overwhelming response.” They not only helped raise funds but are also mentors to the children at Gurukul now.
Every day, Pooja hits the highway from her home in Lucknow to travel 80 kms to reach Gurukul in Purasi village. She is happy to have achieved her aim of impacting the lives of 1000 children by 2015.
“We might not be able to produce IIT-ians from here but we’ll definitely bring out good citizens,” says a contended Pooja.
She is now taking the Gurukul model to other districts of Uttar Pradesh and to other states too. By 2025, Pooja wants to touch the lives of a million children across the country.
Pooja is running an online crowdfunding campaign to build classrooms for the children of Gurukul. You can contribute and help in educating these children.
You can write to Pooja Mishra at – firstname.lastname@example.org