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Kartik Sawhney: Next Billion

Kartik Sawhney: Next Billion

Staying on track

Queen's Young Leader, Kartik Sawhney tells Leading Change why it's important to be clear on what you – and your team are aiming for – and how to make sure that everyone shares the same vision.

“Being born blind meant that gaining an education, particularly in the field of science and technology, was not always easy,” says Kartik, reflecting on his childhood in India. “However I was determined to pursue the subjects I was passionate about.”

Kartik and his family wrangled with his school and the education authorities to let him study science. When they succeeded in persuading them, Kartik became the first visually impaired student to be permitted to study science beyond class x (age 15 to 16).

He worked hard and his determination paid off. In 2013 he was awarded a scholarship to Stanford University in the USA.

This experience made Kartik determined to help other young blind people in India study science and technology. In May 2013, he founded Project STEMAccess, which offers online tutorials, videos, mentoring sessions and hands-on workshops to support learning. In 2016, he was awarded the Queen’s Young Leaders Award.

By now, Kartik was working on a new project, Next Billion – a mentorship and support programme for people with disabilities in tech. So he shared content from the Leading Change course with his team – who, at the time, were his three co-founders and two part-time staff.

Different directions

Working through the Module 1, the Next Billion team discovered they all had different expectations of the project.

“Those things were super helpful just to get clarity on what people were expecting out of it.”

Photos of the Next Billion team

Next Billion team: Ray Parker, Ameera Ladak, Siddhant Mehta, Kartik Sawhney, Bijan Mawji, Aubrie Lee and Naitik Mehta.

While some wanted “outstanding mentors”, others envisaged that Next Billion would become more of a huge self-sustaining mutually supportive community.

“Those things did not come up through regular discussion,” says Kartik. “But when you had a framework to work through – where you’re asking these questions individually – then you see like how you diverge.”

Having identified this early on in the process, the team took some time, wrote individual vision and mission statements and discussed their different ideas.

“It was fine,” says Kartik. “We had a pretty intense discussion.”

This process enabled everyone to reach common ground. They agreed that their ultimate objective was to “empower people with disabilities to achieve whatever they want to achieve”.

Mentoring

Next Billion started by focusing on mentorship. They have recruited mentors from some of the most established tech companies in the world, including Facebook, Microsoft, Ebay, Yahoo, Paypal and Google.

“The quality is super important,” Kartik explains. “We want to make sure we’re getting the best mentors. However, we also understand that it’s important to scale so the plan is to double our cohort size with every cohort.”

In this way, Next Billion is helping to create a self-sustaining mutually supportive community at the same time.

Online communities

“The whole point of the cohort really was that we want to foster this community where people can talk about different things. So a big part of this process also is how do you keep the community engaged.”

To answer that question, Kartik turned to one of his mentors on the Queen’s Young Leaders Programme, Graham Ruddick, who he met in Cambridge when he came to the UK to receive his award.

“He has a huge community, several thousand people,” says Kartik. “That was something he had a lot of experience with because he’d been doing it. How do you draw them in?”

So what did Kartik learn from Graham?

“It’s really important for you as an admin to participate actively if you want others to participate.”

This means engaging with the social media group or online community, contributing to discussions.

“Think of interesting topics that people can benefit from and people can discuss,” says Kartik who has since put Graham’s advice to the test. “That leads to other people following your lead and then talking and bringing up issues that they want to discuss.”

Next Billion

Next Billion has now completed two mentoring programmes successfully. Their mentees are young people with disabilities who are about to start university or change jobs. “That kind of stuff!” says Kartik.

To help them get the most out of the mentoring experience, Kartik asks mentees and mentors to do a swot analysis, so they can better understand their strengths and weaknesses, and the opportunities of the programme.

He also gets them to prepare by setting goals and breaking those goals down into “subgoals”.

“You can track these paths with your mentor just to make sure you are actually on track to do what you want to do.”

Kartik applies the same thinking to running Next Billion and planning ahead.

“It’s not like a timetable thing with everything laid out,” he explains. "But if you have some kind of clarity on why are you doing what you’re doing, that’s more helpful. And it really helps me just ensure that I’m on track at least for what I want to do in my life.”

“Think of interesting topics that people can benefit from and people can discuss. That leads to other people following your lead and then talking and bringing up issues that they want to discuss.”

Kartik Sawhney, on running an online community

Kartik Sawhney

"If you have some kind of clarity on why are you doing what you’re doing, that’s more helpful."

Kartik Sawhney