PROTSAHAN: Encouraging Creativity & Design Thinking to solve India's most pressing problems.

Last updated 24 Feb 2014 . 8 min read

Sonal Kapoor is the Founder CEO of PROTSAHAN India and is considered one of the most inspiring young social entrepreneurs of our time. A Microbiologist-MBA who gave up her ‘mainstream’ job, right at 23, this young woman started a youthful and a vibrant social impact organization for sex abused and drug abused street kids, special kids and their mothers. Understanding that rote learning would not make sense to girls from red light areas, she innovated through the creativity of Design, Cinema, Art, Digital Stories and Photography to teach them and works with her team tirelessly to change hundreds of lives each day. The youngest sociopreneur woman ever to represent India at The World Bank, speak at several international organizations of repute, she is an inspiration who stands for a cause. Chosen as one of the three youngest changemakers at the recently held Think Fest 2012 at Goa, she is youth icon as widely recognized by Economic Times, CII and a dozen corporate houses. She has spoken at TEDxYOUTH and several other Tedx events, IITs and IIMs. and The girl with a funny bone and an ability to make 50 year old Ministers uncomfortable in their chair, this young ceo represents a young Indian woman, who actually went out to do something about changing the world for its children.


"Each day as I walk past those slums in the capital city of my country, I see hundreds of neglected, naked children, most devoid of mothers, some sexually abused by their fathers, women who don't understand the concept of sanitary napkins, children at red light districts, sacrificing their innocence for their families need money to survive."


What are you most passionate about?

Creative design based education for street children facing trafficking/drug abuse/sex abuse is the issue that keeps me awake over 20 hours a day, it is something that I now live for.

What are you doing to support that passion?

I have started an organization: PROTSAHAN India Foundation to bring creativity, art and technology in those innocent lives after I rescue them from sex /drug abuse/brothels  and trafficking points.

What is the inspiration for what you do?

In 2010, during one of my corporate film shoots, in Delhi, I had come across a woman at a slum. She had six kids and was trying to send one of her 8 year old girls to a red light area. Simply said, her extreme poverty demanded that she sacrifice one child, in order to pay for food for five others. She was also pregnant with her seventh child. When I asked her, what about it, she said, as a matter of fact, 'If it is a girl again this time, I will strangle her the minute she is born.' Within 15 minutes, I had decided, I would start a creative arts school for the sexually abused girls in the area. Only later, I came to know, young girls as old as 9 years, from nearby slums, were sexually abused by their own fathers. Didn't know about changing the world, but I could "at least start" from this community, was my initial reaction to what I encountered. Thus, Protsahan was born as a one-room creative arts center for educating the girl child in the ghettos, exactly the same place where a girl's integrity was getting ridiculed in a trafficking market.

As Bill Drayton says, the biggest problem is getting beyond the ‘you can’t’ syndrome. All the problems sitting there are an invitation for you to be creative, make use of your skills and resources and find a solution. From that day when I had just my belief on my side, to this day, when we are transforming hundreds of lives at the grassroot, when The World Bank, United Nations, Confederation of Indian Industries, Australia India Youth Dialog and other organizations of national and international repute are recognizing us, we have covered some way...though the journey has only begun.

What is a moment you are most proud of?

Within a few minutes of seeing the first 8 year old being trafficked right in front of my eyes, I had initiated a creative arts school. Friends and family ridiculed and tough days came and went, but I stood my ground. Today when I see that trafficked 8 year old who is trying to read a 6th grade English textbook, it makes my heart glad.

Why is what you do unique?

I use simple techniques, but with a difference. For example, we made a traditional Indian art form to be recreated using coffee powder for special and autistic children, who got so excited and warmed up when the aroma of coffee filled the room. I use creativity and design to work with survivors of trafficking and abuse. I use scrabble to teach them English, cartoons and photographs to keep the interests alive, game and art based education, digital storytelling to make teaching a fun process. Our sole mission is to encourage creative education and skills development through creative design thinking approaches for at-risk/abused/special children for whom it could always be only a dream. Thus was born the teaching pedagogy using Art and Technology. We are compiling all our approaches and releasing it under open source soon. Protsahan has always believed in innovative and unconventional way of doing things. We are a youth organization with our creative streaks. Our team comprises, some best brains from IITs and IIMs, Indian youth from some best corporates from Johannesberg, Singapore and New York, some best photographers, filmmakers, advertising guys, writers, artists, software geeks. We want to work with every individual child with that care and concern, and so obviously we get asked about our scalability and replicability models. It is the process which is unique. The basics to work with one child, transform her in all the entirety has to be right. Only when you have the learnings to deal with one child, all inclusive, can you reach numbers in the right way. It is not the other way round. We see government schools all over. Its replicable, right? But, where is the empathy then? The creativity? The connect?

To make the organization largely self sustainable, we started the Project Artisans' Honor and Project Stree and started involving the mothers of the children into creating micro-entrepreneurial ventures by training them on designing fabric crafts with some basic design approaches from creating embroidered kurtas to jewelry to even making sanitary napkins, a concept that was 'new' for most. It worked wonders. Not just it got us funds to run our class, it solved the issue of 'opportunity cost' for mothers not being sacrificed by sending their girls to school, because now their mothers found jobs. They were getting introduced to the concept of gender rights, health and dignity. Design Thinking at the level of urban slums was getting redefined by young Protsahan change makers. Currently, we are re-thinking Project Stree to involve young adolescent girls too under its umbrella.

What is the biggest challenge you face? How do you plan to overcome this challenge?

One crucial challenge is funding and scaling up being two turns in a vicious cycle. What people fail to understand is scaling up though important is secondary, first up, what is being done for 100 people needs to be structured well. But 'scaling up' has become such a buzz word in social enterprise sector that people misjudge numbers and overplay them, so organizations putting emphasis on small few to begin with, get sidelined. Let's remember that "Scaling Up" and "Empathy" are not the very best of friends.

At the global level, it is highly unlikely that the millennium development goals will be achieved with the clichéd approaches and resting on only what the public sector has to offer. The governments, more often than not, have failed to deliver highly innovative solutions. They however can scale up approaches that work. These approaches have to be thought of by young people now for it is they who will create history tomorrow. If we are to end poverty, it is essential that we mould our education at the grass roots to make it creative and design oriented even at the level of slums and ghettos, have education that promotes entrepreneurship, even in extremely poor communities. This way, the entrepreneurs that arise out of the slums will not only end up addressing the pain points of their own low household earnings, but also end up creating a higher happiness index for their entire community, starting with their own selves.

I had started a school to educate at risk street children facing sexual and drug abuse; at least 65-70% have been admitted back to government schools.  Several women have been empowered and have increased their income by 400%. During the last 24 months, since we started, we have touched the life of more than 800 people. I have seen change happen right in front of our eyes. We seek to further expand our reach to at least over 10,000 families by the year 2025.  If 800 lives could change in the last 24 months, we have no reason to not believe that 80,000 wont someday. We are a non-profit organization and we count our revenue in terms of number of lives we have impacted and transformed for the better. I call it the gross happiness index.

SHEROES - lives and stories of women we are and we want to be. Connecting the dots. Moving the needle. Also world's largest community of women, based out of India. Meet us at @SHEROESIndia

Share the Article :