Roopal Shah: When opportunity presents itself, are we willing to take that risk and listen to our inner selves?

In an interview with Forbes India, Shah talks about how Indicorps is harnessing the energy, intellect and dedication of young Indian diaspora members to serve impoverished communities in India

Published: Aug 11, 2012 12:24:28 PM IST
Updated: Aug 11, 2012 12:28:53 PM IST
Roopal Shah: When opportunity presents itself, are we willing to take that risk and listen to our inner selves?

Washington, D.C.-based Roopal Shah is the co-founder of Indicorps, a US-based nonprofit organization that enables the global Indian diaspora to contribute to India’s development through volunteerism. Prior to running Indicorps, Shah served as an assistant US government attorney in San Diego and was an associate for Sherman and Sterling in Washington, D.C. She has an AB from Harvard University and a law degree from the University of Michigan and is an avid surfer.   

Q: You are a Harvard-educated lawyer who practiced law for nearly 10 years before switching tracks to social entrepreneurship. What led to this change?
We all have opportunities to make significant changes in our lives. The biggest question is when the opportunity presents itself, are we willing to take that risk and listen to our inner selves? Before Indicorps, I loved my job in San Diego, my little house on the beach, and surfing every morning. In 2001, my siblings and I set Indicorps in motion. In 2003, moving to India seemed the only logical choice. I went to India for only one year to help my brother, but ended up staying for the better part of seven years! It was exciting to work with the next generation of leaders in our communities. Indicorps was by far the best decision I made in my life.

Q: How did Indicorps happen?
Indicorps was a culmination of our work over the years. Our parents had always emphasized the importance of service and taught us to be open to learning. My brother, sister and I had been talking about setting up a service-oriented program for several years. We had a lot of great role models and recognized the importance of approach in service. We put aside our own money, rallied friends and family, and welcomed our first fellowship class in 2002. Friends and family joined in to provide everything from legal advice to reviewing applications for fellowships to creating extensive training material for orientation.

Q: What did you learn in this process?
We learnt that volunteers from abroad often require more than just enthusiasm and good intentions to have a real impact in communities. We understood the importance of looking, listening, and learning and saw that Indicorps was a good opportunity to have an impact on communities by training fellows and giving them a real sense of what it means to live and work in a community and make a meaningful difference.   

Q: What is the potential among the Indian diaspora in the US for volunteerism in India?  
Diaspora coming to India for service has become a trend. In fact, Indicorps and its fellows have been a part of starting many other service programs in India. Before it was largely young people, generally after college. Now we are seeing groups of high school students and retirees too. We believe there is a real opportunity to engage elders and those with significant life experience differently. The key with all volunteers is to ensure that we preserve the self-dignity of the people we serve. This shouldn’t just be a project; rather we need to preserve a sense of humanity in our service.

Q: What does your fellowship entail?
The Indicorps fellowship is not a monetary fellowship. Fellows pay their own way to India. Indicorps provides training, support and covers the local costs. The partner organization provides housing and office support. Fellows range from 21 to 35 years of age and attempt to live within the means of the communities they serve. They receive a stipend of 2500 rupees a month. They travel using local transportation such as buses, trains, shared rickshaws, or many times just walking. They wash their own clothes by hand. They often drink ‘a thousand cups of tea’ listening intently for local wisdom. These efforts have a tremendous impact in their communities, creating lasting bonds for more effectiveness of projects.  

Q: What are some areas in which your fellows serve?
Socio-economic development activities with women’s self-help groups; inclusive education programs; organic farming and distribution linkages; artisan production; and Frisbee sports for development.

Q: One of your fellows for 2011, a Babson graduate from California, is now living and volunteering in a slum in Andhra Pradesh. What is her experience there?
Babson college is known for its training on entrepreneurship. Krishna Dahya, Indicorps 2011 fellow, was selected to work on an entrepreneurship project with Bhoomi in Rasoolpura, the largest slum in Secunderabad. Her project was to create a micro-entrepreneurship hub, sort of an incubator for business ideas from existing and potential entrepreneurs. While she had the skills for entrepreneurship, the hard part was finding the best way to conduct workshops on entrepreneurship for the community. She tried many different ideas before finding a way to work with the community. We have learned over the past decade that there is no shortage of good ideas, but success is changing the habits of the community and that requires dedication and humility.  

Q: You have an incredible set of past and current fellows. What traits do you most value in them?
We are inspired by each group of Indicorps fellows – their ability to immerse themselves into communities, their willingness to push past their comfort zones, and the overall impact of their engagement. We measure our impact through the success of our projects, the fullness of fellow engagement, the relationship with the communities and our project partners. Indicorps is distinct from other international service projects in that our fellows empower communities to be there own agents of social change and thus the projects are naturally sustainable. Indicorps is a catalyst for helping people help themselves.

Q: How does transnational volunteerism enrich not just the recipient communities in India but also communities back in the US that sent volunteers to these places?
The Indicorps fellowship has a transformative effect on the fellows and the communities in which they serve. Fellows are much more conscious of their surroundings and generally more deliberate in their choices. They have an understanding about the world that extends beyond the story of stuff. Their learning is experiential and community driven. We are confident that the experience of challenging their assumptions and their body, mind, and soul will continue to reverberate in the ways they contribute to the world around them.

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