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ASI Game Changers: Meet Seerat in India

Our “ASI Game Changers Series” introduces the people who make our work possible and allows us to learn about what drives them in their quest to create lasting impact in some of the world’s most challenging, complex environments. In this edition we are speaking to our colleague Seerat Byala in India.

Name: Seerat Byala
Role: Manager, Business Development
Location: New Delhi, India

What’s your big “why”? What’s the positive change/impact you and others in your field are trying to achieve and what are some of the challenges you face whilst doing so?

I came to development through my passion for education. Ever since school I’ve been involved in education initiatives and it’s a topic that’s close to my heart. Many people don’t have access to quality education in India; something I first realised when I went to a village called Nuh in 11th grade. We visited a school there that was in a very poor state and there weren’t enough teachers, so classes only took place two days a week. None of this stopped the students, they were so excited and eager to learn. It was those students who inspired me to pursue a career in education at first, as that’s when I truly understood that education is synonymous with opportunity. I even contemplated applying for the Teach for India Fellowship to teach in low-income schools, but I soon realised that I care about a lot of different development issues. I now work on business development, supporting the preparation of bids across a number of areas. I enjoy this because it allows me to get involved in different initiatives and understand problems and possible solutions to development issues, while contributing to a larger goal of transforming lives across various sectors and geographies.

If you could write your own job title that best describes what you do here, what would it be?

That’s a tough one… business development with a sprinkle of a lot more? A large chunk of my role is supporting bids and knowledge management. Apart from working on several bids I’m currently managing the second phase of the Georgia Mining Sector Project that’s aimed at improving the governance of the mining sector in Georgia through developing a legislative framework. I get to dip my toes into a lot of other topics as wells, such as visual communications and mental health. I am part of the company’s Mental Health Champions Group, which is a group of colleagues who have joined forces to tackle mental health stigma and improve wellbeing. I think there is a need to address a larger problem of mental health in the aid and development industry, which only now is starting to being looked at – so I am very inspired by the work that we do in this regard.

What do you like about working in a global development company?

Meeting so many different people and learning from them: I’ve learnt so much through interactions with different people across the globe, whether it’s working styles, knowledge on their area of work or hearing about a particular country and their challenges. You get to experience different cultures and countries “second-hand” and also practise Spanish at work! My favourite part of working at ASI is everyone’s enthusiasm to support each other, whether that’s writing a section for a bid, tracking down the right associate for a particular role, or even finding a good recipe!

What’s the most exciting thing happening in your project/at work right now?

The Mental Health Champions Group! I started working at ASI almost two years ago and what struck me from the start was that the company encouraged talking about mental health. This was a real contrast to friends’ experience who worked for other companies where mental health was not a topic. We’re setting up resources and tools, through our intranet and monthly newsletters for example, to actively reach out to colleagues and reducing the stigma around mental health. Having a culture of openness, to identify and tackle the causes of work-related mental health problems and taking action to sustain this culture is really inspiring.

What movements or discussions inspire you generally right now?

I am excited by several movements and discussions around women’s rights that have been taking place lately. I was brought up to not view myself as different from men, but as I grew up, I realised this wasn’t true for everyone. Girls’ education, or the lack of access to it, was something that had a big impact on me from a young age. It seemed absurd to think that someone who was just like me could be denied the right to go to a school just because she was a girl. Several movements and individuals in India have brought about changes in this area, which have led to an increased number of girls going to school, and more conversations around women’s safety, menstrual health, and women’s role in society as a whole. Girls and women are definitely starting to occupy more space in both domestic and public spheres. There are days when it doesn’t seem enough and the road ahead seems long, but when I look back on empowering stories or individual conversations that have made a change, I feel hopeful.

What volunteering or passion projects do you do outside of work?

Lack of access to quality primary and secondary education is a very real challenge in India and as I mentioned, that’s why education continues to play a big role in my life. I’ve taken part in various initiatives in Delhi to teach children from slums who either don’t have access to education or are attending low-quality schools. One such initiative is an NGO called Youth Empowerment Foundation, which was started by students who cared about other students and wanted to offer education services to underprivileged kids on weekends. These kids don’t have anyone at home who could help them with homework or teach them simple things like reading, because oftentimes their parents never learned it themselves. When I taught these kids, I realised the first barrier was that they couldn’t read the questions, but they were smart and could solve math problems if I explained the exercise to them. Parents were very supportive and sent their young children to our classes, even those that weren’t even speaking yet, because they had high hopes that their children could learn what they hadn’t been able to themselves and have a better future. Unfortunately, it gets really hot in Delhi (40-45 degrees) so when it gets that hot, we are no longer able to continue these sessions because they take place outside. The recent Coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated this further but I still reach out to parents of children who live nearby, and try to support them on an individual level.

What’s a quality a game changer should have and what’s your ambition to be one?

For me, taking action is what defines a game changer. We’re all passively viewing things happening around us, but it takes action to change things for the better. I’m hoping to take action in any and all capacities that I can to make a change in the education sector in India, ensuring every child has access to quality education.

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