Stemmed out from a simple idea in 2003, today we have helped around 35,000 students in their training and education and got them secured jobs. Started in a 2-bedroom flat in Indiranagar, today we have more than 30 centres across the country. The year 2008 was a milestone in our journey, when Unnati Skill Centre came up. Soon after, we built a Boys hostel in 2015 and a Girls hostel in 2017.
In a quiet, leafy street in Sadanandnagar, Bangalore, a white building rises majestically, towering above the surrounding houses. This is the“IIM of the poor,”as Ramesh Swamy, Lead Trustee of SGBS Trust, is fond of saying. The Unnati Centre, an initiative of the Trust, has been a fountainhead of hope for underprivileged youth from across the country. They come here with their dreams, their aspirations and their fears. Many of them do not know English. They lack social skills. Yet, just fifty days later, they walk out confidently with a job in hand.
This then is the story of how Unnati has helped over 35,000 young men and women “Learn. Earn. Stand tall.”
December 3, 1984: as the city of Bhopal was still rising from its slumber, 40 tons of toxic gas leaked from the Union Carbide plant, and made its poisonous way through the city. What resulted was the world’s worst industrial disaster. Official figures put the death toll at 3,787. Yet another estimate put the figure at 10,000* or more.
As a young student doing his engineering in NIT Bhopal, Ramesh Swamy, the inspiration behind Unnati, rushed to volunteer his services at the Barahsau Pachas Government Hospital. “I think that has had a profound impact on my life. There were children who actually died in my arms as I administered oxygen to them,” he remembers. “What we saw was unbelievable. There were entire families wiped out. Bodies were just piled into army trucks and taken for mass cremation.”
Returning to Bangalore in 1985, Ramesh joined his father in the family business of logistics. Yet the images of the Bhopal Gas tragedy continued to play on his subconscious mind. This was probably one of the reasons why Sree Guruvayurappan Bhajan Samaj (SGBS) Trust informally started offering funeral services – something that many considered taboo - along with education.
“SGBS was just a group of neighbours doing Saturday bhajans. As a family, we were involved in music and dance, so we had these included in the activities of the group apart from bhajans,” reminiscences Ramesh. This was the turning point and SGBS soon became one of the biggest cultural organizations. Funds started pouring in. “Around 1993 we had grown very big and decided to make it a formal body,” says Ramesh. “We retained the name SGBS, just adding the word Trust. SGBS Trust took up three programmes: Utsav which was all about celebrations and music and dance; Samstha which provided funeral services and Shiksha which funded children in school.”
But even as processes were put in place to educate underprivileged children, there was a sense of not doing enough, of not actually creating lasting impact. A lot of bright kids that the Trust had funded for 8-9 years suddenly dropped out of school, sometimes because their parents wanted them to bring in money, sometimes because of peer pressure, or sometimes simply because they did not do well academically in one subject, and began to feel like failures. The result was disappointing. The children went back to the slums, their formal education soon forgotten. “What have we actually achieved?” was the question that bothered the trustees. And it was in seeking this answer that the seeds for Unnati were sown.
“The credibility that SGBS Trust had built was so immense that we had people calling us and asking if we knew somebody for a job,” says Ramesh. “At that time, they never asked if he knew English or computers. All they wanted was someone trustworthy. And we could place people. That got us thinking. We wondered why could we not train people and then give them a job?” And thus was born Unnati, an organization that works towards social transformation through vocational training. The ability to get a job and earn one’s livelihood can be truly transformational – not just for the individual but for the entire family.
“Miracles happen here every day,” believes Ramesh. Whether it is the building that came up on land granted by the Government and constructed with the help of generous donors, the many infrastructure requirements that are met almost magically or the transformation of students…. “There is a higher power at work here,” he says.
“Our programme is a short term, intense one. Classes begin at 8:30 in the morning and go on till 6 pm. Since many of the students who come to Unnati are either school dropouts or first generation learners, it is important that we instil discipline and get them into a routine.”
Every student at Unnati is taught spoken English, basic computers, life skills and values as part of the curriculum, in addition to the vocational training. “It was very important for us that they must be part of society,” says Ramesh, which is why Unnati goes beyond just vocational training, “They are a different breed from their own society,” he adds with justifiable pride.
Since a few of the Trustees were looking at Unnati as giving back to society, they do not charge the students for the training. In fact, free food and PG accommodation is provided to students in the Bangalore Centre. But the biggest differentiator is the ‘Guaranteed Job’ promise that Unnati gives. Unnati’s 100% placement record remains unbroken since inception.
Over the years, several companies have consistently looked to Unnati for disciplined and well-trained employees. This includes TCS, IBM, Taj Group of Hotels, CMS, HDB Bank, First Source, JP Morgan, Lifestyle, CapGemini, FirstSource, Bose, Karvy, Westside, ITC Limited, Asian Paints and a host of others.
The Life Skills Program at Unnati, aptly called ‘Udaan,’ teaches students time management, discipline, goal setting, emotion management, handling peer pressure, having a positive outlook and so much more. The curriculum has been developed in partnership with GE Foundation and International Youth Foundation.
Talking about the transformation of students at Unnati, Praveen Ravi who teaches Retail, Sales and Marketing, Life Skills and Analytics, says “It’s like magic. And I am so proud that I am part of this transformation.”
Girija, a volunteer faculty who has been associated with Unnati for many years, says she is energized by her interactions with the students. “The youth who come to us are very low on confidence. It is a very short time to really make a big change in their lives. We just try to light a small lamp and hope that this will take them a long way. But the message we keep reiterating to all our students is that they can aspire to be all that they want to be.”
Unnati is associated with The Indian Institute of Corporate affairs (IICA) as a training partner, to run a certified course in CSR programs for professionals. “CSR today has become a very important element.” explains Ramesh. There are huge possibilities in terms of CSR funding today, feels Ramesh. “CSR is no longer charity,” he points out. “Companies cannot just issue a cheque and claim they have done CSR. They need to show how they have impacted society, how they have been involved… A lot of things have become mandatory. I believe organizations like us will greatly benefit from this.”
Today Unnati has about 30 centres across the country. This, Ramesh believes will help them churn out 15,000 youth with employable skills until the end of this year. “We want to touch one million lives,” affirms Ramesh. The vision is as inspiring as the journey. And the journey promises to be a transformational one for youth from low income communities. The future is promising.